M. John Harrison, Viriconium (1971-85)

This is Viriconium: the city to end all cities; namesake of the dominant empire in Earth’s twilight. This is Viriconium: an omnibus of novels and stories by M. John Harrison. When you venture in, it’s important to bear in mind which of these statements is the more accurate.

By the way, this post is going to tell you quite a bit about what happens. I can’t really see that as a spoiler, because plot is not the point of Viriconium (except insofar as it’s an illusion, like much else in the stories). It’s the experience of reading Harrison’s work that counts, and nothing I say here can substitute that. Not that it’s going to stop me trying to give a sense of Viriconium, of course.

The first novel in the sequence, The Pastel City (1971), sees Viriconium under attack from the forces of the ruling queen’s cousin. One of the old king’s champions, tegeus-Cromis (‘who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman’), picks up his weapons and sets out to reunite his comrades-in-arms and defend the city. So far, so conventional, it might seem – albeit with a vividly realised setting of a decaying far future. Advanced technology from previous eras (the ‘Afternoon Cultures’) persists, but the world has forgotten how it works. The landscape is one of rust and garishly-coloured metal salts. The stars have been rearranged to spell the name of a past culture, but no one is left who can read it.

But the deeper themes of Viriconium are already becoming apparent. Some say that reality is becoming thin with age, forgetting itself. Cromis’s journey does not run according to plan, and he turns away from witnessing its ending, and away from greater knowledge. By the close of The Pastel City, individuals from one of the Afternoon Cultures have been resurrected – so Viriconium finds itself in danger of being superseded by the past.

As a fictional city, Viriconium is a timeless mish-mash; but, in The Pastel City, one nevertheless has the impression of a coherent, functioning place. That impression is predicated on the structure of the novel, though, as A Storm of Wings (1980) makes clear. This is a much more fragmented text, which could be seen in some ways as a parody of its predecessor’s quest-fantasy. Various characters (some from The Pastel City, some not) assemble in the queen’s palace to begin dealing with a threat to Viriconium. But the sense is much more that they have been moved there, like pieces on a gameboard; the reasons for their gathering are not so clear, to them or the reader.

All those reasons, it turns out, are aspects of the same thing: an invasion of insect-people who have their own way of perceiving the universe, radically different from humans’ – and these alternative perceptions vie for supremacy. Reality in Viriconium (in Viriconium) is literally what you make of it. The scenes of A Storm of Wings slide between perceptions; the reader’s best hope is perhaps just to hang on.

In the third novel, In Viriconium (1982), part of the city has been afflicted by a ‘plague’ which causes reality itself to thin out: people fall ill, buildings decay, ventures fail. A portrait-painter named Ashlyme attempts to rescue his fellow-artist, Audsley King, from the plague zone – a mission which, perhaps inevitably, leads to disaster. Harrison shows the reality of Viriconium to be ever flimsier here: so much so that the real world (our world) is leaking through. The mundanity of the novel’s events, and the fragmented nature of its ‘narrative’, suggest that the coherence of The Pastel City was illusory, no more than a matter of perception.

It might seem at first glance that the Viriconium novels take place in the same chronology, but there are enough discrepancies to make clear that it’s not so. And the stories which were assembled as Viriconium Nights (1985) – and are scattered throughout the 2000 omnibus I was reading – demonstrate that even more emphatically. Characters and places (even Viriconium itself) can have different names or histories. This is revealed to the character Ignace Retz in the story ‘Viriconium Knights’, when he is shown scenes of adventure featuring warriors who bear his face. ‘All knights are not Ignace Retz,’ he is told – but, if all these scenes have happened, or will happen, somewhere, what does that make him?

In my omnibus, ‘Viriconium Knights’ is placed first of all (even before The Pastel City); so we know from the start that there can be no such thing as a definitive vision of Viriconium. Essentially, the Viriconium Nights stories are slices of life from ‘places’ that can have no life beyond their individual tales. In ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ – the final story – Viriconiun is no more than an abstract entity for which people in our world may yearn. The protagonist tries vainly to make the mirror of a café toilet act as a portal to Viriconium. After images of the far future and tales of saving the world, that is all you have left. That is what’s real.

Viriconium represents a systematic destruction of the idea of fantasy as escape. It is bleak, even nightmarish at times – yet it’s beautiful, too. You’ll have to read it for yourself, though, to really see what I mean.

1 Comment

  1. I think it’s an extraordinary work. Probably my favourite work of fantasy fiction, and if I had to give an example of fantasy and literary blurring at the edges it would be this. The extraordinary idea of an accidental invasion, a superimposition/collision of different ways of perceiving reality each destroying the other, the sense of ennui and dissolution that runs through the book. It’s superlative stuff.

    Harrison famously wanted to make mapping Viriconium impossible, to get away from the sense of fantasy as alternate but equally real reality – a place with maps, physical laws (if with magic somewhat different ones to ours), a logic as coherent as our own, and instead depict something far more troublign. He succeeds. Glad you liked it.

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