M John Harrison, who has spent a career puncturing the expectations and pretensions of the science fiction genre, outdoes himself here, showing how people, deprived of the tools and technology they are used to, find their very sense of personal reality bleeding away. In place of all our fantastical tech, something far older and wetter is emerging from Albion’s ooze. Harrison’s unsettling and melancholy novel, gritted with farce and dreadful laughter, shouts award-winner on every page.
At his peak, Harrison summons the same awesome linguistic invocation of change as Dickens in Dombey and Son, another novel troubled by the collapse of certainty in the face of rapid social and economic transformation. It’s no coincidence that Victoria (clock the name) has come to roost at the edge of the Severn gorge. It’s haunted country, “the demented, unpredictable, immeasurably fortunate geology, fuel for the industrial light and magic that had once changed the world: the iron money, the engine money, the steam and tontine money, the raw underground money hidden in unconformable strata, secret seams and voids, in jumbled shales, fireclays, tar, coal measures and thinly bedded limestone – to exit as seeps and springs above the heritage museums and leisure trails and decommissioned railways; while associated subsidence gnawed quietly away at the superficial architecture of the Gorge.”
We are in the fallout of that long boom now, its unpredictable collapse. Unsettling and insinuating, fabulously alert to the spaces between things, Harrison is without peer as a chronicler of the fraught, unsteady state we’re in.