Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: The Machine in Shaft Ten

Book Review: 'The Machine in Shaft Ten' by M. John Harrison

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Machine in Shaft Ten’ (174 pp) was published in the UK by Panther Books, and features cover artwork by Chris Foss. The stories it compiles were first published in the late 60s and early 70s in New Worlds and other sf magazines.

‘Machine’ is an eclectic collection that represents some of the worst, and some of the best, New Wave sf. 

Of the twelve stories in ‘Machine’, four - The Bait Principle, The Orgasm Band, Visions of Monad, and The Bringer with the Window – are all ‘experimental’ fictions in which a series of loosely-connected vignettes are presented to the reader, charging him or her with fashioning their own narrative from the presented material. This sort of short story was prevalent in the New Wave era, and has aged badly.

The remaining stories in ‘Machine’ are, however, among the best Harrison has written and display the imagination and creativity that the New Wave movement brought to sf.

All of these, to one degree or another, are preoccupied with entropy, and while it’s true that the New Wave movement as a whole certainly was preoccupied with entropy, Harrison was one of the few authors who didn’t simply try to emulate J. G. Ballard, but instead injected his own interpretation of the idea into his fiction.

The stories in ‘Machine’ present entropy in striking visual terms: it’s always November; there are fields of corroded metal spars, abandoned buildings with walls encrusted with mold, fogs and mists concealing great heaps of disintegrating machinery, alienated characters seeking shelter in bombed-out ruins created by a war since forgotten, etc. 

Poking through these entropic visions are sharp, nasty acts of violence and cruelty.

The lead story, ‘The Machine in Shaft Ten’, deals with the discovery of a possible alien artifact churning away deep within the earth’s core. This discovery spawns a new religious cult with ambivalent implications for the fate of humankind.

‘The Lamia and Lord Chromis’ is a Viriconium story, and today, more than 40 years later, still one of the most offbeat and imaginative fantasy stories ever written. The plot is not particularly original, but the atmosphere and themes, which borrow somewhat from Jack Vance, brought a new sensibility to the genre.

‘Running Down’, about a man afflicted with entropy, was also very creative for its time, and while overly long, and tending to belabor rock climbing (Harrison’s favorite past-time), it too remains relevant as an example of sf that extends the genre.

‘Events Witnessed from a City’ is another Viriconium tale, and while it adopts the episodic nature of the ‘experimental’ pieces, its more coherent, and delivers a uniquely downbeat ending.

In ‘London Melancholy’, a race of winged humans cautiously explore a London destroyed by a war with a race of unusual aliens. Fusing entropy with the sf trope of alien invaders, it’s one of the better New Wave stories ever written.

‘Ring of Pain’ is also set in the fog-wreathed ruins of an English city, but here, it’s a personal sort of violence visited on the survivors who crawl through the dripping ruins.

‘The Causeway’ takes place on an unnamed planet where the narrator endeavors to discover the origins and purpose of a mysterious, enormous bridge that stretches for what may be hundreds of miles across the sea. Downbeat, melancholy, and with a twist ending.

‘Coming from Behind’ is another alien invasion tale. A deserter named Prefontaine makes his way through a bleak landscape of abandoned buildings and deserted roadways, hiding from his pursuers. He discovers that his moral obligations may outweigh his interests in self-preservation. 

In summary, ‘Machine’ is well worth getting, even though almost half its contents are New Wave affectations that haven’t endured well. The remaining ‘traditional’ stories more than make up for the less-impressive entries.


sciencefictionruminations said...

How did you get a copy of this without forking over the big bucks? It's SOOOOO expensive online... I'm intensely jealous that you got your hands on a copy!

tarbandu said...


it was an 'acceptable' quality copy...I think I got it for about $5, not including shipping.

sciencefictionruminations said...

The cheapest copies on abebooks are $30+ :(

Durtal1963 said...

Hadn't realized this was so expensive online. I got mine from a market stall for a couple of quid.

Love the 'groovy' publisher's blurb on the first page: 'Readjust Your Reality-Perception with the Science Fiction of M.John Harrison - and See Tomorrow Today!'.

Durtal1963 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.