The OF Blog: M. John Harrison, The Pastel City

Saturday, March 21, 2009

M. John Harrison, The Pastel City

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength - leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium. (p. 3)

With these two opening paragraphs, M. John Harrison might as well have stuck out both hands and shot a double bird, saying "Fuck you!" to those who wanted their fantasies to contain copious references to an imagined "history" that would shape everything to follow. After having endured reading several epic fantasies over the years where it seemed that the author was bent on explicating his/her imagined "past" at the expense of creating an interesting, well-written, meaningful story, Harrison's bold declaration in those two paragraphs that he wouldn't delve into any sort of imagined "past" unless he absolutely had to was rather refreshing. I had first read his Viriconium stories back in 2007, but when I began re-reading them for this review project, it was as if I were reading them anew.

The first Viriconium tale, The Pastel City (1971), however is in many ways the most straightforward and "familiar" tale. Barely over 100 pages long, it resembles a typical fantasy quest novel with its weather-beaten, soldier-slash-poet protagonist, a dwarf companion, and a city of ruins. However, Harrison twists each of these stock elements into forms that are often quite unsettling for readers expecting revelations about the setting (or "world," as some would insist on calling it, probably to the author's chagrin) and the unfolding story. The key, I believe, is in Harrison's prose. Take for example his introduction of tegeus-Cromis, the above-mentioned soldier/poet:

tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand dunes that lay between his tall home and the grey line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.


He worried more, for instance, about the beauty of the city that had fallen during the night than he did that it was Viriconium, the Pastel City. He loved it more for its avenues paved in pale blue and for its alleys that were not paved at all than he did for what its citizens chose to call it, which was often Viricon the Old and The Place Where the Roads Meet.

He had found no rest in music, which he loved, and how he found none on the pink sand.

For a while he walked the tideline, examining the objects cast up by the sea: paying particular attention to a smooth stone here, a translucent spiny shell there, picking up a bottle the colour of his cloak, throwing down a branch whitened and peculiarly carved by the water. He watched the black gulls, but their cries depressed him. He listened to the cold wind in the rowan woods around his tower, and he shivered. Over the pounding of the high tide, he heard the dull concussions of falling Viriconium. And even when he stood in the surf, feeling its sharp acid sting on his cheek, lost in its thunder, he imagined it was possible to hear the riots in the pastel streets, the warring factions, and voices crying for Young Queen, Old Queen.

He settled his russet shovel hat more firmly; crossed the dunes, his feet slipping in the treacherous sand; and found the white stone path through the rowans to his tower, which also had no name: though it was called by some after the stretch of seaboard on which it stood, that is, Balmacara. Cromis knew where his heart and his sword lay - but he had thought that all finished with and he had looked forward to a comfortable life by the sea. (pp. 7-8)

Within that passage, there lies a major clue as to where Harrison will later take the Viriconium setting. "Whatever its citizens chose to call it," "his tower which also had no name" - those two little asides give a hint to the maplessness of the area, revealing that there is no single, concrete association of a name to a place. Viriconium, or whatever it might be called, depends strongly upon whatever associations the people in the area have formed to deal with this surviving ruin of an incomprehensible, ancient culture. Whereas other authors might have been tempted in their first or latter volumes to explore that mystery, perhaps to reveal it, "tame" it (as Harrison said in an essay on his tales) and "claim" it as something that feels "real," Harrison sets the stage for what he accomplishes in his later Viriconium stories; he deconstructs this fallacy, revealing secondary-"world" creations as being hollow, empty substitutes for the reality around the reader.

As I read The Pastel City, I found myself slowing down to read and re-read almost every single paragraph. There is a richness in Harrison's prose that makes reading each sentence a pleasure. Look again at the passage quoted above. Say it aloud, listening for the rhythms. There is a music of sorts in Harrison's writing, a music that is haunting and seems to come from a place within us that isn't a discoverable, tangible country. Hamlet perhaps, in speaking of this "undiscovered country", might be closest to describing the effect of reading The Pastel City (and even more with A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium). Harrison's prose matches his literary ambitions and that provides this story and its "sequels" with power.

The plot itself is rather straightforward. tegeus-Cromis and his dwarf companion, the annoying Tomb the Dwarf (decked out in a scavenged powersuit, toting an axe), along with an awakened bird-like creature, cross ruinous landscapes, like the Rust Desert, to return to the City to help the Young Queen, Jane, in her fight against the Old and the northern tribes that are invading. But against this backdrop, Harrison drops in comments such as this:

During the Birdmaker's monologue, Methvet Nian had wept openly. Now, she rose to her feet and said:

"This horror. We have always regarded the Afternoon Cultures as a high point in the history of mankind. Theirs was a state to be striven for, despite the mistakes that marred it.

"How could they have constructed such things? Why, when they had the stars beneath their hands?"

The Birdmaker shrugged. The geometries of his robe shifted and stretched like restless alien animals.

"Are you bidding me remember, madam? I fear I cannot."

