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  1. #1
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    March '06 Fantasy BOTM: Viriconium by M. John Harrison

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  2. #2
    Hyperpower! Jack's Avatar
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    I thought Viriconium was great.

    At times during reading, and this is something I posted in the Reading in... thread, I felt like I was eating M&M pancakes smothered in Vermont Maple syrup, just big gobs of the pancake stacked 4 thick, chocolate and bits of colored candy shells spread in the around around my mouth, already sticky with sweet syrupy goodness.

    By that I mean that the stories were just chock full of fantasy goodies, so much so that the text almost seemed too rich at times, but once my stomach got used to all the sweet stuff I was shoving down my gullet, it became normal and easier to digest.

    For me, each book was better then the one before it. The Pastel City was a pretty typical fantasy story, just with some odd elements thrown in. A Storm of Wings came across as much more mature, and on the whole was much more enjoyable then Pastel, which makes sense because there is about an 8 year gap in their publication dates, I believe. Then there's... yargh, I cant' quite remember the name of the third book, but it was wonderful and even weirder then the previous two, the one mainly about the artists.

    Then my favorite was the series of short stories, Viriconium Nights. Very cool.

    From what I've heard about the Viriconium sequence, M. John was seeking to take the reader further and further away from the imaginary city Viriconium, maybe somehow relating that in our growth it becomes harder and harder to "escape" into the fantastic, as we become jaded by the tons and tons of fantasy literature we gorge on each year. I think we can all understand this; in fact it is something we talk about quite often in the main fantasy forum - the loss of that "wow" effect, the loss of the pure love we felt for characters as younger readers age wise but also experience wise, recognition of all the old fantasy cliches (farm boy rises to almight pugdom); which is why we get such a hoot out of books written by the likes of Vandermeer or Ford, or more recently and the best example of which IMO, Bakker, because of their unpredictability whilst still maintaining the fantasy formula we are comfortable with.

    Keep in mind that the last story in Viriconium Nights was "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium", the story of one man's attempt to reach the fabled city. And thinking of this another question arises: why do the characters want to go to Viriconium so badly? In my opinion it seems like such an awful place when the facts are reviewed, but then we can compare it to the highs and lows of our real life fabled city, say New York, and things begin to get clearer. "The City", whether fictional or non-fictional, always holds the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows.

    Without denigrating too far from the topic, I'd like to point out that I read Jeff Vandermeer's Veniss Underground directly after Viriconium, and it presented a wonderful point of comparison; Nichola's haunting line "Let me tell you about the city" now pervades my thoughts about both books.

    I guess, if you interpret all this rambling, what I would like to discuss is, and what I think M. John was trying to get us to discuss, is the role of the City in fantasy, the great city, and what this says about fantasy in general.

  3. #3
    Viriconium is fantastic, to say the least. I bought and read the omnibus collection just last month and was very impressed. In style, it reminds me of Jeff VanderMeer's work: surreal and dreamlike but with absolutely immaculate prose. The influence on other authors like China Mieville is readily apparent as well.

    Having read all of the stories back-to-back, the other thing that really stood out the most to me (and is even remarked upon by a character in one of the stories) is that Viriconium is never the same, from story to story. Things get shifted around in subtle ways.

    As a character in one of the stories remarks:

    "The world is so old that the substance of reality no longer knows quite what it ought to be. The original template is hopelessly blurred. History repeats over and again this one city and a few frightful events-not rigidly, but in a shadowy, tentative fashion, as if it understands nothing else but would like to learn."

    Quote Originally Posted by Jack
    I guess, if you interpret all this rambling, what I would like to discuss is, and what I think M. John was trying to get us to discuss, is the role of the City in fantasy, the great city, and what this says about fantasy in general.
    This is an interesting point, and I'll try to address it as best I can: It seems like the City in fantasy often takes on a life of its own and becomes more than just a stage for the action. Viriconium, New Crobuzon, Ashamoil, Ambergris, Veniss and even Gormenghast are all memorable locations not just because of the characters that dwell there, but because of what they are: massive entities that spawn all manner of events and happenings that shape their denizens and give the city it's unique flavor. In turn, the characters may effect their own changes upon the city, changing the face of it forever or temporarily.

