Book Notes 14: Viriconium, by M John Harrison

This is a reissue in the Fantasy Masterworks series, of all – or nearly all – of Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’ stories. Four of the collected works are novels (though short ones) and the rest short stories. I had read only one of them before, the last-written and last presented here: ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ appeared in Interzone a long time ago. I don’t think I understood it then, though: it doesn’t really make much sense out of context.

Though as it happens, the context of that one story is different from that of all the others. The others are all set in Viriconium, or in the lands that surround it. This final one is set in our world; it tells the tale of some people who dream of Viriconium, who believe that it is real, who believe that they might be able to reach it one day.

Whether anyone would actually want to get to Viriconium if they could is another matter. It is a sort of dream city at the end of time. It has a constant feeling that the world has run down, that time is running out. Humanity has fallen from the great technological highs of the ‘Afternoon Cultures’, and now survives on scavenged technology – machines so advanced that they are still running after millennia – and on traditional crafts.

So most of the weaponry, for example, consists of swords, but there are a few prized energy blades, or baans. People travel on horseback, or walk, to get around, especially after the last few aircars are destroyed in the War of the Two Queens, which is part of the subject matter of ‘The Pastel City’.

Did I mention that this doesn’t belong in the Fantasy Masterworks line? Just because people fight with swords, and the technology is advanced beyond their understanding into Clarke’s (Third) Law territory, doesn’t make a book sword & sorcery. This is science fiction, where the science is breaking down; or at least, the knowledge of it is.

Despite all the stories having been published before, there are copyright dates for only a few of them, and previous-publication details for none. Which to my mind detracts slightly from the collection.

Also, the first story is listed as ‘Viriconium Knights’ in the contents and on its own title page, but as Viriconium Nights” (which is the title I recall having heard of before) on the copyright page. This could, of course, be deliberate, as I have a vague recollection of having heard that this is not a simple collection and republication, but that there has also been some reworking.

It is not easy reading: it is a 500-page book, and it took me over a month to read it. Now, I’m not that fast a reader these days, but that is slow. But at no point was I thinking, “This is heavy going,” or, “I can’t be bothered with this.” Rather, it’s just that some prose styles are denser than others, and Harrison’s is dense. In a good way. Highly recommended.

Book Notes 14: Viriconium, by M John Harrison