“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”
– Bob Dylan
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. 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).
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.
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 (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!