Fantastic Metropolis

Climbing to Viriconium

The Work of M. John Harrison

Rhys Hughes

Michael John Harrison is the brooding hermit who occupies a slippery ledge on the fantasy mountain. Other climbers employ grandiose schemes for conquering the summit; frequently they venture higher than the scowling figure who clings on by his fingernails alone. But Harrison has chosen the difficult route with care — when he finally reaches the top, his ascent will seem all the more heroic.

Sheer landscapes, whether of glistening rock and ice or else human emotions, feature largely in Harrison’s oeuvre. His work is essentially concerned with the old existentialist dilemmas, the difficulties faced by beings who are unable to communicate with their own kind or relate to the surroundings that barely nurture their desires. He is a bleak writer, remote; yet not quite pessimistic. Ostensibly his stories seem fixed by stylistic pitons to the blank face of Realism; but there is a healthy measure of absurdity, and no little compassion, to belie the apparent naturalistic (and nihilistic) colours of his vistas.

His work has steadily improved over the decades, evolving from the twin extremes of avant-garde science-fiction and conventional fable to a more immediate and ethological study of individuals at times of crisis. He frequently uses entropy as a metaphor for the meaningless struggle of everyday existence. This is a literary conceit much affected by genre writers since the 1960’s — Moorcock and Ballard among others. And indeed his early work was heavily influenced by both these authors, as well as by more standard fantasy writing.

Born in 1945, Harrison became a student teacher in the early 60’s before selling his first story, the low-key “Baa Baa Blocksheep”, to New Worlds in 1968 (an even earlier tale published in 1966 has been disowned by him.) Published in an unremarkable issue devoted to ‘new’ writers, Harrison’s story made as little impression as those of his fellow contributors. But of the eight writers premiered in that issue, Harrison was one of only two — the other being Robert Holdstock — who was to go on to better things.

These better things came almost immediately. Ensnared by Moorcock’s ‘Jerry Cornelius’ mythos, Harrison started writing his own tales of the ‘English Assassin’. Moorcock had intended his creation to become an open character; other writers were able to use Cornelius as a foil for their own concerns. For one thing, the Cornelius mythos provided a workable format for experimentation as well as a non-linear method of exploring new subject matter. This is not to deny that many of the tales are on the verge of unreadability; but for the best writers the opportunities for wit offered by Cornelius managed to outweigh the disadvantages of the chaotic plotting and often pretentious messages.

Harrison brought a tighter rein to bear on Cornelius than others (including Moorcock) who were similarly tempted to add to the growing mythos. His Cornelius stories have often been judged to be the best of the bunch — his treatment of the anarchic demagogue was both rigorous and careful. More importantly, he proved that he could actually write well, showing a flair for characterisation, dynamic and description. Three of his early Cornelius tales, “The Ash Circus” (1969), “The Nash Circuit” (1969) and “The Flesh Circle” (1971), form a mesmerising sort of loop. He was also responsible for introducing new characters into the cycle, some of whom were adopted into Moorcock’s novels.

At the same time, Harrison was writing short pieces that had much more in common with the ‘condensed novels’ of J.G. Ballard. These tales are difficult to read and have not worn particularly well — much of the experimentation conducted within the pages of New Worlds trundled down rambling paths towards a dead-end. These odd stories were eventually collected together in The Machine in Shaft Ten (1975), the title story of which is probably the most interesting. “The Bait Principle” (1970) and “The Floating Nun” (1970) are typical examples of this disconnected phase — too complex for digestion and too tightly-knit to reward any but the most studious reader.

A third strain of Harrison’s fiction was finally to prove far more fruitful and entertaining. In 1967, he had written a remarkable little fantasy entitled “Lamia Mutable”. This was to find its way into Harlan Ellison’s superlative anthology Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972. Though a brief tale, it encapsulated many of Harrison’s obsessions and concerns and polished the stage for the cast of dislocated souls that flowed and changed into the impotent heroes of his fantasy masterpieces. The aging and foolish Birkin Grif, later recast as a mercenary in The Pastel City, here plays a part in a barely-concealed attack on London intellectual life. Later stories such as “The Lamia And Lord Cromis” (1971) and “The Causeway” (1971) added their own allegorical weight to the series. It was evident that Harrison had a sense of humour even blacker than he had demonstrated with his Jerry Cornelius tales.

