Tag: Arthuriana

Review: Viriconium

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is actually an omnibus: a collection of novels and short stories set in the city of, you guessed it, Viriconium. Harrison’s famous for being part of the “New Wave” in British SFF in the 60s and 70s – a kind of backlash against the mundanities of pulp SF – and he’s often cited as a key influence on China Mieville’s work, which is why I picked Viriconium up (on my first book shopping trip in my new London flat back in April, in fact).

Readers, Viriconium is every bit as interesting as Mieville, if less readily accessible.

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with place and space in SFF, especially cities and big old haunted mansions, and the Viriconium stories are very much stories of a city. (There are a few recurring characters, but they are fickle and transient, flickering in and out of reality.) Viriconium is a city at the end of the world, the capital of the last human empire. It looks back to the Afternoon Cultures – our culture, and those that came after it – as times of impossible enlightenment, knowledge irretrievably lost. Fragments of those times remain: the Great Brown Waste, a desert made by humanity’s unimaginable depredations; flying machines powered by glowing engines; the Name Stars, man-made satellites. But – unlike, say, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which would be interesting to compare with Viriconium for reasons I’ll get to later – it’s impossible for the people of Viriconium to comprehend the people of the Afternoon Cultures. There are no clues, no context for what those cultures looked like. We, as readers, can guess a little more; but not that much more. Viriconium is a city at the end of history which has lost its own history. It’s surrounded by symbols which ought to mean but don’t. As one of Viriconium’s knights remarks in The Pastel City, the earliest of the Viriconium sequence, “All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.”

Echoing this half-present history is the way that the texts themselves are full of cultural allusions and references so over-saturated with meaning as to be functionally meaningless. The Pastel City and “The Lamia & Lord Cromis” both broadly recall Arthurian romances, with their knights and their codes of honour and, in The Pastel City, a feud between Queen Methvet Nian and her evil cousin which has more than shades of the Arthur-Mordred story. But the classic story-structures are punctuated, become bathetic and/or pathetic: in “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”, an analogue of the story of Pellinore and the Questing Beast, the monster Lord Cromis has sought and feared all his life is easily killed by another person, who Lord Cromis kills in his turn because, “I was to be killed killing [the Lamia]. Who am I now?” And the would-be Avalonic ending of The Pastel City is disturbed by the presence of the Queen herself appearing to tell her knight to cheer the hell up.

Place-names from our world are mentioned, often by mad people, and go unrecognised. The chapters making up the last of the novels, In Viriconium, are named after Tarot cards for no particular or perceptible reason. There’s a cafe called the Bistro Californium; a street called the Rue Sepile; a square called the Plaza of Unrealised Time. Like many place-names, these feel like they should be significant, but aren’t; their varied provenances and registers point out this essential meaninglessness which punctuates our own lives.

But Viriconium’s true intertext is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. One of the city’s principal streets is the Margarethestrasse; the cry ou lou lou lou punctuates the texts; a quotation from Jessie L Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot famously claimed to have based his poem on, stands as the epigraph to one of In Viriconium‘s chapters.* Like Martin Rowson’s graphic novelisation of the poem, and Stephen King’s The Waste Lands, Viriconium takes The Waste Land‘s Modernist “heap of broken images” and turns it Gothic – surrounds its sparse fragments with dense, excessive, Gothically hypnotic prose:

They had made camp amid the ruins of a single vast, roofless building of vanished purpose and complicated ground-plan. Although nine tenths of it had sunk long ago beneath the bitter earth, the remains that reared around them rose fifty or sixty feet into the twilight. A feeble wind mumbled in off the Waste and mourned over their indistinct summits. Among the dunes meandered a vile, sour watercourse, choked with stones worn and scoured by Time.

(Compare:

Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road/The road winding above among the mountains.)

The point being that this deliberate Gothic overwriting both reveals and conceals the screaming void at the heart of meaning. It seems to invest things with a significance that they turn out not to possess. Viriconium – both the city and the texts about the city (and that’s an important Gothic trait, too – that the Gothic place and the textual space turn out to be one and the same thing) – is, deliberately, “a heap of broken images”. (Lest this sound like a criticism – it takes a lot of skill to pull this kind of textual strategy off, to avoid meaning so deliberately without leaving the work feeling pointless. There’s a reason The Waste Land is still famous.)

So, what does Viriconium, this future city, mean to our present? To answer that question we have to turn to the last story in the book – the last short story and the last text: “A Young Man in Viriconium”. Despite the title, the story is actually about a young man in England – a young man who’s been looking for Viriconium all his life. After a long search, he meets a man, Dr Petromax, who tells him what it’s really like there:

The streets stank. At six in the morning a smell so corrupt came up from the Yser Canal it seemed to blacken the iron lamp posts; we would gag in our dreams, struggle for a moment to wake up, and then realise that the only escape was to sleep again.

And yet:

The night I [left] you could see the lights of the High City, sweet, magical, like paper lanterns in a garden, filling up the emptiness. If only I’d gone towards them, walked straight towards them!

