The OF Blog: M. John Harrison, A Storm of Wings

Monday, March 23, 2009

M. John Harrison, A Storm of Wings

In the dark tidal reaches of one of those unnamed rivers which spring from the mountains behind Cladich, on a small domed island in the shallows before the sea, fallen masonry of a great age glows faintly under the eye of an uncomfortable moon. A tower once stood here in the shadow of the estuarine cliffs, made too long ago for anyone to remember, in a way no one left can understand, from a single obsidian monolith fully two hundred feet in length. For ten thousand years wind and water scoured its southern face, finding no weakness; and at night a yellow light might be discerned in its topmost window, coming and going as if someone there passed before a flame. Who brought it to this rainy country, where in winter the gales drive the white water up the Minch and fishermen from Lendalfoot shun the inshore ground, and for what purpose, is unclear. Now it lies in five pieces. The edges of the stone are neither shattered nor worn, but melted like candle wax. The causeway that once gave access here - from a beach on the west bank where lumps of volcanic glass are scattered on the sand - is drowned now, and all that comes up it from the water is a strange lax vegetation, a sprawl of giant sea hemlock which for some reason has forsaken the mild and beneficial brine of the estuary to colonise the beach, spread its pale and pulpy stems over the shattered tower, and clutch at a stand of dead, white pines. (p. 111)
M. John Harrison's second Viriconium novel, A Storm of Wings, begins with a lyrical, unsettling introduction that serves to displace the reader from the setting, or rather from what the reader might have imagined Viriconium to be based on the first novel, The Pastel City. This is a place of "unnamed rivers," of towers made too long ago for any to remember their names or purposes, of drowned causeways approaching beaches littered with volcanic glass, where "strange lax vegetation" grows, spreading up and over the "shattered tower." There is a sense of ruin here, but underlying is the feeling that something alien exists here.

The basic elements that Harrison introduced in The Pastel City - tegeus-Cromis, Tomb the Dwarf, the war between the Old and Young Queen, the Reborn Men - all these have been reimagined here. Viriconium is no longer just (as if it ever were a single entity!) a city existing among the ruins of a greater city. It is not a Rome haunted by its own dead remains, but instead something more, something more strange and bleak. The introduction, "The Moon Looking Down," contains references to an invasion of metallic locusts from the stars that fly in from behind the moon and land in Viriconium, sowing discord and madness:

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 on 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.

Yet in the Time of the Locust are we not counselled to patience? Eighty years have passed since tegeus-Cromis broke the yoke of Canna Moidart, since the Chemosit fell and the Reborn Men came among us; and in the deeps of this autumn night, under the aegis of an old and bitter geology, we witness here in events astronomical and enigmatic an intersection crucial to both the earth and the precarious foothold on it of the adolescent Evening Cultures. "Wait! Things are. Things happen. Only wait!" The estuarine cliffs impend, black, expectant; the air is full of frost and anticipation... (pp. 111-112)
Harrison's prose is excellent here. Consider the rhythm and cadence of each sentence, as he describes ruin and the defeat of human artifice. It is 80 years in the "future," but there is this sense that something is unfolding, something that is omnious, something that will not be explained in full. Things will be repeated, or rather certain patterns will re-emerge in a new setting to create even newer forms, for tegeus-Cromis, Tomb, the Reborn Men, and others will see their roles reprised, but in a dream-place where semantic relationships have shifted.

It is usually around the second or third chapter of A Storm of Wings that many readers run into a wall of their own creation. Expecting a serial story that builds upon the opening tale, they are confronted by a tale that is non-linear, that doesn't follow the "rules" and expectations derived from reading The Pastel City. Perhaps it is here, when the Sign of the Locust is introduced, that the towel is tossed and mayhap the book as well:

The Sign of the Locust is unlike any other religion invented in Viriconium. Its outward forms and observances - its liturgies and rituals, its theurgic or metaphysical speculations, its daily processionals - seem less an attempt by men to express an essentially human invention than the effort of some raw and independent Idea - a theophneustia, existing without recourse to brain or blood: a Muse or demiurge - to express itself. It wears its congregation like a disguise: we did not so much create the Sign of the Locust as invite it into ourselves, and now it dons us nightly like a cloak and domino to go abroad in the world. (p. 125)
Ritual is a powerful thing, but when the object being ritualized breaks those ties and becomes independent of itself, can such a thing be "tamed" or even understood? In reading this passage, I felt a growing unease about my own ability to process what is going on. Realizing that I had to abandon treating this story as something to deduce or to piece together, I began focusing on the mood being established, on trying to imagine a place that isn't a set place, but rather a condition, one in which "human" points of view might be the intrusive, domineering ones that need to be irradicated:

"The world is not as we perceive it," maintained the early converts, "but infinitely more surprising. We must cultivate a diverse view." This mild (even naive) truism, however, was to give way rapidly - via a series of secret and bloody heretical splits - to a more radical assertion. A wave of murders, mystifying to the population at large, swept the city. It was during this confused period that the Sign itself first came to light, that simple yet tortuous adaptation of the fortune-teller's MANTIS symbol which, cut in steel or silver, swings at the neck of each adherent. Ostlers and merchant princesses, soldiers and shopkeepers, astrologers and vagabonds, were discovered sprawled stiffly in the gutters and plazas, strangled in an unknown fashion and their bodies tattooed with symbolical patterns, as the entire council of the Sign, elected by secret ballot from the members of the original cabal, tore itself apart in a grotesque metaphysical dispute. A dreadful sense of immanence beset the city. "Life is a blasphemy," announced the Sign. "Procreation is a blasphemy, for it replicates and fosters the human view of the universe." (p. 126)
It was at this point that I really became "hooked" with the story. Not that I cared overmuch to know the origins of the Locusts or why they had come to Viriconium, but rather because I wanted to see if Harrison would explore further the notion of "life is a blasphemy" in this tale. He did, and passages such as this clinched the deal for me:

Under a sky like a glass mantle, at an intersection in the disintegrating ground plan of the city, two insects performed a dance in the suicidal light. Disease had maimed them, their eyes were like rotting melons yet vivid heraldic insignia flared along their blue and green flanks like the lights of deep-sea fishes. Stiff and quivering, with curled abdomens and spread wings, moving one damaged limb at a time, they had the air of being painted on one of Elmo Buffin's sails, or tattooed in glowing inks on an upper arm. Clouds of coloured vapour streamed through the galleries which curled over them in a flaking mineral wave. Balancing on their rear legs they curled themselves backwards into the annular symbols of some organic alphabet; they dragged themselves between the bone-like pillars of the colonnades, following the veins of serpentine and obsidian as if they were cooling streams; they tore with their forelimbs at the masks they wore - perhaps to obtain relief, for part of the function of these was to enable them to perceive the world they found themselves marooned in. (p. 234)
I chose this passage late in the novel not because it bears great import for the novel's plot resolution (if anything, the plot is but a reprisal of the first under different means), but because it illustrates the power of Harrison's prose, of his ability to create evocative similies, such as "their eyes were like rotting melons," that stir up vivid images that complement the weird, distorted timescape, where the Locusts' mind-plague has shaken human understanding of what constitutes reality, while simultaneously this plague has caused all sorts of mass violence and psychosis as a result of certain "natural" or "sacred" bounds being crossed. But it is that little bit, where two of the Locusts are wounded, dragging themselves along the city streets, before finally ripping at the masks that enable them to perceive this strange, alien world that they are seeking perhaps to "tame" for their own concept of "reality," it is here where the true power of Harrison's narrative lies.

A good fantasy does not need an impressive list of imagined dates, nor should it require things being spelled out in laborious detail. A good fantasy can and often does traffic in the Unknown, in those haunted recesses of our minds where we cast all the things that we cannot comprehend, in hopes that something will percolate there that can be imbibed and thus utilized. In A Storm of Wings, Harrison taps into that Unknown, weaving a beautiful, shimmering, aethereal tapestry out of strangeness, insanity, and repetition that I believe is a vast improvement over his solid The Pastel City. While it certainly isn't a story for those who want the plot to be deducible or explicated, for those who love the strange, the unknown, the threatening, A Storm of Wings likely will be just the book for them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to reading this. As a fan of China Miéville and Catherynne Valente, imagine my surprise to discover in the Pastel City the Ur-Weird novella...written when I was a wee lad. - Jim Little, 45, Philadelphia

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