Saturday, 9 August 2014

M. John Harrison - 'Viriconium' (1971-1985)

"Time is erosion: an icy wind blew constant abrasive streams of dust over the bare rock of the ridge: it had been blowing for a thousand years."

"'Viriconium', remarks Ansel Verdigris in his last ironic essay Allies, 'is a world trying to remember itself. The dumb stones perform an unending act of recall.'"

"Where the city is at its emptiest we find ourselves full."

"Viriconium is all the cities that have ever been."

Recently I was walking down Charing Cross Road with my father. I had studied in London for a year in 2011, but my father had grown up there in the 60s and 70s. As we walked down the road from bookshop to bookshop, he told me about the places he used to visit as a child and young man, and how much the city had changed. I realised in that moment how different my London and my father's London was. Cities, especially those with a rich history, are hyper-real, a conglomeration of history, legend, and different people's experiences and interpretations of them, all superimposed over the physical buildings and streets. M. John Harrison understands this, and this is what he explores vividly and evocatively in his Viriconium stories. Viriconium, as Audsley King  notes in 'In Viriconium', "is all the cities that have ever been", glorious, crumbling and decadent, situated in the vast decaying wastelands in the last days of the Earth. M. John Harrison wrote three novels about Viriconium, 'The Pastel City' (1971), 'A Storm Of Wings' (1980) and 'In Viriconium' (1982), plus a series of short stories collected in 'Viriconium Nights' (1985). Each of these is lyrical and powerful, though quite different. Taken together they make up a singular, haunting piece of work. Viriconium is so vividly realised it is almost a character itself. Like a real city, it is mutable, living and breathing. In defiance of Fantasy tradition, Harrison intentionally disrupts the continuity between stories. The very name of the city changes, characters and events in one story are reimagined as myths or legends in another. Viriconium is a palimpsest, constantly rewritten by the different perspectives, hopes, dreams and fears of its citizens. The differing interpretations and versions of the city serve to make it more lifelike, and make it all the harder to leave behind. I think it has become my new favourite book.
   I was originally intending to talk about each of the installments of the series individually, but seeing as so much of the power and effect is generated by the cross-talk of characters and themes between stories, I don't think that's an appropriate approach to talking about Viriconium. The edition I read is the 2000 Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks version - this is important as the sequence and even contents of the various Viriconium omnibuses has changed between versions. The Fantasy Masterworks edition is thoughtfully sequenced, with the three novels presented in sequence with the 'Viriconium Nights' stories interspersed throughout. It opens with 'Viriconium Knights', which previews the events of 'The Pastel City' as a legend and the hope of a better Viriconium for the people who live there. With its outlandish, almost grotesque characters with bizarre names and its vivid crumbling edifices, the Viriconium stories from the start bring to mind Mervin Peake's Gormenghast books, and its last days of Earth setting owes much to Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. It anticipates Gene Wolfe's 'The Book Of The New Sun' and Simon Ings' 'City Of The Iron Fish' both in its setting and the way it subverts traditional Fantasy tropes. And in its setting of a shifting, magical city beset by calamity it superficially resembles Samuel R. Delany's 'Dhalgren', another great favourite of mine. But really these comparisons do little more than hint at Viriconium's unique flavour; it simply isn't much like anything else, which is always of great value.
   'The Pastel City' and 'A Storm Of Wings' are both more plot-driven than the other Viriconium stories, and both feature the city under threat of invasion. In 'The Pastel City' the threat is an ancient weapon, merciless golems that steal people's brains, and in 'A Storm Of Wings' it is giant alien psychic wasps. In these stories it is most easy to see the influence of the more imaginative sword and sorcery stories that influenced it. However from the out they go against Fantasy convention. 'The Pastel City' is violent enough to stand next to anything Joe Abercrombie wrote. Its protagonist, tegeus-Cromis, likes to think of himself as a poet rather than a warrior, yet it is clear that the reason he is chosen for these tasks is because he is a supremely efficient killer. Over the course of the book he becomes more and more disillusioned with his role as a tool for violence, and in fact winds up missing out on the big climax. tegeus-Cromis' character arc finishes before the siege of the city and the confrontation with the rival Queen, so we don't get to see it, an incredibly bold narrative move that it's still difficult to imagine coming across in a Fantasy novel to this day. The world-weariness of the protagonist reflects the bruised and battered Earth, now a toxic wasteland largely uninhabitable thanks to the destructiveness and greed of humanity.

 The relationship of 'A Storm Of Wings' to 'The Pastel City' is interesting. It is more of a direct sequel than the other Viriconium stories, yet in some ways it is a retelling, recapitulating the themes and events of the original. Tomb the dwarf and Cellur the Lord of the Birds return from the previous book, but in an unusual move tegeus-Cromis has died in the intervening years, so he is replaced by Galen Hornwrack. Hornwrack is an assassin, dispossessed by the War of Two Queens from the previous book, and his selfishness and pissiness contrast directly with tegeus-Cromis' honour and dignity, yet he is required by Queen Methvet Nian and by the narrative to fulfill the role of tegeus-Cromis in the story. This he does but ultimately on his own terms. The alien invasion is used to explore the central theme of all the Viriconium stories, that the places we inhabit are a combination of the different perspectives of the people who live there. The perspective of the alien insects and of the humans is so radically different their two realities prove to be incompatible, with disastrous results for both. Outside of the city of Viriconium, travelling in the wasteland, stripped of the consensus reality provided by the perspective of their fellow humans, the characters start to forget who they are and to become archetypes. In this way the book explores the use of archetypes in Fantasy, something the genre strongly relies on but outside of, say, Michael Moorcock, generally doesn't comment on. The fate of airman Benedict Paucemanly anticipates that of several characters in Harrison's 'Empty Space'.