Dr Petromax is like a reader of epic fantasy (the comparison with Narnia is reasonably obvious): longing after a world that seems invested with more importance than our own broken-imaged one, not realising that every possible world with humans in it is estranged from its own symbols, despite having experienced this truth first-hand. “A Young Man in Viriconium” is probably the most important text in the whole book: it reveals to us that Viriconium is, on one level, a self-reflexive discussion of reading itself, especially SFF reading. It deflates the symbol of Viriconium which, despite everything, we constructed in our minds as we read. It reminds us that much SFF is only “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats”.

There’s plenty more to say about Viriconium, of course (oh, to be able to write a thesis on The Waste Land in Gothic literature!). It’s one of those texts you can never quite finish with, because it’s never quite finished with you. It belongs on a shelf with Mervyn Peake and House of Leaves and Ann Radcliffe: Gothic fictions that strip away our illusions and reveal the emptiness behind. It is, in other words, right up my street, and I’ll be reading more of Harrison’s work.

 

*Harrison has a great sense of irony: here is the epigraph:

I believe that the “Waste Land” is really the very heart of our problem; a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most bewildering mazes.

No such clue is, of course, forthcoming.

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Review: Hexwood

Hexwood‘s protagonist is Ann Stavely, a teenage girl who, convalescing from a fever, watches out her window as a series of strangely dressed people enter – but don’t leave – the mysterious Hexwood Farm Estate, opposite her house. The next day, well enough to get up, she visits the tiny wood next to the farm. It’s the kind of wood recognisable to most people who grew up in a small town or village in England: a handful of trees with a dusty path running through them, exciting and safe all at once. But, this time, it goes on and on, uncannily, until Ann stumbles across a man named Mordion: a wizard who creates a child from his blood and from hers.

Ann returns to the wood several times over the next few days to visit Mordion and the child, Hume. But time in the wood is odd: one day Hume will be an infant of five, the next a teenager of fifteen. Magic works there, and there are castles, and monsters, and dragons, and other beasts of story.

We’re told that these effects are being produced by the Bannus, an enormously powerful machine that creates simulations to help with decision-making, which has been hidden away on Earth so no-one important can get their hands on it. But now it’s woken up; and as Ann visits Mordion and Hume on Earth, the important and despotic rulers of Earth and a good deal else besides are getting ready to visit Hexwood Farm and shut it down.

Hexwood feels a little like Diana Wynne Jones by numbers (which, to be clear, is still quite a lot more interesting than a lot of fantasy being written at the moment, even for adults): the plucky, pragmatic heroine; the knowing use of genre tropes; and, especially, the dizzying shifts of perspective as the things we thought we knew about the world of the novel change and move outwards. Like Power of Three, Hexwood starts off simple and becomes ever more complicated – a reflection, perhaps, of how the world becomes ever more complicated as we grow up.

That technique of “zooming out” has some particularly interesting things to say about how we use stories. The Bannus, it turns out, isn’t just a decision-making machine: it’s actually the machine that was once used to decide who the next rulers of the galaxy would be. Since being hidden away on Earth to keep the current Reigners in power, it’s schemed to bring everyone eligible to Earth, so it can test them: and this it does, specifically, through story. As the despotic Reigners enter Hexwood Farm – where the Bannus lives – one by one, they disappear into the Arthurian simulation it’s running; they forget their purpose. Meanwhile, the good characters – Mordion, Hume and Ann – though they become caught in the simulation, never forget that they’re not actually Arthurian knights; they never forget that they’re only playing roles.

In other words, Hexwood warns us against getting lost in the stories we tell. They’re useful places to play out scenarios and make decisions; but we have to avoid getting lost in them, and forgetting that we are more than the stories.

Which raises an interesting question: because Hexwood itself is, despite the ontological uncertainty it generates by switching from fantasy to science fiction and repeatedly questioning the reality it has established, at root an essentially traditional kind of story. The evil or weak characters all die or disappear, often in comic or ironic ways; the good characters become kings and queens; there’s even a love story (although it’s delightfully pragmatic: Ann, feeling “a queer pain in her stomach,” thinks, “Oh no! I’m in love with [spoiler]!”). It’s a comedy, in other words, an essentially conservative tale whose effective function is not to disturb the status quo but to restore it.

So, the question for the reader of Hexwood (and I’m not sure if it can be answered) is: is this a tale which we’re in control of, which we can use to make decisions and play out certain scenarios? Or, is it a tale we have become lost in, seduced by romantic tropes and consolatory happy endings, so that we forget the world is wider and more unsettling than any story?

Something to think about.