    In a more literary sense, they serve as a focal point for whatever story's being told. Granted, if your story takes place in the middle of BFE, you don't need a city for that, but where would stuff like Mieville's Perdido Street Station be if New Crobuzon didn't exist, for example?

    I wouldn't say every great fantasy needs a major city to be great, however. It's just another way to tell your story, whatever it may be.

    At any rate, I'm going to stop my rambling and let someone else talk. Hope I at least made some sense.
    Last edited by Encryptic; March 2nd, 2006 at 12:26 AM.

  4. #4
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    A few thoughts of my own, then I'll get to Jack's Silly Little City concept.

    I always tend to approach fantasy books from a sort of archetypal mythology standpoint. I feel like that approach sort of fits Viriconium in a way I've never really seen before.

    I saw The Pastel City as sort of a basic stock fantasy story that goes through and presents the basic building blocks of all the later stories. As a story on its own I thought it was pretty dull and tiresome (I think it took me as many days to read that one as it did the rest of the book). But looking back on it after reading the rest of the stories, I can see its place in the greater work and appreciate it.

    After establishing the elements in the fairly impersonal Pastel City, it felt to me that what Harrison did is bring us farther and farther away from the archetypes and closer and closer to life. Each story has characters that are a little more human and a city that's a little more ephemeral. But in all of these stories we're really seeing the same things played out over and over again. Any number of characters who are (not) Cromis, dwarves aplenty, nameless swords, red-tufted bards, princesses (artists) who need rescue (or killing), giant bugs, horse heads, how many rings people are wearing. There are all these elements that either show up later just as they were or in their absolute negative in the later stories.

    In all, it's like he said, "Now, I have my pallet. Let me see how many different ways I can combine all of these things to create different visions." And as they go, we farther and farther and farther away from a real city with real places and the city becomes more and more of a sort of El Dorado, someplace you can't really get to, but it's there calling to you. I think that's what we have in Young Man's Journey. But in addition to the city, we have all these parts that also fit into the daily life, the princesses who need rescuing, the dwarves who are always digging through old memories looking for things to bring to light for better or worse, our hero Lord Cromis - whether he be an artist or a warrior or the fellow eating sins.

    Looking at it from this perspective, I can't see how the book can stand without The Pastel City, and I look forward to going back to that sometime and seeing how it's put together in such a way as to set the stage for things that happen later.

    Now, for those of you who read Light....why on earth did the whole horse-head make it to that book? Maybe I'll have to give Light a reread (shudder) and see if that maybe is just "Viriconium in Space."

    Speaking of light, some of you may remember just how much I hated that book. But I did promise back then to give Harrison another chance. I'm glad I did. Viriconium was a far more enjoyable work for me, one that I think will stick with me for a long time.

  5. #5
    Encryptic and Jack have said pretty much I would say, but I do agree that The Pastel City is much more archetypal in style - but I think that was intentional, as he was trying to do an anti-fantasy. It was a Moorcock-style swords and sorcery, with a few interesting touches and some decent writing, but not spectacular. Everything after it was exceptional, and IMO the best part was the short story "Viriconium Knights", which showed some truly amazing writing. Harrison's imagination is also pretty impressive, and he displays some very dark humour in "In Viriconium". What's easy to forget is how well he draws his characters - they're so often overshadowed by the setting, but I think he really achieves some masterful characterisation with the Grand Cairo, with Ashlyme etc.

    After establishing the elements in the fairly impersonal Pastel City, it felt to me that what Harrison did is bring us farther and farther away from the archetypes and closer and closer to life
    I'd definitely agree with that, and I think that was his aim as a postmodernist. Viriconium isn't a real place, and I think he tries to make that obvious by its shifting nature, but that doesn't mean it can't be seen as a parallel for our own world and there can't be realistic characters in it with real problems.

