A Little Cryptic, A Little Proud, A Little Mad
In the 16th and 17th Centuries, before museums, Europeans rich enough to collect wondrous objects housed them in special rooms. Quiet, contemplative places, they were known as “cabinets of curiosities.” Within, a merchant or religious scholar might showcase natural specimens that, at the time, fit nowhere else: preserved animals, chunks of coral, paintings, tribal weapons and musical instruments, tortoise shells, and even cobbled-together hoaxes.
Larger collections, which utilized the walls, floor, ceiling and shelves to display oddities, also used actual cabinets. Their drawers might open into further sectional compartments, to better store related items (like shells, minerals or insects). The real beauty of such rooms, however, came in comparing vastly different objects. A unicorn horn (or rather, a narwhal’s tusk) set beside a necklace of ivory chips might have challenged observers to confirm what science still hadn’t. Other arrangements perhaps merely pleased the eye, or reflected realms of knowledge as yet undiscovered by humanity.
Today, palatial museums offer not only exhaustive inventories of specimens (including giant sloth skeletons, cloud chambers, and everything in-between), but lucid explanations, won through scientific progress, for each. The phrase “cabinet of curiosities” has been relegated to collections of the truly weird, archaic or grotesque; carnival freakshows, and tourist-traps like the House on the Rock in Wisconsin, crudely approximate the essence of their Renaissance counterparts.
But as most readers of great literature know, an enchanting chamber needn’t be physical. Some of the best are fictional, and succeed magnificently in drawing subtle connections through an open mind. Key to this, of course, is our captivated entrance into the writer’s world. In Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels, we’re surrounded by magic, enthralled by chaos. Gene Wolf, in Shadow of the Torturer, completely absorbs us in a culture throbbing with villainous mystique. Then there’s the Viriconium trilogy, by British fantasy writer M. John Harrison. He locks us behind glass, in a city full of mechanical birds, locust cults, and crumbling pastel towers.
Until their Random House reissue as the single volume Viriconium (2005), Harrison’s slim but potent books were a chance encounter in used bookstores (at least for American readers). Upon finding Timescape mass markets of The Pastel City (1971), A Storm of Wings (1982), and The Floating Gods (also known as In Viriconium, 1983), with artwork that flutters between generic and creepy, they seem like nothing special in the fantasy stacks. Then, opening the first book in the trilogy (perhaps your trustworthy guru suggests reading them in order), you skim a page to assess whether Harrison is your kind of writer:
About him rose the Pastel Towers, tall and gracefully shaped to mathematical curves, tinted pale blue or fuchsia or dove-gray. They reached up for hundreds of feet, cut with quaint and complex designs that some said were the highpoint of an inimitable art, thought by others to be representations of the actual geometries of Time.
“Him” refers to tegeus-Cromis, poet and legendary swordsman. He watches as Viriconium smokes and collapses, under attack by warriors from the north. The mention of Time, however, is Harrison’s way of tapping on the cabinet’s roof, sounding it for hidden panels. The third book in the series opens with his note about the city:
Viriconium was never intended to be the same place twice. New kings come and go, new philosophies spring up overnight. The very streets shift, from story to story. All that remains, as the Earth grows older and the fabric of reality “forgets” what it is supposed to be, is a whisper of continuity: place names which seem familiar; characters we seem to have heard of before; the imperfect repetition of this or that significant event.
Harrison reaffirms that in his city Time is “gutted and broken.” The events in The Pastel City, a mix of linear fantasy and verbal psychedelia, have little bearing on what happens next in A Storm of Wings. Likewise, happenings, characters and themes in the second book continue, on a downbeat, into The Floating Gods as murky refractions. But the trilogy never dissolves into druggy piffle, merely festooned with swordplay, dark wizardry, and an enchanting queen. Harrison’s arrangement of these genre baubles possesses a forceful artistry of its own.
