the Little Red Reviewer

My love-hate relationship with M. John Harrison

Posted on: June 4, 2011

Viriconium, by M. John Harrison

published in 2005

where I got it:  library
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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 It is a deserted and superceded country, that one, full of the monuments and inarticulate ghosts of a race older than Viriconium, younger than the Afternoon Cultures, and possibly more naive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.

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15 Responses to "My love-hate relationship with M. John Harrison"

Interesting post! I’ve run into this very issue of beautiful prose strangling everything else in the story, and for me, it’s a put off. I’ve often wondered how others could rave about such books, and it seems that you, too, are wondering the same thing. About this book, anyway.

Have you read anything else by this author? If so, what was your experience?

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Shara, I’ve also read Light and Nova Swing, which take place in the same world (but not the Viriconium world). I should probably give one of them a try again, see what I think. I recall them being easier to read, although still uber-surreal.

maybe the pretty language wasn’t a put off when i was younger? maybe then I had the patience for it? It’s kinda like Modern Art: what’s the diff between artistic and throwing paint at a canvas while drunk?

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“There is such a thing as too surreal, and prose that is too perfect for it’s own good”

That is so true, and I’ve read some books over the years that only drifted over into that area at the very end and they did it put such a taint on the book that I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Jonathan Carroll’s “Ghost in Love” and “The Brief History of the Dead” by Keith Brockmeier come to mind. Neither are as surreal as you describe “Viriconium” to be, but they were just enough that I felt it took the entire story off track.

The only Harrison I’ve read was a short story a year or so ago in some ‘Best Of the Year…” collection and I found myself confused and frustrated and wondering what the appeal was. However, as a short story lover I am loathe to judge any writer on just one story. Even my favorites write a story now and then that just doesn’t connect with me. But it did make me reluctant to try his bigger works.

It is interesting how some books do for us just what you describe. I have books that I reread every few years. Despite their familiarity, the passion for them remains. Others that I was blown away with at the time turn out to be ‘just okay’ on a second or subsequent reading. One thing I believe that shows is just how potentially powerful the written word is–it can strike us in the most profound ways, but sometimes only during a certain window of time, maybe just when we needed it to.

That is a risk I find with book blogging. Especially when I am over the moon about something. I wait anxiously for the reviews of those friends who I know will read the same book and then have to deal with my own feelings when they feel it didn’t quite measure up. I’m going through that right now.

In the end I strive to be as honest as I can with my own experience with a book and leave it at that. This review of yours is a perfect example of the kind of honesty I am talking about. Well done!

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that’s exactly why i try to go back to things that i read five or ten years ago. I always hope to like something the same or more, so having the opposite experience is a shock. and you’re 100% right, sometimes you have to be in a certain mood or a certain time in your life when you read certain things.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Harrison short you ran into was a Viriconium short. In a vacuum, none of these stories would make any sense whatsoever, but taken as a whole they do have a sort of overarching story arc.

that happens to me all the time! A book I’m in love with, my blogging friends don’t much care for, or the opposite, a hyped book that everyone else is over the moon for doesn’t do much for me. ’tis the blogosphere!

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That is definitely a problem with short stories that are part of a larger world in that they don’t always work well as stand alone stories. I wonder if this is more so with science fiction than other genres? I know many of Charles de Lint’s short stories work fine as stand alone stories and yet the impact and joy are much greater having had a more extended visit to his fictional world.

Years ago I read Dravo Tavern by Larry Niven and really enjoyed it. I wonder how much I enjoyed the short stories in the collection because they were presented that way and I knew I was getting glimpses into a larger world. I’ve read very mixed reactions to those stories and they are ones I want to go back to at some point to see if I enjoyed them as much now as I did at the time.

I think book blogging sets up those “hype” experiences and in my enthusiasm over books I “love” I often worry that I am ruining the book for others who might have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t raised their expectations so high. Several of my blog friends just read Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi and although I haven’t read their reviews (because they aren’t up at the moment) I have seen twitter comments like “underwhelmed” and wondering why it won awards. So I’m actually looking forward to seeing what they didn’t like about it, or why they didn’t have the same experience with it that I did. At the same time I feel bad because I certainly hyped the book and because no matter how much one acknowledges that everyone has their own individual tastes, it does feel a little bad when someone doesn’t like something as much as you did.

