“Shortcut” Available Now!

Dear readers,

Apologies for my prolonged absence. I posted my entry about “Aye, and Gomorrah…” and then I blinked and eight months had passed. Time does that as you get older. I haven’t forgotten that I still need to post something about “The Willows,” but in the meantime, if you’re interested, the good folks at Element 118 Books in Asheboro, NC have started publishing some of my short fiction. This month’s offering is “Shortcut,” an homage to Twilight Zone-style storytelling. They’re offering it for FREE on their website for a limited time before it goes to Amazon to become a Kindle exclusive.

shortcut-5nov2016

You can download the story here. There are also free stories available by the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, M. R. James, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, as well as terrific selections by local North Carolina authors. I encourage everyone to check it out!

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“Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel R. Delany

Where to begin when discussing the life and work of Samuel R. Delany? The man’s oeuvre is so complicated, so vast, so intelligent, so erotic, that it’s hard to find a jump-off point. Should we start with his science-fiction? That is where his career began. What about his essays? They certainly tackle important issues: class, memory, language, sexuality, perception. He is also a literary critic who focuses on queer studies and issues in science-fiction. All of these facets are worth contemplation. I think, however, that it might be best to start with something simple: Samuel R. Delany likes coffee.

Delany was born in New York City in 1942. Raised in Harlem, his aunts were the civil rights pioneers Sadie and Bessie Delany; his father, Henry, was the first Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Though he has identified as gay since adolescence, he was married to poet, translator, and critic Marilyn Hacker for fourteen years (she was aware of his orientation and has identified as a lesbian since their divorce). The first short story he ever sold is the focus of today’s post, “Aye, and Gomorrah…”, which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s seminal 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. The story won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story that same year. His work has earned four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, the Stonewall Book Award, two Lambda Awards, and the Brudner Prize. While not a theme, per se, you will notice that coffee is mentioned often in many of his works.

As he moved later into his career, his work began to explore sexual themes to an extent still not seen in most mainstream writing. Delany views sexuality as a means of contact and connection that should be celebrated; he posits that ignoring it is dangerous and limits dialogue between children and parents on the subject. Novels such as Dhalgren and Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand contain many explicit passages, leading some to label his work as pornography (a term that Delany himself endorses). These themes have carried through to his most recent work, including his 2012 novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. His essay collection Times Square Red, Times Square Blue eloquently argues that the “cleaning up” of Times Square in the 1990s that eliminated the area’s infamous peepshows and sex movie houses in the name of family values was actually a campaign of gentrification that damaged the landscape of the city – for Delany, these theaters were valuable because they represented a microcosm of city life that transcended boundaries of race, class, and orientation.

Delany

“Aye, and Gomorrah…” does not contain any of the explicit eroticism of his later work, but sex still hovers over the proceedings. The story concerns itself with a group of “Spacers,” or astronauts. To counteract certain effects of space radiation, Spacers are neutered before puberty, sterilizing them and giving them an androgynous appearance that makes their birth sex difficult to determine. Spacers are fetishized by a subculture of “frelks,” those who find their sexlessness and unattainability arousing. The Spacers take advantage of this subculture by prostituting themselves out for amusement or money, or perhaps to ease their own loneliness. The majority of the story takes place in Istanbul, and follows an unnamed Spacer who is slowly and tentatively propositioned by a native frelk (also unnamed).

The first time I read this story, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had just experienced. After some thought, I realized this was because Delany does not spoon feed his readers a single bit of information. The history of his world and the culture being presented are rendered in small background details and in dialogue. He follows the rule of “show, don’t tell” more faithfully than almost any writer I have thus encountered. This a story that requires a read just to work out what exactly is going on. Only in subsequent reads, after the surface details have been worked out, can the reader focus on the meat of the story.

The second time I read this story, I was struck by how profoundly sad it is. Spacers live in perpetual motion. They have no home; between jobs on Mars, Jupiter, or Ganymede, they bounce around Earth looking for entertainment. Wherever they land, they are not welcome: A recurring refrain throughout the story is, “Do you not think, Spacer, that you…people should leave?” They do not have their own language; at several points the Spacer attempts to speak in the local language and is immediately corrected. They do not really have maturity, as the process to transform them into Spacers essentially leaves them as children. They do not have sex and have no interest in sex. They are the ultimate Other, of our world but of the stars, of our species but unable to propagate it. They belong in their own social class, and are reminded of that at all turns. Despite their worship of Spacers, ultimately the frelks merely objectify them. This is a story about loneliness, about people who do not belong anywhere.

The parallels to homosexuality are unmistakable. “Aye, and Gomorrah…” was written three years before the Stonewall riots, and fifteen years before the discovery of AIDS. The 1950s saw McCarthyism target homosexuals as security risks; thousands of people lost their jobs or were discharged from the military on the mere suspicion of being gay. The Post Office tracked where homosexual material was mailed. Police frequently raided gay bars. For decades homosexuality was listed in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) as a mental disorder. Gays were so marginalized that many became invisible. The Spacers are a symbolic representation of this isolation: Early in the story, an obviously homosexual blonde man tells the Spacer, “The police. They don’t bother us. You are strangers, though…” As the ultimate outsiders, Spacers face even less protection from the police than gay people. In light of that, it is not surprising that the Spacers never stay in any one place too long.

