Thursday, 4 February 2010

Book review: Viriconium


By M. John Harrison

(Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 13 July 2000)

My only real goal blog-wise this year was to read more of the older so-called 'classics' of the genre, and I thought that M. John Harrison's Viriconium would be a decent place to start. A collection of all of Harrison's fiction featuring the city of the same name, this volume (number 7 in Gollancz's 'Fantasy Masterworks' series) is comprised of the 'novels' The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium, along with the short stories Viriconium Knights, Lords of Misrule, Strange Great Sins, The Dancer from the Dance, The Luck in the Head, The Lamia and Lord Cromis and A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium.

M. John Harrison is, to a younger generation of online-savvy readers at least, perhaps best known for his infamous attack on worldbuilding: "It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there." Yet it is important that this argument does not become Harrison's legacy, and that he is instead remembered for Viriconium, which is one of the most striking, memorable works ever published in the fantasy genre.

It's such a sprawling, glorious mess that I hardly know where to start.

It's been suggested that with his Viriconium material Harrison was 'attacking' epic fantasy, and was attempting to write something that went totally against the grain - a middle finger salute to the Tolkien-esque influences that had comandeered the genre. I'm not so sure this was the case, but if it was I don't feel Harrison has fully succeeded. The Pastel City, for example, is a rather linear swords and sorcery romp that rarely hints at real originality. That said, In Viriconium is unlike anything I've ever read before in the genre, and perhaps is a greater indicator of what Harrison was trying to achieve. It's probably fair to say that Harrison was trying to write material that challenged readers and punished them for having certain expectations of what an epic fantasy story should be, and in this he is often successful.

For all of Harrison's attacks on worldbuilding, his own world - a version of Earth in the distant post-apocalyptic future - is utterly fascinating. The factories and facilities of the star-travelling 'Afternoon Cultures' have all wasted away, contaminating much of the land by creating deserts of rust and swamps of toxic chemicals.Yet the brilliance (and capability to self-destruct) of these earlier cultures lives on in the remnants of technology that survive - such as energy weapons and airboats. The inclusion of such technology both reinforces the sense of history and makes the world that bit more interesting. It also allows for some spectacular variations on traditional fantasy plot devices (one of the most memorable being a siege involving laser cannons and metal birds, which is breathtaking in its imagery).

The centre of Harrisons's world, of course, is the city of Viriconium itself. A living relic from the time of the Afternoon Cultures, Viriconium is a city that’s existed for so long that it has lost its sense of identity and knowledge of its own origins. A permanent sense of melancholy hangs over the city like a veil, as if the place is permanently mourning its own forgotten history. This sense of sadness – of things coming to an end – is embodied by the city’s citizens as well, many of whom go about their lives in a daze, as if uncertain of their own purpose. A city is defined not just by its architecture, but by its inhabitants as well – something that Harrison clearly recognises, since much of his Viriconium works – particularly the final novel In Viriconium – are centred around not the ruling classes and the movers and shakers, but the bohemian faction: poets, artists and playwrights. Not only is this a refreshing perspective, but it lends a forlorn credibility to Viriconium – there’s something quite moving about watching these normal people struggling to direct their hopeless lives.

This sense of melancholy is complemented by Harrison's wonderfully evocative, often wistful prose, as well as his knack for creating brooding characters. Galen Hornwrack is a good example - a sullen assassin of the lower-city, ill at ease with both his past and future, yet unable to find the spark in his spirit to change his situation. My personal favourite though is Lord tegeus-Cromis, a morose figure who 'imagined himself a better poet than swordsman', drawn from his lonely tower to fight one last battle for Viriconium - which in its current state barely reflects the city he once knew.

One of the major criticisms of Harrison's Viriconium fiction is that it's too bleak, too depressing - that the end of the world is nigh and no one seems to care, too absorbed as they are in their pitiful lives. To some extent this is true - perhaps Harrison wanted to move away from the bright colours of much epic fantasy and create something more reflective, more visceral, more real. Yet at the same time I'd argue that there's hidden optimism in his work - in the story In Viriconium for instance, the artists are still trying to paint and create despite the despondency around them. Surely that's inspiring more than depressing?

While there's an awful lot to admire in Viriconium, there's plenty of aspects I wasn't so keen on. A streak of absurdity pervades much of the work, which at times feels suffocating (there's only so much weird I can take in one go). Viriconium is also one of those books that, if you anything like me, you sometimes worry is a little too clever for you - that you're not quite 'getting' certain aspects. Perhaps because of this, or possibly due to other unknown factors, certain stories did little for me. The Dancer from the Dance, for example, made barely any impression and afterwards I wondered what the point of it had been, since it didn't seem to go anywhere. Perhaps it's telling that my favourite story - The Pastel City - is the one that has the closest links to more traditional epic fantasy.

Verdict: With Viriconium, perhaps Harrison intended for certain elements to remain abstract, for a layer of obscurity to coat everything. It's certainly not an easy book to read, and with the constant chronological, even dimensional shifts, it's an even harder one to try and make sense of. Yet despite this it is at times utterly brilliant, mixing evocative images with flowing, atmospheric prose. And sure, it's hard to escape the overwhelming feeling of melancholy...but, as I did, you might find that you don't want to. 


N. R. Alexander said...

An absolutely brilliant review, James. I've had Virconium on my bookshelves for years, now, but I've never felt the need to read it pressing on me quite as immediately as it does now.

Have you read Light?

Adam Whitehead said...

I read the first instalment and found it an adequate, MOR, Moorcock-esque 1970s fantasy. The dwarf-in-power-armour sequence was mildly entertaining. I got through the several shorter stories in the collection following it but a little while into the second, extremely miserable and dreary proper novel I realised I really didn't give a toss about anything that was going on in the book, so abandoned it there (highly unusual for me).

I'll give Harrison another go with LIGHT, but up until where I got in the book, VIRICONIUM is easily one of the weakest works of fantasy I've read in the past couple of years.

James said...

Niall - Nope, but fully intend to check out some more M. John Harrison stuff in the future.

Adam - I agree with you that The Pastel City doesn't really deviate much from 1970s sword and sorcery, save for perhaps the setting. Despite the rushed ending (which I forgot to mention in my review) I did really like this story, and yeah - Tomb the Dwarf kicked some serious arse in his power suit.

I do see where you're coming from though - I did struggle at times with much of the later works, though managed to keep going - and I'm glad I did.