Way back in the depths of last year I announced my intention to read M. John Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’; a collection that had left me more than a little confused (the last time I read it) with its tendency to tell far too much all at once. If this wasn’t enough, its tone was never anything less than bleak and depressing, hardly conducive to a straightforward read.
It was the depressing nature of the subject matter that led me (on my second attempt at reading the collection) to put the book down and never really get round to picking it up again. There’s nothing like a book that questions it’s own reality constantly to inspire a feeling of alienation that leads me to pick up something a little more ‘stable’ instead…
It was when I saw that James had reviewed ‘Viriconium’, earlier on this year, that I remembered my New Year’s resolution to polish this book off but it wasn’t until the Bank Holiday weekend that I finally got round to it. I only planned on reading ‘A Storm of Wings’ but I somehow found myself polishing the rest of the book off in one sitting. Maybe my journey into the ‘Forgotten Realms’, earlier this week, geared me up for something a little more challenging…
‘A Storm of Wings’ tells the story of an alien invasion of a land that is already alien enough to defy description. As you dig further into the tale though you discover it is far more than it at first appears. How can a story like this be simple when the leading characters are fractured by traumas that are only coming to light after thousands of years? The Reborn Man Alstath Fulthor is constantly reeling from his attempts to reconcile his current life to the insanity of the Afternoon Cultures, a reconciliation that is doomed to a slow and drawn out failure. Harrison can be more than a little verbose at times but the reader does end up with a strong image of the mental anguish that Fulthor suffers on an almost daily basis. I was also left wondering if there was a little of Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ in Fulthor with his mood swinging between compassion and cruelty along with his attempts to come to terms with a world where his people are no longer in the ascendancy. Harrison also shows us that it’s not just Viriconium, and Earth, that is suffering from the effects of a reality that is fraying at the edges. The rest of the universe suffers as well as various races seek to impose their own reality on something that is at best vague and nebulous.
What happens when two realities meet and seek to gain dominance over the other? The main result is that the main thrust of the plot becomes almost incidental to the wider issues of philosophy that play out in the mysterious city and Viriconium itself. Harrison gets verbose again and I found myself really having to work to get my head around what he was saying as well as stay in touch with the story itself. I’ll confess to not succeeding at this all of the time… What you do get though is a story that is heavy on atmosphere and with the tiniest of twists that still manages to paint the story in a different light. Hornwrack’s fate is clear, once you learn a little about his past, but is no less powerful. The overall impact of the story is lessened in that Viriconium has already been established as a city constantly in flux, if change is inevitable then the ending is clear before you even start reading. Harrison is full of ideas around this though and this made the story worth the read.
‘The Dancer from the Dance’, ‘The Luck in the Head’ and ‘The Lamia & Lord Cromis’ are snapshots from various points in various histories of various Viriconiums. There are elements connecting these short tales to the longer affairs but these are purely for the reader to take up if they wish and that constant state of flux is always apparent. Viriconium is also Vriko at the same time as being Uroconium and even Vira Co; a city that lays itself open to anyone who wishes to impose their reality upon it. Throughout these stories, and the book as a whole, Harrison invites his readers to get involved in a way that you don’t normally come across in fantasy literature. Viriconium is nothing less than what you make it. All three of these stories deal with this theme to one extent or another, whether it’s confronting the reality of yourself or seeking to impose your reality on a far wider scale. ‘The Luck in the Head’ deals with this latter theme but feels a little disjointed in it’s attempts to move the players into position for the final scenes. The atmosphere is brooding and gloomy enough but I felt like I was missing something in how the pieces were moved into play. ‘The Dancer from the Dance’ is a more whimsical affair that shows the reader how joy can be found in the most unlikely of places and this casts a new light on a city that has become renowned (over the course of the book) for it’s sense of ennui. The spontaneity of this discovery is particularly refreshing as is the night-watchman’s attempts to vocalise it.
‘The Lamia & Lord Cromis’ is my favourite of these three stories. While the identity of the Lamia is fairly easy to deduce early on, it’s the way that the story ends so abruptly that gives it the added impact. If the entire reason for your existence is taken away from you, what reason do you have to go on and is your life leading up to that point suddenly rendered pointless? How do you impose your reality on what is left? Harrison leaves us to make our own minds up on this score but the way in which it’s all left hanging (and how Cromis reacts to this) is the important thing and it’s dealt with superbly.
I found ‘In Viriconium’ to be a little too absorbed in it’s subject matter to be truly effective but when it gets away from its meditations on art, and back to the characters that keep the story moving, it gives us a thoughtful insight into a city in the grip of a crisis that is more subtle than those that have come before. The plague zone offers a vague threat that is only really represented in the malady of one character but it’s the reaction of others that convey its seriousness. In the midst of this plague, one character seeks to rescue an artist from the plague zone and in doing so impose his own vision on the art community of Viriconium. Harrison delves deep into the soul of Ashlyme, our main character, giving the reader a tortured portrait of a man trying to stay true to his vision while the city goes through another of its many changes. The contrast between relative stability and outright chaos makes for some fascinating reading at times; particularly when personified in the rambunctious Barley Brothers, two brothers who may be more than they seem. ‘In Viriconium’ is a difficult read to get into at first but soon becomes one of the more absorbing tales in the collection.
Who are the mysterious Barley Brothers? ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ may give us a possible answer in its linking the world of Viriconium to events in our own. It’s certainly a possible reason for the story appearing where it does in the collection. This intriguing (at least to me) thought to one side though, ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ feels strangely out of place when the somewhat staid reality of our world is compared to the more fantastical aspects of Viriconium. This short story is one of those tales where I find myself sure that it hasn’t given up all it’s secrets on the one read. Maybe another read will shed a little more light on things.
‘Viriconium’ has made for a reading experience far more satisfying than the last time I gave it a go (way before I started the blog). I think this was in no small part down to my knowing what I was up against, this time round, and this gave me the chance to actually engage with the book instead of spending my time trying to figure out what it was all about. I’m sure that there’s a lot more to get my head around and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a book that I found myself coming back to in the future...