The frelks are as important to this parallel as the Spacers. They are, in their way, as marginalized as the Spacers. Even the objects of their desire look down on them. Sometimes they even look down on themselves: “Perverted, yes? In love with a bunch of corpses in free fall!” Delany uses the relationship between frelks and Spacers to mirror common arguments used by conservative groups against homosexuals over the years. Because Spacers have been neutered they cannot receive sexual pleasure or reproduce with their frelk partners – those who claimed that homosexuality is “unnatural” often pointed to the lack of ability to reproduce as a reason for that unnaturalness. Indeed, the frelk in the story seems to think her own desires are wrong. But she also voices what is perhaps Delany’s moral for the whole story: “You don’t choose your perversions. You have no perversions at all. You‘re free of the whole business. I love you for that, Spacer.” It does not matter who you love; what matters is connection.

“What will you give me? I want something,” I said. “That’s why I came. I’m lonely. Maybe I want to find out how far it goes. I don’t know yet.”

“It goes as far as you will. Me? I study, I read, paint, talk with my friends” – she came over to the bed, sat down on the floor – “go to the theater, look at spacers who pass me on the street, till one looks back; I am lonely too.”

In the fifty years since this story was written, gay rights have come a long way. There were the aforementioned Stonewall riots, which kicked off the modern LGBT rights movement in the United States. In 1977 homosexuality was finally removed from the DSM. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to pass anti-discrimination laws for gay people. 1988 saw the first World AIDS Day. In the 1992 ruling of Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court found that Colorado’s 2nd amendment denying gays rights was unconstitutional. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act. There were setbacks, such as the signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and the passing of Proposition 8 in California in 2008. However, the historic Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges granted gays the right to marry in 2015.

In light of this, I think the story has a different meaning today than at the time of its writing. When Delany wrote it, he clearly meant for Spacers to represent homosexuals. Now, in 2016, I think the Spacers more closely parallel the transgendered community, which is still struggling for equality. The Spacers, having no easily identifiable gender, are continuously rejected for that very fact. Like many transgendered people, they are treated as sexual curiosities rather than individuals. Delany himself is slightly more coy on the subject: “I’m not sure how the change in the social status of homosexuality, sadomasochism, and the like have changed how we read the story today. Ask me what the story is about now, however, and I’ll probably say it’s somehow about the desire for desire.”

I fear that I have made this story sound like a thesis about gender and sexual politics. It is not, nor is it endless gloom. Remember that this story won the Nebula; Delany knows how to write. Like Hemingway, his style is economical, but he has a eye for detail that can result in understatedly gorgeous prose:

Bo laughed to break tensions. “Say, last time I was in Istanbul – about a year before I joined up with this platoon – I remember we were coming out of Taksim Square down Istiqlal. Just past all the cheap movies we found a little passage lined with flowers. Ahead of us were two other spacers. It’s a market in there, and farther down they got fish, and then a courtyard with oranges and candy and sea urchins and cabbage. But flowers in front.”

Aye and Gomorrah

To sum up, this is a classic story, beautifully written with complex themes. It’s well worth reading, and can be found in several anthologies. I recommend Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories, published in 2003, that collects almost the entirety of Delany’s short sci-fi/fantasy stories.

Before I go, a note on the title. The title clearly refers to the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God, according to some interpretations, for the sin of homosexuality. Delany, as a gay man, clearly does not find homosexuality to be wrong, and there is no explicit explanation for this title in the story. I suspect he means for us to thoughtfully consider the issue. Perhaps I’ll ponder the matter over a cup of coffee.

NEXT TIME: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood!

THE DYING EARTH/THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD by Jack Vance

“You must save yourselves,” Rogol Domedonfors told them. “You have ignored the ancient wisdom, you have been too indolent to learn, you have sought easy complacence from religion, rather than facing manfully to the world.”

So intones the king before sinking into a five thousand-year slumber. His kingdom is technologically advanced but culturally stagnant. Its people have fallen into petty religious squabbles. He believes that if he removes the stability of his reign it will force his people to reconcile and grow. It does not. The kingdom devolves until two warring factions have grown so far apart that they literally cannot see each other. Then a stranger strides into their midst in search of treasure…

This is “Ulan Dhor,” the fifth of six stories that comprise Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. But I get ahead of myself.

John Holbrook Vance was born on August 28, 1916. Weak eyesight prevented military service, but he was able to secure a position as a seaman in the Merchant Marine. Sailing proved to be a lifelong passion and is a motif in much of his work; in fact, he jointly built a houseboat with fellow science fiction authors Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson, which they then sailed in the Sacramento Delta. He was a devoted fan of Dixieland jazz, and played the cornet, ukelele, harmonica, and banjo.

