I was lucky enough to recently come across a copy of Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and about M. John Harrison earlier this year. From what I’ve seen, it’s rare, rare enough to forget about finding a cheap copy–you’re lucky if you can even find a listing. Like the subtitle suggests, it’s a collection of nonfiction by M. John Harrison and critical essays on his fiction.
The Harrison pieces take up about two thirds of the book and are mostly book reviews, covering a timespan of 1968 until 2004 (the book published in 2005). What to make of them?
I’ve often struggled with reviewing reviewers: do you judge them for how they are as reviews–how people reading them in magazines first approached these pieces–or for the enjoyment you got out of the writings? Some collections I’ve read have been well-written, witty and perceptive, overall a joy to read–and the contents were absolutely abysmal as appraisals. (Lucius Shepard’s Weapons of Mass Seduction, a selection of film reviews, comes to mind.)
I often try to take the latter approach and just consider my own enjoyment, and yet, when summing up my thoughts, I can’t help but factor in how the pieces function as reviews.
So, how is Harrison? As a reviewer, he can be curt, dismissive, scathing, and incredibly insightful. Most of his early pieces appeared in the British Sci-fi periodical New Worlds, which at the time was launching a revolt against the genre christened the New Wave which heralded weirder, artsier works over those of the Asimovs, the Clarkes, the Nivens.
As you can imagine, Harrison’s reviews from this time lambast many conventional science fiction books. In reviews often only one or two paragraphs long (partially due to page restraints, partially, one gets the sense, due to Harrison not wanting to spend another minute on these novels), Harrison dismisses works by the likes of Anne McCaffrey, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and others. But he isn’t always a sourpuss, as he emphasizes Samuel Delany’s early work, Michael Moorcock, and Brian Aldiss. He also typically uses the books as springboards to discuss his own thoughts on science fiction and writing.
While I can’t help but feel that fans of the genre would have taken issue with these when they published in the late 60s and early 70s, Harrison’s amusing scrappiness and brilliant insights hold the reviews together.
These early pieces are definitely the highlight of the book. The later reviews are more conventional but, perhaps because of those conventions, lack the feisty energy which made the others such fun to read. There are also a few non-review pieces, though these are far and few and mainly contain the same content and tone as his New Worlds analyses.
The second part, the critical essays about Harrison, are a mixed bag of academic writing. One focuses on Harrison’s reviews in New Worlds, and while it makes for interesting reading, it’s essentially a retread of what any astute reader would have picked up on themselves. The others analyze his fiction. The piece on In Viriconium, also called The Floating Gods, is a high point, while essays on Climbers and Light aren’t all that perceptive, but ultimately this whole section doesn’t mesh well with what came before. One reviewer online posited a theory that Parietal Games may have started out as two books, one on Harrison’s nonfiction and the other the critical essays, which for whatever reason merged into a single volume.
So, what to make of this Frankenstein-esque collection? I can’t think of a single person in real life I’d recommend this to, and yet it’s been one of the most impactful and fascinating books I’ve read in 2021 (I originally read it in March and still often think about it). While I think hardcore fans of science fiction may have read Harrison’s reviews back when they first came out with disappointment and irritation, he’s too insightful to write off as a troll, too perceptive for me to dock points. If you’re a fan of Harrison or interested in the New Wave, I’d say it’s a worthwhile read (provided you can find a copy).