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Viriconium by M. John Harrison
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Viriconium (original 1988; edition 2005)

by M. John Harrison

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9471913,510 (3.76)43
Member:selfnoise
Title:Viriconium
Authors:M. John Harrison
Info:Spectra (2005), Edition: Reprint, Paperback
Collections:Your library
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Tags:fantasy, weirdfiction, compilation

Work details

Viriconium: "The Pastel City", "A Storm of Wings", "In Viriconium", "Viriconium Nights" by M. John Harrison (1988)

  1. 60
    Titus Alone / Gormenghast / Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (PandorasRequiem)
  2. 30
    Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (Torikton)
  3. 10
    City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer (whiten06)
    whiten06: Viriconium was clearly an inspiration for City of Saints and Madmen - city-centric fantasies with touches of surrealism, metafiction, and just plain strangeness.
  4. 10
    The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison (LamontCranston)
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Viriconium - a series of four books (three novels; one short story collection) set in a far-far-future world at the point where science fiction morphs into fantasy, that is, a world of futuristic airships, robots and computerized eagles but also a world where knights in armor ride horses into battle under a queen's banner.

T. John Harrison is breathtaking. I haven't read such world building, imagination firing fantasy since I paid a visit to J. R .R. Tolkien's Middle Earth forty years ago. Incidentally, not being an avid fan of the genre myself, I was drawn to Viriconium on the strength of Neil Gaiman's sparkling essay from his collection The View from the Cheap Seats.

I plan to review all four Viriconium books as I move through the cycle.

The Pastel City - a spectacular tale of adventure with philosophical overtones and undertones. Rather than shining the spotlight on the arch of events, here are a batch of notables a reader will encounter along the way:

The Order of Methven: An invasion from the north propels old warrior Lord tegeus-Cromis out of retirement. And to think, he was planning to live his remaining years in his tower as a recluse composing poetry and playing music. Sorry, Cromis! You must strap on your famous sword and ride your horse to gather your Methven friends who once fought ferociously on behalf of Viriconium since impending disaster requires you to defend your young queen and the lands within her domain.

We join tall, thin Cromis from the first to last chapter, the ideal main character for M. John Harrison since the aging champion radiates knightly virtue and is a keen observer of beauty both in nature and in art.

The New Earth: Viriconium and the Pastel City arose five hundred years following the collapse of the Afternoon Cultures with their highly technological and scientific achievements, cultures such as our own which left a vast wasteland of rust and decay. In this new age, the transformation of fauna and flora is striking - for example, there are docile giant lizards nearly the size of dinosaurs and great sloth-like beasts fifteen feet tall when standing upright, beasts known as albino megatheria so gentle and friendly the queen keeps one as a house pet.

Mysterious Messenger: A huge vulture approaches Cromis and delivers a message: "go at once to the tower of Cellur on the Girvan Bay." On closer inspection Cromis can see the vulture is made of intricately formed metal and is capable of engaging in dialogue, a creature, he reckons, made with know-how from the Afternoon cultures.

Energy Weapons: Diabolical instruments from the Afternoon Cultures that perhaps electrocute their victims. The author cleverly doesn't elaborate here; rather, he leaves the details of these deadly weapons to the reader's imagination.

Airboats: Yet again another piece of technology from the Afternoon Cultures, crafts frequently equipped with energy cannons. Not surprisingly, Viriconiums judge those Afternoon Cultures as geared toward war and destruction. Quite a statement on our present era.

Dwarf Eleven Feet Tall: One of the most fascinating parts of the novel: Cromis' old fighting friend, ax wielding Tomb the dwarf rigs himself with an immense motorized skeleton contraption with extended arms and legs so he can swing into battle towering above mere men, "a gigantic paradox suspended on the thin line between comedy and horror." Not only is Tomb a fighter and master mechanic, this dwarf spouts one-liners like a first-rate stand-up comic. Thanks, M. John! Every life and death adventure needs a spot of humor.

