Tag: Stephen King

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.

Advertisements

Top Ten Authors by Number of Their Books I Own

  1. Terry Pratchett. Good old Sir Terry wins by a considerable margin: I have most of the Discworld books, plus the first three Long Earth books, the Bromeliad trilogy, the Tiffany Aching series, a couple of Science of Discworld books, two Discworld spin-offs (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook and The Discworld Companion), and a number of one-offs like The Unadulterated Cat and The Carpet People. And Good Omens, of course. 90% of everything he ever wrote is awesome.
  2. Brian Jacques. A family friend gave me a whole load of Redwall books when I was younger, and I bought a couple more: I read and re-read them endlessly.
  3. Enid Blyton. I have about 15 Famous Five books: lovely centenary hardback editions, given to me by my grandparents when I was small. Every time I went to see them they’d have another book for me. Obviously I can’t get rid of them.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien. I have a relatively small number of Tolkien books – 11, and that’s bulked out by French editions of The Lord of the Rings and a Latin edition of The Hobbit. I’ve never particularly been interested in the wider Legendarium, fragmentary and heavily edited by the Tolkien estate as it is – The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are enough for me to visit Middle-earth. I also have Tree and Leaf, and Unfinished Tales, but that’s it.
  5. Eoin Colfer. The Artemis Fowl series was another that I loved as a child – I grew out of them after Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (which was also, incidentally, when twelve-year-old Artemis and hundred-year-old Holly started crushing on each other, which, ugh).
  6. China Mieville. It is no secret that I am a massive Mieville fangirl, even though I only enjoy about half of his books. I have Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, The Last Days of New Paris (signed!), Un Lun Dun, Kraken and The City and the City. Funnily enough, I only really like the first three of those; the other two I’ve loved, Railsea and Embassytown, I borrowed from the library. Oh! I also have the short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion on my TBR pile.
  7. Stephen King. The Dark Tower series, despite its disappointing back half, is still one of my favourite fantasy series, for its sheer ambition, its disjointed strangeness that echoes our world so terrifyingly.
  8. J.K. Rowling. I think this is probably a mandatory entry for anyone of my generation: I have the whole Harry Potter series, plus Quidditch Through the Ages. (My sister also has The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the scripts of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’m pretty sure I also used to have a copy of the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but it’s been lost along the way.)
  9. Catherynne M. Valente. Valente’s lush prose and wild, strange worlds mean I basically hoard her books like treasures. I have four of her Fairyland books, Palimpsest and Six-Gun Snow White; Palimpsest is my favourite of the ones I own, but my very favourite is one I borrowed from the library, Radiance.
  10. Charles Dickens. Four of the Dickens books I own – Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son – are a set, given to me by my grandmother (not the one who gave me the Famous Five books). The other – David Copperfield, my least favourite – I bought in a second-hand bookshop.

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

Top Ten Books About Friendship

  1. The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien. This is possibly not the most obvious choice: it’s a fantasy epic about the war between Good and Evil, after all. But were there ever such good friends as Sam and Frodo? And it’s a book that’s unafraid to call male friendship love.
  2. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is a found family novel, and as in all families there are tensions. But there’s also mutual support, and practical help, and a kind word in times of trouble.
  3. Uprooted – Naomi Novik. There are problems with this novel: Foz Meadowes has pointed out that the central romance is abusive. It does, though, have a lovely layered portrait of a female friendship, one that recognises the deep-rooted jealousy friendship often carries alongside love.
  4. The City’s Son – Tom Pollock. This is another book with a rare portrait of female friendship: Beth and Pen’s relationship is stronger than romance and more important than the city.
  5. Fly By Night – Frances Hardinge. Clent and Mosca’s friendship is grudging, but all the more endearing for that: it’s one of those stories where the rogues turn out to have a (deeply hidden) heart of gold.
  6. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Is this really about friendship? Valente’s Quartet are strangers, and end up more like lovers than friends. But it is about finding the people you belong with, which feels right for this list.
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffers and Annie Barrows. This is a charming romance, but it’s also a book in which community and friendship stands cheerfully and defiantly before the horrors of war.
  8. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling. Again, I think the early Harry Potter books are at least partly about finding a place where you belong. Harry, Ron and Hermione are surely one of the most iconic friendship groups in literature.
  9. The Waste Lands – Stephen King. The third book in King’s Dark Tower series, The Waste Lands is where Roland meets his new ka-tet – his new found family – after uncounted years alone. It is beyond heartwarming.
  10. Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie. The last book in Leckie’s trilogy sees Breq, an ex-hive mind who’s lost so much of her self, start forming new relationships – almost without realising it. The feels.

