M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is a quiet monument in speculative fiction. Fully utilizing yet playing with genre, the books are fantasy without the magic and science fiction without the “future”. Having the feel of Vance’s Dying Earth, the mythic plotting of Roger Zelazny’s works, and all told in a style that is vividly Harrison, The Pastel City, first of the Viriconium books, is a novel well worth seeking out for fans of either genre, but, as a warning, is nothing like the three books which follow in the setting.
Viriconium seeming a combination of the words “virile” and “encomium”, the setting of The Pastel City is far-future Earth; humanity survives in a detritus strewn world with remnants of past civilizations rising in unidentifiable hulks from the landscape. Skeletons of steel buildings poke through the shifting sands of desert wastelands while people ride on horseback and fight with sword and knife. Metal no longer minable, valuables, including weapons of old, like power blades, energy cannons, and airboats, are prized by the lucky who come across them, bolstering the forces of the queen of the north or south, depending on the side in humanity’s twilight hour. The glory days of the Afternoon Culture years in the past, it is a new age in history that Harrison describes the transition of, mankind tested yet again to see if they will survive the hour.
The Pastel City centers on tergeus-Cormis, a knight in retirement who spends his days in poetry and music, one hand straying unknowingly to the sword at his side ready to defend the honor of the Queen of the South. And this honor is called into action in the first chapter. With news the Queen of the North’s invasion is imminent, Cormis gives up his life of quietude and sets out for Viriconium—the Pastel City—to meet with his liege and learn how he might best help the kingdom’s defense. His commission taking him across the strangely inhabited, decaying land, the situations Cormis comes to force him to decide more than his allegiance, but also what kind of person he is.
Fully spanning the distance between the futuristic and fantastic, The Pastel City embodies the term science fantasy like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. There is a mad dwarf, but his specialty is not jewels and trinkets, rather knowledge of the Afternoon Culture’s technology and metallurgy. There is a mage, but his forte is not magic and spells, instead the intricacies of mechanization and computing. From the metal birds to the neon sputter of power blades, mutant aggressors to knights fighting on horseback, the novel is a delicious mix of the things that make the genres what they are—without comedic effect. (For those unaware, try Brian Atterbery’s Strategies of Fantasy for a worthwhile description of the dangers of walking the science-fantasy tightrope.)
Another daring combination Harrison pulls off (although not as successfully as genre mixing) is the unabashed usage of the common motifs of the genres, and, the subversion of them. Quests, mighty battles, brain-eating hordes, epic duels, and kingdoms burning are just a few of the genre conceits worked into the narrative. While most turn out only semi-surprising, some are developed and revealed to be not what the reader expects. The broken-toothed grin of Tomb the dwarf has a surprise hidden up its sleeve; Grif loses it at the wrong moment; and what wakes Cormis in the middle of the night, well, you’ll have to read. That Harrison resolves all of this without the supernatural, or resorting to cheap plot tricks is, however, what makes the combination worthy of a mention.
But no review of the novel would be complete without mentioning the setting. Fully realized, Harrison’s descriptions are as vivid and vibrant as any reader could hope. His far-future Earth is turned into another one of the characters. The bogs, the wastelands, the forests, Cellus’ tower—all come to full life in the mind’s eye and are as much a part of the story as the plot which unfolds in, on, and around it. The bleak grays and dust browns of the landscape mixed with the cobalt blue of energy blades and the fragile iridium wings of the vultures are spectacular from a visual point of view. Harrison one of the premiere genre stylists of the past 50 years, the book sees him operating in more mainstream but no less effective mode. (By mainstream I mean that the narrative is direct, no allusion or oblique references as with the books which follow in the Viriconium sequence.)
In the end, The Pastel City is a brilliant take and occasional subversion of epic fantasy in a sci-fi setting. For those who enjoy vividly realized characters, setting, and plot, the book will delight. That the book likewise challenges and exudes genre is simply the icing on the cake. Its predecessors include Vance’s Dying Earth (especially The Miracle Workers), Tolkien’s Middle Earth (more Silmarillion than The Lord of the Rings), Peake’s Gormenghast, and almost anything by Zelazny. Its influences-on include the aforementioned Book of the New Sun, Vandermeer’s Ambergris, and Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Fans of any of these works will want to have a try at Harrison’s take on genre, genres, and everything between.