M. John Harrison, like Joan Vinge or J.G. Ballard, hails from my terra incognita of the universe of sci-fi/fantasy authors. Over the years I’ve read praises of his fiction but have never read a word of it. Searching my shelves for something to review this week, I saw a copy of the Bantam omnibus of his novels and stories of Viriconium, a city in the twilight days of Earth. I have no memory of how, when, or where it came into my possession, but there it was. So I figured it was about time to investigate its unknown literary landscapes.
Harrison came to my attention from a pair of essays he wrote on the creation of fantasy. The first, “What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium,” is an attack on the effort to codify and specifiy the nature of fantasy. It opens with this bold statement:
The great modern fantasies were written out of religious, philosophical and psychological landscapes. They were sermons. They were metaphors. They were rhetoric. They were books, which means that the one thing they actually weren’t was countries with people in them.
For him, any effort to delineate geographical boundaries and the like in a work of fantasy undermines what really lies at its heart. He describes his own tales like this:
“Viriconium” is a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair. At the same time it is an unashamed postmodern fiction of the heart, out of which all the values we yearn for most have been swept precisely so that we will try to put them back again (and, in that attempt, look at them afresh).
The second essay “about why storytelling must take precedence over worldbuilding,” continues and extends the argument of the first with more vehemence:
Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.
Harrison makes a complex argument that intricate worldbuilding limits the ability of the reader to interpret the story. It undercuts real reading, which is a transaction between the reader and the text. His ideas make for confrontational reading in our current age of unending series. How many of us enjoy losing ourselves in a trilogy because we want to become lost in an author’s hyper-detailed secondary world, where we learn about everything from the ingredients in each dish at the feast, to exactly how the king’s regiments are organized, and the intricate details of court politics?
Because of pre-conceived notions I’d had about Harrison’s stories, I was surprised to discover that The Pastel City (1971), is a fairly orthodox Dying Earth tale. Numerous far-future civilizations have risen and fallen on Earth. Mighty technologies are used but are no longer understood, and must be scavenged from the great wastelands left by vanished cultures. Viriconium exists so far into the future that the world of today is not even a lost memory.
Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millenium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.
The basic plot of the story: aged hero straps on his sword one last time and sets out to save the queen, the daughter of his old lord. The hero is Lord tegeus-Cromis and the queen, who rules under the name Methvet, is really named Jane.
Queen Jane and her rule of Viriconium, the Pastel City, are under assault from her cousin, Queen Canna Moidart. The issue of a failed royal marriage between Jane’s uncle and the queen of the Northern barbarians, Canna Moidart has tried to force her claim to the throne of Viriconium with hordes of warriors and mysterious constructs dredged up from the ancient ruins of the Afternoon Cultures.
Under Jane’s father, tegeus-Cromis was one of a select band of heroes known as the Methven, the name of their king. Together they helped avert a coming Dark Age, but upon their success and the death of the king, they disbanded and went their separate ways. tegeus-Cromis, who always “imagined himself a better poet than a swordsman,” retired to a tower by the sea. Only when a supporter of the Northern queen tries to kill him does he decide he must do something to help his liege’s daughter.
As the war against Queen Jane intensifies, with riots in the streets of Viriconium and invading armies nearing the border, all but one of the Methven reappear. Next to tegeus-Cromis are Birkin Grif, Tomb the dwarf, and Theomeris Glyn. The whereabouts of the great strategist, Norvin Trinor, becomes an important part of The Pastel City‘s narrative.
You can read TPC as a simple story of adventure and derring-do. On that level alone, it is exciting and wonderfully well-told. There are mysterious brain-stealing monsters, talking robot-birds, betrayals, and a fair amount of swordplay, but for the deeper reader there is more.
Themes of stasis, decay, and time permeate the book. The missing Norvin Trinor fled Viriconium because he felt it had lost its vitality and was sinking back into decline. Failure of both the barbarians and the people of Viriconium to fully comprehend the recovered technologies of the old world typify a greater lack of societal energy.
Art by Bruce Pennington
Viriconium — its civilization, its culture, its technology — is stuck in a rut, forever spinning but never moving forward. The scholar Cellur is so old he has no idea of who or what he is anymore. The past is unknowable, crumbling away behind him the same way the Afternoon Cultures lie crumbled around the outskirts of Viriconium.
That is the curse of the thing, you see: the memory does not last. There is little enough space in one skull for a lifetime’s memories. And no room at all for those of a millennium.
Time in Viriconium appears to be a loop. The climax of the novel doesn’t result in the restoration of the old regime, but that of an earlier time, of the Afternoon Cultures and all their flaws and failings. Harrison gives us a hint that Time isn’t really a moebius strip, though. When tegeus-Cromis and his companions are fleeing through the glacial moors of the region called Rannoch, he is struck by something calling to him:
Something in the resigned, defeated landscape (or was it simply waiting to be born? Who can tell at which end of Time these places have their existence?) called out to his senses, demanded his attention and understanding.
He never found out what it was.
It is human effort to impose order on chaos that creates the sense of cycles and loops. Time itself remains something that stretches out endlessly back and forward.
The Pastel City is an incredibly traditional story: its start and finish clearly marked, its characters recognizable archetypes (ex. the knight of the dolorous countenance, the absent-minded wizard, etc), and its typical arc of resistance, defeat, and victory. Perhaps, having first read “What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium,” I expected more of a departure. For years I have read how Harrison played games with his texts, and there’s not much of that.
Instead, there is a well-written and well-told tale in which are lifted up such noble sentiments as honor, obligation, and sacrifice. Harrison created a story to which it is indeed possible to attach “the values we yearn for most.”
It is with the two subsequent novels, A Storm of Wings (1980) and In Viriconium (1981), and the collection Viriconium Nights (1984), that Harrison began to really explore the sentiments expressed in his two essays. For the next three weeks I’ll look at his books in sequence, and follow where he went during those explorations.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.