Viriconium: "Pastel City", "Storm of Wings", "In Viriconium", "Viriconium Nights" (FANTASY MASTERWORKS) Paperback – 13 Jul 2000
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"The world that Harrison depicts is intricate and authentic, peopled with a multitude of strange yet lifelike characters--a combination which serves to make his richly imagined empire of Viriconium feel very real indeed.... This omnibus collection from the author of Light" "is canon-reading for those who wish to know the genre's roots, as well as the heights, to which it can aspire."--"Kirkus Reviews," starred review
Viriconium, the Pastel City, was the last bastion of the civilised world ...See all Product description
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Actually, it's not like that, it's much better.
At the surface level, the world of Viriconium is apparently our world tens of thousands of years in the future. Industrial civilization has risen and fallen, leaving its name (which nobody can read) in the stars - and a poisoned and depleted world, where people survive as best they can, scavenging from the past and nursing bits of decaying technology. The geography is vague (no hand drawn maps!) and all identifiable landmarks have gone, apart from the names of some (real) places and features (Dunham Massey; Rannoch Moor; Lymm) and (especially) Viriconium street names: it's fun spotting the literary or geographical allusions).
The first two novels (`Pastel City' and `Storm of Wings') explore the consequences of this and develop the idea in a number of ways, some subtle, some gross. While haunting in their atmosphere and very inventive, they are fairly conventional. Perhaps significantly, much of the action takes place far from Viriconium.
The short stories apparently fit between the novels and take a more personal, close up look at the lives of characters in this extraordinary world. They are much stranger, and focussed mainly on Viriconium, as is the last novel (`In Viriconium') Don't try to work out exactly what order these stories go in because it's just not like that. The same characters appear in what can only, I think, be accounted for as alternate versions of the same worlds. Characters who are heroes in one story show up as decidedly shabby in another. Even the names shift (so, Uroconium rather than Viriconium).
And what's going on with the repeated scenes? Events in one book are echoed, in a different context, elsewhere. For example, the encounter with St Elmo Buffin and his experimental telescope in "Storm of Wings" and a similar scene with Emmet Buffo in "In Viriconium" - similar down to the unsatisfactory snack of fish given to the visitors. Or the descriptions of the Mosaic Lane baths in "Lord Cromis and the Lamia" and in "A Young man's Journey...". Then there is the repeated theme of folk ritual - often involving dancers dressed as animals or with animal heads.
I'm not sure exactly what is happening here, but for me, the way the various stories intersect, reinforce and contradict one another recalls a mythology, or a body of folk tales, rather than a single narrative. It's as if the whole thing has grown up rather than being written, or the stories have been reconstructed from earlier versions, from underlying texts.
At the end, a link emerges between Viriconium and our own time. Its nature is enigmatic, though, and as with much else, we are left to wonder exactly what it means.
As other reviewers have pointed out this is a bleak world, a chilly place, an Earth almost wound down. But it is far from depressing. The short stories in particular portray a world of intense cultural creativity - they mostly revolve around dancers, musicians, poets and artists. And the description of the city is captivating and real - convincing not so much because of what is said but because of what isn't. You would only leave out so much - or allow so much contradiction - if you were describing a real place, wouldn't you? It must be true, or it would look more perfect.
Really, really worth a go.
The Viriconium stories are collected here in their (very near) entirety, and what an amazing collection it is. Set in the far, far future (possibly a billion years, who knows?), civilisation has died back to a uniquely twisted version of the medieval past, and its weary inhabitants are awaiting the end of the world. The novels are laid out in what appears to be chronological order, and as you move towards the end the tone becomes increasingly less straightforward and more hallucinatory. This is, among many other things, an extremely powerful meditation on death and decay. The ageing protagonists are beset by forces they cannot understand, they lose their memories, it becomes clear that they are the last generation with any knowledge of what has gone before, as the world enters a final age of ignorance. Depressing? Maybe. But Viriconium is written with lyrical and stylish prose with more economy and gusto than 10 average authors (of SF or otherwise); it's tremendously evocative of place and character. Readers who like to know what is going on in their novels from the off and follow such outmoded notions as "characters" participating in "events" that really "happen" in any meaningful sense should get with the times - it's the end of the world! And this incredible book communicates that on multiple levels. This is post-novel literature, and it would be ahead of its time if it were written today, let alone 30 odd years ago. Brilliant.
Viriconium is a city both strange and mundane. Its gods wander the streets (strange) and are mad for pies (mundane). A Plague Zone spreads across it, infecting its inhabitants with apathy. Our hero is an artist digusted by worldly complacency and irresponsible deities. Later stories take us further from the city and closer to our own world, culminating in Manchester and challenging us to measure how far we've come, with a telescope, or perhaps a microscope. Harrison's prose glitters like ice and offers cold comfort for escapists. This book is not what you expect, whatever you expect.
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