Book Review: The Committed Men, M. John Harrison (1971)

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(Chris Yates’ cover for the 1971 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Entropic visions of decay and despair inhabit M. John Harrison’s first novel The Committed Men (1971).  Possessed by destructive melancholy, the inhabitants of a post-apocalyptical UK–where political powers have sunk into oblivion–attempt to recreate a semblance of normalcy.  Clement St John Wendover, teeth long since rotted, still administers to the skin diseases and ailments of his one-time patients although he cannot cure them.  Halloway Pauce, decked out in his “gold lamé suit”, fastidiously coats his cancered face with a “layer of pancake make-up” (48).  Grocott Personnel and his hierarchically oriented fellows recreate the bureaucratic veneer of forms and phrases, their status in the “company” indicated by the size of their elaborate and grotesque papier mâché masks decked out with faux-tumors: “rigid and expressionless, [the mask stares forth] like the face of a dead animal” (110).

Gathering together a troop of “committed men” (and a woman!), Wendover sets off across the corroded landscape with a newborn mutant child: a new species for an altered Earth or an accidental abnormality….

Analysis/Brief Plot Summary

(Note: As always, spoilers…)

The Committed Men revolves around a “harsh and inhuman” image inscribed across the landscape: a fenced road constructed out of “steel and ferroconcrete” that stretches off into the distance (11).  The cage around the road, built in the aftermath of the disaster, was  a “misguided attempt to contain accident effects and to protect urbanized sections of the motorway from damage.” (12-13).  The road now serves as a suicide device.

Like the road, a symbol of the past transformed, Wendover sees his own journey as some outgrowth of “emotional reasoning made obsolete by the catastrophe” (159).  The fragmentation of the road symbolizes the transformation of the world, a transformation that its previous inhabitants cannot quite admit or see.  Obsessed with “watching the symptoms of a degenerating world” (20), the attempted murder of a “mottled and scaly” mutant child galvanizes Wendover into action (50).  A desperate mother offers him the newborn and with the bundle in his arms he flees from Halloway Pauce, who rules “Tinhouse”–a town that rattles in the wind like “the playing of giant tambourine” (42)—clothed as if in the “cerements of a dead emperor” (48).

Fortuitously, he encounters a woman named Morag, who recently suffered the trauma of a miscarriage induced by a community of women (and one chained man).  With others that join the group, they set off on a quest across “tangled landscapes” to find other mutants who might be able to raise the child (159).

Final thoughts

M. John Harrison tends to polarize SF readers.  If you don’t believe me, look at the comments on my review of his third novel The Centauri Device (1974)—-a subversive take-down of space opera and the single most commented-on review on my site.  Unlike many of his other works The Committed Men–although heavy with despair, violence, and uncomfortable scenes of bodily decay–treads more traditional ground.  Wendover’s motivation, unlike the apathetic and amphetamine popping John Tuck of The Centauri Device, is a noble one: “he felt an intense empathy with the children, destructive and frustrating because of his utter medical impotence” (43).  Although political forces might have been defeated “by entropy” (121), Wendover and his companions–as a final act–find another way to create a semblance of order, a symbolic passing of the baton to a new people.

The Committed Men reaches greater heights than many of its ilk because of Harrison’s attention to detail and evocative prose.  While Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence (1952, revised 1969) generated its intensity via a direct and unadorned style, Harrison creates haunting scenes that cannot be shaken off.  A few examples will suffice.  Morag experiences dreams about a gigantic crane-fly attempting to exit her nightmare, “diving and gyring as it blundered about looking for an exit; whining and breaking its grotesque dangling limbs against the walls of her skull” (68). Harrison describes Wendover as “plagued by uneasy reveries” (159).  And the details!  Morag finds a book called Real Life Romances in the back of a car, Harrison includes an image from the text (63).  Wendover keeps a single vial of penicillin among the objects gathered from the past.   The chairman of a bureaucratic entity with his massive papier mâché head, pontificates from his office: “its walls covered with ancient, wrinkled graphs and flow diagrams” (128).  There is beauty in the decay.  Patterns of the past obscured by mold and grime still exert their diminishing powers.

Recommended for fans of literary SF and 70s post-apocalyptical nightmares.  Often reveling in the grotesque, The Committed Men will stay with you like “a black pit” of dissolving teeth (74-75).

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*Note: I recommend following M. John Harrison’s site.  He posts selections from new and old writings, and various reflections that will appeal to fans of his fiction.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(Bob Haberfield’s cover for the 1973 edition)

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(John Holmes’ cover for the 1971 edition)

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(Peter Elson’s cover for the 1989 edition)

22 thoughts on “Book Review: The Committed Men, M. John Harrison (1971)”

    1. Hello Guy,

      Thanks for the comment. I remember your review well, I read it a while back and then again a few weeks ago when I finished The Committed Men.