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

Top Ten Most Unique Books I’ve Read

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is the trilogy that launched a thousand imitations, but no-one’s really tried taking on The Silmarillion. No-one who’s succeeded, anyway. It’s not really a novel, because it doesn’t really have characters. It’s not a fictional history, either – it’s too self-consciously literary. It’s a fictional myth cycle, and I’ve never heard of another one of those.
  2. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. Oh, House of Leaves! A real puzzle-box of a novel, a horror story about the treacherous power of story, one that thinks about the intersection of text and space, the uncanny and the unheimlich, in such a fascinating way. It’s almost a literary essay in its own right.
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake. This is kind of impossible to place in any particular literary tradition. It’s definitely not realism, but it’s not quite fantasy either; by turns deeply, claustrophobically psychological and almost absurdly Dickensian in its caricature. It’s precisely that indefinability that makes it so interesting, though.
  4. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is quite recognisably literary fiction; but unlike most literary fiction I’ve read, its approach to the big questions in life feels specifically shaped by literary theory. It’s also bewitchingly charming in a way that I can’t quite pin down.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delaney. I read this a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very unusual indeed: sixties SF that’s formally innovative, eschewing scientific infodump in favour of sensory affect and literary theme.
  6. Evelina – Frances Burney. Evelina is a gem. Published in 1778, it’s a novel about a young woman coming out into society. It mixes sensational melodrama with sharp social comedy in a way that’s really quite interesting, and revolutionary, too, for a woman writer in the 18th century.
  7. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. I still haven’t read anything like the first few books of the Dark Tower series, with their apocalyptic dream-sequence landscapes, their uncanny echoes of our world; and I don’t expect I ever will.
  8. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Each of Valente’s novels is different in theme and setting and approach, though they’re tied together by her approach to myth and story. Palimpsest isn’t my favourite – that would be Radiance – but it is the one I most wanted to savour: its meaning unclear and becoming ever more multiple the more you think about it.
  9. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu. This was another surprisingly literary SF novel, one that plays with the inherent metafictional tendencies of SF to say something about science fiction and about reality.
  10. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. This is interesting because it talks about the intersection between science and culture, a theme that doesn’t crop up too often in SF. Also, feminism!

(The prompt for this post came from 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 Things on My Bookish Bucket List

  1. Get a novel published. I mean, I have no intention of stopping at one if I can help it. But one is a start. One is the doorway.
  2. Have my own personal library, i.e. a room that is just for books. This is a goal that is very much for when I am Grown Up and am living in more than one room. I mean, you don’t really need a living room, right?
  3. Own one of Jay Johnstone’s Tolkien paintings. Like, one of the big oil paintings with a commensurately big price tag. They are gorgeous: very different to how Tolkien’s work traditionally gets represented visually, but at the same time instantly recognisable as Tolkien art. It would go in my library.
  4. Get a reader’s card at the British Library. You’re only supposed to use the BL’s collections if you can’t find the text easily elsewhere. So I need a good excuse to do some proper primary text research – which would, in itself, be very cool.
  5. Write a long research piece about how buildings and texts work in the Gothic. I did my undergraduate dissertation on “breathing buildings”: how crumbling Gothic piles take on lives of their own and threaten the reader as well as the characters. It had Freud in it. I got a First for it and I feel like I have so much more to say on the topic – so whether it’s a Master’s dissertation or something else, I definitely want an excuse to do some more work on it.
  6. Know more about book binding. Ever since I read Inkheart at age 12 I’ve wanted to be the kind of person who can look at a book and go, “Yes, that is a classic Coptic binding with oak boards,” or whatever. I went to a British Library conservation day the other week, which was fascinating, and I need more!
  7. Meet, have a book signed by or otherwise interact with China Mieville. Mieville is probably the one author I would fangirl at meeting. (Terry Pratchett would have been, too, but alas, that chance is gone forever. I have a birthday card signed by him, though. It has a cat on it.) Not only is he a stupidly clever fantasy author, he is also really quite attractive.
  8. Watch the upcoming film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and pray that it is not terrible. I’m seriously nervous that it’s not a straight adaptation but an alternative take on the series – that could be a great decision, or…not. Plus, they seem to have cut Susannah? And Eddie? And Oy? This teaser poster, though. I approve.
  9. Read all of Saga. I think I got to…about #5 and stopped? This one is probably dependent on finding a library that has the volumes in it.
  10. Make one of the projects in my Steampunk Your Wardrobe book. This could be tricky as I am terrible at sewing – and, indeed, anything requiring more than a modicum of hand-eye coordination. I want to try doing a bustle skirt, though.

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

Top Ten Worlds I’d Never Want to Visit

  1. Future Earth – Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. The Earth is fucked, everyone spends their time in a video game and whitewashing is the solution to oppression. Yeah, no thanks.
  2. Panem – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way.  Panem is a place of massive inequality, a system designed so that it’s near-impossible not to become complicit in the murder of children. Even the revolution is morally compromised.
  3. The silo – Wool, Hugh Howey. Another oppressive world, designed to keep its citizens in check. (Pesky citizens.) Pretty much every right you can think of is compromised: reproductive rights, freedom of expression, freedom of movement. Again: no thanks.
  4. Orthogonal – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. Misogyny! Treacherous biology! Extra-dimensional danger from the skies! All that bloody physics!
  5. End-World – The Gunslinger, Stephen King. It’s a world that’s literally winding down: echoes of our own world lie scattered amongst the desert dust. There’s just nothing any more to look forward to, except death, and the mountains.
  6. Umayma – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Another desert world, this one in the throes of a holy war that’s gone on for so long no-one can remember why they’re fighting. And, let’s face it, I would be crap in a battle. Also, everything runs on bugs. Eurgh.
  7. The Wild West – Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne Valente. Rich, racist colonists? Dusty, filthy ruby mines? Woods full of bears? Sounds great! /sarcasm
  8. Kingsport/Arkham/Innsmouth – H.P. Lovecraft. I think the Dreamlands would probably be quite interesting – if they even allow women in – but in Lovecraft’s Massachusetts you can barely move for haunted houses, weird fishy things from the depths of the sea, night-ghasts, witches, sinister aliens and fungi from Yoggoth. And then you die. Or, more likely, go mad.
  9. The Solar System – Proxima, Stephen Baxter. Probably the only remotely interesting thing about this book was its depiction of over-population: the packed public transport, the domes on Mars and the moon where people live crammed together, the ratcheting international tensions. Smelly, crowded and busy – and nowhere to escape to.
  10. The Solar System – Jack Glass, Adam Roberts. Again, this solar system is a massively overpopulated one, with the vast crowds of the poor living in fragile plastic bubbles orbiting the sun and prisoners used to make asteroids habitable for the rich. I mean, what is there to visit?

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