Viriconium by M. John Harrison
I am not kidding when I say, this book leapt off the shelf for me at the library a few weeks ago. With the words "available to American readers for the first time" on the back, how could I go wrong?
Viriconium is a mystical city created by M. John Harrison. This volume includes 10 stories that take place in this mystical city with its pastel towers, artist's quarter, Reborn Men, and surrounding poisoned wastelands. Anyone who claims that fantasy isn't literature needs to read this book. I've seen Sistine Chapel ceilings that aren't as beautifully crafted. In the introduction, Neil Gaiman says about Harrison: "his prose is deceptively simple, each word considered and placed where it can sink deepest to do the most damage." Too true. Not only is the prose stunningly beautiful, but it has a lilting feeling to it, almost as if you can hear Gaelic singing in the background. Harrison switches from present to past tense, lending an urgency to the narrative, and giving cadence to the rhythm of storytelling.
At first, I assumed that Viriconium came from Harrison's imagining of a post nuclear war earth, plus about 500 years. There are "wasted areas" with poison ponds that residents avoid, deserts full of old machines to be dug up. Weapons of choice are "power knives", which seem to be a type of laser weapon, although an ordinary sword or knife is considered more civilized weaponry. There is working machinery, and working electronics, but most knowledge of how to build or maintain such items has been lost. After reading the last story, though, my assumptions were called into question.
The tales included in this book introduce us not only to the populace of Viriconium, but their dreams, failings, fantasies, lovers, regrets, passions, fears—the entire spectrum and depth of emotion. We learn from the start that many of our characters are doomed to die, but as the time of their death neared, I found myself wishing their destiny could be changed. I came to care for these characters, to fear for their pain and their fate. Many characters are in more than one tale (though, chronological order is impossible to determine), and some show up in only one story. By falling in love with Viriconium, with its artist's quarter, its Reborn Men, its markets, its salons, the Queen's five-windowed room that shows no horizons known, and its other mad leaders, I couldn't help but hope to run into its inhabitants over the weekend.
I won't attempt to go into plot lines, there are too many covered in the 10 or so short stories. But beware that Viriconium is like a dream, never the same place twice, always shifting, always changing. The book reads more like a biblical testament, a history of a people, than a typical collection of short stories.