He was also one of the most accomplished science fiction/fantasy authors of the 20th century. He won the Hugo Award three times (in 1963, 1967, and 2010), the Nebula Award, the Jupiter Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Edgar Award (he wrote many mystery novels under the pseudonym Ellery Queen). In 1997 he was named the fourteenth Grand Master of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and in 2001 was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. His work is characterized by carefully constructed prose that is frequently described as “baroque,” though I will touch on that later. He died in 2013 at the age of 96. He was a very prolific author: the Vance Integral Edition collects all of his writing into 45 hardback volumes.

Tales

As you would expect given the age of this series, the individual volumes of the Dying Earth books are no longer available. They are, however, still in print in the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus edition, published in 2000 by Orb Books (pictured above). This is the edition I bought, and while I have issues with the ridiculous sci-fi city pictured on the cover, the writing within is unimpeachable.

Dying Earth

THE DYING EARTH (1950)

The Dying Earth is one of those legendary volumes that has had a lasting impact on future authors and other creative types, particularly within the sci-fi/fantasy field. It was ranked 16 out of 33 in Locus‘ 1987 poll of All-Time Best Fantasy Novels, and was one of five finalists for the 2001 “Retro Hugo” for Best Novel. It is what is termed a “fix-up,” that is, a novel comprised of short fiction that has been previously published. Oftentimes in fix-ups the author will edit the stories for consistency, or perhaps add a framing device to tie them all together.

Vance uses a different method, that of shared characters: A supporting character in one story will be the main character in another. The book opens on Turjan of Miir, a wizard who aims to create living beings using magic. He seeks the council of the seemingly omniscient Pandelume (who, like a creature from a H. P. Lovecraft story, brings madness to anyone who looks at him). Pandelume has created a beautiful woman named T’sais, but he created her incorrectly – she sees only ugliness, and hates the world and everyone in it. Turjan creates a girl named T’sain using his newfound knowledge. In the next story, Turjan is a prisoner, held by Mazirian the Magician, who aims to wrest from his captive the secret of creating life. In the next story, T’sais and T’sain meet, forcing T’sais to confront her bitter worldview. They also have a passing encounter with Liane the Wayfarer, a bandit who gets own story a few pages later.

Mazirian

Mazirian the Magician torments Turjan of Miir. Art by Konstantin Korobov.

These are not all the characters in the book, but I hope I have illustrated the organic way in which Vance weaves his stories together. There are plenty of other wonderful characters and creatures to be encountered here – Deodands, maneaters with skin black as night; Twk-Men, tiny men who ride dragonflies and offer information in exchange for gifts; Etarr, a witch who replaces her lover’s face with a demon’s; and perhaps my favorite, Chun the Unavoidable (the sobriquet is chillingly appropriate), who wears a cloak fashioned from the eyes of his victims.

I mentioned above that Vance’s writing is often characterized as “baroque,” which essentially means “mannered and ornately detailed.” Aspects of this I agree with – his writing is definitely mannered. I do not, however, think it is ornate, as that implies complicated sentence structures and advanced language. Vance’s writing doesn’t spin circles around itself. His sentence structures are quite accessible and tightly controlled. He will not use torrents of adjectives when one will suffice. While he does occasionally make use of what I call “dictionary vocabulary” (for example, “nuncupatory”), he most often opts for words that are unusual but can still be understood in context by the average reader. This is, I think, why his prose is such a joy to read: it doesn’t insult one’s intelligence, but it never becomes needlessly obtuse. Consider this excerpt from “Ulan Dhor”:

But even in my life I saw the leaching of spirit. A surfeit of honey cloys the tongue; a surfeit of wine addles the brain; so a surfeit of ease guts a man of strength. Light, warmth, food, water, were free to all men, and gained by a minimum of effort. So the people of Ampridatvir, released from toil, gave increasing attention to faddishness, perversity, and the occult.

This is wonderful writing, easily understood despite its seemingly complicated artifice.

I had expected to respect more than like this book. Friends who had read it informed me it does not reach the heights of later books in the series. While I agree with that assessment, I still loved this book. The writing is muscular and descriptive, the world enchanting. The characters, often anti-heroes, still find moments of humanity that are all the more touching because of their faults.

Liane

Liane the Wayfarer converses with a Twk-Man. Art by Konstantin Korobov.

A brief note on the title: Vance’s preferred title for this book was Mazirian the Magician, and that is how it is titled in the Vance Integral Edition. The Dying Earth was chosen by Vance’s editor, and I honestly think it’s a much stronger, and certainly more evocative, title. Mazirian is not a major enough character, in my opinion, to warrant naming the entire book after him.

Eyes_of_the_overworld_first

THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD (1966)

“I categorically declare first my absolute innocence, second my lack of criminal intent, and third my effusive apologies.” – Cugel the Clever

After a sixteen year hiatus (so count your blessings, George R. R. Martin fans), Vance returned to the series with the second installment, The Eyes of the Overworld. Like the previous book, this is a fix-up, consisting of five novelettes originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction between December 1965 and July 1966, and one original chapter (“Cil”). Vance expanded and revised various portions of the different stories before publication of the book.

