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To Unbuild the Unreal City: M. John Harrison’s Viriconium

Saturday, March 16th, 2013 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

ViriconiumThe term ‘dying earth’ comes from a series of stories by Jack Vance, but Vance was following in the footsteps of Clark Ashton Smith, whose Zothique stories introduced the concept: a setting at the end of time, during the twilight of civilisation on earth — when magic and science had become fused and indistinguishable, when the ruins of previous cultures choked the land, when we and our children and our children’s children are not even memories. Among other writers to tackle similar settings are Michael Moorcock, in his Dancers at the End of Time series, and Gene Wolfe in his classic Book of the New Sun. Wikipedia suggests a few more examples, such as C.J. Cherryh’s Sunfall. Dying-earth stories are typically autumnal, often ironic or cynical, stories about things running down in the senility of the world; often written in a self-consciously baroque style. And, I find, often very powerful works. I want to write a bit here about one of the odder works of an inherently odd subgenre: M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence.

There are four Viriconium books, three novels and a collection of linked short stories: The Pastel City, published in 1971; A Storm of Wings, from 1980; In Viriconium, from 1982; and 1985’s Viriconium Nights. One can technically read the books in any order, as few plot strands directly connect them. They’re bound by setting, theme, and imagery, and to that extent perhaps are best read in order of publication, so that one follows the growth of Harrison’s conception of the books and of his technical facility. At any rate, the internal chronology of the series is intentionally difficult. Omnibus editions treat the short stories of Viriconium Nights in different ways, sometimes putting them together in one place as they would have first appeared, sometimes scattering them before, between, and after the three novels. Harrison has apparently said that the stories can appear in any order, so long as the short story “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” comes at the end.

The four books are very different works, as one might expect from pieces written over 15 years. The style varies radically. So does the tone; the writing, ironic from the start, produces increasingly complex effects. Thematically, key concerns persist, about art and heroism and ritual. And reality; and the way in which fantasies attempt to mimic reality, and the ways in which bad fantasies — or bad fiction — deviates from emotional truth. So these are books that use the form of fantasy fiction to critique, or question, fantasy. Depending on what set of definitions you care to use, you could call this a modernist or postmodernist approach. The more important question is this: does the work succeed as written art?

ViriconiumLet’s begin trying to answer that question by looking briefly at the common setting of Viriconium, and then at each book in turn. ‘Common setting’ here is a difficult phrase. As I’ve said, the books are full of deliberate contradictions; Harrison has written about his contempt for worldbuilding, about his disdain for fantasy that tries to create a coherent mappable world instead of rejoicing in its status as a written thing. So here one story tells us that to the south of Viriconium is the sea, while another says there is a long stretch of waste land. A history is presented at the beginning of the first book, and then ignored, as Viriconium is later described as not merely ancient but sempiternal, existing always and forever. There is an internal justification for these discontinuities. The city is explicitly said to rewrite itself, to be reimagined over time. Even the name of the place changes in some stories, and the clash of realities and the overlay of conflicting perceptions becomes a significant motif.

Still, given those caveats, we can tentatively say that Viriconium is a city of the distant future, surrounded by the polluted wastelands left by previous civilisations. It is fundamentally decadent, filled with killers, artists, street gangs, and peculiar customs. It is divided into different neighbourhoods along class lines. And it is frequently under threat, though what precise consequences these threats can bring is often nebulous.

The first book, The Pastel City, is clearly the most conventional. At first blush, it strongly resembles the pulp work of Michael Moorcock; the better points of the Hawkmoon books, for example, though Pastel City is much better written. Its central character, tegeus-Cromis, is an aging hero, a former member of a royal guard now living some distance from the city and deluding himself that he’s become a poet. But an army’s marching on Viriconium and so he returns to action, regathering his fellow former heroes and learning that the invaders conceal a greater threat from past ages. It seems conventional enough, if stylised, but then you look closer and notice that tegeus-Cromis doesn’t actually do all that much through most of the book — if he’d died at the midway point, say, the rest of the book probably would have turned out much the same. Cromis himself seems to give up near the end, entirely skipping what ought to be the climax in order to return to his tower.