The Birdmaker: Cellur of Lendalfoot has gathered the wisdom of hundreds of years as he had passed beyond time into a state of exaltation. "He wore a loose, unbelted black robe - quilted in grouped arrangements of lozenges - which was embroidered in gold wire patterns resembling certain geometries cut into the towers of the Pastel City: those queer and uneasy signs that might equally have been the visual art or the language of the mathematics of Time itself."

Jolt of the Weird: Similar to British author Christopher Priest with his expanding of dimensions, such things as time, space, gravity or invisibility, an expansion I term "jolt of the weird," we likewise encounter such a weird jolt in the concluding chapters of The Pastel City.

In this way, Viriconium is NOT in the fantasy tradition of J. R. R. Tolkien. Nope, no fantasy novel for M. John Harrison. There is good reason the author has been called a genre contrarian. Some might even see him as a genre smasher - after all, he has spoken openly about his dissatisfaction with the boundaries and categories set for much genre fiction.

As to how exactly M. John Harrison expands, zigzags, reshapes and otherwise explodes and revitalizes the world of Viriconium, you will have to read for yourself.

A Storm of Wings is the second volume in the Viriconium four book cycle. Smash! Boom! Bang! - the sounds of British author M. John Harrison shattering expectations and boundaries surrounding the genres of fantasy and science fiction. As for the reader, novel as mindbender and bizarre mindmelter - all in a winged storm less than 150 pages. Remarkable.

We return to the lands and cities of Viriconium eighty years following events described in The Pastel City, that bygone era where Lord tegeus-Cromis, Tomb the Dwarf and the Reborn Men lead armies fighting under the banner of young Queen Jane in routing the barbarian Northmen. Now nearly everything has changed: the Reborn Men no longer dance in harmonies of grace and beauty, the landscape has been drained of its power and a pervasive hollowness reigns - this to say, the move from The Pastel City to A Storm of Wings is a shift from major to minor key, from tale of spirited high adventure to one of madness and chaos brought about in large measure by an alien abduction of psychic energies.

Pivotal to the tale is Alstath Fulthor, the very first of the Reborn Men to be resuscitated from his millennial entombment, brought to life once again in Viriconium, having last experienced individual identity during the years of those technologically advanced Afternoon Cultures very much like our own. Alas, poor Alstath – for decades a once respected lord in the Pastel City, he is currently sprinting across the surrounding foothills, propelled by a sudden madness.

After slowing his pace, Alstath Fulthor comes upon an old man who turns out to be none other than Cellur of Lendalfoot, former maker of birds, large warlike metal birds that played a critical part in The Pastel City. Both men decide to pay a visit to Methvet Nian, Queen Jane, Queen of Viriconium.

Meanwhile, Queen Jane hears the windows in her throne room calling out to her. What does it all mean? Perhaps such a calling is connected to the unsettling description of the Upper City's population: "Under a cold moon processions of men with insect faces went silently through the streets." Whoa. Are these men's faces contorted in grimaces that might remind one of insects or, as unbelievable as it might sound, do they, in fact, have the faces of insects? In keeping with the novel's overarching dense atmosphere, we are never given a clear indication.

On the same day, in the Lower City, in the Artists' Quarter, a large, burly man by the name of Galen Hornwrack enters the Bistro Californium, "that home of all errors and all who err." There is talk of a religion unlike any others invented in Viriconium - The Sign of the Locust, a religion maintaining a fundamental tenet: "the appearance of "reality" is quite false, a counterfeit or artifact of the human senses." Equally disturbing, a wave of murders sweeping the city has been linked to this religion where followers wear a steel MANTAS symbol around their necks and cover their bodies with tattoos of symbolical patterns.

The very air throughout all of Viriconium appears to be fetid, noxious, sickly even toxic during this dreaded times. Can anything be saved? Further along in the tale an unlikely band - Alstath Fulthor, Tomb the Dwarf, the mad Reborn Woman Fay Glass, Cellur of Lendalfoot and the above mentioned Galen Hornwrack, a lord without a domain who has spent his life as a hired assassin - ride north to determine what, if anything, can be done.