The plot centers on one of Vance’s most iconic creations: Cugel the Clever, an utterly amoral thief. He is persuaded by a wealthy merchant to rob the home of a nearby magician, who catches Cugel in the act. As recompense, Cugel agrees to retrieve a special item for the magician – a violet contact lens which, when worn, shows the wearer the Overworld, an improved version of reality where a hut becomes a palace, a table scrap becomes a feast, and the ugly become beautiful. To ensure Cugel’s compliance, the magician affixes a barbed and hooked alien named Firx around Cugel’s liver. Then he dumps Cugel in the northern wastelands, leaving the particulars of obtaining the Eye and returning home to the thief.

Vance’s preferred title for this book was Cugel the Clever, and that is how it is titled in the Vance Integral Edition. I think this is a more fitting, if less interesting, title than The Eyes of the Overworld, as the Eyes themselves only really feature in the early section of the book. This is in form a classic picaresque novel; character is ultimately more important than story, and the story itself is episodic rather than cohesive.

Still, what a rich set of episodes! My favorite, I think, finds Cugel arriving at a village after long and exhausting travel. The mayor offers him a job that will pay him the entirety of the town’s savings, a prospect the greedy Cugel cannot resist. The job itself seems simple: He must sit atop a tall pole and watch for Magnatz, the mythical enemy of the village. But Cugel is deceived; once he has taken his place at the top of the watchtower he is stranded. The townsfolk provide food with a system of ropes and pulleys, but will not let him down. Cugel decides to escape. The consequences are exciting and unexpected. Another memorable adventure sends Cugel back in time one million years. This is a terrifically entertaining book, more interesting and fulfilling than The Dying Earth.

Cugel himself is a classic Vancian anti-hero. He is a liar, a cheat, a rapist, a killer, a coward, and a thief, yet considers himself superior to everyone around him. He is a wholly unlikeable character, and yet by the end of the story Vance has managed to evoke a surprising amount of sympathy for him, which he accomplishes by fashioning most of the other characters to be even less likable than Cugel is. For every con Cugel successfully pulls off, he is conned himself twice over. In many ways, “the Clever” is an ironic title, and this contradiction is a source of much of the novel’s humor. Cugel’s final blunder at the end of the book is the ultimate expression of his incompetence.

Another seventeen years would pass before Vance returned to the Dying Earth. Cugel’s Saga, a direct sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld and twice as long, appeared in 1983. In the interim, Michael Shea (Nifft the Lean) wrote an authorized sequel called A Quest for Simbilis, which was published in 1974.

Cugel

Apart from the aforementioned Cugel’s Saga, there is one more book in the series, called Rhialto the Marvellous. These two books shall be covered in a separate post. For the rest of this post, I would like to cover a less obvious topic: Vance’s influence on roleplaying games.

One cannot have a discussion of Vance’s series without acknowledging its impact on a certain game known as Dungeons & Dragons. Both The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld are included in the famous Appendix N, a list of literary works that influenced D&D creator Gary Gygax (read it here). Many of the listed authors influenced setting and tone more than anything else, but a few of them – such as Vance – had a direct impact on the mechanics of the game. Indeed, Vance is one of the few authors Gygax specifically singles out for his contribution (he even wrote an essay praising his hero, “Jack Vance and The D&D Game,” which you can read here). While Cugel the Clever is an obvious template for the Thief character class, the more important influence was on how magic worked in the game.

In Vance’s stories, magic-users must memorize spells before they can use them. The spells are so complicated, and take up so much mental space, that the user forgets them the instant they are cast. Moreover, their sheer complexity limits how many one can remember at a time. Mazirian the Magician, for example, “by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” Thus, choosing exactly which spells to use, and when to use them, becomes of utmost importance. Vance uses this device to generate suspense: As his characters gradually run out of spells, with no opportunity to memorize new ones, their situations become more and more dangerous. This system is known as “Vancian magic” in the gaming community, and while later editions of D&D changed how magic worked, this was the norm for many years. In addition, spells and items mentioned in the novels, such as Prismatic Spray and Ioun stones, made their way into the game, and the name of the magic diety Vecna is an anagram of Vance.

Vance’s influence is not limited to just D&D. Another roleplaying game called Talislanta, written by Stephan Michael Sechi and intentioned as a simpler alternative to D&D, owes so much to Vance that every edition of the game has been dedicated to him. In 2001 Pelgrane Press released The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, a direct adaptation of Vance’s novels, written by author and game designer Robin Laws.

As I said above, the last two books of the Dying Earth series will be covered in a future post, which will also contain a discussion of Vance’s influence on future authors. Until then, the next few entries here will cover short stories, as I can get through them at a faster pace than novels. In the meantime, I highly recommend everyone read The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld. I loved them both. They more than earn their status as classics.

NEXT TIME: “Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel R. Delany!

