Wednesday, 20 May 2009

‘Viriconium Knights’ – M. John Harrison

I was trawling through Google Images, looking for Viriconium imagery, and came across this picture (courtesy of these guys) that sums up perfectly the experience I had when reading Gollancz’ ‘Viriconium’ collection for the first time. I couldn't get the picture any larger so you're going to have to click on it to read...

As you can see, the scenery is gorgeous (and hints at something worth reading) but I’ve got no idea of what’s being said and what the story is about! That was pretty much how it was when I read ‘Viriconium’ a few years ago... I’d always meant to give these stories another go but was put off by how inaccessible I’d found it. Until now... Larry’s reviews got me interested again and picking up the Viriconium references in Mark Newton’s ‘Nights of Villjamur’ had me wondering if I’d got more out of the book than I’d realised. Plus there was the fact that you guys voted this as the book I should try next! All this means I’ll be going through the book and telling you what I think of the short stories and novellas inside (one every couple of weeks maybe, we’ll see how it goes). First up is ‘Viriconium Knights’.

No sooner has ‘Viriconium Knights’ introduced us to the mysterious city of Viriconium (with its murky alleyways and strange customs) then we are told that this may not be Viriconium at all,

‘I have heard the cafe philosophers say: “The world is so old that the substance of reality no longer quite knows what it ought to be. The original template is hopelessly blurred. History repeats over and again this one city and a few frightful events – not rigidly, but in a shadowy, tentative fashion, as if it understands nothing else but would like to learn.’”

What is the reader meant to do with this? Ignace Retz (man on the run) is faced with this revelation and cannot take it in despite overwhelming evidence. I remember being caught out, and a little disappointed, the last time I read it and I felt the same this time round as well. I really like digging around in the Viriconium that we’re given to start off with. The city gives an impression of being old beyond measure (with ‘derelict observatories and abandoned fortifications’) and full of intrigue as ‘the aristocratic thugs of the High City whistle as they go about their factional games’... This is just my kind of setting and it was a bit of a shock to have it pulled out from under my feet and be told that no-one really knows what’s real and what isn’t. At the same time though, I have to respect an author who has the nerve to tell his readers (in no uncertain terms) that it’s up to them what they make of his book. Or is he just ducking responsibility here? I don’t think so.

Harrison offers his readers some hope by showing Ignace Retz visions of different Viriconiums, hinting that these may be found in the stories to come. I’m going to tell you right now (from what I remember reading the book last time) that this is only partly the case. Some of these visions do come to pass but not all of them. If you’re looking for connections between the tales then you need to look elsewhere...

This time round I found that ‘Viriconium Knights’ worked for me a lot more than it did previously. To be fair, I knew what I was letting myself in for and this gave me a chance to actually engage with the story rather than fight my way through what was going on. It’s a tale of midnight confrontations, and a desperate attempt to stay alive until dawn, but it’s also a springboard into what is to come in the rest of the book. I’m thinking more about what I’m going to find and that’s the best way to travel through Viriconium. I’ll be going back there soon...


Larry said...

Interesting that you started with this rather than with The Pastel City. Is the Gollancz ordering of MJH's stories different than the US omnibus, which goes in order of original publication?

Graeme Flory said...

I went with 'Viriconium Knights' first purely because it's the first story in the book. The Gollancz ordering goes...

'Viriconium Knights'
'The Pastel City'
'Lords of Misrule'
'Strange Great Sins'
'A Storm of Wings'
'The Dancer from the Dance'
'The Luck in the Head'
'The Lamia & Lord Cromis'
'In Viriconium'
'A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium'

I'm going to have to go and see what the original publication order is now! I can see how 'Viriconium Knights' fits into this order but, equally well, I can see it fitting anywhere in the sequence.

Larry said...

Ah, I think Gollancz must have followed MJH's suggested reading order, as that's not the order of publication. The US one goes The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, and then the short stories.