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Sun, 5 Aug 2007

Viriconium

— SjG @ 10:00 pm

Viriconium by M. John Harrison, 2005, Bantam Books.

Consider a vast triangle. At one vertex stands one of the better authors of “great quest” science fiction or fantasy, perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien, or maybe Dan Simmons after a degree in Art History. At the next vertex, stands Mervyn Peake, with his cast of grotesques and desperate characters in their fantastic, crumbling, and endless decaying stronghold. The last vertex is simultaneously occupied by Angela Carter and Samuel R. Delaney, although they coexist in orthogonal dimensions, and are only vaguely aware of one another (via nebulous signs, strange dreams, and through the oddly resonant rituals that the villagers observe).

Somewhere near the center of this triangle lies Harrison’s sprawling poisoned wastelands, ruins, and evershifting city of Viriconium with its heros, artists, murderers and thieves.

The copy I read (thanks Peter!) comprises the three Viriconium novels The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, and In Viriconium, and a collection of short stories. The collection has several distinct voices, and could conceivably have been written by different writers about a common thematic place. Characters show up in one story, and reappear in another — but are they the same person? Is it the cyclic nature of history we’re seeing? Are we in parallel universes? Places seem more constant than people (excluding perhaps Cellur the Birdmaker), although even places seem to shift location between stories.

Viriconium takes a few tropes of science fiction and fantasy, and weaves them in new and unexpected ways. Evidently, the ordering of the books and stories varies by edition, however in this copy, the tale starts in The Pastel City with what appears a fantasy setting which quickly reveals itself to be a distant post-apocalyptic science fiction world. From there, it evolves into a nearly opaque, disturbing, profound, and often absurd exploration of the nature of reality/realities in A Storm of Wings, and winds up with an equally absurd delving into courtly politics, artistic cliques, disease, and hooligan god-children in In Viriconium. In the short stories, many of these themes, places, and characters are revisited. Some are like fairy-tales, telling of people dealing with their destinies (e.g., “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”) others are tiny windows into a presumptively vast historical sweep (e.g., “Lords of Misrule”), while still others illustrate of village life and rituals in the shadow of a great city or ruminate on the significance of art.

Unfortunately, these few adjectives do the stories themselves no justice.

Harrison’s writing conveys a very strong sense of place, and is some of the more geological writing I’ve read. You can’t help but get a feel for the physical structure of the land, mutable as it is. The city of Viriconium too is imbued with a great presence, if not geography, and everything — city, land, society — is rich with barely imagined or imaginable history.

Harrison also has an exceptional vocabulary. I found myself consulting the dictionary on many pages, and discovering words like baize, catafalque, cinereous, costermonger, etiolate, gamboge, hispid, lazar, nacreous, osier, peneplain, phthisis, planish, saveloy, sempiternal, serac, and whin.

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