The further this band travels, the more bugged out and freakish their encounters - memory and sanity, their own and those around them, morph into dreaming and sheer madness. Among the weirdness confronted:

A tremendously fat former airboat pilot from another dimension, one Benedict Paucemanly, hangs in the sky above the adventurers and periodically conveys his version of disastrous happening throughout the realm. Benedict even waxes philosophic: "The material universe, it would appear, has little absolute substance. It hardly exists. It is a rag of matter, a wisp of gas, a memory of some former state. Each sentient species perceives the thin evidence of this state in a different way." Down to earth, practical Galen Hornwrack isn't overly impressed. What Galen desires is substantial help in defeating the forces destroying Viriconium.

A harbinger of future horrors, peering out from the port of Iron Chime, onlookers see a ship "its strange slattered metal sails, decorated with unfamiliar symbols, were melting as they fell. Captained by despair, it emerged from the mist like a vessel from Hell, its figurehead an insect-headed woman who had pierced her own belly with a sword." Some time thereafter, a captain living in the port city informs the travelers, "We're all mad here."

Further along in their travels, the party is suddenly surrounded by the walls of a maze causing the world to tumble sideways. Immediately thereafter, when Galen Hornwrack stumbles into a circular space, there's a giant mantis-fly insect crouching over Fay Glass. Curiously, such a desert maze echoes what we were told of the Reborn Men and Women, how many of them wondered off from cities to form communes or self-help groups (thanks, M. John - so 1970s) and how a number of Reborn colonies dedicated themselves to music or mathematics or "the carving of enormous mazes out of the sodden clinker and blowing sands of the waste." Was this grotesque maze constructed by the Reborn? Again, in keeping with the author's opaque aesthetic, nothing more definite is disclosed.

Neil Gaiman admits the difficulty in “explaining” M. John Harrison’s writing. As Neil expresses, Mike Harrison is a writer’s writer, an author who carefully chooses each and every word to convey the power of art and magic and how the nature of reality is continually shifting and changing, how there are cities hidden beneath cities and worlds within worlds. I entirely concur with Neil. For readers interested in more straightforward storytelling, my advice is to stick with The Pastel City. But for those who take delight in literary explosions, A Storm of Wings is your book. In many ways, I see M. John Harrison as the John Cage of speculative fiction. What a treat.

In Viriconium or The Floating Gods - Third book in the British author's Viriconium cycle, a short novel of great poetic power. But, beware, this is hardly a feel good adventure tale within the genres of either science fiction or fantasy. Nay, with In Viriconium we visit the city in the grip of plague, in many respects we might as well be back in medieval Europe during the Black Death, but with M. John Harrison's yarn there's some serious off-the-wall weirdness brewing.

Weirdness, as in the common people inhabiting the Lower City enshrouded in plague not in the usual sense but a kind of thin fog whereby they age quickly or fall victim to various debilitating illnesses. Meanwhile, the Upper City, although spared the fog's deadly infestation, sinks into decadence on all levels: material, spiritual, intellectual, artistic.

Weirdness, as in the twin princes of the city, the fat, meaty Barley brothers ("they weren't human, that's a fact") rumble and bumble, belch, fart and vomit while playing the part of mindless pranksters on stairways and bridges and garden patches, in streams and in the city's oddest corners. They even try to sell the rats they've cudgeled to shocked restauranteurs. Where did these two ominous slubberdegullions come from, really? Perhaps a new form of Reborn Men or outer space alien readers encountered in A Storm of Wings?

Weirdness, as in two heroes initially encountered in The Pastel City bent and transformed almost beyond recognition: Cellur the Brdmaker keeps to his room in an old tower, collects stuffed birds, apparently has lost his memory and admits he doesn't know how old he is. Tomb the dwarf now calls himself The Grand Cairo and heads the city as something of a counter to the Barley brothers. He even has his own police force. The Grand Cairo is a major player in the world of In Viriconium but you will have to look hard to detect any of the old noble fire so present in the first two novels in the cycle.