Throughout the fairly straight-forward first book, we meet the broody, not-quite main character Cromis. There’s also Tomb the Dwarf (who does battle in a mechanical exoskeleton), Queen Jane (also known by her family title, Methvet Nian), and Cellur of Girvan (a man centuries old, who communicates with the world through his clockwork birds). They lead, each in their turn and gradually together, to effulgent hollows. Follow Cromis, if you will, up the spiraling Proton Circuit to Queen Jane’s palace:
Shambling slowly among the curtains of light and finely-wrought furniture was one of the giant albino megatheria of the southern forests: great sloth-like beasts, fifteen feet high when they stood upright (which was rarely) and armed with terrible cutting claws, though they were vegetarian and amiable. The Queen’s beast wore an iridium collar, and its claws were sheathed in clear thick resin. Seeing Cromis, it ambled up to him in a sleepy manner, and gazed myopically at him. Patterns of light moved across its shining pelt.
With further compartmental flourish, Harrison later hints that these creatures were space explorers before crashing to his alternate future Earth. When they surround Cromis and his small band in the forest, claws unsheathed, Methvet Nian says, “They are the Queen’s beasts… And once they may have been more than that. No harm will come to us from them.”
Such a flourish, visually lilting but with no effect on the plot, might surprise newer fans of literary fantasy. The genre’s current stars, Neil Gaiman (American Gods, 2001) and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, 2000), have moved into Harrison’s sumptuous quarters, but aren’t quite tall enough to use the furniture. This is largely thanks to the many complex and decaying Afternoon Cultures piled atop Viriconium. They allow Harrison’s stories to kaleidoscope and withstand vigorous rereading.
And while each of books is a savory, singular retreat from drabber fiction, enjoying them consecutively reveals several motifs that glimmer for their slyness. One of my favorites begins with the clockwork vultures created by the seemingly immortal Cellur. A cantankerous specimen follows Cromis through the rusty, chemically-bitter wastelands he calls home, urging him to visit its creator’s tower. Additionally, it offers cryptic warnings against the geteit chemosit (brutish, brain-stealing enemy soldiers), and physically assails Cromis by digging claws into his arm and shoulders. It’s quite like an aerial jester, but not nearly as entertaining as the ghost of Benedict Paucemanly.
This creature is possibly the most rewarding spectacle shuttered within A Storm of Wings. The second book in the trilogy, it takes place eighty years after the first, and stars the landless lord Galen Hornwrack. We join him and Cellur the birdmaker, in Queen Jane’s now decrepit throne room:
Up near the vaulted ceiling a salmon-colored layer of light had begun curdling into gray muculent lumps and strings which floated about like bits of fat in a lukewarm soup, bumping one another gently. After a minute or two of slow tidal effort, these in their turn merged to form a thick, lobed nucleus: from which presently evolved the crude figure of a man. Hornwrack studied this process with disgust, noting how, as they strained to become arms and legs, the lobes heaved and struggled like something trapped in an elastic bag.
The bag shapes itself into a morbidly obese ghost, wearing the mask and uniform of a pilot. Like Cellur’s vulture, Paucemanly’s speech is “a little cryptic, a little proud, a little mad.” He favors haunting Hornwrack (who carries Cromis’ sword), echoing the relationship between oracle and hero seen in The Pastel City. Eventually, Hornwrack and his company (including Tomb, Cellur, and newcomers Alstath Fulthor and Fay Glass) have followed Paucemanly’s spirit to back to its body, where inhuman members of the Locust cult use it cruelly:
I lay on a marble slab in a paved garden among formal perspectives, my naked body citronized by the light falling down from space. At my side a single rose grew like an alum cyst on a long stem. Sometimes it emitted a quiet but intolerably beautiful melody comprising four or five notes on a vanished musical scale. The frozen air filled my mouth. I soon forgot my ship, the Saucy Sal. I communicated with the spare bony winds of that region, blowing from between the stars. The moon is a strange place. Up there, shadows fall motionless and subtly awry. It is a nexus. It was changed by many races who tried to come to Earth (or to leave it) during the long downfall of the Afternoon Cultures. It is a listening ear. It is an outpost.