VIRICONIUM: THE NOVELS by M. John Harrison

“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”

– Bob Dylan

Spectra

This the first post of two covering a series of four books by M. John Harrison known as the Viriconium cycle. This first post will focus on the three novels that make up the bulk of the cycle; the remaining volume, a short story collection, will be the subject of the second post. These will be part of a larger series focusing on the Dying Earth subgenre of science fiction.

Dying Earth tales typically take place at the end of life on Earth, though some go even further to the end of time, with the universe itself breaking apart. One of the earliest examples of Dying Earth fiction is Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 novel The Last Man (not to be confused with Mary Shelley’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name), which chronicles the last man on Earth’s attempts to find the last woman and repopulate the human race. Lord Byron’s harrowing poem “Darkness” (1816, which you can read here) describes an Earth with a dead sun. H. G. Wells’ novella The Time Machine (1895) briefly takes its narrator to a far future where most life has gone extinct. William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 novel The Night Land imagines the entirety of the human race living together in a massive pyramid called the Last Redoubt (the first arcology in literature) millions of years in the future, the sun long extinguished, waiting for their weakening power sources to fail and the horrors in the darkness outside to overtake them.

From the 1930s onwards, Dying Earth literature is dominated by two figures: Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance. Smith was one of the “Big Three,” authors closely associated with the magazine Weird Tales (the other two are Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian, and H. P. Lovecraft). Between 1932 and 1953, Smith wrote sixteen stories, as well as a one-act play published posthumously, set on Zothique, the last continent on Earth. A planned novel, The Scarlet Succubus, only exists as a title. Smith’s description of the setting is appropriate for most of the literature that followed:

The continents of our present cycle have sunken, perhaps several times. Some of them have remained submerged; others have re-risen, partially, and re-arranged themselves. The science and machinery of our present civilization have long been forgotten, together with our present religions. But many gods are worshipped; and sorcerer and demonism prevail again as in ancient days. Oars and sails alone are used by mariners. There are no fire-arms – only the bows, arrows, swords, javelins, etc. of antiquity.

Indeed, most Dying Earth literature from this point on is more closely aligned with fantasy than science fiction. I will not go into much detail on Vance, as I will be covering him in my next post, but his Dying Earth series (which first appeared in 1950) proved enormously influential on later authors. Perhaps the most renowned work of Dying Earth literature in the modern era is Gene Wolfe’s four volume series The Book of the New Sun (1981-3), which Wolfe acknowledged to be directly influenced by Vance.

We now come to M. John Harrison. Born in 1945, he was destined for great things from the start: the second story he ever wrote, “Lamia Mutable” (a Viriconium story, coincidentally), appeared in Harlan Ellison’s 1972 anthology Again, Dangerous Visions. From 1968 to 1975 he was the literary editor of the science fiction magazine New Worlds. In the decades since, he has written a slew of novels and continued to review fiction for publications. He is widely considered one of the leading stylists in sci-fi and fantasy, and has been awarded the J. Tiptree Jr. Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award. “A good ground rule for writing in any genre,” Harrison writes, “is: start with a form, then ask what it’s afraid of.”

The Viriconium cycle focuses on a city of the same name, with all novels and stories set in or around it. The world is littered with the detritus of past civilizations; technology from bygone eras still exists and can function, but very few people alive know how to use or repair it. One previous civilization even left its name written in the stars, but, as Harrison notes, “no-one who came later could read it.” As with all Dying Earth fiction, there is a palpable sense of weariness to the proceedings. Like the world in which it is set, Harrison’s characters, particularly in the first book, are past their prime.

The series takes some inspiration from Vance, but also pays homage to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and the poems of T. S. Eliot. Throughout the series, Harrison attempts to subvert the encyclopedic worldbuilding of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien. “Worldbuilding is dull,” says Harrison. “It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.” As such, Viriconium is never presented as a concrete place; rather, it is a dream city that reappears in each book in slightly (or not so slightly) different forms.

The series was first published between 1971 and 1985. The books are no longer available individually, unless you get very lucky in a used bookstore; I bought the Bantam Spectra 2005 omnibus edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman (pictured above – as a side note, there are four different covers from the cycle pictured in this post; graphic designers or those who simply love book covers can find a fascinating look at them here).

Pastel City

THE PASTEL CITY (1971)

This first book in the cycle is easily the most accessible. The plot is functional but hardly inspired – at the request of the ruler of Viriconium, Queen Jane, a group of heroes band together to save the world from an invading threat – and reads like a hybrid of The Lord of the Rings and Dune. What sets the book apart is its stunning prose, rich characterizations, and pervasive sense of loss: the world’s best days are behind it and all the characters know it. As far as those characters go, Tomb the Dwarf is a marvelous creation, an ugly, battle-hardened genius who does combat in a suit of mechanical armor. Cellur is a centuries-old alien who builds mechanical birds to communicate with the world. The melancholy knight tegeus-Cromis, the main character, is memorably described as considering himself “a better poet than swordsman.” Harrison paints vivid images with his words; he’s a more accomplished stylist than Tolkien or Herbert. Consider this description of a swamp through which the heroes journey:

Charcoal grey frogs with viridescent eyes croaked as the column floundered between the pools. Beneath the greasy surface of the water unidentifiable reptiles moved slowly and sinuously. Dragonflies whose webby wings spanned a foot or more hummed and hovered between the sedges: their long, wicked bodies glittered bold green and ultramarine; they took their prey on the wing, pouncing with an audible snap of jaws on whining, ephemeral mosquitoes and fluttering moths of april blue and chevrolet cerise.

