Sunday, July 30, 2006

Viriconium by M. John Harrison

"I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape. After you grow up, you should start reading for other purposes" - M. John Harrison

This particular quote was brought to my attention as the signature of Jay Tomio on the Fantasy Book Spot forums. I've considered it, deliberated it, and seethed against it for months now, and decidedly feel the need to rage against it.

Insipid and blathering nonsense. I refuse to even accept his preposterous premise and allow that he is somehow the dignity police and can make such random generalizations. He's an author -- a talented, acclaimed, and commercially unsuccessful author; nothing more.

And the rampant attacks on escapism from SF pundits is crowned by this ludicrous assertion. The search for an escape from reality is deemed immature and foolish, when it was the base premise for the advent of literature in the first damn place. Perhaps Mr. Harrison and the proponents of this claptrap philosophy have never experienced any sort of life which literally begs for escape, but we are not all priviledged denizens of London. We are not all born with the inherent right to higher education and loft apartments in Manhattan. The greatest challenges that most will face have nothing to do with finding the next hand-hold on a climbing wall, Mr. Harrison, and escapism is not a four letter word.

During my short-tenured time in the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia, I would have lost my mind if not for Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time. I needed that escape each day, I lived every waking moment for it. Later, In Africa and Kosovo, I discovered George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I read these books literally dozens of times, along with paperbacks from Heinlein, Asimov, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Card, Zelazny, Hobb, King, and even Tom Clancy. (Clancy, quite kindly, gave me a stack of his books after he interviewed me for this.)

I take incredible offense at the assertion that, as a combat veteran, I was either not 'grown up,' or that wishing a release from an incredibly austere day-to-day I was leading at such a time was somehow undignified.

Furthermore, I assert that I did not have it bad at all compared to the vast majority of human beings on this planet. I was fed, clothed, and had a roof (sometimes) over my head. Perhaps Harrison's commentary works well with his overpriviledged crowd in London, but it's pure bunk in the real world. I submit that this sentence is as foolhardy as anything ever presented by the psychotic Terry Goodkind or the criminally insane Orson Scott Card.

M. John Harrison is something of a darling of the critical mass in speculative fiction, and so you'll likely not find another negative opinion regarding him or his work on the entire bloody internet. That's ok. I'm up for the challenge. (And fallout.)

Oh yeah, Viriconium.

Viriconium is a collection of all of Harrison's work that takes place in the fantasy world of the same name. His prose is wondrous, and the manner in which he weaves a tale is Pulitzer worthy. That said, it's boring. Harrison is the only author who can write a swordfight that (literally!) puts me to sleep.

The Pastel City, the first Viriconium book, is actually pretty awful. It gets far better from there, thankfully. A Storm of Wings, published nine years later, shows a significant improvement in both prose (which was never lacking) and in storytelling. A Storm of Wings is where Harrison quite obviously made his name as a master fantasist.

Viriconium Nights (The Floating Gods) is again a departure from what came before, both is style and in that actualities of the world. Names and places change, while remaining very much Viriconium. There are also a handful of short stories set in the same world which complete the collection.

So the question that remains at the completion of Viriconium; when your prose is elegant and delicious, is it acceptable to be boring?


Collector's Notes:

This trade paperback collection published by Bantam Spectra is certainly not collectible in any way. However, the original novels do have some value in the after market.
The Pastel City first edition can be had for 100-150 dollars American; A Storm of Wings for 75-100. (Not overly valuable for books published in 1971 and 1980, respectively.) The other books can be had for considerably less.

Comments on "Viriconium by M. John Harrison"


Anonymous Vera Nazarian said ... (6:34 PM) : 

So when are you gonna review my Lords of Rainbow? Huh? Huh?

*waiting eagerly to be ripped a new one*



Anonymous Anonymous said ... (8:46 PM) : 

Please keep up this level of insightful, clear, and entertaining commentary. This has become my favorite site and I look forward to each new review.


Blogger Race said ... (10:55 PM) : 

so i dont need to be in any hurry to read this one huh?

it was actually near the top of the pile too.


Blogger Ed S. said ... (12:11 AM) : 

I've come to the conclusion that M. John Harrison is one of those authors people will either strongly like or intensely dislike. There's no real middle ground. I've tried to read a couple of his books and gave up in frustration so I'm on the dislike side.


Blogger William Lexner said ... (5:37 AM) : 


Soon! I'm moving you to the top of the heap.


Thanks! The check is in the mail.


Probably no need to rush into it, no. (Mileage may vary, of course.)


I'm not even on the dislike side, to be honest. I just don't much care.


Blogger Joe Sherry said ... (11:11 PM) : 

I couldn't make it through The Pastel City. It was completely unremarkable, and I would far rather read Robert Jordan, George Martin, or even the internet hated Terry Goodkind...

Because I enjoy the escape...and I don't have a bad life to escape from, I just enjoy visiting some of these worlds.

I read for pleasure.


Blogger ouafc said ... (6:38 AM) : 

Just wanted to express my gratitude for seeing someone rip Mr Harrison.

I am something of a Sci-Fi fan, and generally fly through the books that I'm reading. I've read some terrible tripe in my time (I'm looking at you Mr Crichton for Sphere and Timeline). I know i should have known better but when you're living in a remote spot and a mobile library is our only escape, well poor choices can ensue.

Anyway, I tried reading LIGHT by M. John Harrison, and it remains one of the few books I have never finished. I've tried reading it several times, but can never get far along enough for the story to actually engage me. And yes, my reading is done for PLEASURE, and as a form of escapism, so I don't feel I have to force myself to finish the book. I can only read so many scientific papers, and depressing current affairs from around the world. Give me escapism any day.

I've seen a follow up comment from Mr Harrison criticizing world-building in novels and that also struck me as pretentious twaddle. Before you criticize other authors (and readers), try writing a book that is in some way engaging.

I look forward to reading more of your blog entries. This one cheered me up no end.


Blogger Olman Feelyus said ... (4:08 PM) : 

Hey, a little late in the game, but I found your post after reading The Pastel City and doing a bit of research on it. I wanted to say that I very much agree with your rant in general about the significance and value of escapism. I think a lot of the sci-fi community has a serious insecurity complex, especially the older ones who laboured in a time when the genre was given little respect. Harrison's quote sounds like a reflection of that.

But where I disagree with you and the other commenters is that I really enjoyed The Pastel City. It's a bit lyrical for my taste, but it some cool-ass shit in it. I mean there is a noxious dwarf who rides around in a reconstructed mecha with a vibro-axe. And the fearful tech of the past, and the way its truth was unveiled, was really engaging.

I haven't read any of the other Viriconium stuff, but the Pastel City is a solid PA/fantasy adventure.


Blogger GB Steve said ... (5:45 PM) : 

I don't think you're right about Harrison's fiction, but I don't think you're wrong about his quote.


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