Harrison rarely offers first-person narration. Here we’re treated to crisp cuts of imagery (from a character we’d assumed insane). Slab and naked bring a sense of dawning terror to the passage, which is balanced by the rose, garden and beautiful melody. Much of the rest of the language, though rolling toward a crescendo of loneliness, is so poetic that it’s hard to resist multiple reads.
During the Time of the Locust, Paucemanly’s human senses and physiology are used like a radio by giant alien insects. This, while they spray the Earth with chemicals. The lemon-scented doom causes slow mutations, and people covered in bandages (who are becoming insects) roam the city. Soon, the atmosphere will suit Locust biology more so than man’s. This is keen stuff, of which H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds) would approve. But Harrison doesn’t just polish yesterday’s plots for our admiration; he also displays still-smoldering chunks of science in his cabinet. The Pastel City, in describing a magnificent but tainted land, decries environmental degradation; A Storm of Wings challenges the Copenhagen Interpretation in quantum physics (which essentially states that when humans view reality they create it):
Leaving the palace for the city was like entering a dark crystal (especially at night, under the “white pulpy specter” of the Moon); the shape of things became irregular, refracted; sudden astonishing mirages swallowed the Pastel Towers or engulfed the denizens of the streets beneath them. It was as if Viriconium (the physical city, that is, the millennial artifact which sums up a thousand dead cultures) had suffered some sort of psychic storm, and forgotten itself. Its very molecules seemed to be creeping apart. “As you walk,” [Tomb] the dwarf tried to explain after a single clandestine excursion to the Artists’ Quarter, “the streets recreate themselves around you. When you have passed everything immediately slips into chaos again…”
Above, Harrison gives literal validation to his warning about Viriconium’s mutability. More importantly, he fires the straw on which much of quantum theory beds down; the idea that humanity is central to reality is a conceit destructive to our harmonious upkeep of the planet. If anything should fight this battle, why not alien insects?
Noticeably richer in language than The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings glows with light thrown from some of the 1970s’ most daring works. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) mesmerized readers with endless description, while Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren (1975) opened the literary gates to stoner’s paradise. The second volume of Harrison’s trilogy enjoys greater accessibility somewhere between the titans as a slimmer adventure. At times, this translates into visceral oppression, where, “organic towers, tall shapeless masses of tissue cultured from the plasm of ancient mammals, trumpeted and moaned across the abandoned wastes of another continent,” and goes further, paragraph after paragraph, to evoke the chilling desolation of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien.
But thanks to the trilogy’s understated continuity, you might want to (and can) save the exceedingly dense, dark trip that is A Storm of Wings for last. Though written second, it’ll grip you with a tenacious sense of finality. The characters Alstath Fulthor and Fay Glass, lanky and cadaverous Reborn Men who were brought out of suspended animation by Tomb the Dwarf, struggle in readjusting to reality (which the Locusts are already subtly changing). Long, hallucinogenic segments spell out the torment they suffer while a remembered Viriconium, from their lifetime centuries ago, overlaps with the land in which they’ve awoken.
Along the way, locales like the Bistro Californium, the Artists’ Quarter, and the Great Brown Waste prove to be indelible set pieces. When Fay Glass reaches the Californium (where poets booze and gamble away their talent), she’s hounded by members of the Locust Cult. Hornwrack rescues her, only to find that she carries, swaddled in cloth, a giant insect head. But Harrison’s love for unnerving secrets (and consummate skill in revealing them) extends best to the labyrinth beneath Cellur’s tower. As the ancient tinkerer himself tells it:
There was no sense of being under the earth; rather I felt that I had stumbled into some empty city or vast deserted museum. Hundreds of small cubical storerooms led off the major passageways, each one containing an eccentric object the height of a man, wrapped against the effects of time in gray sheeting.
We discover that immortal Cellur himself created the trove, filled it with his own arcane devices, and then forgot about it. Chillingly, he mentions “diffuse spheres” of light that speak in “secret electrical voices.” Might he have interacted with holograms, imperfect after centuries of disuse? While never truly finding out, the scene is majestically eery. A later read might reveal the answer, but we don’t really need one.