      I wondered about the “oddly dressed young man” as well — did not realize it was Jerry Cornelius! Not sure it adds to the story, but, a nice touch.

      Joachim

    1. I’m afraid that most of my reviews contain spoilers and often I don’t mark them. As I try for a more analytical angle, I end up referencing stuff that often could be considered spoilers. Comes with the territory I guess.

      The names were intriguing — not sure what to make of Wendover or Morag or Arn…

      Do you have a favorite Harrison scene? (perhaps in the Viriconium sequence?).

      1. If I’m perfectly honest, it’s decades since I read most of my Harrison, so specifics are hazy – though if pushed I would say that In Viriconium, the first I read, was my favourite of his. When I finally get to do more re-reading of his work I’m going to be interested to find what I think of it now!

        1. Not had time to comment until now (still no time, really, but MJH is a favourite of mine) and he’s definitely worth rereading, although there’s still a lot I haven’t got round to again yes… As I recall though, he wasn’t too keen on this book for a long time.
          Not sure if you’ve seen this:
          M. John Harrison - Books!

  1. You talked me into buying a copy of this (the Elson ’89 cover) because there were several for like a dollar on the Amazon marketplace. Glad that I picked one up, though I wish I knew which box it was packed in…

    1. So far, at least, it’s hard to go wrong with Harrison! They are a tad bit more expensive than they were on Amazon when you grabbed your copy. I remember astronomical (for a mass market paperback) prices a year or so ago — cheapest around $20.

      The great box hunt must commence!

  2. Viriconium is as good as it gets fiction-wise, so I’m not surprised to hear this is good. I want to read his Centauri Device probably as my next by him though, or his non-SF novel about climbing.

    He is wonderfully quotable, a great writer of imagery.

    1. I think a lot of his imagery is wrapped up in the calculated use of details. A lot of poorer authors tend to ignore how effectively a well placed detail can be used, Harrison’s use of a single illustration reproduced in the text from Real Life Romances found by Morag in the back of a car is the perfect example.

  3. Thanks for the link to Harrison’s blog, the first few posts I read have been interesting. Also, even though I’m not a big fan of Peter Elson, his cover is the best of the lot!

    1. I enjoy the Chris Yates cover. I talked to M. John Harrison about the Yates cover and he pointed out that it was his favorite cover that graced his early works and made him feel like a “real author” (or something along those lines).

  4. That’s an interesting comment from Harrison regarding the cover, design does matter! Yates was fairly young when he did that cover, early 20’s, and he seems to have stopped working in the Sci-Fi field sometime in the late 70’s , do you know anything else about him ?

    1. Other than what I’ve learned on isfdb.org I am in the dark regarding his career. A lot of these artists moved into different artistic fields, or illustrated primarily non-genre books, or publishing. A great example is Pauline Jones. She created covers for a handful of SF books and is now producing some absolutely haunting landscapes etc.

      (I’m tempted to send Pauline Jones an email with a few questions about her SF art career).

      1. It can be a challenge searching for further info beyond the basics on illustrators on isfdb or the sci-fi encyclopedia sites. Askart.com will sometimes provide some added info, but usually only for the most well known artists.

        I would think that Pauline Jones would appreciate the interest in her career.

  5. Thank you Joachim, for putting this together. I read this book while working on a remote hydro-electric project in Fiordland, New Zealand (a workmate lent me the book and said that I’d like it, and I did). I actually found the book extremely hopeful (yes, really): that life goes on, no matter what, and that people will still join a good cause, no matter what.

    1. Thank you for visiting! And your personal story about reading the novel…. This positive vision is rather rare for his fiction — as I point out in the review, The Centauri Device (1975) is completely different, have you read it?

  6. Just finished reading this. I’d enjoyed everything that I’d read by him previously and this was no exception. I love the grotesque detail of many of the situations presented (the guy in his gold lamé suit and the weird masked city dwellers) and his scathing attacks on institutions attempting to create order by hanging on to empty ritual and procedure. As another person commented there was hope at the end and the bond between the four travellers I found very touching. Nice to see Jerry Cornelius pop up plus there was the other Moorcock allusion (Nature of The Catastrophe). One thing I am intrigued by is his thing for dwarfs…anyone care to speculate what that’s about?!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. As for your dwarf question, I’m not sure — perhaps as they are often perceived as social outcasts. And he brings together all sorts of people who work towards the goal — and yes, they as a group decide that their time is up and this is the mission for the future. Very touching, and very sad….

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