The tale is told in five chapters represented by five tarot cards, a tale revolving around Ashlyme the portrait painter attempting to rescue another artist, Audsley King, from her plight as a ravaged plague victim in the Lower City. Similar to A Storm of Wings, the language throughout is high baroque, an entire baroque cathedral made of words, thus the challenge for a reviewer to convey the inner spirit of the book since the story is all in the precise way it is told. With this in mind, I'll shift to a number of In Viriconium direct quotes revolving around the city's arts and literature and link my comments with these:

"He hung the painting in different places to find the best light and stood in front of them for long periods, thrilled by the stacked planes of the landscapes, the disquieting eros of her inner world." ---------- Ashlyme is viewing a series of Audsley King paintings. M. John Harrison doesn't describe the paintings in detail; rather, he delineates Ashlyme's reactions to them. In this way, we as readers are free to imagine the paintings for ourselves.

"He touched the mask with his fingers. It was the head of a trout, to which someone had added thick rubbery lips and a ludicrous crest of spines." ---------- Ashlyme dons a grotesque mask as a disguise in his attempt to carry Audsley out of the Low City. The rubber fish mask covers his head completely and can be seen as a microcosm for the grotesqueness of the entire city.

"He was popular in the salons. The Marchioness "L" called on him, with a new novelist." ---------- A snatch from a conversation Ashlyme has with decadent aristocrats from the Upper City. I would dearly love to read one of this novelist's novels! I would guess the story told is a cross between Boccaccio's The Decameron and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

"In this case he had done the painting over a group portrait of the Baroness de B -- and her family which had never been collected from the studio. As the wet summer advanced and the new paint began to fade, the image of the Baroness was beginning to reemerge in the form of a very old woman holding a flower, slowly absorbing and distorting the figure of Audsley King." ---------- Ashlyme reuses the same canvas to save on his resources. Such a vivid image of a city pulled down into decadence - the old Baroness emerging to engulf a great vital young artist.

"A self-portrait painted at about this time. "Kneeling with raised arms," shows him, his eyes squeezed closed, apparently crawling and groping his way about his own studio, a whitish empty space. He seems to have come up against some sort of invisible barrier, against which he is pressing one side of his face so that it is distorted and whitened into a mask of frustration and despair." ---------- One of the many invisible barriers Ashlyme must break through if he is to be more of a positive force in the city he dearly loves.

"And the longer he stayed in his studio, biting his pen, listening to the rain dripping in the attic, trying to conjure up in his mind's eye a picture of the thin, intense provincial girl who had arrived in Viriconium twenty years ago to shock the artistic establishment of the day with the suppressed violence and frozen sexual somnambulism of her self-portraits." ---------- One can only wonder how Audsley King captured her own "frozen sexual somnambulism" in her self-portrait, keeping in mind such a person engages in sexual acts while in non rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.

"Out of the tarot cards on the floor came an intense coloured flare of light, as if they had been illuminated suddenly from behind. Ashlyme felt it flash across his face, green and yellow, scarlet and deep blue, like light from a melting stain-glass window." ---------- The tarot cards are from the deck of fortune teller Fat Man Etteilla. This passage is an example of the rich, ornate visual impact on nearly every page.

After reading In Viriconium, Neil Gailman noted how he now sees all cities having a Lower City and an Upper City, and how, in a certain way, all cities are Viriconium. I've had this experience myself.