The Pastel CityA Storm of Wings amplifies the sense of decadence and of senescence. Superficially, the plot’s almost exactly the same: Viriconium is threatened by an invasion and an aging killer dandy must rally heroes to fend it off. But the style is radically different. It’s one of the flashiest works of language I’ve read, filled with pyrotechnical displays of vocabulary and sentence structure. The whole thing becomes over-the-top, a burlesque not only of its pulp plot, but also of its own linguistic wildness. The ultimate conflict turns out to be a conflict of perceptions and realities, in which the invading force wishes to re-imagine the city in a bizarre new form. The plot is resolved in an even more self-annihilating way than the first book, and you might wonder where Harrison could take Viriconium after this.

The answer is, in a completely different direction. In Viriconium turns away from adventure plots to focus on painters coping with a city suffering from a peculiar plague, a plague compounded of entropy and ennui. The main attempt at heroic action here turns into pathetic farce; violence is no longer potentially redemptive, no means of salvation, merely brutal. Two peculiar lowbrow celebrities seem to be gods, and one dies with a plangent moral on his lips. The style is simpler and yet oddly more opaque. Less is said outright, and more implied. Less is explained. The title of the book seems to me to hint at its approach; it’s easy to read the ‘in’ as the negating prefix, a syllable reversing what follows (insignificant, incredible) — this is Inviriconium.

The short stories of Viriconium Nights then seem to move further and further away from the city itself; stories take place in the hinterlands, or in a re-imagined city. Viriconium is absent, or else rewrites itself into something else, another place under another name. The final tale, “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,” takes place in this world (or a reasonable facsimile), following an attempt to cross into the unreal city of Viriconium. Like In Viriconium, the book mostly shuns heroic action, and resolutely avoids finding meaning in heroism. Conversely, it is as a whole fascinated with ritual, with the half-remembered detritus of myth. It has a stranger relationship to time, perhaps, than any of the other books, as it seems to show a city across different eras, a city which may not even have a single coherent past or future. More than any of the other books, it seems systematically to deconstruct what has gone before: to unbuild the unreal city.

A Storm of WingsEach story about Viriconium seems to describe a different place. The discontinuities aside, the feel of the place being described changes. From a futuristic metropolis to an ancient and decadent nexus of meanings and then to a confused plague-zone and then to myth-haunted near-contemporary city, each book seems to take a different angle on the setting. So that setting is bound together over the books by the name alone, and then in the final stories not even by that. It has been suggested (here, for example) that the city is in some sense every city. But one can also say that the different takes on the city are a key element of urban life — the different people who live in a place see it differently. Therefore the style changes, the sense of history of the city changes, the nature of the characters change.

The central character of the first book gives us a warrior who wants to be a poet. The second gives us a more cynical dandy-assassin, who spends much of the story swearing that he is not the hero of the first book. The third then gives us a painter, unused to violent action. The fourth gives us a range of male central characters; many are artists, some warriors, but in either case the prevailing sentiment is of the difficulty of accomplishing anything meaningful. Hero-artist and hero-warrior both come to seem thwarted, unfulfilled. The first two books give us recognisable adventure protagonists, and then subvert the expectations their plots raise; the latter two books step back from that sort of action, and so seem to stand in direct contrast to the first two, distorted reflections, deconstructions.

The heroic plots of the first books become mythic. The fragmented half-remembered rituals of the later books are the echoes of those early heroes, not necessarily literally but in the sense that this is what the doing of great deeds comes down to: mummery with horse’s skulls, nonsense rhymes, the matter for sentimental art. In fact the artists of these stories seem to wrestle with this matter, seem to be challenged to move beyond these patterns remembered from their childhood — to innovate or respond to world around them, rather than lock themselves away from the changing life of the city. The patterns of adventure fiction become myth, and are forgotten.

In ViriconiumThere is a slightly precious feel to all this, brought on in part by the admittedly clever use of imagery borrowed from Yeats and T.S. Eliot (and in fairness, a city at the end of things, surrounded by wastelands filled with broken images of the past, is an image that directly recalls Eliot). There is an occasional archness to the stories, fiction about fiction. But as I read them, they’re also about much more. I think in writing about fantasy, Harrison’s writing about reality too, and how one engages with reality — how it is perceived, and how those perceptions are shaped. Therefore, it is about power and the limits of power.

