There's no fixed and dependable Viriconium. City and citizen
have a possible presence, that's all. It's a quantum thing.
The Viriconium characters may occupy similar niches in subsequent
stories, but they aren't the same people. There is a kind of
Viriconian space, in which you may expect certain types of
Viriconian things to happen: but that's all. The whole idea
was to un-anchor the reader from the things a fantasy reader
can normally rely on . . . I wasn't prepared to take the standard
position in which the author constructs the fantasy for the
reader, thus becoming the infallible parental figure behind
— M. John Harrison
This series is composed of 4 published works. Chronologically,
they are The Pastel City,
A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium (US version called The
Floating Gods), and a collection of short stories, Viriconium
Nights. The controversial concluding story, A Young
Man's Journey To Viriconium, is included in the British
edition but not the US first paperback edition. Gollancz's Fantasy
Masterworks Series has packed them all together in one volume
called Viriconium, interspersing the short stories
between the novels. It was published in 2000, and, in the US
from Bantam/Spectra in 2005, with an intro from Neil Gaiman.
In fantasy stories, a signpost usually appears along
the pathway. Here, it should read: "Be advised. The city
of Viriconium may or may not be there when you arrive. Proceed
with caution." Before
tromping further into this 562-page bewilderment, I'd suggest
reading the short story, The Lamia and Lord Cromis.
It's a pretty straight-forward tale, but indicative of the transparent
ink in the artist/conjurer's pen. Follow with The Luck in
the Head for a feel of the pure textural management of
Harrison 's prose. It may seem as puffy as Aramis' sleeve, but
its' stoccata is true, albeit quite twisted.
Indeed, there is a three-way swordfight going on here
between narrative, theory, and technique. As the novels progress,
less emphasis is placed on storytelling and more on how it
feels to be part of a monumental change—a true reality shifting,
if you will—that you have absolutely no comprehension, understanding,
or preparation for. It is like being half-awake while turning
into Gregor from Kafka's Metamorphosis, except your
familiar world is slowly rebuilding into the planet Klendathu
out of Heinlein's Starship Troopers. And there's no
one around to tell you why.
Another triangulation is at work here, too. The three
novels are set up like Time itself—the 1st represents the
quintessence of the past, the middle one, the present, and
concluding with the future. The short stories are rigging ropes
between the novels and have been thoughtfully dispersed throughout
the present, Gollancz edition.
Myths of vanished civilizations have a couple of things
in common: they transcend time, and have no supportable, presently-accepted
evidence. History, on the other hand, defines a culture of people
by past, factual events. Confidence in our attitudes, mores,
actions, beliefs, in our very course of present and future endeavors,
is predicated upon our acceptance and knowledge of History. But
what if Earth's past was suddenly burned away like the Library
at Alexandria and all we had left were puzzling fragments, incomprehensible
remnants, and strange artifacts? Or, better yet, what if we lived
in Washington DC with no idea who built it or what these machines
were all over the city? Just who is that really big guy with
the beard sitting in that chair?
This is Viriconium of The Pastel City.
It is obvious to everyone that the height of civilization—they
refer to it as the Afternoon or Departed Cultures—was over a
millennium ago. With the exception of a few border cities, the
Earth is a desolation of radioactive pitfalls, chemically-poisoned
deserts, and whole continents suffocating in polluted ruination.
They live in a quasi-medieval milieu, with a dwindling stock
of super-weapons, hovercraft, and robotic constructions. Strewn
about or buried in the Great Brown Wastelands are machines, bodies,
and artifacts that any knowledge of origins or use has been lost.
Subsequently, characters are basically troubled, aimless, puzzled,
purposeless, depressed, confused, egotistic, bitter, and lonely,
as befitting people that know "nothing more of their heritage
than that it should be avoided" (Millennium/Gollancz, ISBN
1857989953, A Storm of Wings, c.1980, p.194).
The first novel is both guide and code book for
things to come. It eases in on a pretty familiar ramp, and settles
its story amidst traditional fantasy furnishings. It also establishes
continuity by backgrounding to the city of Viriconium , although
its name changes throughout the series. As Viriconium progresses,
new characters appear similar to old ones, and returnees seem
slightly off balance or possessed of different personalities,
as if facts are actors and can be changed as easily as switching
TV channels to suit any present sitcom role. A sense of loss—either
historical, personal, or metaphysical—is all-pervasive. Combined
with the woozy impression of constant slippage, Viriconium is
a nihilistic tumbling through the Grim Reaper's waiting room.