M. John Harrison, born 1945
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
classic, of course, here collected: a 562-page record of the city of Virconium. good example of a fantastic city chronicle, of decadent fantasy, and of end-of-the-world fantasy. but on another level, up in the meta, it could be framed as an anti-fantasy fantasy. because it's really about where this world is headed, not just from 1971-1985 when the author was writing into this world, but even more applicable to the world as it exists today. as Harrison himself observes of his work, and/or the work within the work, "when he tells it his eyes are glazed and inturned, as if the events were still there in front of him but can only be discerned by a great effort. He makes broad yet hesitant gestures. He is very clever at details, especially architectural ones; and he dwells with considerable ingenuity on the sin of the Barley brothers which he kept them from following their peers into the past. If he did not fully believe his own tale to begin with, he has now left himself no choice." this is in his view fantasy used as a device to avoid, used as a protection from the real world, which occasionally shows through to disastrous effect, and cannot be changed because of the conceit. the characters, the city itself, suffers from this inability to see and deal. vacillation ensues; things gradually get worse, nothing coheres, nothing can be addressed. "I have heard the cafe philosophers say, 'The World is so old that the substance of reality no longer knows what it ought to be.'" and so, delirium, decay. it is a plague. art dies, nothing can penetrate the veil of unreason. yeah, it's interesting. Harrison then mostly stopped writing and became a book reviewer instead. ( )
1 vote macha | Feb 27, 2017 |
Reet good. ( )
  deeronthecurve | Jan 19, 2017 |
I first read the Viriconium stories many years ago but this is the first time I have read them all in one block, in the author's preferred order. That makes it sound like there is some kind of "correct" chronology to these stories, but Harrison has said they can be read in any order provided that the final story, A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium, is read last.

Reading them as a complete set of stories does reveal some interesting quirks though. Insects, both small and large and alien, are a running theme, especially in the novel A Storm of Wings; Dwarfs feature prominently in almost all the stories; certain names get reused in slightly altered forms for characters that may or may not be the same person. Indeed, in Wings, one of the main protagonists has to insist several times that he is not the hero of the first novel, The Pastel City. That's the thing with the Viriconium stories, they spiral in on themselves, each iteration revealing a different facet.

Viriconium belongs to the dying earth strand of fantasy stories. A far future (the Evening of the Earth) after the so-called Afternoon Cultures have destroyed themselves. Much is lost. Parts of the earth are a wasteland. Old technology is dug up from the wastes, but no-one knows how to maintain it, or how it works. But Harrison grounds this in a very European, 19th Century feeling city. Art, poetry and theatre dominate the lives of his characters. The hero of The Pastel City, tegeus-Cromis, is a warrior poet. The final novel, In Viriconium, features two painters. This gives the whole thing a strange familiar yet unfamiliar feel. Like peering into the past to see the future.

The first story, Viriconium Knights, is key. The protagonist, escaping those who would kill him, stumbles into the home of an old man who shows him moving tapestries which seem to show him as different heroes, in different times. The point is that all these stories explore different facets of the city. And the final story is also important, revealing that Viriconium is more a state of mind than a real destination.

If you like your fantasy full of elves, quests and tidy endings, then maybe Viriconium isn't a place you should visit. But if you have an open mind, are willing to go with it, then sit down in the Bistro Californium and have a look around. You may be lucky enough to hear Ansel Verdigris perform a new poem, or see Paulinus Rack in conversation with Audsley King as they talk about art and theatre. But stay out of the plague zone.

Viriconium! ( )
  David.Manns | Nov 28, 2016 |
the bloke is stunning... i follow his blog, too, just for the pleasure ( )
  crowspeaks | Oct 16, 2015 |
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Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. (Prologue)
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Contains 'In Viriconium' (1982) and 'Viriconium Nights' (1985)
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Includes: : "Pastel City", "Storm of Wings", "In Viriconium", "Viriconium Nights"
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553383159, Paperback)

Available to American readers for the first time, this landmark collection gathers four groundbreaking fantasy classics from the acclaimed author of Light. Set in the imagined city of Viriconium, here are the masterworks that revolutionized a genre and enthralled a generation of readers: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, and Viriconium Nights. Back in print after a long absence, these singular tales of a timeless realm and its enigmatic inhabitants are now reborn and compiled to captivate a whole new generation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:04 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Available to American readers for the first time, this collection gathers four fantasy classics from the acclaimed author of Light. Set in the imagined city of Viriconium, here are the masterworks that revolutionized a genre and enthralled a generation of readers: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, and Viriconium Nights. Back in print after a long absence, these singular tales of a timeless realm and its enigmatic inhabitants are now reborn and compiled to captivate a whole new generation."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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