Signs of Life Hardcover – Aug 1997
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Clive Barker says of M. John Harrison, "His books are fictions of elegant delirium, dark and transcendent by turns." Ramsey Campbell calls him "the master of enigma, whether human or supernatural." Like Jonathan Carroll, Harrison is a British writer who transgresses conventional genre boundaries. Signs of Life is about Mick "China" Rose, an unassuming fellow who runs a shady and lucrative medical-transport-cum-waste-disposal business. Along with his partner, Choe, and his lover, Isobel, China drives souped-up vehicles at ferocious speeds through a dreamlike world where dystopian fantasies of biomedical wrongdoings blend with the subtly shifted reality of Harrison's Britain. Choe is a self-destructive child-man who thrashes from an unattainable idyllic past to an unstructured future full of gangsters and rancid waste dumps. Isobel values beauty and longs for physical transformation. As their destinies unfold, the story is not quite horrific, but it's superbly written and chilling, the kind of novel that will haunt you for days.
From Kirkus Reviews
Mainstream contemporary about the sometimes destructive nature of dreams, from the British author of various science-fiction novels (A Storm of Wings, 1980, etc.). Mick ``China'' Rose starts up a medical courier service with associate Choe Ashton, who's given to erratic behavior and gnomic utterances. Their first job is illegally to dump a load of hazardous medical waste. Meanwhile, waitress Isobel Avens, China's live-in lover, dreams, literally, of flying. But as his business expands, Isobel becomes increasingly unhappy, complaining that she can no longer fly in her dreams; soon she leaves China for rich doctor Brian Alexander (one of China's clients) and disappears into Brian's Miami clinic. In a rare moment of candor, Choe tells China about a transcendental experience he once had at beautiful Jumble Wood involving a green-eyed woman; unable either to comprehend or repeat the experience, Choe makes an annual pilgrimage to the spot. Then Isobel phones. Rejected by Brian, she's now almost constantly ill after mysterious--and illegal--treatments in Miami. Slowly, horrifyingly, China watches as the treatments begin to take effect: Isobel grows feathers while her metabolism turns birdlike; but she still can't fly and attempts suicide. China takes her to Brian and demands help. Eventually, Isobel recovers, physically, but she can't, or won't, give up her dream, and China leaves her. Choe, meanwhile, now rich through an association with gangsters, has bought Jumble Wood and turned it into a toxic waste dump. A fascinating and terrible little tale, illuminated from unfamiliar perspectives in a spare and glowing prose. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.See all Product Description
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Whichever version you read, the story at the core of Signs of Life is profoundly disturbing, and not a little bit depressing. In Harrison's world, dreamers are sad, dangerous people, consumed by their desires and all too likely to turn destructive. The world's survivors are the ones who don't want too much, or the ones who kill their dreams - and the better part of themselves. Again, this is a point better made in a short story - in the longer novel form, it becomes strident and less credible.
Signs of Life is the second of Harrison's novels that I've read, after the superb and justifiably lauded Light. Perhaps I was doomed to be disappointed by the forced comparison, or perhaps this is simply a lesser effort. Interested readers should probably search out the short story rather than read the book.
It's a strange novel, ultimately quite affecting, though I admit I didn't quite "get" it all. The genre is rather odd: sort of an SF analog to Magical Realism: that is to say, SFnal things happen (or, rather, one SFnal thing), but the explanation might as well be a typical Magical Realist explanation for Fantastical events.
Anyway: the story is the first person narrative of one Mick "China" Jones, a middle-aged Englishman. It seems to be set in the early '90s. China is involved with a very unpleasant character named Choe Ashton: the two of them run a shady biological courier and toxic waste disposal business. China falls in love with Isobel Avens (a significant last name, that), a much younger woman. After some happy years together, her dreams of flight, as well as possibly her unhappiness with China's dealings with Choe, begin to drive her away, finally she leaves him for a doctor who does some advanced bioengineering (here is where the SF theme sneaks in). All comes to a believable and moving and depressing end.
But those dialogues, especially the ones involving Choe, are hilarious. So while I can't fully recommend the novel, it should still be read, perhaps partly scanned.
More highly than this, I recommend the novel In Viriconium from the same author. It is even funnier and less meandering.