Like much in Harrison’s cabinet, The Floating Gods resists conventional description. The third book in the trilogy, it’s the shortest, most briskly-written, and feels like a sublime epilogue (or pause in the epic action, should you choose to read it second). It doesn’t have battles, cosmic consequences, or ravenous enemies from without. The story focuses instead on the etiolated romance between painters Ashlyme and Audsley King while a plague consumes the city.
The real world encroaches, word-by-word. Harrison uses “Chinese take-out” and “laudanum” in text, while modeling this era of his city after one of the Soviet Bloc states. Standing in for Tomb the Dwarf, the diminutive Grand Cairo imposes malicious bureaucracy on an already dispirited populace. Ashlyme, hoping to extricate Audsley from her flat within the plague zone, explores his options:
[He] had to go into one of the towers to be questioned. From the outside it looked like a charred log, but it was habitable enough. New wooden partitions, still smelling of carpenter’s glue, had reduced its internal spaces. In the narrow corridors there was a good deal of coming and going. A gloomy, ill-dressed man took charge of Ashlyme and ushered him through a succession of small bare rooms, in each of which he had to explain to different officials why he had been trying to get into the plague zone. They watched him indifferently as he spoke, and his story began to sound feeble and rehearsed.
During his questioning, Ashlyme is asked about the Barley Brothers, who, like Paucemanly and the clockwork vulture before them, foist gibberish on Harrison’s ragged cast (and us, for their speech is intentionally disposable). The painter typically encounters the fumbling, slovenly brutes eating by the stairwell leading into the Low City. Ironically, they are openly acknowledged by all as gods, in the portion of the trilogy that zooms in from cataclysm to address the deeply personal, namely the slow death of a loved one. A scene in which Ashlyme finds friends Paulinus Rack and Livio Fognet at an outdoor cafe, gossiping inanely, alludes to deities who can be touched and spoken to, but not depended on for miracles:
“By the way,” [Rack] said. “How is Audsley King?”
The Barley Brothers, egged on by the laughter from above, linked arms and jumped into the canal together, showering the tables along the terrace with bright drops of spray…
Ashlyme was enraged by this display.
“Audsley King is coughing her left lung up…” he said bitterly. “She is dying, if you want to know. What will you do about that?” He laughed. “I do not see you abroad much in the plague zone!”
Other sections of The Floating Gods feel like deep pockets of dementia; Harrison’s assault on Time is fierce. Ashlyme and astronomer Emmet Buffo visit the junk shop of an old man who collects stuffed birds. His skin is “stretched over his long skull like yellow paper.” This must be Cellur, who’s been described the same way, multiple times, in both prior books. Now, however:
The old man held [the metal feather] out. “You see?” he said. “Look at the craftsmanship. These birds were built long ago, by whom and for what purpose is as yet unclear.” He leant forward. “I believe,” he said, in a whisper so quiet that it forced Ashlyme to lean forward too, “that one day they will speak to me.”
Cellur then admits, tearfully, to not knowing his age. He’s forgotten more important things before (like the wondrous labyrinth), but The Floating Gods‘ smaller-scale drama, and the fact that Ashlyme and Buffo aren’t terribly sympathetic, amplifies the poignancy.
Still, as a whole (and even shelved with luminous contemporaries like Shadow of the Torturer and Elric), the Viriconium novels vibrate with deliberate ferocity. No matter that they’re dead bleak, and Harrison, like the conductor in a charcoal study by Audsley King, “[beats] time with extravagant sweeps of his baton, [cutting] off the heads of the poppies which [make] up his orchestra.” His style and vocabulary offer ceaseless acrobatics for your engagement.
On the way out, remember that Viriconium, for its many upheavals, welcomes you best when you’re in need of quiet. The doomed Hornwrack, Queen Jane and Tomb will cease pounding the cabinet glass as you enter. They’ll clear their throats. While performing, they’ll forget that their lives have been staged in drawers lined with velvet. You will too.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.