Review: The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

My Top Ten “Gateway” Books

  1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. As with, I suspect, many other people, The Hobbit was my gateway into The Lord of the Rings, a book that, almost uniquely, sits deep in my psyche. And so it was a gateway, too, into a fandom and a way of writing and thinking and into a shared code of story.
  2. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. This was my gateway into feminist thinking, and into serious, weighty literary criticism in general. It showed me what you can do with criticism, the anger you can wield with it and the worlds you can create.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. A gateway into the Gothic, a mode which holds so much interest for me, deep and dark and ambiguous and strange.
  4. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon. This was the book that made me realise that postmodernism is actually pretty cool, definitely more cool than Modernism.
  5. Havelok the Dane – Anonymous. Havelok the Dane is a thirteenth-century narrative poem about, er, a Dane called Havelok who…invades Britain or something? I can’t even really remember what happens in it. Anyway, I read this a couple of weeks before I started at university, in a vague panic because I didn’t get the reading list when I was supposed to get it, and just being utterly enchanted because it was so Tolkien-y and fairy tale-esque. And it was that that made me choose to study Middle English instead of Old English in my first year, so I got to read lots of other wonderful works like it, including several Arthurian romances, and overall I had a great insight into a literary period that doesn’t get studied very often.
  6. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This was my first graphic novel, and I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction. It’s punchy and fearless and full of emotional truth.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. So this was my gateway into proper grown-up fantasy, really: fantasy in which worldbuilding is metaphor and metaphor is worldbuilding, in which our world is always half-glimpsed in the strangenesses of another one.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. I was quite lucky that this was my first Dickens novel: it’s sentimental and sprawling and right up my street, and it’s why I continue to read Dickens novels. (To be fair, there’s only been one real dud among the ones I’ve read.)
  9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This made me properly want to go to university and study things in dusty old libraries.
  10. Steampunk Your Wardrobe – Calista Taylor. I mean, I still haven’t made anything from this book, but it was my first steampunk reference book, so to speak. I now have three, and intend to collect lots more!

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Didn’t Choose for Myself

  1. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. A present from the Resident Grammarian, this is high fantasy, which I really would not have picked out for myself, but its ragged emotional darkness kind of got me.
  2. Paradise Lost – John Milton. This was a university text. It’s fantastic, and surprisingly accessible for a seventeenth-century poetic epic.
  3. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. Another one picked by the Resident Grammarian, featuring a bookish and unreliable heroine. Just perfect.
  4. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. The Circumlocutor lent this to me. I love the way Mirlees manages to keep the atmosphere of Faerie alive throughout this strange little book, which is a rare achievement: too often the wonder of fairyland is punctured when you look too closely at its rules.
  5. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. A present from the Circumlocutor and a very clever look at the ways in which science and culture interact and clash.
  6. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. This was lent to me by a TolkSoc friend who thought I would like it, and I did. Hardinge creates this lush dystopian world in her underground city of Caverna, told in her whimsical, hypnotic prose.
  7. The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro. I actually won this in a giveaway, but I enter giveaways willy-nilly so I didn’t exactly choose for myself. Anyway, it’s a really interesting and heartfelt look at Arthurian mythology.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. I studied this at school: it’s gentle, sad, autumnal, and yet full of Austen’s savage, angry wit.
  9. A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab. This was a present from the Circumlocutor. I love the steampunk vibe to it, and the fact that it’s a bit different from most run-of-the-mill fantasy.
  10. Power of Three – Diana Wynne Jones. I just remember being really impressed by this tale when I read it for a Children’s Literature course at university. It starts as a vaguely Celtic story, of a little people living in mounds on the edge of a harsh moor, and widens its perspective until it becomes something quite different.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors So Far in 2016

“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Because this year has already been great reading-wise.

  1. Becky Chambers. I need the next Wayfarer book. NEED IT NOW.
  2. Kameron Hurley. I loved God’s War and disliked The Mirror Empire, but I do really enjoy what Hurley does with gender and sexuality and race, so I’m interested to read more of her work.
  3. Zen Cho. Again, Cho seems like an author to watch in terms of diverse representation; I want to keep an eye out for her short story collection Spirits Abroad.
  4. Helen Oyeyemi. I love the fairytale influences in her work, and her clever, knowing use of fantastic elements in a way that doesn’t patronise the genre.
  5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m not an enormous fan of literary fiction, but Americanah gave me many, many feels, and was a really interesting book to inhabit for a week or so.
  6. Nnedi Okorafor. I liked Okorafor’s blend of fantastic and science fictional elements in Lagoon, and I’m trying to keep an eye out for her novella Binti as well as The Book of Phoenix.
  7. Kazuo Ishiguro. Another litfic author; The Buried Giant was right up my alley, an Arthurian work that resonates with Middle English epics. I’d like to try Never Let Me Go next.
  8. Ann Leckie. The Ancillary series can’t quite live up to the hype, but they are still properly solid SF novels, well characterised with fascinating politics.
  9. Brian K. Vaughan. I’ve got into graphic novels for the first time this year, and, with the exception of volume 3, Saga has been awesome. I know Vaughan has written a number of other graphic novel series, so they’re high on my list.
  10. Victoria Schwab. I thought A Darker Shade of Magic was a really original and fascinating fantasy with environmental undertones; now I just have to get round to reading the rest of the series!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)