Thursday, 11 June 2009

‘The Pastel City’ – M. John Harrison

I seem to remember ‘The Pastel City’ being one of the more straightforward reads the last time I read through the ‘Viriconium’ stories. There’s a Queen whose kingdom needs saving and only the last remnants of the Old Guard stand any chance of doing the job. Kind of like one of those old war films where a team of commandoes are reformed for one last mission... On one level this is very much the case; the story starts at A and proceeds to Z (via all the letters in between) in a flurry of swordplay and forgotten magic. Good stuff if that’s what you’re after and I’m always partial to that when I’m reading fantasy. Having read ‘Viriconium Knights’ though, and seen what it had to say for itself, I figured that there had to be more to ‘The Pastel City’ than that...

‘The Pastel City’ opens with a brief history of the times leading up to Canna Moidart’s (the Queen of the North) march on the city of Viriconium. I say ‘brief’, a quick estimate sets the time of the Afternoon Cultures (preceding Viriconium) at a well over a hundred thousand years!

‘... it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium.’

The only thing left to come after evening is nightfall and that’s where we find Viriconium, right on the cusp of the unknown. Has night already fallen? No-one really knows, only that time is running out... This has to be one of the more bleak openings to a book that I’ve come across. It does its job admirably though in that it sets a grim tone for the rest of the book and for the characters to act out their dramas to. What is the point of fighting if the end of the world is just around the corner? Are such fights a testament to human courage or an exercise in futility? Is it the end of the world at all or perhaps a new beginning?

‘Who can tell at which end of Time these places have their existence?’

What will happen next? Harrison leaves us to make our own mind up and I’m feeling depressed just writing this!

The hero of ‘The Pastel City’ is one tegeus-Cromis, a man who “imagined himself a better poet than a swordsman”. ‘Viriconium Knights’ has already set the scene of a world where time and reality are starting to lose their meaning and it’s interesting to see how this is examined in ‘The Pastel City’ (I’m going on the order the stories appear in this collection, the publication order is something quite different I think!)

‘The right fist rested on the pommel of his plain long sword, which, contrary to the fashion of the time, had no name. Cromis, whose lips were thin and bloodless, was more possessed by the essential qualities of things than by their names; concerned with the reality of Reality, rather than with the names men give it.’

Here’s a character who is trying desperately to impose his reality on a world in flux. I’m also left wondering if Harrison himself was making a point of his own with his mention of a sword with no name. It felt to me like he wanted to keep his fantasy grounded in comparison with another character, of the time, whose sword had a name and strode through a whole multi-verse. What is the reality of Reality though?
On the very next page we find out that he loved the beauty of the city more than,

‘... what it’s citizens chose to call it, which was often Viricon the Old and The Place Where The Roads Meet.’

Cromis concentrates on what he can see with his own eyes, rather than the names things are given, and finds his reality there. Is that approach any more valid though than the people who name their surroundings (even if the names change?) Again, Harrison isn’t saying one way or the other and I’m still wondering...

It’s interesting though that, right at the end of the book, Cromis sets a condition on his return that the true meaning of the Name Stars must remain hidden from him.

‘Alstath Fulthor the Reborn Man could tell you what it means, she said.
‘It is important to my nature’, he admitted, ‘that it remains a mystery to me. If you will command him to keep a close mouth, I will come back.’

Cromis is a man who places more importance on things than their names but he has the chance to learn the incontrovertible proof of something and turns it down... He’s sticking to his guns but I wonder if there’s a little more of the romantic in him than he cares to admit...

‘The Pastel City’ is an entertaining read that’s full of warfare and confrontation. It was the bleak setting and more thoughtful passages that kept my interest though (even if it depressed the hell out of me!) I think I’m in a better place now, to read these stories, than I was when I last read them. There will be more to follow.


Anonymous said...

This particular series of novels, of which The Pastel City is the first in a trilogy, one which I just recently finished reading, is a somewhat turgid nihilist recounting of a far future littered with nothing but the failings of mankind. I would recommend that you avoid reading it, Graeme.

Graeme Flory said...

I've set myself the challenge and I'm going for it! ;o)

From what little I've read so far, I think 'Viriconium' is a collection that benefits from not being read all at once. If I read the whole book in one go then I could see myself getting weighed down by it all but being able to come back and read seperate stories helps keep me fresh for the read... ;o)

Anonymous said...

I agree, Graeme. Reading 'Viriconium' can feel like a chore at times but ultimately is rewarding. I've had to set it down for awhile before tackling the next story in the collection. Definitely do not avoid reading it. Harrison is a master of the genre. His long stretches of description are often breathtaking.