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Carl – I’ve not read a ton of Niven, but it sounds like I had a similar experience with some George R R Martin short stories, they were exactly that: a glimpse into a larger world, but the stories intimately focused around one or two characters and their situation at that moment, so I didn’t feel lost or buried.

Sometimes I feel a little bad when bloggers slam favorite books of mine, but then I look through the books that they loved, and it’s stuff that I didn’t much care for. then i don’t feel bad anymore.

I’m looking forward to Shipbreaker. I couldn’t get into WindUp Girl, I heard Shipbreaker is a little easier. Maybe the people who were underwhelmed were hoping for another Windup Girl?

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I’ve been dying to read this since China Mieville said it was one of the books that have really influenced him. Haven’t had a chance yet as I’m in the midst of my Malazan read. Not sure how long it’ll take me to finish, but once i”m done, I’m going to read Viriconium.

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“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.”

That is an honest confession of a reader’s tastes and chosen limits. And you are definitely not a “cretin.” No doubt, our desires and needs as readers change over time. The honest admission comes with recognizing that the growth (or the failing) comes with ourselves as readers, not with the books. The books simply are.

I would ask one or two follow-up questions. Why can’t prose take “center stage” with a brash and jealous, jewel-toned, or insinuating style? In literature, is there ever anything else other than the style?

In music or painting — two modes towards which MJH’s constantly reaches — we would never think to set limits on what tone or color or brush-stroke might or might not be able to do, demanding only mimetic art that clearly connects with some known perspective or quantity or convention. Some paintings are realist in their depiction of figure and space. Other paintings are all color. There is room for all of those kinds. Music is a much freer medium, with some musical compositions centered upon a mood. Similarly, some literature is representational, sticking close to what we conventionally accept as “the real world.” Other literature — especially poetry and fantasy — is far more aloof, openly doubting our definitions of reality.

I have always fancied that MJH crafts his prose works in a late decadent tradition. His Viriconium works are abundantly Paterian, Beardsleyan, Huysman-esque, and, quite clearly, Durrellian. That won’t be to everyone’s tastes, nor need it be the total range of our taste. But the different needs and desires spring from us, with the book as a mirror to show up our capabilities and our (very human) limits.

Good work here — I will definitely check back!

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Dear Durrell,
your point about the decadent tradition clarified things for me quite a bit. i am currently struggling with viriconium, and your point will make it easier for me to continue with the struggle of reading it.
thanks!
doug hogan

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Dear Redhead,
i am currently struggling with viriconium, and have experienced some of the same frustrations that you have expressed.
i tend to write differently to men and to women — would you mind letting me know which gender you are?

sincerely, doug hogan (male)

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“i tend to write differently to men and to women — would you mind letting me know which gender you are?”

please continue interacting with me as if you have no idea what my gender is.

Yes, Viriconium was a struggle for me the 2nd time through, but the experience has made me even more curious to attempt Harrison’s Nova Swing and Light again as well.

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Dear Durrell,

your point about the late decadent tradition was extremely helpful. i am currently struggling with viriconium, and your insight has helped me understand what harrison is doing.
thanks!!
doug hogan

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I just recently found a used copy of The Pastel City myself on the recommendation of some correspondents; based on my appreciation of Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance.

I have to say I’m having trouble getting into it and I appreciate your comment about feeling “saddened and manipulated”, that very much echoes my sensations; which I can’t say I ever had with Smith or Vance.

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I just Finished the cycle of stories. My collection seemed to have a few that you didn’t cite and probably altered my experience of them. I love the dream like nature of the texts, but had a hard time following the language sometimes. I actually loved how it was soaringly pretentious-feeling..the promptly earthy and sentimental. The themes of time, fantasy and plots the the world contains, all failing, playing themselves out, really pulled me in and held me. The repeated symbols and actions and the plot doing the same: the princess trying to make an assassin become tegues-Cromis, him fighting it, she resigned to it failing him taking up the mantel in his own broken way..lots of levels. I had images etched in my mind, like those from Gormenghast. They are weird, dreamlike and will never leave.
I’ll have to re read it in a few years and see if it’s crap.

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I found Viriconium both wonderful and frustrating for very much the same reasons. I loved The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings — although they were at times difficult to read, I felt that there was a strong narrative thread which made them work as stories. The other novel (novella?) and the short stories I found hit-and-miss, although they were all beautifully written.

The earlier works reminded me a lot of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun cycle; the later ones of Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen. Both also wonderful and frustrating.

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