Viriconium

I read M. John Harrison’s Light a while ago. It was a bit overwhelming in various ways, but, by and large, I enjoyed it. More recently, I picked up a copy of the Fantasy Masterworks edition of Viriconium. This volume contains three short novels (The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, and In Viriconium), and the contents of a collection of short stories (Viriconium Knights).

These stories are told in a far-flung future Dying Earth. Following the vibrant excesses of the Morning cultures and the mature puissance of the Afternoon cultures, humanity has entered its twilight years. It is now an Evening culture, and has largely regressed to a generic fantasy state of low-technology and mediaevally feudalism. At the centre of this world, lies Viriconium — every city and no city. It is a patchwork of loci where a short walk can take you from the Proton Circuit, to Margarethestrasse, to the Bistro Californium.

The Pastel City, reminiscent of both Elric and Hawkmoon, is the clearest link between Harrison and Moorcock and New Worlds magazine. A band of heroes, led by the recluctant swordsman, tegeus-Cromis, must traverse landscapes, getting into colourful scraps along the way, in order to defeat some bad guys. In this case, the bad guys are remnants from one of the Afternoon Cultures, the Geteit Chemosit, nigh unstoppable killing automata awakened by the barbarous Northern Queen, Canna Moidart, to help her conquer Viriconium.

Superficially similar in plot, A Storm of Wings likewise involves a group of people (less unambiguously heroic) going on a quest to counter some world-ending peril. In this case, the protagonist is Galen Hornwrack, a hero come to nought — armour gone rusty, snotty-nosed, half-mad, and utterly defeated. The peril too is of a different nature — a more metaphysical threat than that posed by an army of killer cyborgs. An insectoid race has breached its way into our universe, supplanting our own laws of nature with those from their own dimension. Solidity and sense are supplanted by madness and a “landscape that heaves and humps itself into shapes nascent and organic”. This transgression has echoes even outside of its immediate (gradually expanding) area of influence. In Viriconium, the city suffers under the Sign of the Locust and men go hollow-eyed, nihilistic, and murderous. “A dreadful sense of immanence beset the city. ‘Life is a blasphemy,’ announced the Sign. ‘Procreation is a blasphemy, for it replicates and fosters the human view of the universe’.” (I found this reminiscent of the claim by Borges’ Heresiarchs of Uqbar that mirrors and copulation are abominable because they both increase the number of men.)

In Viriconium dispenses with any sword and sorcery trappings. It is set in the artistic cliques of Viriconium’s Upper City. There the poets and playwrights ply their bohemian trade while the plague-wracked Lower City sickens and dies. Ashlyme the portrait painter makes illicit forays into the Lower City to meet up with the afflicted Audsley King. He has a plan to spirit her from there to the relative safety of the Upper City. His efforts limp along in fits and starts, aided and undone by various colourful denizens. Most memorable for me were the Barley Brothers — a pair of idiots who fart and gurn and pratfall their way to celebrity.

The short stories of Viriconium Knights are less stories than expressionistic glimpses of the city. I won’t discuss them here, other than to say that they are opaque and diverse. They are compelling reads, but their true value is in their contribution to the gestalt. The volume as a whole is fractured. Each story is distinct in plot, character, place, theme, and language and even the name of the city changes from time to time. The kaleidoscopic sum of these perspectives gives us the best indication of Viriconium’s nature — ever-changing and eternal.

Recurrent through all of these stories is, of course, the obligatory mari lwyd — that horse skull motif that pervades Harrison’s fiction. In fact, I had forgotten I had read Light until the appearance of a mari lwyd (“a face, brown and bony-looking like the stripped and varnished skull of a horse into which had been inserted two half pomengranates for eyes”) triggered some dusty neuronal connections.

Some reviewers read the relatively approachable The Pastel City and enjoy it but then feel bamboozled, bored, and even betrayed by the dense unforgiving prose and surrealist plotting of Harrison’s later Viriconium writings. It’s true that this is no pot-boiler. Reading this is a pleasure, but one that doesn’t come easily. Personally, I love the prose. I found myself compelled to read it aloud to myself so that I could hear the cadence and rolling rhythms with my own ears. For example:

“In the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminium and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses. The twisted, smooth barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light. At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi. Charcoal grey frogs with viridescent eyes croaked as the column floundered between the pools. Beneath the greasy surface of the water unidentifiable reptiles moved slowly and sinuously. Dragonflies whoe webby wings spanned a foot or more hummed and hovered between the sedges: their long, wicked bodies glittered bold green and ultramarine; they took their prey on the wing, pouncing with an audible snap of jaws on whining ephemeral mosquitoes and fluttering moths of april blue and chevrolet cerise.”

He’s a man that likes colour. Later we see “a sunset of mazarine and cochineal”.

His prose is the prose of the New Weird. To take one sentence: “The violation, if there was one, was hieratic, notional.” Stripped of context, this sentence could as easily have come from the pen of Chine Miéville as Harrison’s. Miéville also shares Harrison’s love for investigating the darker and dustier gennels of the dictionary. I’ve already mentioned several gems, but there were many more, including: catafalque, stridulation, muculent, hetaerae, and, my favorite, theopnustia. (10 points if you know the meaning of all of these…)

Can I recommend it? Possibly. It’s about as far from Robert Jordan as it’s possible to get, but if the works of both Miéville and Moorcock hold central positions on your bookshelves (as they do on mine) I think this is a must read.

Viriconium!

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