Friday, December 11, 2015

On Viriconium

M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence rightly stands as a landmark in literary fantasy, although to the new reader it might be difficult to tell why. This is not to say the Viriconium is not a brilliant, significant work; it is, but it is also a puzzle, a challenge, which subverts the narrative unities of the genre, of fiction, even.

The puzzle begins with the collection itself: it is a sequence only in the loosest sense, being comprised of three novels and a number of short stories, published and composed over many years, and presented not entirely in chronological order. The stories are haunting, sometimes elliptical. The novels form a rough narrative arc, but the whole effect is not that of a traditional fantasy trilogy, and more one of recursion and retelling, a revisiting and revising of the history and place that is Viriconium.

To identify the setting, then: Viriconium is a city, sometimes the centre of an empire, perhaps the world's last, located on the far edge of human time, in the Evening Cultures that follow from the environmentally devastating period of the Afternoon Cultures. This suggests a science-fantasy, perhaps even of the dying earth variety, but the world is too indistinct to support that notion entirely. In fact, Virconium is more like an  urban fantasy, an impossible city, an abstract compilation of London, Rome, Paris, Berlin, York, Venice, with its European street names and imprecise architecture. And although Harrison deploys many archaic technologies and weapons (toxic power-knives, combat airships) the era and level of technology is fluid, anachronistic, indefinite.

This same fluidity characterizes the narrative as it expands. The first novel, The Pastel City, is probably closest in form to the science fantasy, and roughly follows the conventions of a quest fantasy: there is a hero (teagus-Cromis), a conflict (The War of the Two Queens), a quest against the enemy in the north. But by the second novel, which ostensibly addresses the aftermath of the first, the quest is less heroic, the threat more metaphysical, the protagonist confused and cynical. And although the final novel replays some of the tropes of the first (the metaphysical plague, the faltering rescue), it has become a matter between artists, entertainers and policemen, rather than swordsmen, and the events of the first novels are touched on only as the most distant memories of allusions.

Well, as Harrison warns us, in a phrase that might be taken as a talisman: "All queens are not Mammy Vooley.... All heroes are not Ignace Retz." His characters constantly reprise and return to archetypal roles (queen, swordsman, magus, dwarf), as though playing with the masks of the hero, and yet never entirely fulfill them, or indeed lose their own identity in the effort, as Cellur, the immortal, alien maker of mechanical birds, forgets even his own identity across the vast stretch of time the novels allude to.

Indeed, memory is the basis on which Harrison constructs and deconstructs his city, likening it to a set of letters read and reread until the original meaning becomes unclear. In his important, elusive online essay "What Might it be Like to Live in Viriconium" Harrison argues against one of the standards of modern commercial fantasy: worldbuilding.
The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes—their appearance of being a whole world–is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over “Tolkien’s World.”
Viriconium cannot be mapped; it resists literalism. Hence, Viriconium steadily unbuilds, revises, breaks open its invented world. This is less a deconstruction, a taking the world apart, than a continuous revisioning, a seeing anew.

But one might ask, to see what anew? Defamiliarisation is a process, not a statement, so what does the work as such say in the end? One could assert that to make the world anew in each work is to renew our perceptions of it: a kind of recovery such as Tolkien describes. Harrison proposes that such strategies can serve to reveal the inevitable structures of power and language that define realities, political, social, and otherwise. Certainly, Viriconium is strongly concerned with world-views, the clash of alien and familiar umwelts, but it is not until the last novel, In Viriconium, that Harrison reveals his interest in the function of art, visual, literary, or otherwise. In this novel, the sword is replaced by the palette knife, as artists take over the roles of poet-warriors and queens. Just as Harrison's essay rehearses the tension between literary and commercial fantasy, this Viriconium has become sickly, moribund, trapped between the popular, meaningless commercial art of the High City and the ineffectual avant-garde pretensions of the Low City. Consequently, the gods of this city are equally ineffectual, literal dummies and figures of fun and revulsion.

The city is only saved when these gods are challenged and wounded, when an attempt is made to reconcile "high" and "low" art, to return to art-making as a first principle. Elsewhere, Harrison has indicated the metaphor is an activity, an exchange, like meaning, which cannot be reduced to a static formula. Viriconium is not so much a city as that process in action, boundless, metamorphic, iterative.

Of course, this sort of work cannot always satisfy: that's the point. Viriconium doesn't deliver a world, but glimpses of a shifting world view that you assemble as best you can. Sometimes, we fail, and we're left with the pieces, as the characters so often fail. This is not always the best thing for readers: we're provided with suggestions rather than resolution. In its place, we have Harrison's extraordinary, evocative, powerful language. Viriconium is a thrill to read, even if we're not sure what's going on, or what a "cynical room" consists of. Sometimes, characters seem to lack a critical agency; Harrison's female characters, most of all, are either figureheads or images of stoic acceptance.

This does not stop us from journeying towards Viriconium, or constructing it again in imagination and tracing its rise and fall. This ever-expanding, never resolved journey is the subject, suitably, of the last story in the collection. "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconmium" is a journey that can never be completed, or is likely to be punctuated with disasters, but in the middle of the story, a child's vision of a cafe interior reflected in the windows that look out on a garden, superimposing the two spaces, becomes a metaphor for the work that fantasy can accomplish, a moving and poignant vision of a world transformed. If you look for a plot in this story, or even continuity between scenes, you will be disappointed. But if, as in the last scene of the story, you want to keep digging in the storm, you will be rewarded.

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