This is gorgeous writing, and sequences such as this help make up for any shortcomings in the plotting. Interestingly, several elements of The Pastel City reappear in George Lucas’ Star Wars films: the young queen (Queen Jane v. Princess Leia/Queen Amidala), a brotherhood of elite knights (the Methven v. the Jedi), an older member of that brotherhood who fought for the queen’s father in a previous conflict (tegeus-Cromis v. Obi-Wan Kenobi), and energy blade weapons (baan v. lightsabers).

Upon its publication the legendary Michael Moorcock wrote: “It is so much better than other novels in its field that I believe it will in time become a favorite classic among readers of science fantasy.” I’m not sure I would call it a classic – the derivative story holds it back slightly – but it’s certainly a new favorite.

Storm of WingsA STORM OF WINGS (1980)

The second book in the series is a drastic departure from the first, at least stylistically. It’s an alien invasion story in which the invasion itself is not as important as its aftereffects. The invaders – giant spacefaring insects, portrayed with surprising sympathy – cannot survive on Earth, so they attempt to rewrite reality in their favor. As the reality of our heroes (which in and of itself is nebulous; no fewer than four of the six main characters grapple with issues of memory and sanity) collides with that of the insects, the prose becomes increasingly dense and surreal. Harrison uses this to allow Viriconium to physically manifest its endless mutability:

Leaving the palace for the city was like entering a dark crystal (especially at night, under the “white pulpy specter” of the Moon); the shape of things became irregular, refracted; sudden astonishing mirages swallowed the Pastel Towers or engulfed the denizens of the streets beneath them. It was as if Viriconium (the physical city, that is, the millennial artifact which sums up a thousand dead cultures) had suffered some sort of psychic storm, and forgotten itself. Its very molecules seemed to be creeping apart. “As you walk,” the dwarf tried to explain after a single clandestine excursion to the Artists’ Quarter, “the streets recreate themselves around you. When you have passed everything immediately slips into chaos again…”

This mutability extends to the characters as well, in a more abstract way. The plot is, in essence, the same as the first book, and Harrison provides us with a set of heroes who at first glance are the same as well. Cellur the Birdmaster reappears from the previous installment, except he has grown so old he can’t remember his past. The new main character, an assassin named Galen Hornwrack, spends most of the story swearing that he isn’t the hero of the first book. There are numerous occurrences such as these; the entire book can be considered a distorted reflection of the first.

For all its impressive achievements, A Storm of Wings isn’t perfect. The character of Benedict Paucemanly is revolting; if Harrison intended him as comic relief, it didn’t work. The character speaks in gurgles, half-sentences, and non-sentences for most of the book, so it’s a bit jarring when, towards the end, he suddenly gains lucidity and explains the plot in great detail. As I mentioned above, this is a difficult book to read, and some readers might appreciate having the story laid out in easy-to-understand language, but I personally felt it too close to an “info-dump” for comfort. Harrison could have spread his plot points out more evenly. But that, to me, is the book’s only real flaw, and I found it quite rewarding in the end.

In Viriconium

IN VIRICONIUM (1982)

As much as I wanted A Storm of Wings to be my favorite book in the cycle (it has on paper the most interesting plot and the language is the most pyrotechnical), my actual favorite was this third installment, the shortest of the three novellas. For the first time all of the action takes place in Viriconium, and it jettisons the grand battles and epic threats of the first two books. This is more magical realism than science fiction, a love story at the end of time. The writing is very straightforward compared to the previous book, but gorgeous turns of phrase and startling details inhabit every page. This is the book in which the city of Viriconium feels most alive, its inhabitants most relatable.

That is not to say that it is without richness of depth. Viriconium is being slowly overrun by a plague that entropies anything it touches until it ceases to exist. The main character, an artist named Ashlyme, seeks to rescue a fellow painter named Audsley King from the plague zone, with the help of a dwarf known as the Grand Cairo and an astronomer named Buffo. As others have noted, the plot plays on Arthurian legend, with echoes of the Fisher King (represented by Audsley) and the Waste Land (represented by Viriconium). The plague provides Harrison with another tool to deconstruct his city and his series; by the end of the novel Audsley has realized that Viriconium is a mere fiction, which frees her from the plague’s paralysis to finally paint the real world: our own. This is about as clear a statement as Harrison makes that Viriconium is meant to represent all cities, real and imagined. It’s a staggering moment.

I do have my quips, however. The sinister Grand Cairo, while entertaining, is no substitute for Tomb the Dwarf, and the disgusting behavior of the Barley Brothers recalls Benedict Paucemanly from A Storm of Wings (though the resolution of their plotline is surprisingly moving). Still, this is easily the most emotionally fulfilling installment in the cycle. This was first published in the U.S. under the title The Floating Gods, and was dedicated to Fritz Leiber, an author we will be seeing a lot of on this blog in the future.