  In between 'The Pastel City' and 'A Storm Of Wings' the Fantasy Masterworks edition gives us the 'Viriconium Nights' short stories 'Lords Of Misrule' and 'Strange Great Sins'. The former cynically recontextualises tegeus-Cromis' role as a hero and Viriconium's role as an empire. The latter is the first appearance of the horse's skull, an image that would become a recurring motif throughout the Viriconium stories and again crop up in the shape of the Shrander in 'Light'. These recurring images provide a  thread that connects Viriconium to M. John Harrison's SF work. As in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the Viriconium stories are built around strong and incisive character work, as well as our relationship with our past. If the characters in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy are haunted by their past, the whole setting of Viriconium is haunted by the mistakes humanity made before it.
   Most of the rest of the 'Viriconium Nights' stories are placed between 'A Storm Of Wings' and 'In Viriconium'. 'The Dancer From The Dance' expands the story of the ballerina from 'Strange Great Sins' and reimagines 'A Storm Of Wings' as a local legend, or perhaps a suppressed psychic memory. Insects become another recurring Viriconium motif. 'The Luck In The Head', in which a woman wearing an insect mask convinces the protagonist to launch an assassination attempt on Mammy Vooley using what may be tegeus-Cromis' laser sword, works as a metaphor for the events of 'A Storm Of Wings' or converts the events of that story into a metaphor for it. Mammy Vooley, a fragile old woman whose delicate physical appearance is in direct opposition to her despotic power, appears as the Queen in the 'Viriconium Nights' stories, a fictionalisation of Margaret Thatcher and a direct opposite to the beautiful Methvet Nian, the Queen in 'The Pastel City' and 'A Storm Of Wings'. 'The Lamia & Lord Cromis' again reimagines tegeus-Cromis as distinctly less than heroic whilst providing him with a mythic foe. The overall effect of these shifting and contradictory interpretations of events and characters subverts SF and Fantasy's traditional overwhelming hunger for background details, world building and context whilst demonstrating how unnecessary they truly are. Viriconium gains vividness and power from all these shifting perspectives rather than losing them.

   'In Viriconium' is the last of the Viriconium novels, and more abstract than its predecessors. Based around the images of an imaginary tarot, the novel looks at the lives of the painters, artists and down-and-outs of the city as Viriconium is struck by an existential plague, brought about by the incarnation of its gods. In a brutal subversion of the Christ myth, the Barley brothers incarnate experience humanity by being humans at their absolute worst, a pair of drunken hooligans vomiting on the street and beating helpless victims. As the city collapses around him, the painter Ashlyme tries to save Audsley King from dying of the plague. He comes up against the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the plague police, and has to deal with The Grand Cairo, the Barley brothers' dwarf. The Grand Cairo, who, like the dwarf in 'The Dancer From The Dance' was forced to become a dwarf by his parents keeping him in a restrictive box in order that he might have a lucrative circus career, mirrors the repression and resentment of Audsley King, who has become famous for the sublimated sexuality and violence of her paintings. The events of 'A Storm Of Wings' turn up again, this time as one of The Grand Cairo's ludicrous paranoid fantasies, and the aristocratic thugs of 'Viriconium Knights' reappear as struggling artists. The themes and images from the previous stories appear, perhaps at their most powerful here where the focus is more on the characters and setting rather than the plot, allowing the work as a whole more room to breathe. Like tegeus-Cromis back in 'The Pastel City', Ashlyme very much sees himself as an artist, but his major contribution to the plot is one of violence, a necessary act that frees Viriconium of its invaders whilst his attempt at rescue ends in farce, perhaps achieved with Galen Hornwrack's blade from 'A Storm Of Wings'.
   The collection ends with 'A Young Man's Journey To Viriconium'. Harrison has said that the series can be read in any order as long as the reader finishes with this one, and I can't imagine a more effective ending for the Viriconium stories. It is set in our world, and the protagonist discovers that two people from our world have travelled to Viriconium by entering a mirror in the bathroom of the Merrie England Cafe on New Street in Huddersfield. Though of course this gateway won't work for him. This final story explores why we need Fantasy, why we need Viriconium, whilst warning against exactly that. Viriconium, with all its manifest squalour, decadence and horrors, with its dream-like, shifting realities, the crumbling ancient beauty of the High City and the ramshackle slums of the Low City, is almost more vivid than the real world. Yet for its citizens caught within it and those in our reality haunted by glimpses of it, we are both forced to confront the reality that faces us. It is an appropriately haunting note to end on, and makes it all the harder for us to leave.

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