“Though the land go down into death and misrule, and tegeus-Cromis of the nameless sword with it, there should be some poetry before the end.”
–The Pastel City by M. John Harrison
I have traveled to Viriconium, and though I have returned to the shallow, tidal shores of SFF, as we all eventually must, the journey has re-molded the genre in my absence. How can I look upon these shallow waters or tread this unendingly same beige sand when I know that somewhere waves tickle the pink sands of Viriconium?
M. John Harrison! Viriconium does not deserve the grainy, irrelevant cover Del Rey has crowned it with (crowning and simultaneously dethroning it). The Viriconium* belongs among the works of Borges and Cortazar and Calvino, among drunken poets and acrobats and circus masters, among mad scientists and dramatists and literary geniuses. Viriconium—M. John Harrison—has given birth to every contemporary writer worth a damn: China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer and Simon Ings being the most notable (ie the ones I have read).
If you intend to travel to Viriconium successfully, you must love poetry and puzzles. You must savor the journey. Those who can keep their footing in a landscape constantly rewriting itself should saddle up now. It is a journey that will re-shape you as a reader (every other book I read in its wake felt pale and dull), as it has the neighborhoods of SFF open to its intoxicating influence.
The Pastel City (1971)
The word of the day is “disorienting.” It is hard to find your feet in The Pastel City.
It did not take long to grasp why Neil Gaiman’s Viriconium introduction was so unsatisfying, why it said so little. Viriconium is the kind of work that renders even a prolific wordmaster like Gaiman speechless. Of course, Gaiman is the king of the public appearance, of the book-friendly, writer-friendly, reader-friendly, library-friendly soundbite. And M. John Harrison defies the very concept of soundbites. Think you know what’s going on? he says. I imagine him whispering some archaic (but deliciously poetic) incantation as he, an angry god lit in flickering red light, towers over the pages of his books rearranging the city—and the story—as I read. He pulls the rug out from beneath your expectations, formulaic plots, the setting, and the world. He mirrors it, perverts it, reflects it, and makes it dance. He offers no explanations or apologies.
It can be tiring. I’ll give the Harrison critics that.
Harrison’s writing is dense and poetic and gorgeous and holy shit?!, I whispered to myself as I slowly realized that Viriconium is a post-apocalyptic novel, possibly the best the genre has to offer. Wait, seriously??! I whispered, more loudly this time, gaining confidence, as I realized that buried beneath all that poetry was the nauseatingly familiar “dudes on a quest” plot.
In a post-apocalyptic world (destroyed by the Afternoon Cultures, followed by the Evening Cultures who must live among their strange refuse), a poet warrior, a blood-thirsty dwarf with an eleven-foot exoskeleton (and the best name of all time: Tomb the Dwarf), a teenage queen, and some other warrior dudes from the royal warrior dude club set out to finish the war ravaged on the people of Viriconium by the revenge-obsessed North. An immortal fashions talking, metal birds in an obsidian tower. Supernatural zombies (dare I say, golem-esque?) take the brains of their slain enemies and reanimate them in their own service. The sand is pink. The horses are pink. The city is pink (and also teal. See: title).
The Pastel City, ultimately, is a hazing, the quick—and yes, sometimes painful—immersion you need in order to continue further into Viriconium, the map you need to arrive at A Storm of Wings. The further I get from it, the more sense it makes. The pull to re-read that I experienced immediately after finishing has not lessened. If many consider The Pastel City Harrison’s most accessible novel, then what the fuck is coming next? You won’t have a fucking clue, and that is just another compliment.
A Storm of Wings (1980)
What the fuck bee-and-naked-lady cover? You have nothing to do with this book. Because while there are giant bug-headed creatures and metal birds, there is no…there is just not…WHY SFF COVERS WHY?! You fucking suck.
In A Storm of Wings Harrison’s prose becomes more beautiful, the language and structure more dense, a jungle you must cut your way through, a wall you must charge through headlong. Yet having been prepared by The Pastel City, it was easier to read, though far more philosophical, far more weird, and all that in spite of barely straying from the “dudes on a quest” storyline. Galen Hornwrack is shoved into the role of hero, into the shoes of tegeus-Cromis, but choses not to accept the mantle of fate, the myth of the chosen one. But he has to go fight shit all the same because life fucking sucks and everybody you love will die and then you will get attacked by bug-headed creatures from another dimension.
Though A Storm of Wings zooms in on one of my favorite characters from The Pastel City (Birdmaker) writing this now I am surprised to discover that it was ultimately the least memorable of the three Viriconium novels. What was it about? I don’t really remember, but I sure did underline a lot of pretty sentences. Let’s just hope that From Couch to Moon and Admiral Ironbombs have more to say about it because I am too eager to get to my favorite of the three novels to linger.
In Viriconium (1982)
So loudly does In Viriconium echo in City of Saints and Madmen. Further reverberations can be found in Simon Ings City of the Iron Fish, and so much of Miéville. Intellectually, I knew that between these pages, I was in Viriconium, but I kept looking over my shoulder. Had I slipped into Ambergris between paragraphs? Do the Bistro Californium and the Café of the Ruby-Throated Calf occupy the same space? What magic binds these fictional locations together? The book in my hand claimed I was in Viriconium, but I didn’t have a map. That’s a metaphor. And a fact. Oh this work is so delicious.
The most exciting contemporary SFF of the last several decades is deeply rooted in Viriconium. I regret having waited so long to read it—I’ll admit to having felt intimidated—though am glad that it has allowed me to savor the experience and the connections that make it the foundation of all that is holy in SFF lit today.
Whether because the first two novels had prepared me or because it is truly the most accessible, In Viriconium was undoubtedly my favorite. Artists languish and decay in the plague zone of the Lower City of Viriconium. Painters, poets, and men of the theater ply their trade, mingle with patrons, attempt a kidnapping, and avoid the police. A dwarf in a tower courts a tarot-reading seer.
While the language in In Viriconium remains beautiful, it recedes from the densely poetic sentences of The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings. (Another point for accessibility.) The setting too, though ostensibly the same city of the last two books, feels more accessible, easier to enter on our own two feet. The last two stories are far in the past (or are they?). Perhaps the next time I read The Viriconium, I will read In Viriconium first, though it makes such a delicious dessert.
The Short Stories
The Del Rey Omnibus follows the three novels with seven shorts. I wasn’t in love with any of them, with the exception of the final story: “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium.” Harrison has said that reading order doesn’t matter here, as long as this story ends the book. Smart man. It is the perfect bridge between our world and Viriconium. The question is, do you dare cross it?
Sixteen out of sixteen Audsley King paintings.
PS The M. John Harrison blog is really weird and wonderful, by the by.
*I propose that the omnibus Viriconium deserves a THE.