* * *

Taken individually, these three novels all have their merits, but when read together, as I did, it is easier to see Harrison’s grand scheme, fashioning each installment as a series of reflections and mutations of what came before. Those who are expecting straight ahead fantasy action are sure to be disappointed, but those who are willing to put the effort in will find much to admire here. For my part, I feel enriched for having read them.

There is one more book in the cycle that extends Harrison’s machinations even further, a short story collection called Viriconium Nights. Expect my review sometime in the next few months, though there are plenty of other books I want to get to first. Rest assured, however, that it is coming.

NEXT TIME: THE DYING EARTH/THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD by Jack Vance!

A Return, An Explanation, And A New Start

Hello everyone! I bet you thought I forgot about you! I didn’t; however, I feel an explanation is owed for my extremely long absence. Simply put, life got in the way.

Those of you who live in Los Angeles will already know that it is a very expensive city. When I first moved here I had a lovely chunk of change in my bank account that made the first year a delight. I had time and resources to explore the city, expand my horizons, and read/write. However, the longer I lived here, the smaller that lovely chunk of change became until, finally, it disappeared. At that point, I became reliant on my job to pay for all expenses. Suffice it to say, as a struggling artist type working in retail, that was a lot more difficult than it sounded. Eventually I found a better job that paid more, but the trade-off was that I was now working 10+ hour days six days a week. I lost time for everything except work. Progress on my first novel ground to a standstill (it’s still not finished), and, obviously, I was no longer able to write for this site.

I’m sorry for leaving you all hanging for years with no explanation. I could have at least warned you.

But circumstances have changed! In two months I will be moving back to North Carolina to be closer to my friends and family. I will finally have the time I need to resume non-work activities, so we’ll at last being seeing new content on this blog. I have made a few changes:

  1. The title of the blog has been changed from “My Weird Year” to “My Weird Life.” When the blog was conceived as a year-long experiment that name made sense, but now that I’m resuming writing two years after I started it, a change seemed necessary. As such, the URL of the site has been changed to weirdlifereviews.wordpress.com.
  2. When I first started the blog I planned to review every book I read. This included selections such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which in retrospect is an odd title to review for a blog that focuses on fantastic literature (though I would be fascinated to read about Melville’s influence on weird fiction…). So I’m narrowing my focus to fantasy, horror and science-fiction only, with ample reviews of classic weird tales to make sure the blog stays true to its roots.

I can’t promise that you’ll see much new content before the move, but I’ll try to post a review or two. As promised all those years ago I’ll post a review of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” but at the moment I’m reading through M. John Harrison’s Viriconium cycle, so that’s likely what will be posted first. Thank you all for your patience and understanding. It’s good to be back!

“The White People” by Arthur Machen

“Nurse must have been a prophet like those we read of in the Bible. Everything that she said began to come true, and since then other things that she told me of have happened. That was how I came to know that her stories were true and that I had not made up the secret myself out of my own head. But there was another thing that happened that day. I went a second time to the secret place. It was at the deep brimming well, and when I was standing on the moss I bent over and looked in, and then I knew who the white lady was that I had seen come out of the water in the wood long ago when I was quite little. And I trembled all over, because that told me other things. Then I remembered how sometime after I had seen the white people in the wood, nurse asked me more about them, and I told her all over again, and she listened, and said nothing for a long, long time, and at last she said, ‘You will see her again.’ So I understood what had happened and what was to happen.” – Arthur Machen, “The White People”

THE HOUSE OF SOULS (1906) by Arthur Machen.

THE HOUSE OF SOULS (1906) by Arthur Machen.

In 1906, Grant Richards published a collection of four novellas by Welsh author Arthur Machen called The House of Souls. It contains the two stories for which Machen is best known today: “The Great God Pan” (which caused an uproar for its supposed decadence and sexual content) and “The White People.” This latter tale was described by H. P. Lovecraft in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror In Literature as “less famous and less complex in plot than The Great God Pan, but definitely finer in atmosphere and general artistic value.” Reading the story today, it is hard to argue the point.

First, a quick summary: Two men are discussing the nature of evil. One of them produces the diary of a dead girl, which describes in vivid detail her slow entry into an ancient world of ritualistic magic. During her account she cryptically references “Dôls,” “voolas,” “White, Green, and Scarlet Ceremonies,” “Aklo letters,” the “Xu” and “Chian” languages, “Mao games” and a game called “Troy Town.” Finally, she encounters a real nymph and the diary abruptly ends. Returning to the two men, the owner of the diary claims the girl’s death was due to being “poisoned – in time” by her exposure to this magic world.

