M. John Harrison
Viriconium Cover

Enjoy the bewilderment!


When the Young Queen Jane of Viriconium gives hero Lord tegeus-Cromis the Tenth Ring of Neap from her glittering fingers as proof of authorization for his quest, the signaling of Tolkien motif is established. When Cromis promptly loses the Tenth Ring of Neap on his battled-scarred trek, and continues without it, ending the tale with the Queen's fingers glittering with only nine Rings of Neap, the subversion of Arthurian myth is solidified. The loss of the Ring of Neap is the loss of the escape, and a promise of things to come: an attack on the senselessness of fantasy, of the imaginary, of the romantic, of the things I loved. In my youth.

It becomes... the first infection of the human reality... (225)

The Viriconium omnibus is not a collection of stories to read, it is an argument to parse out. In The Pastel City (1971), the quest structure is erected, recognizeable but deliberately rickety and asbestos-ridden. An erosion of tradition. In A Storm of Wings (1980), that structure is overhauled with hallucinatory confabulations of story and character echoes. In Viriconium (1982) zooms in on the delirium of High and Low City life: its artists, its swindlers, its smalltime bullies. The collection then dissolves into Viriconium Nights (1984), a series of short fictions that swirl throughout the Viriconium landscape, closing the sequence while blasting open the fantasy genre.

I have read things like this, from before and after 1971, and while entertaining, to an extent, they have often felt [thin] [clumsy] [trying] [fake]. [wannabe]. (Peake excluded.) Dying worlds, crusty cities, subverted storytelling, with words selected for precision and surprise, but somehow managing neither. Harrison is the genuine article, a wordsmith. Here are some of my favorites... just the short, vague ones (I'll leave the best for you to discover):

We waste our lives in half truths and nonsense. We waste them. (86) a tetanus of anxiety and self-interest... (130)

Its stairways wound like a tedious argument... (145)

Echoes fled like bats. (157)

He filled the sitting room like a murder. (168)

...losing definition like a piece of wet soap. (235)

...more aware of a kind of slippage in the city's perception of itself... (343)

...a city of worn-out enthusiasms... (396)

You can't just fly there, of course. (450)

There a smell of lemons clung, as if some bitter dew had condensed on that doomed hull during its confused final voyage. It was an unearthly, chemical smell. The horses hated it. (189)

(Well, who doesn't hate lemon pledge?)

It is a bewildering read with rabbit holes aplenty. The erudition, the language, the allusiveness is overwhelming for anyone, let alone readers raised on commercial pacing and sentimentality. But that's exactly who it's for, not to pull back the curtains, but to turn on the lights. Viriconium is meant to be grappled with. It is meant to awaken, to infect. It is meant for the reread shelf. Disillusionment can take the reader out of Viriconium, but it can't take Viriconium out of the reader.