For the inaugural post of The Fantast, I wanted to look at a book which a number of people have recommended to me, by an author who many other speculative fiction writers believe to be critically underrepresented and unrecognized: the Viriconium series by M. John Harrison.
Note: While I have tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, some are certain to seep out; that’s the nature of the beast when dealing with a series. However, I think you’ll find, if you read the volume, that there is far less continuity between each of the novels than is typical in fantasy and science fiction sequences. If nothing else, Harrison’s evolving narrative style, coupled with the drastically differing approaches towards each novel, are a portrait of an author honing not just his mastery of the craft, but also of his particular area of interest within genre.
To highlight this, I chose the 2005 Bantam version, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and including the three novels in the trilogy followed by seven short stories. The first of the novels is The Pastel City, originally published in 1971.
The novel is set in an indeterminate future age, clearly postapocalyptic, where mankind, or what remains of it, has fallen into a technological dark age. The Evening Cultures, as they are called, understand very little of the Afternoon Cultures that came before them, and spend most of their time salvaging old machines, attempting to get them working, and failing that, pounding the metal into basic weapons and implements.
The novel initially feels like a sword and sorcery story; very gritty, with mostly unheroic and unappealing characters. The main protagonist is (in one of the most egregious cases of arbitrarily uncapitalization) named Lord tegeus-Cromis, a poet swordsman. The other “heroes” are the bandit Birkin Griff, a lecherous, nasty old drunkard named Theomeris Glyn, and, arguably the most interesting character in the novel, Tomb the (Giant) Dwarf. I say that Tomb is the most interesting character because he most resists the tropes of fantasy, which both Cromis (the morose and poetic swordsman) and Grif (the raging berserker) fall into. Tomb is a dwarf, yet unlike most post-Tolkien high fantasy, there is no mention of dwarves as a race. Rather, Tomb is a little person, a dwarf who proves to be the most intellectually and physically vigorous of the entire group: intellectually because he alone amongst almost all of the novel’s characters understands technology, and physically because he utilizes that knowledge to encase his small body in a huge metal skeleton, making him taller, stronger, and faster than any of the other characters. In later stories dwarfism is something man-made, often by parents or individuals themselves, caused by placing a child into a dark box which stunts their growth and twists their limbs, while someone often leaving their mobility unimpeded; indeed, some of the later dwarf characters (who often read as versions of Tomb) are incredibly acrobatic and agile.
The novel is bleak and depressing, even in its more hopeful passages. The story itself grows better and better as it progresses, revealing just enough about the history of the world without spending the majority of its time in information dumps discussing the deep cultural politics, history, or technological workings of the world.
The story is – again, at first – familiar fare. A kingdom divided, heroes on a quest to save and restore as much as possible against great odds. Foreshadowing and pseudo-prophecy hint at some of what comes later on in the novel, but the ending isn’t immediately apparent from the outset. In fact, it is the ending which makes the story and separates it from what would otherwise be a vividly imagined but narratively derivative story, and leads well into the second novel in the Viriconium cycle, A Storm of Wings.
The change in prose style and skill is immediately apparent at the outset of this second novel. Clearly, Harrison moved from what he recognized as too simplistic of a story, and made his own bizarre, decayed world far more complicated than The Pastel City would suggest, and made all the more complex and confusing as a result. This change hints at those to come in the rest of stories in the collection, as each subsequent book (and especially each subsequent short story) becomes even more and more complex, convoluted, and in some cases, nearly incomprehensible. Here, the main thrust of the narrative is focused on the incursion of the Locust, giant mantis-like insects which have appeared, and whose presence has created a misanthropic cult of doomsayers. Chronologically, this novel follows from The Pastel City explicitly. The rest of the collection does not.