Like many reviewers, I found the framing device to be the weakest part of the story. The philosophical debate on evil that opens the tale is only mildly interesting and the final assertion that the girl was metaphorically poisoned doesn’t really make much sense. I suspect that there were two reasons for its inclusion:

  1. Machen did not think he could publish the girl’s diary – called the Green Book in the story – on its own. This is not surprising; the Green Book was written in a stream-of-consciousness style that predates the Modernist movement of writers like Virginia Woolf by almost twenty years. Simply publishing the diary as is would likely have baffled readers of the time.
  2. Machen did not want to be seen as endorsing witchcraft by the predominantly religious public. It should be noted that Machen was descended from a long line of clergymen and therefore held Christian beliefs, but he was was also deeply versed in mystical literature and his interest in paganism and the occult figure prominently in his early work. In fact, some of his stories were required reading for students of the famed mystic Aleister Crowley (though Machen himself detested the man).

In the end, this is easy to forgive, as the framing device is a standard trope of fantastical literature, and the diary itself is so astounding that it more than makes up for it.

As previously noted, the Green Book anticipates stream-of-consciousness by several decades and reads like a kaleidoscopic hallucination, containing all sorts of diversions and stories-within-stories. Machen is ingenious in the way he layers tiny cryptic details on top of each other in a stream of “childish prattle” (as Lovecraft describes it), innocent at first but growing ever more ominous, hinting at a larger picture that never quite comes into focus. While several of these details are actual occult terms, most were invented by Machen. His descriptions of the wild landscapes the girl explores are strange and beautiful. However, he is careful to never reveal too much. Indeed, the diary ends right as a supreme revelation seems imminent. I hold to the belief that whatever this revelation is is irrelevant; the real twist of the tale is that this magic world of nymphs and witchcraft is actually real. Though this notion may hold less horror today than it did in 1906 (I personally found the story more unsettling than outright frightening), the idea of stumbling onto an unknowable world just outside the boundaries of our perception is a recurring theme in weird fiction.

Since its publication “The White People” has been tremendously influential. Sci-fi/fantasy scholar E. F. Bleiler wrote that the narrative in the Green Book is “probably the finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature,” while Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi calls it “a masterpiece of indirection, a Lovecraft plot told by James Joyce.” Lovecraft himself considered it “a masterpiece of fantastic writing” and would later borrow the concept of Aklo letters for his 1928 story “The Dunwich Horror,” as would renowned comic book writer Alan Moore for his 2003 mini-series The Courtyard. Author T. E. D. Klein expanded the ideas presented in “The White People” for his 1970 novella “The Events at Poroth Farm,” which he later adapted into a novel called The Ceremonies. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro cited Machen as an influence on his 2006 film El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), about a young girl who escapes the horrors of war by retreating into a fantasy world hidden in the nearby hills. Unlike Machen’s story, however, del Toro’s film neither confirms nor denies the actual existence of this world.

To sum up, this is a brilliant story and essential reading to anyone even remotely interested in weird fiction. I loved it. Expect to see more of Machen on this blog in the future.

"The White People" (1990) by Jonathan Coulthart.

“The White People” (1990) by Jonathan Coulthart.

Next time: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Stay tuned!

Generosity

Every so often my friend and mentor G. Warlock Vance sends me a bunch of old books he doesn’t want or need anymore. Today the latest batch of goodies arrived and I’m excited about all of them. A few of these were requested, such as T. E. D. Klein’s The Ceremonies (which will definitely be reviewed at some point this year) and Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort. Most, however, were not. The first edition of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box was a pleasant surprise, as was Italo Calvino’s The Baron In The Trees, but I literally squealed in delight when I made it to Stalking The Nightmare (as, inexplicably, I had no Harlan Ellison in my collection). I’m looking forward to reading all of these. Thanks a lot, Warlock!

First Row: Heart-Shaped Box (Joe Hill), 20th Century Ghosts (Joe Hill), The Brooklyn Follies (Paul Auster), Stalking The Nightmare (Harlan Ellison), The Ceremonies (T.E.D. Klein); Second Row: The Baron In The Trees (Italo Calvino), Cabal (Clive Barker), Black Spring (Henry Miller), Carrion Comfort (Dan Simmons), The Plot Against America (Philip Roth), Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs)

Top Row: Heart-Shaped Box (Joe Hill), 20th Century Ghosts (Joe Hill), The Brooklyn Follies (Paul Auster), Stalking The Nightmare (Harlan Ellison), The Ceremonies (T.E.D. Klein); Bottom Row: The Baron In The Trees (Italo Calvino), Cabal (Clive Barker), Black Spring (Henry Miller), Carrion Comfort (Dan Simmons), The Plot Against America (Philip Roth), Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs)

I should also note that Warlock is an excellent writer himself. His tales can be found in such anthologies as Rehearsals For Oblivion (Elder Signs Press), Demonology: Grammaticus Daemonium (Double Dragon Publishing), Lost Worlds Of Space & Time, Vol. 2 (Rainfall Books), The Conspiracy Files (Daw Books), The Ithaqua Cycle (Chaosium Books), When The Black Lotus Blooms (Unnameable Press), and several others. I highly encourage all my readers to check him out.

Meanwhile, my review of “The White People” will be up in the next few weeks. See you all then!