The Pastel City by M. John Harrison
Viriconium sits on the ruins of an ancient civilization that nobody remembers. The society that was technologically advanced enough to create crystal airships and lethal energy weapons is dead. These Afternoon Cultures depleted the world’s metal ores, leaving mounds of inscrutable rusted infrastructure with only a few odds and ends that still work. The current citizens of Viriconium are baffled by what they’ve dug up, but they have no idea what any of it is for.
tegeus-Cromis, “who fancies himself a better poet than swordsman,” used to be Viriconium’s best fighter until he left the Pastel City after King Methven died. But Viriconium is now under threat — young Queen Jane, Methven’s daughter, is about to lose the empire to her evil cousin. Queen Jane needs the help of the men who once served her father so faithfully, so she sends tegeus-Cromis to find and take command of her army. Along the way, he picks up some of his old comrades and is accosted by a talking metal vulture who insists that Cromis go directly to see a mysterious man who lives in an obsidian tower by the sea. According to the mechanical bird, the future of Viriconium, indeed the whole world, depends on it. As the men travel north, they discover that the Afternoon Cultures left behind a lot more than piles of rusting metal.
The Pastel City, published in 1971, is the first part (only 158 pages) of M. John Harrison’s science fantasy epic VIRICONIUM which, according to sources, was inspired by Jack Vance’s DYING EARTH and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Characterization and pacing are sometimes a bit weak, but the scenery in The Pastel City is grand, and I enjoyed the story. In many ways it reminded me of THE LORD OF THE RINGS — a group of comrades (including a dwarf) travel through beautiful and desolate landscapes (across rivers and marshes, through mountain tunnels, etc.) on a quest to destroy something so they can save the world.
A major difference, and what saves the book from being simply another quest fantasy, is the post-apocalyptic vision of an unknown advanced civilization which died out mysteriously, leaving samples of their devastating handiwork behind. Thus, the dwarf arms himself with an 11-foot tall mechanical skeleton and carries some sort of laser. Cromis and his friends ride into one battle on horseback, but leave in a glass blimp. Cool.
I was fascinated by the discoveries that Cromis and his friends made and the hints that the Afternoon Cultures understood the mathematics of the universe. The thought that our heroes may have “woken something from the Old Science” is a frightening one, especially since they have less idea about how to control it than their dead predecessors did. There’s a clear message here, but it’s not heavy-handed. As Queen Jane says:
We have always regarded the Afternoon Cultures as a high point in the history of mankind. Theirs was a state to be striven for, despite the mistakes that marred it. How could they have constructed such things? Why, when they had the stars beneath their hands?
Though I’m reviewing each book in the VIRICONIUM epic separately, I’m actually listening to the audiobook version of the omnibus edition. It’s recently been produced by Neil Gaiman Presents and is narrated by Simon Vance who is one of the absolute best in the business. This is a high-quality production and highly recommended for anyone who wants to read one of M. John Harrison’s best-loved works.
This is one of those compendiums that really isn’t a traditional sequence at all. Instead, it’s more like four disparate, elusive, and impressionistic paintings that try to capture the essence of an ineffable dream in the form of a city sometimes called Viriconium. The books and stories contained in VIRICONIUM were written over a number of years by the eclectic British writer M. John Harrison.
He has also written The Centauri Device (1974), a bizarre space opera that may have been intended as a tribute to Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956), some of the space operas of Samuel R. Delany like Babel-17 or Nova or a parody of the genre itself, and has inspired many later writers such as Iain M. Banks. More recently, he’s written some very free-wheeling and difficult-to-grasp books collectively known as THE KEFAHUCHI TRACT or EMPTY SPACE trilogy, consisting of Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006), and Empty Space (2012). Reviews are very polarized, with some loving them and many others unable to finish even one. For an idea of whether they might be for you, check out Kat’s review of Light.
The four individual books that make up VIRICONIUM have all been expertly reviewed by Kat already, and like her I listened to them in the Neil Gaiman Presents series of audiobooks meant to reintroduce classic lesser-known works in the genre. It is narrated by the excellent and versatile Simon Vance, so that is already a point in its favor. I’ll keep my reviews restricted mainly to my impressions, since Kat’s reviews should be read first for details on each book.
The Pastel City is the shortest book in the sequence, a tribute to Jack Vance’s seminal The Dying Earth (1950) and The Eyes of the Overworld (1966). Set in the twilight days of a world from which the Afternoon Cultures have already disappeared, it is steeped in mysterious ancient technology, primitive medieval city-states, and strange beings and creatures. An aging fighter named Cromis is asked to come to the aid of a young queen to fight against Northmen bent on toppling her kingdom. The plot is a typical sword-and-sorcery quest, including the assembling of a rag-tag group of companions and the need to seek the aid of a mysterious recluse named Cellar the Birdlord, but really what distinguishes the story is the beautiful evocation of a world that has truly outlived its halcyon age and is slowly sinking into the mulch of its own history. While entertaining, it is certainly the least distinctive book in the sequence, essentially an early sketch that hewed too close to its Dying Earth inspiration.
Viriconium — (1971-1984) The third book, The Floating Gods, was also released as In Viriconium. Publisher: In the distant future, a medieval system rises from the ruins of a technology that destroyed itself. Armored knights ride their horses across dunes of rust, battling for the honor of the Queen. But the knights find more to menace them than mere swords and lances. A brave quest leads them face to face with the awesome power of a complex, lethal technology that has been erased from the face of the Earth — but lives on, underground.
This sounds pretty good.
I’ve come so close to buying the Viriconium omnibus at least twice. I even uploaded a Kindle sample once and I’ve read Gaiman’s forward. I just couldn’t tell if it would read very “dated” or not.
Hey Kat, I’m reading Glenn Cook’s Books of the South: Tales of the Black Company, and there are several mentions of the Pastel Wars as happening 3 or 4 hundred years before. :)
Do you think it’s related?
I couldn’t say really since I haven’t read Harrison’s books. I suspect that Glen Cook is just giving a shout-out.