  6. #6
    Hyperpower! Jack's Avatar
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    Some good things being said all around. It seems like everyone so far enjoyed the book, which is always great. Erfdawg, I'll just have to pickup Light and give it a read, so I can at least see what all the fuss is about. People seem to feel very strongly one way or the other about it (Little, Big anyone?) and extreme reactions to a book are always a big draw for me. I'm also interested in reading M. John's Course of the Heart; basically Viriconium is my first M. John read, and I'd like to know how his whole pomo spec-fic attitude is reflected in his other, more recent works.

    I think we all agree that The Pastel City was the lesser of all the works in the omnibus, but I find myself agreeing with what Erfael said, and this makes me want to revisit the Pastel City to see how I view it in hindsight. I will tell you what I did enjoy was the character of Cromis. Now what exactly does the prescense of Cromis say about the rest of the books? During my reading and in my post-reading reflections I focused so much on the City concept (obviously ) that I haven't reflected on the characters at all.

    Cromis, who considered himself more a poet then a warrior, the reluctant old soldier drawn back into battle by his loyalty, by his loyalty to the city and the true queen who protects her? Here's something else which has been said in so many words above but which I'll repeat: In Pastel City is the peak of us experiencing the aristocracy in Viriconium, where the reader is really rubbing shoulders with the royalty, the queen and her closest protectors.

    Then we still have this a bit in Storm, but in a less regal environment; they are spending most of their time travelling, the young queen cast out of her own city; also we have a character (the one who looks like Cromis) go through a bitter mockery of the traditional "farm boy rises to power" motif so popular in the works of Feist, Tolkien, et al; I say mockery of because he is not a recluctant hero like Cromis, he is downright rebellious and full of hate and enmity for the crown he (still) inevitably ends up serving by story's end.

    Then by the time we reach In Viriconium, we're dealing with artists, artists!, in the low city, and all we really hear of the high city or royalty are curses upon them; by the time we get to the short stories, they start taking us out of the city all together, until we are in our own drab real world/earth in young man's journey.

    At the risk of sounding trite, I'd like to venture that M. John not only takes the characters and thus us out of the city, he seems also to take the city out of the characters and concordantly, takes the city out of us.

  7. #7
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jack
    Cromis, who considered himself more a poet then a warrior, the reluctant old soldier drawn back into battle by his loyalty, by his loyalty to the city and the true queen who protects her? Here's something else which has been said in so many words above but which I'll repeat: In Pastel City is the peak of us experiencing the aristocracy in Viriconium, where the reader is really rubbing shoulders with the royalty, the queen and her closest protectors.

    Then we still have this a bit in Storm, but in a less regal environment; they are spending most of their time travelling, the young queen cast out of her own city; also we have a character (the one who looks like Cromis) go through a bitter mockery of the traditional "farm boy rises to power" motif so popular in the works of Feist, Tolkien, et al; I say mockery of because he is not a recluctant hero like Cromis, he is downright rebellious and full of hate and enmity for the crown he (still) inevitably ends up serving by story's end.

    Then by the time we reach In Viriconium, we're dealing with artists, artists!, in the low city, and all we really hear of the high city or royalty are curses upon them; by the time we get to the short stories, they start taking us out of the city all together, until we are in our own drab real world/earth in young man's journey.

    At the risk of sounding trite, I'd like to venture that M. John not only takes the characters and thus us out of the city, he seems also to take the city out of the characters and concordantly, takes the city out of us.
    I don't know about this. A lot of people would argue that in moving away from the "elite" and down to the level of artists and the people on the street, we're actually moving closer to what makes a city a city. Anybody can run the city. It's the people in the city that make it what it is. So one could also make an argument that as we move down that ladder we're getting closer and closer to us and to what a real city is.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack
    Some good things being said all around. It seems like everyone so far enjoyed the book, which is always great. Erfdawg, I'll just have to pickup Light and give it a read, so I can at least see what all the fuss is about. People seem to feel very strongly one way or the other about it (Little, Big anyone?) and extreme reactions to a book are always a big draw for me. I'm also interested in reading M. John's Course of the Heart; basically Viriconium is my first M. John read, and I'd like to know how his whole pomo spec-fic attitude is reflected in his other, more recent works.
    I didn't really care for Light, either. I don't want to derail the thread too much but it just didn't measure up to Viriconium IMHO. We had a good discussion about Light on Fantasybookspot and someone linked to a thread about it here. Seems like you either like it or don't like it, from what I gather.

