Monday, May 19, 2008

Viriconium's Vexing Vocab

Have you ever gotten something you yearned for -- an oft-delayed vacation, a new car or a fine, aged wine -- only to discover it doesn’t live up to your longing? If so, you may understand my response to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. Consistently praised in the speculative-fiction community, it is a compendium spanning three novels and seven short stories, all of which center on a city of the same name. Sounds simple, yet describing what Viriconium is and what happens around, in and to it is challenging. That’s because Harrison reinvents his creation from piece to piece.

In the first novel, The Pastel City, Viriconium is a far-future metropolis threatened by civil strife. As one of its last defenders, the warrior/poet tegeus-Cromis must lead a ragtag group of soldiers through the poisonous Metal-Salt Marsh to the Great Brown Waste, where hidden wonders of the lost Afternoon Cultures lie beneath rusted scrap that slowly sifts to silt. There he and his band must face the rebel Canna Moidart and the ancient threat she has unearthed -- fearsome automatons called the geteit chemosit. It reads like a blending of The Lord of the Rings and Dune. There are ferocious battles in blasted landscapes, miraculous technologies and a piercing poignancy over a civilization that might be the earth’s last if things go wrong. It’s great fun.

A Storm of Wings, the next in the cycle, is anything but. It has the right ingredients -- the return of old friends, peril from beyond the stars, and several desperate and doomed sorties. Yet a combination of muddled plotting and fever-dream description manages to muck up the proceedings. The swarms of intergalactic insects menacing Viriconium do so not through superior weaponry or numbers, but through a kind of Gnostic telepathy that reworks reality itself. Ludicrous word choices doom it even further. Examples? There are plenty. A procession marches “in a lunar chiaroscuro of gamboge and blue.” During a mental crisis, a character watches “precarious flowers bloom in his secret heart.” A foundering fleet lost in treacherous waters “turned quietly turtle in the gelid sea.” Imagine one or more of these groaners per page. Now try to conjure up some excitement for what is the collection’s longest section.

While the purplest of this prose gets excised in the remaining material, a new wrinkle appears -- the transition of Viriconium from a city rooted in space and time to myth. Harrison tries to achieve this by reintroducing previous characters and then fundamentally altering some part of them. Virtues and vices, biographical details, professional achievements, even hairstyles -- all get freely mixed and matched. The effort proves about as intelligible as the plots, which range from adequate (“The Lamia & Lord Cromis”) to obscure (“The Dancer From the Dance”) to well-nigh impenetrable (“The Luck in the Head”). As for In Viriconium, the last of the novels, Neil Gaiman writes in the introduction that the protagonist “barely understands the nature of the story he finds himself in.” The same could likely be said for many who read it.

It is distasteful to so roundly criticize a work, especially one from as talented an author as Harrison. He is incredibly imaginative and interested in grand ideas. Those willing to commit multiple readings to Viriconium and struggle through the vexing vocabulary, screwy character switch-ups and bewildering shifts in action will likely be rewarded. If only Harrison hadn’t given the rest of us such good excuses not to.

2 comments:

Victor Jones said...

The Pastel City is great, not one of the all-time classics of the genre, but a pretty accomplished little novel. However, I'll agree that the novels take a steep dive in quality (and a sad uptick in pretension) from there. Almost all of the praise I've come across seems to center almost exclusively on The Pastel City, rather than the series itself, and there is good reason for that.

Loren Eaton said...

Victor,

Thanks for stopping by! I agree with you 100%. I came to Harrison's work through Neil Gaiman (who wrote the intro for Viriconium), and although The Pastel City isn't groundbreaking, it found a place on my middle shelf. Unfortunately, some of Harrison's fans have gotten angry with me for suggesting that his later works are inferior. No accounting for taste, eh?