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  • TITLE: The Viriconium Series
  • AUTHOR: M. John Harrison
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1971-1984
  • AWARDS: Shortlisted for Br fantasy novel in xxxxxxxxx1981, 1983, 1985, & PKD novel in 1984

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 the text.

  — 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 chemosit, 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 of Reborns.

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 else.

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 and fear.

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 lot" (The 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 Crawford

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