The style of the books becomes increasingly restrained, even elliptical. The stories are increasingly difficult to parse, but correspondingly more rewarding. Which is to say that Viriconium at its height needs to be reread to be understood. As I went through it, I found that plot and character were increasingly incidental, slender vehicles for various series of images bound in different ways by a story’s theme. You can argue that that’s true of many stories with literary ambitions, but I found the conceptual distance between the images were greater in the Viriconium tales than in most others I can think of. You can understand what’s happening at any given moment; you can understand how that moment relates to other moments; but I at least found it difficult to do both at once on first reading. I found I read once to understand the plot development of a story, and then again to put the images in context, to understand how they build and how they relate to the plot. The images, as I say, are elliptical. They are unexpected, and follow one another in unexpected ways, and it is easy to get lost in the movement from one to another, in the gaps of meaning hidden by the smoothness of the prose.

But if the writing’s always assured, some things still get lost. The density of thematic weight in the stories, along with the image-oriented style, tends to undermine one’s sense of the characters as people. Their every action seems both incoherent and predetermined, the acting-out of a simple mythic plot with no regard for what the character might logically want or feel. The sense of ritual is well-earned, but does more than trap the characters in a patterned plot: it undermines them, erasing the sense of them as distinct personalities. The discontinuities of the setting don’t help here; much as Harrison may scorn worldbuilding, it’s difficult to develop a coherent sense of character without a sense of a coherent background from which that character may be seen to have emerged — a world that has shaped them, and defined their dreams and aspirations and sense of class.

Viriconium KnightsStill, for all the losses, something distinctive is gained. By turning on themselves, undermining their own premises, the books create a strong sense of radical uncertainty. Nothing can be taken for granted. Rather than undermining the credibility of the setting, this weirdly makes it more real. If much of the ‘real’ world is a function of different perspectives, interpretations, and understandings, then Viriconium represents that multiplicity. The puzzle is that this complexity is then itself implicitly questioned.

It has been argued that Harrison’s point is that Viriconium must be rejected. John Clute, in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, says that “Unless Viriconium is refused, the souls who manufacture it out of their own refusal to see the true world have no hope.” A dying god-figure in the third book moans that “The citizens are responsible for the state of the city … If you had only asked yourselves what was the matter with the city, all would have been well.” But the complaint seems too obvious. As Clute notes, the narrative echoes the Fisher King story, with a dying artist in place of a wounded king; again, there’s an echo here of Eliot’s fragmentation of the same myth in The Waste Land, except the echo is itself too neat — if Eliot has done it already, what’s the point of doing it again? Is the rhetoric not too blunt to be taken seriously? Can we take the story’s assessment of the painter in In Viriconium at face value? The artist, after all, does not exist; only In Viriconium, only the text, in itself a work of literary art. Can a story ask for its own refusal? The aforementioned dying god hints at a resolution that could have been, and still might be: “Art would have been made whole. The energy of the Low City would have been released and the High City freed from its mediocrity.” But again this feels facile; a too-simple unification of contrasts. In other stories you’d believe it. In Viriconium, you doubt.

Which may be success of the books. They lead you into doubt. They make you question what seems most sure, even the books themselves. The aesthetic debate is one-sided; there’s little connected argument in the Viriconium books about fantasy or fiction, and the ideas implied about escapism and art aren’t convincing as general statement. Questions are begged: what if, how about, doesn’t that mean … But as I read the books, the point is that there are no answers for the questions, nor should there be. These books are fictions, not essays. They’re powerful not as argument, but as a kind of individual testament. As art. The book’s success threatens to undermine its theory, but, again, its primary success is as work of language. The dying-earth setting, the sense of entropy, of the running-down of art and energy and creation, resonates with its thematic ideas even as the books undermine that setting the further into them you read. The work is in tension with itself, complex and inspiring. And in that complexity, in that tension, is the inspiration, and the success: the perpetual unbuilding and rebuilding of the unreal city in the mind of the reader.

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

2 Comments »

  1. I haven’t read these yet–though I certainly plan to now–but I always loved Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time series, probably my favorite of his vast oeuvre. Even back as a teenager, when it would have seemed that Elric would have been more my speed, I found the dancers, what, relaxing maybe? Relaxing, funny, and vaguely literary–that may then and now have always been my favorite speed.

    Comment by awsnyde - March 16, 2013 4:01 pm

  2. […] in reading a number of those writers. There are other writers whose earlier works I’ve read, like M. John Harrison, but whose recent books I’ve not caught up on. But I’d be happy to see any of those books […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » A Detailed Explanation - April 4, 2015 5:33 pm


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