Simultaneously, he was busy writing criticism and collaborating with Moorcock on the scripts for the Jerry Cornelius cartoon strips. He became a keen climber and much of his fine eye for landscape can be traced to his love of the hardy outdoor life. Other ventures, such as taking over the editorship of New Worlds and writing a post-holocaust SF novel, helped to delay further development of his fantasy stories. This novel, The Committed Men (1971) is the impressive tale of a ravaged Britain, set among the crumbling motorways of a fractured rural land. It is a quest story, peopled with bizarre characters and focusing quite relentlessly on the instant business of survival in a hostile and contingent environment. Harrison is at his best when depicting individuals struggling to preserve their identities in the face of abstract uncertainties.

After The Committed Men, Harrison was finally free to return to what would eventually emerge as his magnum opus — the Viriconium tales. The first novel in the sequence, The Pastel City (1971) is also the most accessible, bordering on straight sword-and-sorcery, with some of the technological trappings of science-fiction thrown in. As such, it is highly reminiscent of Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ series, though far bleaker (and yet, paradoxically, less cynical). The Pastel City tells the story of tegus-Cromis, a swordsman turned poet, whose fear of action is symptomatic of this far-future Earth. A cast of highly colourful rogues join him on his mission to destroy a race of alien automata who threaten to obliterate Viriconium entire — which is both city and land and the last of the ‘Evening’ cultures.

The world of The Pastel City is decadent and weary; the action is often completely ludicrous. Cromis is both reclusive and regressive, though he brings a greater sensitivity to fantasy writing than most other ‘heroes’ who populate the genre. Harrison’s mixing of philosophy, pseudo-science and black comedy works here because of the strength of the language with which he tells his tale. This language was to be honed to an even greater edge in the sequel, A Storm of Wings (1980).

Before this, however, he was to attempt another purely SF work. His weakest novel by far, The Centauri Device (1974), nevertheless has some high points. This book perhaps owes something to Alfred Bester in its manic delivery and space-operatic theme. A space-tramp, John Truck, is variously sought by interested parties across the galaxy — as the last Centauran, his genetic-code alone is able to detonate the awesome weapon of the title. Needless to say, and in direct contrast to Bester’s optimism in his own similar works, the device is duly detonated and the galaxy is destroyed. The mysterious Dr. Grishkin, first encountered in “Lamia Mutable”, here returns as the leader of a strange cult whose members are a strange hybrid of anarchist and aesthete.

The second Viriconium novel, A Storm of Wings, found Harrison back on more comfortable territory. But right from the beginning of this novel it was obvious that he had largely abandoned the simple theatrics of The Pastel City. In this fantasy there is no escapism: there is absurdity aplenty, but it is a claustrophobic sort of madness, akin to that of the real world. This was the direction that Harrison’s work was to increasingly follow; at one point, it seemed that Viriconium was going to transmute into a kind of ‘kitchen-sink’ fantasy, in which the problems of the imagined world were at the very least identical to our own. A Storm of Wings is wondrously written — Harrison’s skill with words has turned a ridiculous tale of invading sentient insects into a poignant parable reflecting the human condition in the eternal present of all possible worlds. A civilisation on the verge of collapse has rarely been presented with so much metaphysical pertinence.

The Viriconium stories that followed were even bolder in pushing the fantasy genre up uncharted and precipitous paths. Replete with quasi-Celtic overtones and Sartrian undercurrents, In Viriconium (1982) rejects all grand plotting to concentrate on the realities of two main characters, Audsley King and Ashlyme, both artists who dwell (and then swell) in the City during the time of a plague. Audsley is dying of the disease and Ashlyme misguidedly attempts to save her — all his actions and subsequent ‘adventures’ come to nothing. It is a drab and depressing conclusion, but one enlivened by the (albeit dampened) bohemian ambience of the setting, the Artist’s Quarter.

After In Viriconium came a collection of stories, Viriconium Nights (1984), many of which are more like intense prose-poems than real tales. Harrison’s very best writing can be found here — a sly eye may perceive less despair in the tales than might be at first expected. While it is true that the characters are not well-defined, the dynamic of each piece, subtle and strange, permits of no other treatment than that which Harrison has given it. They are perfect works, never classically pure, but closely-woven and memorable. Harrison might have done well in the company of Camus and Bataille save that he has no philosophical axe to grind — unless it be the ice-axe of unsentimental Humanism.

