Notes on The Pastel City (1971) and A Storm of Wings (1980) by M John Harrison

Like the Holdfast books discussed in the previous post, the Viriconium series also revolves around a fantastical last refuge of humanity in a post-apocalyptic world. But that’s where the similarity ends.

While Suzy McKee Charnas uses the apocalyptic event to explore a new society, Mike Harrison creates a wasteland because he likes wastelands. He wants to revel in the aesthetic – “philosophical (not to say ethological) despair” – that Eliot builds in his seminal work, The Waste Land. This is not to say that this is all he wants to do.

Harrison is one of the first (along with Michael Moorcock) to consciously put his foot down and with his back against the wall, push the fantasy novel away from where Tolkien’s imitators were taking it. Harrison is deeply suspicious of worldbuilding because he understands that as an activity, it’s motivations are very different from that of writing. To Harrison, worldbuilding is “the great clomping foot of nerdism“, trying to reduce fiction to bureaucracy. It’s an activity that he says is in some sense ‘opposed’ to the art of writing: it’s an attempt to assert control over an experience, to diffuse the anxiety at the heart of a work of art.

So he made sure the Viriconium sequence would be different. He made sure there was no “dependable furniture”. He writes, “You can’t read it for that stuff, so you have to read it for everything else. And if its landscapes can’t be mapped, its threat of infinite depth (or at least infinite recessiveness) can’t be defused but must be accepted on its own terms, as a guarantee of actual adventure.”

He does this in multiple ways – by building a city that never lets you get a grip on it, either geographically or conceptually; by building a detritus of myth and legend rather than history; by subverting the typical structure and form of the fantasy novel. But – and this is important to note – there’s definitely worldbuilding. The first two novels (the ones I’ve read) are set in the evening of Viriconium and the world, after the series of great civilizations called the Afternoon Cultures have all ended and disappeared. The taste of decline (one Tolkien deployed as well) is palpable. The first book is gothic, full of Arthurian despair and romance. The second – the second is something else completely. It seems to take the first book’s compromise with convention and then to rewrite it so that the compromise becomes as meaningless as possible. No one can read The Storm of Wings and call it “consolatory” or “escapist”. It is avowedly post-modern and deconstructionist, an attempt to convey a roiling psychological landscape. It’s a novel about the triumph of metaphysics over reality. It uses the word ‘umwelt‘. And the word, fart. It’s not an easy read.

But the writing is taut and musical. Here’s a taste from the opening of the book:

In this time, in the Time of the Locust, when we have nothing to ourselves but the hollowness within us, in the Time of Bone, when we have nothing to do but wait, nothing human moves here. Nothing human has moved here for eighty years. Fire, were it brought here, would be pale and dim, hard to kindle. Passion would fade here to a whisper. Something in the tower’s fall has poisoned the air here, and drained the landscape of its power. White and sickly and infinitely slow, the hemlock creeps out of the water to run sad rubbery fingers over the rubbish in the fallen rooms. The collapse of the tower seems complete, the defeat of artifice accomplished.

And another:

Fear and magic have defeated his skills. The waste lands he set out to cross in his youth have shown him no enemy but his own ambition. All wells were poisoned; sand has swallowed his troops and his hopes. He lurches back alone into the country of his birth only to find that it too has become shifting, unreliable, changed forever…

You have to revel in this. Because as Harrison says, that’s all that’s there.

John Coulthart writes that his “indeterminacy and a refusal to offer neat resolutions (or that awful term “closure”)”, explain “why Harrison’s books often seem to attract more praise than actual readers.”