Harrison repeats motifs and imagery a great deal in this volume. The mad dwarf, the red coxcomb, the corpulent diviner, the insect skull with eyes like pomegranates (a personal favourite). Even phrases reappear – yet where it would seem repetitive in other novels, in Harrison’s work such repetitions serve to highlight the very uncertain nature of the world depicted. Is tegeus-Cromis in The Pastel City the same tegeus-Cromis in “The Lamia and Lord Cromis”? Both are tall, thin, grey haired swordsmen with a penchant for solitude and poetics, and both encounter the phrase “you should have killed him [it] when you had the chance” after a companion’s unfortunate demise. Yet the Cromis from the latter story is a prince fated to slay a beast, while the Cromis from the former is one of the Methven.
Likewise, Tomb the dwarf greatly resembles the Grand Cairo from In Viriconium, and the mad dwarf from “The Lamia and Lord Cromis,” but is not – or at least is not exactly – the same person.
The volume is difficult to place – science fiction and fantasy, yes, certainly. But of such a bizarre, poetic, and surreal types as to completely alienate the reader. There is no comfort to be gained in reading these stories. There are no happy endings, no moments of great success, no moments that suggest really that the success of any one character has any lasting effect on anyone; on the city, or on the world as a whole. Even the arrival of the Locust is forgotten, as are the Reborn men. By the time that In Viriconium comes about, the only suggestive references to these two races are the two mad Barely Brothers, and the single skull of one of the insects. The first are both drunk, god-beings who revel in the city’s filth, chasing rats and small dogs. The second is used as a mask in a bizarrely comic, grotesquely bungled rescue plan that seems more at home in a surrealist work of black comedy.
I think that the main folly would be to try to read the volume as a chronological series of stories; it just doesn’t work that way. Rather, (and I’m sure there are those who disagree with me, and certainly will have their reasons) the only way to really read the volume is as a collection of dream-like versions of the same story, with the same cast of characters, told with endless variation, from endless points of view. In most of the stories each of the characters is there, but altered somehow, as is the world that they live in. It’s almost as if Harrison went up to a series of strangers, gave them a number of stock characters and a short description of the city, and told them to create a story from those materials, before collecting them back, and assembling them into a collection of stories that accordingly resists any attempt at chronological – even sane – interpretation, while constantly hinting towards an underlying connection that is maddeningly just out of reach. This is especially true for each of the short stories. It is an infuriating way of writing, but one which I can’t help but admire.
Did I enjoy each of the novels? Yes. Were the short stories interesting, in their own respective ways? Yes. Was the collection fun to read? Individually, yes, but as a whole, No. It is infuriating, as it foils any and all attempts at interpretation. It inhibits the now-natural tendency in fantasy to simply chronologically build off of what has come before in a previous novel. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is an incredibly difficult thing to adapt to. This is likely my failing more than Harrison’s). Where most modern fantasy is essentially a sequences of series which build upon themselves over and over with historical, cultural, political details until the original story is almost obscured, Harrison’s Viriconium sequence does the exact opposite: the reader is supplied with just the bare minimum of the world’s details, and these often only consist of names which raise even more questions. But Harrison does not answer your questions. He doesn’t spend time fleshing out the world, because Viriconium, for all of its vividness and decay, isn’t really the focus; the characters are. And even more than just the characters, it is the art that goes into writing the characters that occupies Harrison’s time. Rather than spend him time fleshing out the history and backstories of each individual character, he shoves you into each story and slams the door behind you, half-blind in the incomprehensible twilight of Viriconium’s dying fumes, and leaves you alone, shivering and confused on the city’s filthy streets.
Read the book. Read all of the books. Then read the short stories. I cannot say that you will enjoy them all. I cannot say that they are light, easy reads. They will take time to get through, and they will frustrate you. At times, it will feel like a chore. Ultimately, you may feel let down, infuriated, and depressed at the volume. It will likely do this to you. For this reason, I urge you: read it. The works are not accessible, they are not mainstream fantasy by any means. I often questioned why I was spending so much time reading the stories (though never the novels themselves). However, I will say that in terms of lyricism and prose, imagery and characterization, mood and madness, Harrison has created an incredibly unique, often surreal and nightmarish work of art. Which also happens to be fantasy. Or science fiction, if you prefer. It doesn’t matter. Viriconium will haunt you.