    Harrison's a very talented writer and Light certainly is no exception in that regard, but the plot and manner he told the story in just didn't grab me much in comparison to Viriconium.

    At any rate, regarding Viriconium: I'd agree that "The Pastel City" isn't the strongest story in the collection. Archetypal, yes, but still a good story from a writing perspective. Loved the description of the Metal-Salt marshes in particular. I'd also say it's a great opener for getting you eased into the collection as the later stories definitely get a lot denser.

    Quote Originally Posted by Erfael
    I don't know about this. A lot of people would argue that in moving away from the "elite" and down to the level of artists and the people on the street, we're actually moving closer to what makes a city a city. Anybody can run the city. It's the people in the city that make it what it is. So one could also make an argument that as we move down that ladder we're getting closer and closer to us and to what a real city is.
    I definitely agree. Once you get down to that level, you're really capturing the essence of what the city is when you're rubbing shoulders with the artists and the madmen and the street people. The nobles and higher-ups have the luxury of being "insulated" from the street-level and therefore don't really have as much of an impact on the city.

  9. #9
    Hyperpower! Jack's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Encryptic
    I definitely agree. Once you get down to that level, you're really capturing the essence of what the city is when you're rubbing shoulders with the artists and the madmen and the street people. The nobles and higher-ups have the luxury of being "insulated" from the street-level and therefore don't really have as much of an impact on the city.
    Yes, this view is very Jeffersonian of both of you, but in how outsiders and history view a city is by its leaders, and Viriconium had very much of an outside-looking-in feel to it. When I think of New York City, I inevitably think of Rudy Guilani (not current mayor I know but you get the idea). When I think of Britain, I immediately think of Tony Blair, and my generalized concept of the peoples within trickles down from my superficial view of the leader.

    And again in history, we have Elizabethan Englad, or the Victorian Era, not Charly "Two-Times" Smith England, because he was a known thief and womenizer in the middle of the 19th century and is thus salt of the earth and what truly defines the city / country.

    This is also in line with how Viriconium continually begins to slip out of our grasp as the stories progress, contributing more to the outsider-looking-in feeling we get as readers.

  10. #10
    It's a very well told tale in my eyes, Harrison really does have great use of lanaguage. I read this a few years back, and I re-read parts of it to refresh my memeory, which was a delight.

    It reiminded me a good deal of Vance's Dying Earth, with the morning, afternoon and evening cultures. Plus all the lost knowledge and remaining scrap from past cultures contirbute to this 'dying earth' feel.

    Like previous posters have mentioned he seems to almost bring you too the brink and leave you dangling over the edge in a way. In some parts the imagery he was using really made me feel uncomfortable, I hated cabbage anyway, but now it just fills my mind with loathing. And theres a sort of sweet sickly aura that pervades Viroconium ( the city ), and the more you go one it becomes more difficult to read.

    This is also in line with how Viriconium continually begins to slip out of our grasp as the stories progress, contributing more to the outsider-looking-in feeling we get as readers.
    Well put man, I think with everything going on in the city, in paticular 'In Viroconium' it just becomes hard to really focus in on it, both for the reader, and the people in the darn city, all the mist and noxious smells, the plague, the forgetting all the dreaming that goes on there makes it so insubstantial and transparent.

    also we have a character (the one who looks like Cromis)
    I initially though that Horwrack was Cromis in some bizzare reborn awakening way, but i realise not, he's just very similair, like when he killed the metal bird that attacked him, he hung it from his belt just like Cromis did, that part just sprung up at me.

    As to the concept of the 'city' my take is that Harrison was warning us of the dangers of a city gone too far, and what happens when it falls in upon itself I was put in this mind by the ramblings of Fay Glass ..