In The Pastel City, the past
comes back to haunt the present in the form of the geteit
an army of resurrected mechanical assassins used by the hordes
from the North to conquer Viriconium. The cyclic nature of History
is evidenced when the re-animated turn on their masters and
can only be stopped by another group
Viriconium's café philosophers put it this way:
The world is so old that the substance of reality no longer
knows quite what it ought to be. The original template is hopelessly
blurred. History repeats over and over again . . . not rigidly,
but in a shadowy, tentative fashion, as if it understands nothing
— Viriconium Knights, c.1985, p.15
A Storm of Wings supports this repetition
by presenting the same basic storyline, but with strikingly different
results and purposes, yet staying somewhat within its formulaic
inheritances. There's a damsel in distress, a rogue or brooding
hero, phantasmagorical adversaries, a wizard, and a quest of
fabled proportions. But on this outing, the heroes are hopelessly
flawed and have little chance against the swarm they face. For
this is a tale about the experience of a paradigm from within;
it is a transmigrative assault happening now. There
is little time for reflection or planning or even understanding.
As a result, any grasp of occurances is tainted by prejudice
and myth. Incomprehensible, the present lies gutted by ignorance
| The city is besieged by a cult
called Sign of the Locust that believe "'reality' is quite
false, a counterfeit or artifact . . . [that] by our very forward
passage through time [we] occlude the actual and essential" (A
Storm of Wings,
p.202-3). The Reborn have slipped into a fugue and are unable to
separate their dreams and memories from everyday actions. They "surrender
themselves to the currents of that peculiar shifting interface
between past, present and wholly imaginary" (p.207). Everyone
is haunted by unexplainable premonitions: Tomb the Iron Dwarf gets
a puzzling glance of a great, insectoid creature in the loneliness
of the Great Brown Waste; rogue assassin Galen Hornwrack is constantly
pestered by the ghost of legendary astronaut Benedict Paucemanly;
Cellur the magician hears "chuckled obscenities and cabalistic
circumlocutions" (p.253) emanating from the Moon.
Rumors weave through this warpage of an enemy
invasion, and the Queen once again sends a "gangrel, misfit
Pastel City, p.89) to meet the challenge. St. Elmo Buffo's
sea battles against an invisible monstrosity in the mist, the
repulsive mantis-like thing in the center of the maze, Alstath
Fulthor, the Reborn man, dangerously unpredictable and driven
insane by "an incomprehensible past—among distempered waking
dreams" (A Storm of Wings , p.294), are all adventures
of eerie resonance yet remain mere echoes of the metamorphosis
to come. And, like present time, its power lies in its' experience,
not in the telling of it.
The third novel— The Floating Gods —drops all pre-conceptions
of genre. It is again a tale of inexplicable change, but this time
there is a strange pestilence fogging slowly over Viriconium. It
reads like a collection of fevers loosely plotted around a plague,
but not campfire stories as in the Decameron. The technique
pushes format through certain narrative styles creating different
nuances or facets to the episodes. There is an omniscient point of
view that drops occasionally into 2nd person for just a slight whiff
of personality—as in "if you stood at the window . . ." (The
Floating Gods, p.503) —yet many digressions are written as
entries in Ashylme's journal.
The attempted kidnapping scene of Audsley
King is played as high farce, as is virtually everything to
do with the Barley Brothers, the floating gods of the title.
Yet The Grand Cairo—an enigmatic dwarf—is handled more like
following Carroll down his satirical rabbit hole. Then there
are sections of the city that play out like the controlled,
dignified pathos of Poe's The Masque of Red Death.
Mixing these techniques adds confusion to any departure's grounding,
but it also creates a basis for otherwise unbelievable perceptions
to be accepted in the future.
| Besotted brothers who float out of the city like zeppelins
or a smirking dwarf who disappears into a tarot card notwithstanding,
the characterizations remain robust, and the atmospheric details
are exquisitely crystallized. But the scheme of things still lingers
just outside your peripheral vision. It's like watching a network
news presentation on occupied Baghdad with the sound off: you recognize
it as a city with scurrying humans looking radically different
from each other, but who are those talking heads behind desks that
keep popping up? Gods? And what are those landscapes filled with
objects and verbiage that keep bleeding in every 10 minutes or
so? Dreams? And, if so, whose? Like all mysteries, the focus is
driving toward the future, the solution. The past can contain
clues, but not specific answers, and the present is merely an engine
of floating question marks.
Is it possible that the real pattern of life
is not in the least apparent, but rather lurks beneath the
surface of things, half hidden and only apparent in certain
rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye?
— M. John Harrison
Yes, but, ah, da journey, Boss, da journey (there's a dwarf,
you see, well, never mind).
© copyright 01/18/2006 by Larry