Monday, 27 February 2012

Thoughts on Viriconium by M. John Harrison

Viriconium is a collection of work based around the titular city and is often cited by China Miéville as a work of particular importance. By chance fate conspired to throw me a free copy, and so I’ve worked my way steadily through the Masterworks edition, which collects together Viriconium Knights, The Pastel City, Lords of Misrule, Strange Great Sins, A Storm of Wings, The Danser from the Dance, The Luck in the Head, The Lamia and Lord Cromis, In Viriconium and A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium. The first piece was written back in 1971 and subsequent novels and short stories were spawned over the next fifteen or so years.

There’s a certain pugnacious quality to the various works that defy categorization. They throw out their chin and square up to the reader, willfully weird and standing against any preconceptions we fragile readers of SFF might be clinging to. Gone is the idea one simply  illustrates Mordor or Rivendell. Viriconium will not be pinned down by such a prosaic thing  as a map. There’s a determined and well-executed ideal that systematizing the unreal is a wholly pointless endeavor, and so Harrison makes the Pastel City unmappable.

Viriconium is no static thing, but often fought over and made anew. Much of it stands derelict and whole portions pre-date memory. The surrounding landscape is littered with technology of bygone eras. The city is a mystery to the very citizens who depend on it, for Viriconium is the last of the great cities. True, this would seem to be a quasi-renaissance era secondary world at first glance, but the rusting detritus of past civilizations in the deserts and ferocious weapons quickly reveal a world that is in its twilight years, and long past its best.

It’s not just this post-modern approach to the Fantastic that marks Viriconium out as one to watch, but the prose itself, which is as rich and complex as any ‘proper’ literary movement.  This powerful writing coupled with an eye for the surreal and ridiculous makes for curious and exciting reading. Take for example Tomb the Iron dwarf, who spends much of the stories towering over his friends (despite his short stature) with the aid of a mechanical skeleton he pilots to war, cleaving all asunder with his axe.

Harrison's treatment of his characters echoes his attitude toward the city. There are allusions to reincarnation, many change and are altered from story to story, succumbing to madness, war or simply old age.

These stories are challenging oddities that really stretch the limits of storytelling and I fully expect to return to them in a few years and re-discover another facet of the Pastel City I missed on my first reading.

For more on Viriconium why not follow the link?

Monday, 6 February 2012

Thoughts on the SFX Weekender 2012

Picture courtesy of Mark Charan Newton
Ah, look at the wee Biker Scout as he has a rest from posing for pictures. Just out of shot is a Stormtrooper DJing in the pub. Excellent. Only at a Science Fiction convention can this cute-meets-surreal-meets-nostalgia mash-up occur.

I’m not really into the Cosplay thing, but I appreciate some people are and respect the fact they go to such great lengths to make amazing costumes. The Star Wars fans are particularly vigorous. And of course there’s the fact that people feel relaxed enough that they can dress up as The Doctor or Vader or Super Girl. I’m probably a little jaded about the whole thing, but imagine if your parents took you to a convention and you got to meet a Stormtrooper for the first time. Awesome, right? Like Father Christmas in the department store. But without the uncomfortable pause as you realise that you’re sitting on a stranger’s lap –  and then asking for stuff you know you’ll never get.

Actually I’m not jaded at all, I love Stormtroopers.

Simon Spanton said it best during the ‘How To Get Published’ panel – Sci Fi fans enjoy a greater sense of community than any other genre. Trekkies, Whovians, 501st Legion, Steampunks, Manga fans, the list goes on. What brings folks together is a passion for things they love, namely genre, be it in books or on the silver screen, television or comics.

SFX are ably providing an annual event where people can let their hair (or tentacles) down and enjoy the best of Sci Fi and Fantasy. Sure, there were teething problems with the new venue and the larger crowds, but next year will be a smoother affair, just as the second year at Camber Sands was smoother than the first.

Personal highlights were:

Paul Cornell hosting an SFF special of Just a Minute with Sarah Pinborough, China Miéville, Joe Abercrombie and Toby Whitehouse. Plans are already afoot to bring this feature back next year. Very funny and lots of smiles all round.

The Ready, Steady, Flash! panel had some really great moments. I’ll never think about Unicorns in quite the same way thanks to Stacia Kane. Tony Lee was also hilarious.

I have to mention The Kitschies Awards. It was nice to see all the hard work by Anne, Jared, Lauren and Rebecca rewarded by a nice big venue and an accommodating schedule slot by SFX. Well done on a great award and neat ceremony.

And of course, Mr Craig Charles. There was an awful moment when we all suspected the trek to North Wales had defeated our spinner of tunes, but then he arrived (at midnight) and answered all our prayers.

All in all the 2012 Weekender was a fantastic event with lots to do and see for all the attendees. I’ve no doubt that 2013 will be a smoother, slicker and even more entertaining affair. Kudos to the Dave Bradley and the SFX Team.