    " I made my small contribution. Blackpool and Chicago became as nothing, their receding colonnades echo to the sound of vanished orchestras. "

    Now i've been to Blackpool, and it struck me as a place lost within itself too much, all the amusments, and attractions, and endless side streets full of hotels, its cramped too around the pleasure beach and all that are, though this is a view of a tourist, it seemed quite repetetive and in a sense full of bright lights and strange sounds, that keep repeating themsleves.

    Well that may complete crap. but just some musings anyway.

  11. #11
    boss of several cats... Severn's Avatar
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    I have nothing illuminating to say, unlike the rest of you.

    Actually, while I have greatly enjoyed what I have read so far of Viriconium so far ('Pastel City' in particular) I have stopped reading for the moment, because my head space just isn't there...

    But I'll return to it...no doubt...

    K

  12. #12
    Registered User Ataulfo's Avatar
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    I have read the two first books by far, and my feelings are quite contradicting.

    "Pastel City" was quite a enjoyable reading. A fantasy book not very different from the rest but with some subtle details that made it special for me. I liked the civilization described, and also the characters, a bit archetypical but still interesting.

    "Storm of Wing" was very dissapointing. Harrison's style turns dense, the book was really hard to read, with lot of long descriptions and lyrical resources that got me bored. The plot is not bad, and the book has some great moments, but neither I care for the characters, nor I enjoyed the book.

    With this, I don't fancy reading "In Viriconium", though I already have it and I suppose I will get into it eventually.

  13. #13
    Hyperpower! Jack's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ataulfo
    "Storm of Wing" was very dissapointing. Harrison's style turns dense, the book was really hard to read, with lot of long descriptions and lyrical resources that got me bored. The plot is not bad, and the book has some great moments, but neither I care for the characters, nor I enjoyed the book.

    With this, I don't fancy reading "In Viriconium", though I already have it and I suppose I will get into it eventually.
    Though I encourage you to give it a chance, I can say to you with a degree of confidence that if you did not enjoy the writing style change from Pastel to Storm, you will not enjoy the rest of the book. If anything the writing style becomes even more dense and artsy. There is quite a large gap inbetween the publishing dates of Pastel and Storm which can probably account for the drastic change in prose style.

  14. #14
    First of all I just want to say that I loved this book!!! This is my second experience reading an M. John Harrison book. The first book I read was "Light" which of course brings up many, many different opinions. I can honesly say that I did enjoy "Light" very much but Viriconium was amazing. Now my past reading experiences have been limited to "easier to read authors" such as Raymond Feist, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan etc. In contrast to my past fantasy readings this book was just incredible. The writing is just so far superior to any other fantasy books that I have read. I see that a lot of other readers have enjoyed the Pastel City the least of all the stories in Viriconium but I actually enjoyed it the most. Now I do realize it is more of a run-of-the-mill fantasy story but I just thought it was extremely well done. The next story was Storm of Wings and I have to admit that at first I had a hard time adapting to the dreamy like state that this story is presented in. Its deffinetly a lot "thicker" then the Pastel City. Once I got used the to literary method this story was presented in it was a fantastic read. I am not extremely well read in any category of literature so this is my first experience with a book of this type so forgive me if my desecriptions are fairly vauge. The next story was "In Viriconium." I enjoyed this story very much as it was a great change of pace from the previous two. It put you right in the middle of the city and by getting to know the characters presented in this story it allowed you to really get to know the city of Viriconium better. The Barely Brothers (don't remeber exactly there names) were a hoot!! Finaly the icing on the cake was the stories told in "Viriconium Nights." I personally enjoyed the story "The Luck In the Head" the best. Anyway these are my random thoughts on this books. I would recommend this book not just to fantasy/scifi fans but to anyone who enjoys great literature

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack
    Though I encourage you to give it a chance, I can say to you with a degree of confidence that if you did not enjoy the writing style change from Pastel to Storm, you will not enjoy the rest of the book. If anything the writing style becomes even more dense and artsy. There is quite a large gap inbetween the publishing dates of Pastel and Storm which can probably account for the drastic change in prose style.
    What he said. I would encourage you to try it as well, but Jack's description is spot-on.

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