"They were stupid," said Birkin Grif, his fat, honest face, puzzled and hurt. It was his way to feel things personally. "They were fools."

"They were insane towards the end," said Cellur. "That I know." (p. 80)
Unlike many other fantasy novels, especially those of Tolkien and others who sought to create an image of the past as a sort of lost, idyllic paradise, Harrison introduces the notion that the past might have its own horrors, that there are certain things that best ought to be left forgotten and unexplored. But if the past is that horrible, then what about the cultures that seek to emulate it and to bring back the revenants of those times? Near the end of the story, Cromis's task accomplished, he says this to Tomb, who wants to create an army of men revived from the memories of the Afternoon Cultures:

"They are too beautiful, Tomb; they are too accomplished. If you go on with this, there will be no new empire - instead, they will absorb us, and after a millennium's pause, the Afternoon Cultures will resume their long sway over the earth.

"No malice will be involved. Indeed, they may thank us many times over for bringing them back to the world. But, as you have said yourself, they have a view of life that is alien to us; and do not forget that it was them who made the waste around us." (p. 104)
That commentary on the past and the present is a cautionary one, one that is heightened by what follows after, when confronted by Methvet Nian:

"My lady, we regarded the Northmen as barbarians, and they were." He laughed. "Today, we are the barbarians. Look at them!"

And when she turned to watch the choreography of the brain, the celebration of ten thousand years of death and rebirth, he fled.

He ran toward the light. When he passed the corpse of his dead friend he began to weep again. He picked up his sword. He tried to smash a crystal window with its hilt. The corridor oppressed him. Beyond the windows, the dead brains drifted. He ran on.

"You should have done it," whispered Birkin Grif in the soft spaces of his skull; and "OUROBUNDOS!" giggled the insane door, as he fell through it and into the desert wind. His cloak cracking and whipping about him, so that he resembled a crow with broken wings, he stumbled toward the black airboat. His mind mocked him. His face was wet.

He threw himself into the command bridge. Green light swam about him, and the dead Northmen stared blindly at him as he turned on the power. He did not choose a direction, it chose him. Under full accleration, he fled out into the empty sky. (p. 104)
As I read the end, I felt as though all things had come full-circle, or rather that there were layers imposed upon layers and that the story had become not about an imagined place and the deeds done within that created setting, but rather that Viriconium (or whatever its name might be) was an idea, a notion of how people view their own pasts and presents. As we age and death makes us silent, how can those who follow understand what we have written on our hearts? It is fitting that The Pastel City closes with this exchange between Cromis and the Queen:

Later, he made her look at the Name Stars.

"There," he said. "You will not deny this: no one who came after could read what is written there. All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand."

She smiled up at him, and pushed her hair back from her face.

"Alstath Fulthor the Reborn Man could tell you what it means," she said.

"It is important to my nature," he admitted, "that it remain a mystery to me. If you will command him to keep a close mouth, I will come back." (p. 108)
And with that, the transition to A Storm of Wings and its mysteries begins. Looking forward to re-reading it in the next few days, as The Pastel City has left me wanting to go further into the void, seeking to see not what comes after, but rather to discover what lies within my own perspective of time and place.


Mark Newton said...

It's been years since I've properly re-read them, but you're pointing out so many of the things I loved about them, and then some!

Larry Nolen said...

Sweet! Not only did MJH's series win the vote last time, but after reading your comments on Westeros, thought I'd best re-read it before reading your book :D

Anonymous said...

Nice piece; I think this is some of the best writing I've seen from you, Larry. It's certainly rewarding to (re)read the first book with the knowledge of the later volumes, and what Harrison has said about the series as a whole. Taken in itself, The Pastel City is not something that you'd likely associate with secondary world fantasy -- in isolation it is just a Vance-like Dying Earth SF story. But it is interesting how much of the later books' major themes you can tease out of bits and pieces of the writing here.

(Says Matt, who is currently re-reading The Course of the Heart.)

Larry Nolen said...

Thanks, Matt! I've been trying to write more reflective, thoughtful pieces lately. I agree that in isolation it is similar to Vance's most famous story sequence in setting and that the latter volumes is where MJH really comes into his own there.

Loved The Course of the Heart when I read it a couple of years ago. Might re-read/review that one in the months ahead, that or Signs of Life, which is another favorite of mine.

MatsVS said...

Ordered this and The Broken Sword, just so that I'll understand this awesomeness you're talking about. ;)

Cheers, Larr!

Larry Nolen said...

Hope you enjoy them as much as I did! Of course, I ought to warn that a re-read of MJH's omnibus may be necessary in order to soak in what he's doing there. I know I'm getting a lot more out of it on a re-read.

Anonymous said...

Ever since I read Harrison's "The Luck in the Head" in the New Weird anthology, I've been interested in learning more about this writer. "The Pastel City" is now on my reading list for sure.

Larry Nolen said...


You're in luck, as you can get that and several other related stories in the Viriconium omnibus. I'm just reviewing the separate novellas based on their original publication years. Should have a review of A Storm of Wings up either this evening or Tuesday.

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