The individual stories in Viriconium Nights actually stand up well by themselves — “The Luck In The Head” and “Strange Great Sins” are both particularly noteworthy. The former has echoes of Samuel Beckett’s novel MURPHY, as the lead character, Ardwick Crome the poet, straps himself into bed every morning in order to write verses — the feeling of unfair confinement liberates his mind. The names of some of the odd people who inhabit this world (Barzelletta Angst) and the watering-holes of these failed romantics (the Bistro Californium) show exactly where Harrison is coming from. Existentialism is apparently not dead: it thrives in high places, whether dizzy crags or artist’s garrets, and still intoxicates its adherents with the absinthe of abandonment.

Between In Viriconium and Viriconium Nights, two of the strangest and most remarkable experiences in fantasy writing, Harrison published a second collection of short-stories. The Ice Monkey (1983) is somewhat superior to his earlier volume of shorter fiction and contains pieces of obsidian coldness and beauty. Many of the stories are openly about rock climbing (or ice climbing in the case of the title-story.) Harrison has shuffled off the coils of allegory for the more intense and sensual purpose of direct confrontation between characters. One of the stories, the utterly impressive and powerful “Running Down”, first published in New Worlds in 1975, is the quintessential Harrison tale. This is an unambiguous exploration of the psychological relevance of the concept of entropy — a more convincing treatment of this metaphor has yet to be written. The character Lyall, who is a literal human source of chaos and destruction, meets his death in a sombre apocalypse that relies on heath and black tarn, heat-lighting and crumbling cliffs for its theatrics but really emphasises human disorder in the teeth of reality.

Another story directly concerned with climbing, “The Ice Monkey” is a more depressing affair — the main character, Jones, is as seedy as Lyall but lacks his absurd sense of auto-hubris. More disturbing are “The New Rays” and “The Incalling”, both concerned with unethical and grisly methods of medical treatment. Best of all, “Egnaro” is a sad tale of yearning, and a suitable warning to the escapist.

Harrison’s best novel, Climbers (1989), takes all its action and impulse from real-life. This is the truest of all his novels; the characters are nearly always interesting, despite their ponderous wit and assured status as failures. Journeying from crag to crag around the country, honing their abilities as climbers, they chance upon a good deal of urban mythology and a fair amount of introspection. The peaks of their own minds are there to be scaled; they are generally wary of exploring them too vigorously — perhaps the sutures of their skulls are crevasses too hazardous to cross. But they are still tormented souls, paying a heavy price for their partial realisation of escape. Climbers won the Boardman Tasker Prize for ‘Mountain Literature,’ the first work of fiction to do so.

His following book, The Course of the Heart (1992), on the other hand, balances worlds of reality and fantasy with a sure, almost glib, ease. Amplifying many of the thematic concerns explored in the stories of The Ice Monkey, Harrison presents the story of three friends (his characters, as always, elicit both empathy and irritability from the reader — none more so than Pam Stuyvesant in this book) who foolishly dabble with occult forces. At periodic intervals through history, the mysterious land known as the ‘Coeur’ shimmers into focus between the unsteady borders of a troubled Europe. Together with a ‘lost’ journal, the autobiography of thaumaturgical explorer Michael Ashman, there are elements aplenty for a half-baked adventure-fantasy. Instead, Harrison forces home his message with a skill and tact every bit as effective as the savagery of Climbers. To escape from our bruised reality, we must pay greater attention to that reality. It is necessary to understand the nature of what we wish to escape.

More recently, Harrison has made some bad choices about his subject matter and its treatment. But he has nonetheless earned himself a name as a great SF and fantasy innovator, who has taken many of the techniques learned in the genre into the mainstream. Short stories such as “Running Down” and “Egnaro” and the Viriconium novels speak for themselves: in the excellence of their prose and integrity of method, Harrison will always be above the snow-line on the fantasy mountain. While others make their way to the top by means of well-trod paths, or even mountain-railway, Harrison will be ascending a new face solo. It may always be cold and remote up there, but no better view of the whole picture is to be had.

Copyright © 1996 by Rhys Hughes.