M. John Harrison's Signs of Life: an introduction of sorts

it may only be because the copy of M. John Harrison's Signs of Life i own is the one in Anima (which publishes Signs together with The Course of the Heart), but i feel compelled to draw parallels and make comparisons between the two books. for instance: the first detail of Signs, the very first thing we are told, is the narrator's name. in fact, we learn, the narrator has two of them:

My name is Mick Rose, which is why a lot of people call me 'China'.

Mick's, or China's, depending on your preference, is a more amiable voice than that of the narrator of Course, whose name we *never learn* throughout that book's 200+ pages. there is a more familiar humor in Mick's voice; it seems, perhaps, more natural, more of the 'average joe'; more of the wakeful day than the dreaming night, one might say; more modern, more 'hip': Mick's voice makes him feel more grounded, less inclined to question his reality the way Course's narrator seemed predisposed to even in childhood:

When I was a tiny boy I often sat motionless in the garden, bathed in sunshine, hands flat on the rough brick of the garden path, waiting with a prolonged, almost painful expectation for whatever would happen, whatever event was contained by that moment, whatever revelation lay dormant in it. (The Course of the Heart, page 7.)

interesting counterpoint, yes? also rather obvious for certain aspects of this discussion: Abigail Nussbaum in an earlier review noted something to the effect of The Course of the Heart being a nongenre 'fantasy' and Signs of Life being a nongenre 'science fiction' story. if that is, in fact, the case, the way the two stories begin, the way they differ from the very first word and proceed from there, all these things make an interesting comment on the 'genres each story chooses to transcend', if i may put it that way.

these two stories, in that light, appear to be companion pieces, Mr Harrison's own commentary on the elements that are used to define the two genres and ultimately distinguish them from each other. the value of collecting the two stories into one volume appears to be based in part on the substance behind Ms Nussbaum's analysis and this subsequent comparison. the publishers of Anima, however, also make it clear that the decision to collect the two stories in one volume is based on something else:

When a writer like M. John Harrison looks at love, you know the results will be unusual and compelling, evocative and imaginative, dark, depressing and transcendent. Here in one volume are his two classic love stories...fantastical romances, quests, thrillers - and wholly M. John Harrison. (Anima, from the back of the book.)

clearly, there is a *thematic* intersection between the two stories, and this seems yet another good reason to look at the two stories as complementary, to examine one in light of the other. however, the differences, to my mind, also dictate something else, that must be just as important to the appreciation of either work: the two stories must be taken separately, on their own terms.

this seems a painfully obvious conclusion to make of any two works, but it is one i feel i must state: having read The Course of the Heart a long time ago, it continues to resonate in my mind as one of the most beautiful and interesting stories i have ever read; unfortunately, the resonance of that work now informs my reading of Signs of Life. (putting the stories together in one volume doesn't quite help.)

by stating that one obvious fact, i am attempting to exorcise those resonances; of course, it may not be possible (might even be wrong-headed, come to think of it), given that the presence of any one thing is supposed to deform the universe, and our previous experiences make impressions on how we perceive later experiences. but i would, at the very least, like to try.

Mr Harrison's skill as a writer, thankfully, makes it possible to succeed: though his writing in Signs shows the same sort of attention to detail, informed as it is with the same 'low latent inhibition' suggested by his writing elsewhere, Mick 'China' Rose has a particular voice that is able to incorporate that aesthetic in what appears to be a more 'practical' or, perhaps, more 'conventionally rational' mindset.

to put it another way, The Course of the Heart felt like it was still somewhere between Viriconium and the 'real world'...Mr Harrison's writing in Signs suggests it exists further on the other side of the spectrum. which pushes me harder, personally, to try to read Signs as a distinct entity, and not simply a 'companion' to Course.

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