Viriconium by M John Harrison

M John Harrison was Weird before it became New. To me it seems his Viriconium cycle is a kind of bridge between the New Wave of SF and Fantasy in the 60’s and 70’s (which is the context where Harrison was first published) and contemporary authors such as China Mieville.

The first paragraph of ‘The Pastel City’ encapsulates many of the most prominent themes explored by Harrison in the Viriconium cycle: “Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportent to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millenium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts such 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.”

In ‘The Pastel City’ time and memory are explored in many ways: The story concerns a threat awoken from its long slumber beneath ageold ruins. The landscape in which the adventure takes place is filled with the remains of previous civilisations. The people of the Evening cultures often make use of tools and machines inherited from the Afternoon cultures but have only a dim understanding of their original purpose and meaning or actual way of working. The enigmatic, possibly non-human, immortal sage Cellur, the Lord of Birds, is struggling to preserve his knowledge but fails to even remember his own origin.

In ‘A Storm of Wings’ Harrison explores the concept of “umwelt” (german for “surrounding world”). Wikipedia informs me that in the theories of Jakob von Uexküll umwelt signifies the idea that every species has its own unique self-centered semiotic world that can be very different even among species living in the same physical environment. The same themes of identity and weltanschauung is explored in less apocalyptic ways in the short stories through the many quaint and curious customs, rituals and pieces of folklore peculiar to the people of Viriconium and its surrounding towns and villages. Throughout the entire cycle there are many cryptic sayings and phrases whose meaning are never entirely clear to the reader who does not share the preunderstandings specific to that culture.

The themes of time, memory, identity and umwelt come together in the Reborn Men who struggle to come to grips with their situation after being thrust from their previous existence in the Afternoon cultures and in to the Evening cultures.

In all honesty the two concluding stories in the collection, In Viriconium and A Young Mans Journey to Viriconium, were not entirely my cup of tea. The themes previously investigated are now driven in extremis, the genre changes from fantasy to absurdity until the soap bubble of imagination and make believe that is Viriconium finally bursts.

The Viriconium tales are not typical heroic fantasies, even though the two primary novels tell the adventures of fighters such as tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, and Tomb, the Iron Dwarf, whose lust for murder was only surpassed by his love for the technological marvels left behind by the ancients. Common to all the protagonists of the Viriconium stories is that their lives are marked by confusion and futility. In the end it seems to me that the Viriconium tales are about the problems faced by conscious beings trying to create a meaningful cosmos out of the chaos that is existence.

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