Friday, December 1, 2017

Rigid Calm

M. John Harrison's "The New Rays" became the first story in the first issue of Interzone, and a central part of my favourite collection from the 1980s, The Ice Monkey.

Reading the story again to understand its methods, I found nothing more (and nothing less) than a steadily-built mosaic of impressions, none of which is given more weight than another. The loss of a clock on a train trip, the appearance of silverfish in a hotel bathroom, a sky the colour of zinc, the boneless blue forms that haunt a cancer-treatment hospital, are observed, and noted, and passed by.

This refusal to prioritize impressions gives the reader a sense of rigid calm in the face of illness and looming death. It also reveals more about the psychology of the narrator, a woman treated less like a patient with dignity and human feelings than like a momentarily useful laboratory animal, than it reveals about the supernatural beings that fumble and drift in the background.

A method like this can only work if the viewpoint character is depressed, detached, or battered by life to the point where the needs of psychological survival outweigh our common human tendency to filter perceptions, to enjoy or dismiss the details that crowd around us every day. In this case, the flat acceptance of everything that happens makes the story stand out all the more like a nightmare.

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