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?


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