(Bruce Pennington’s cover for the 1971 edition)
4.25/5 (Very Good)
One of the previous owners of my copy of M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City (1971) must have harbored a pernicious grudge against corroded landscapes and nebulous morals. So much in fact that they propped up the first volume of the Viriconium sequence against a tree and used it for BB gun target practice. I am still trying to identify the cause of the book’s other wounds… [pictorial evidence below].
As one can expect from Harrison, decadence and decay seeps from the quires of The Pastel City as characters try to create meaning, or grasp hold of half-formed shreds of past purpose, in a world that will continue to crumble regardless of the defeat of evil. Although not as forceful as The Centauri Device (1974) in its subversion of fantasy/SF quest tropes, M. John Harrison’s fascination with degeneration of landscape and purpose attempts a dialogue about the nature of genre. That said, I suspect the narrative itself will intrigue most readers of more standard entries, although the characters are not the strapping young desperate to win passionate new love and resurrect the “Golden Age” of the past. Rather, they are aged and weathered and more inclined to speculate on the nature of ideograms whose indices are long lost and brood on past cataclysm whose current effects cannot be escaped.
The narrative impetus: A civil war breaks out in Viriconium between the young queen and the old queen. The young Queen Jane, the direct descendant of King Methven, holds the allegiance of (most) of a surviving tattered band of washed-up knights, called the Methven, which dispersed after the death of their king. Canna Moidat, at the head of the Northman, whose “sprawling townships where intricate and beautiful machines of unknown function were processed crudely into swords and tribal chieftains fought drunkenly over possession of the deadly baans unearthed from the desert” (8), conjures terrifying forces to fight the battle against the Queen Jane and the armies of the Pastel City.
The characters: tegeus-Cromis, “of the nameless sword, who thought himself a better poet than fighter” leaves his tower, still filled with despair after the death of his wife, to fight for Queen Jane (34). His poetic lines embody the state of the remaining Methven: “we are nothing but eroded men…” (65). He is joined by Birkin Grif who dreams of “immense ancient forces moving in darkness” (42) and the decrepit Theomeris Glyn, who spends his time harassing women. Tomb the Dwarf joins their ranks of brigands, in power armor fashioned from some ancient metal skeleton, he provokes and capers “sniggering like a parrot” (69) as if in some ritualistic dance to ward off the melancholic film that covers all…
The landscape as character: The inhabitants of Viriconium, a decaying empire even before the civil war, “live […] on the corpse of an ancient science, dependent on the enduring relics of a dead race” (14). It is a landscape where scattered objects are covered with cyphers and sphenograms that have lost their meaning; ancient machines whose gears and mechanisms no longer function crumble into acrid dust; strange men ensconced in towers forget their own origins; and where sloth-like megatheria wander sinking cities.
The non-sentient megatheria mirror the movements of the characters:
“Between the collapsed towers moved the megatheria, denizens of the dead metropolis. They lived in sunken rooms, moved ponderously through the choked streets by night and day, as if for millennia they had been trying to discover the purpose of their inheritance” (131)
As Viriconium relies on excavating the machines of the Afternoon Cultures for its survival, the nourishing ruins will run out and turn to dust. And, as the previous powers mined all the ore from the Earth, the end is neigh and unavoidable.
Harrison’s first novel, The Committed Men (1971) remains my favorite due to its careful use of surreal scenes and social commentary. And The Pastel City takes over second place from The Centauri Device (1974)… The Pastel City’s motivating conflict appears as if a momentary event near the the end of the world. The quest, but a preordained pattern enacting some lost meaning, cannot escape its deterministic constraints. A haunting evocation of decadence and decline, M. John Harrison’s prose, filled with hypnotic intensity, is a joy to read.
“Burn them up and sow them deep:
Oh, Drive them down;
Heavy weather in the Fleet:
Oh, Drive them down;
Gather them up and drive them down:
Oh, Drive them down;
Withering wind and plodding,
Oh, Drive them down!” (50).
Recommended for all fans of 70s SF/fantasy.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(BB gun holes and other assorted wounds inflicted on my copy of the1974 Avon edition)
(Wendell Minor’s cover for the 1972 edition)
(Gray Morrrow’s cover for the 1974 edition)
(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1979 Italian edition)