My love-hate relationship with M. John Harrison
Posted June 4, 2011on:
Viriconium, by M. John Harrison
published in 2005
where I got it: library
I first read M John Harrison’s Viriconium about 5 years ago. I was browsing the library, and the silvery book leapt off the shelf and into my arms. If it could have spoken, I imagine it would have confidently told me to read it. No pleading, no begging, no “if you please”, just simply “I have to be read”. And I did. And at the time, I thought it was the most incredible thing I had ever read, and I said so loudly to anyone who would listen. Brimming with gorgeous metaphors, and populated by multiple versions of recurring characters, Harrison’s stories of the ever changing city of Viriconium are considered sci-fantasy/ new weird gold.
Good books deserve to be reread, and although I own copies of a few other Harrison titles, Viriconium still lives at the library. So I got it. and read it. From the introduction by Neil Gaiman to the final story in the collection, I was surprised at how much I remembered, nearly word for word: the sunsets that bled to death, the making of dwarves, the artist’s quarter, the masked abduction attempt, and the search for the mirror that will take you there. Harrison’s surreal and dreamy style is science fiction that reads like fantasy.
An author known to abhor the idea of world building, it’s the world he creates, and how he presents it that is the most intriguing part of this book. An unknown number of generations after we have destroyed the Earth, either through over mining of resources or nuclear holocaust (or most likely both), humanity still survives. It is not a pretty place, but Harrison makes Viriconium reflect his prose: beautiful, alluring, seductive, and manipulative.
when I say beautiful and alluring language, this is what I’m talking about:
“East and South of Monar runs a string of heathland whose name, when it still had one, was a handful of primitive syllables scattered like a question in the damp wind. It is a deserted and superceded country, that one, full of the monuments and inarticulate ghosts of a race older than Viriconium, younger than the Afternoon Cultures, and possibly more naive than either.”
We’ll get to seductive and manipulative later.
some thoughts on selected stories:
The Pastel City – The first novella, and in my opinion the strongest piece in the volume. tegeus-Cromis is a retired soldier who is enjoying his new life as a poet philosopher. Recalled to service by the young queen of Viriconium, Cromis and his old friends venture north to catch up with the army and meet the northern invaders head on. But a metal bird stalks Cromis, imploring him to travel south instead, to meet a mad sorcerer named Cellur, and gain the tools to fight a much more important battle. Ignoring the bird, their quest north continues. The northerners have unwittingly unleashed an ancient weapon of the Afternoon Cultures, the Geteit Chemosit, 8 foot tall creatures that know only one command: destroy. It is only a matter of time before the northerners lose control of their ultimate weapon. Cellur’s solution involves waking up another weapon of the Afternoon Cultures, and he is willing share the information. The Afternoon Cultures are the same people who destroyed the Earth. How much of their technology do we dare touch? How close to them to do we dare to become? Cellur’s solution will certainly save the Pastel City today, but will forever change the face of it, forcing it’s destiny towards more violent directions.
A classic traditional fantasy quest story, The Pastel City is a must-read for any sci-fantasy fan.
The madman Cellur quickly became a favorite character of mine. Seen in later stories as a peripheral character, he does not remember how old he is, but he thinks he may be as old as the Evening Cultures, as Viriconium. is he even human? He’s not sure, and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is I want so badly to get into his head, to know the things he knows, to find out who he really is!!! Starting out gently and relaxed, The Pastel City quickly enters sci-fantasy territory offering a glimpse of the inescapable future of Viriconium.
In Viriconium – An entirely different life awaits those who choose to live in the artist’s quarter. The artists who live there depend on the commissions of their wealthy patrons. When a plague puts large portions of the quarter under quarantine, Ashlyme decides he must get his friend, the famed artist Audsley King, out of the artists quarter. Already ill, Audsley does not want to leave. Ashlyme and his astronomer friend Buffo decide the best way to get her to safety is to disguise themselves, drug her with laudanum, and kidnap her. Another wealthy friend of Ashlyme insists on getting involved, and nothing goes as planned.
The Luck in the Head – In the indifferent city of Uroconium, Ardwick Crome (another Cromis? perhaps!) is desperate to rid himself of terrible dreams. A woman claims she can help him, but even she only appears as an apparition. Providing Crome with an ancient sword, she tells him the cure for his dreams is to destroy Mammy Vooley, the revered Queen of the city. The magic of this story lies in the fact that the entire time I was reading it I wasn’t sure if Mammy Vooley was alive or dead. Borne around the city on a pole, she is often compared to the silence of petrified wood and polished bone, and unable to lift even a crown of flowers. She talks, but I had to wonder if she was quite literally, a puppet. If Crome destroys her, perhaps the entire city will wake up from being ruled by an effigy. Or maybe he is being set up to kill a beloved leader.
A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium – the last and I think shortest entry in the volume, this story takes place in our own world. An unnamed narrator hopes his mentor, Mr Ambrayses, will help him reach Viriconium. While deriding fellow explorer Mr Petromax who missed his chance, Ambrayses talks lovingly of the mythical city, and how he longs to return. When the narrator is finally able to speak to Petromax, he learns the two men had drastically different experiences there. Is Viriconium a city to long for? Or simply one to dream about?
* * *
Here’s the thing though: maybe I’m a cretin, but beautiful language only gets you so far. There is such a thing as too surreal, and prose that is too perfect for it’s own good. After reading pages upon pages of surreal metaphor, there were times that I simply had no idea what I was reading or what the story was about. To be surreally metaphorical, it was as if the language was devouring itself, vainly strangling and cannibalizing the story that it existed to tell so the prose wouldn’t be challenged for center stage. Even that sounds pretty, but too often did that path lead to incomprehensibility and problematic lack of focus, i.e.; simply unreadable.
I would very much like to know who I was five years ago, that I felt the whole of Viriconium was the most amazing thing since sliced bread. Upon re-read, Harrison’s sci-fantasy world is still tragically beautiful and seductive, especially as presented in The Pastel City. But so much of Viriconium felt like a chore to read, it left me feeling saddened and manipulated.