M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is actually an omnibus: a collection of novels and short stories set in the city of, you guessed it, Viriconium. Harrison’s famous for being part of the “New Wave” in British SFF in the 60s and 70s – a kind of backlash against the mundanities of pulp SF – and he’s often cited as a key influence on China Mieville’s work, which is why I picked Viriconium up (on my first book shopping trip in my new London flat back in April, in fact).
Readers, Viriconium is every bit as interesting as Mieville, if less readily accessible.
I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with place and space in SFF, especially cities and big old haunted mansions, and the Viriconium stories are very much stories of a city. (There are a few recurring characters, but they are fickle and transient, flickering in and out of reality.) Viriconium is a city at the end of the world, the capital of the last human empire. It looks back to the Afternoon Cultures – our culture, and those that came after it – as times of impossible enlightenment, knowledge irretrievably lost. Fragments of those times remain: the Great Brown Waste, a desert made by humanity’s unimaginable depredations; flying machines powered by glowing engines; the Name Stars, man-made satellites. But – unlike, say, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which would be interesting to compare with Viriconium for reasons I’ll get to later – it’s impossible for the people of Viriconium to comprehend the people of the Afternoon Cultures. There are no clues, no context for what those cultures looked like. We, as readers, can guess a little more; but not that much more. Viriconium is a city at the end of history which has lost its own history. It’s surrounded by symbols which ought to mean but don’t. As one of Viriconium’s knights remarks in The Pastel City, the earliest of the Viriconium sequence, “All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.”
Echoing this half-present history is the way that the texts themselves are full of cultural allusions and references so over-saturated with meaning as to be functionally meaningless. The Pastel City and “The Lamia & Lord Cromis” both broadly recall Arthurian romances, with their knights and their codes of honour and, in The Pastel City, a feud between Queen Methvet Nian and her evil cousin which has more than shades of the Arthur-Mordred story. But the classic story-structures are punctuated, become bathetic and/or pathetic: in “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”, an analogue of the story of Pellinore and the Questing Beast, the monster Lord Cromis has sought and feared all his life is easily killed by another person, who Lord Cromis kills in his turn because, “I was to be killed killing [the Lamia]. Who am I now?” And the would-be Avalonic ending of The Pastel City is disturbed by the presence of the Queen herself appearing to tell her knight to cheer the hell up.
Place-names from our world are mentioned, often by mad people, and go unrecognised. The chapters making up the last of the novels, In Viriconium, are named after Tarot cards for no particular or perceptible reason. There’s a cafe called the Bistro Californium; a street called the Rue Sepile; a square called the Plaza of Unrealised Time. Like many place-names, these feel like they should be significant, but aren’t; their varied provenances and registers point out this essential meaninglessness which punctuates our own lives.
But Viriconium’s true intertext is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. One of the city’s principal streets is the Margarethestrasse; the cry ou lou lou lou punctuates the texts; a quotation from Jessie L Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot famously claimed to have based his poem on, stands as the epigraph to one of In Viriconium‘s chapters.* Like Martin Rowson’s graphic novelisation of the poem, and Stephen King’s The Waste Lands, Viriconium takes The Waste Land‘s Modernist “heap of broken images” and turns it Gothic – surrounds its sparse fragments with dense, excessive, Gothically hypnotic prose:
They had made camp amid the ruins of a single vast, roofless building of vanished purpose and complicated ground-plan. Although nine tenths of it had sunk long ago beneath the bitter earth, the remains that reared around them rose fifty or sixty feet into the twilight. A feeble wind mumbled in off the Waste and mourned over their indistinct summits. Among the dunes meandered a vile, sour watercourse, choked with stones worn and scoured by Time.
Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road/The road winding above among the mountains.)
The point being that this deliberate Gothic overwriting both reveals and conceals the screaming void at the heart of meaning. It seems to invest things with a significance that they turn out not to possess. Viriconium – both the city and the texts about the city (and that’s an important Gothic trait, too – that the Gothic place and the textual space turn out to be one and the same thing) – is, deliberately, “a heap of broken images”. (Lest this sound like a criticism – it takes a lot of skill to pull this kind of textual strategy off, to avoid meaning so deliberately without leaving the work feeling pointless. There’s a reason The Waste Land is still famous.)
So, what does Viriconium, this future city, mean to our present? To answer that question we have to turn to the last story in the book – the last short story and the last text: “A Young Man in Viriconium”. Despite the title, the story is actually about a young man in England – a young man who’s been looking for Viriconium all his life. After a long search, he meets a man, Dr Petromax, who tells him what it’s really like there:
The streets stank. At six in the morning a smell so corrupt came up from the Yser Canal it seemed to blacken the iron lamp posts; we would gag in our dreams, struggle for a moment to wake up, and then realise that the only escape was to sleep again.
The night I [left] you could see the lights of the High City, sweet, magical, like paper lanterns in a garden, filling up the emptiness. If only I’d gone towards them, walked straight towards them!
Dr Petromax is like a reader of epic fantasy (the comparison with Narnia is reasonably obvious): longing after a world that seems invested with more importance than our own broken-imaged one, not realising that every possible world with humans in it is estranged from its own symbols, despite having experienced this truth first-hand. “A Young Man in Viriconium” is probably the most important text in the whole book: it reveals to us that Viriconium is, on one level, a self-reflexive discussion of reading itself, especially SFF reading. It deflates the symbol of Viriconium which, despite everything, we constructed in our minds as we read. It reminds us that much SFF is only “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats”.
There’s plenty more to say about Viriconium, of course (oh, to be able to write a thesis on The Waste Land in Gothic literature!). It’s one of those texts you can never quite finish with, because it’s never quite finished with you. It belongs on a shelf with Mervyn Peake and House of Leaves and Ann Radcliffe: Gothic fictions that strip away our illusions and reveal the emptiness behind. It is, in other words, right up my street, and I’ll be reading more of Harrison’s work.
*Harrison has a great sense of irony: here is the epigraph:
I believe that the “Waste Land” is really the very heart of our problem; a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most bewildering mazes.
No such clue is, of course, forthcoming.