Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

My man Tarbandu praised the Viriconium books by M. John Harrison, so when I saw one at a used bookstore I bought it.  Tarbandu is not Harrison's only big league fan; the back of the copy I purchased, Avon 19711, printed in 1974 (copyright 1971) has praise from Michael Moorcock, and on the first page are quotes from Ursula K. LeGuin (comparing Harrison to Fritz Leiber) and Philip Jose Farmer (comparing Harrison to Jack Vance and William Hopes Hodgson.)

This copy also has a fun ad on its last page for an anthology of stories from New Worlds. Interestingly, the words "science fiction" do not appear on this ad, a black and white reproduction of the book's cover.

The Pastel City is one of those stories, like Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories (1950-1984), or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), or Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness (1986-1992), about a far future society with a quasi-medieval technology and social structure, but which is able to take advantage of old technology left over from earlier more advanced civilizations, technology that is only dimly understood. (This way, as on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, you can have guys sword fighting in one scene, flying aircraft in the next scene, and shooting off guns in the scene after that.)  The Pastel City, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth books and Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Corum stories, also is about a formerly high civilization in a period of change and/or decline, and those of its members who sadly recall a superior past.

The city of Viriconium is in trouble. Not only has the city been sliding into decadence, its people more concerned with trade and wealth than fighting in wars (the book is full of leftist Harrison's hostility to the bourgeoisie): now Canna Moidart, a cruel foreign woman with a claim to the throne of Viriconium (she married the previous king’s brother and then murdered him) is leading an army on the city, hoping to overthrow the current queen, the beautiful teenage girl Methvet, AKA Jane. The aristocratic heroes who led the armies of Jane’s dad come out of retirement and gather together to save Jane and Viriconium.

The Pastel City reminded me a lot of some of Moorcock’s Eternal Champions books, those ones in which the best swordsman in the world gets a message from a higher power and is sent on a quest in order to thwart some other higher power's world-threatening designs. Our main character, Cromis, is the best swordsman in the world as well as a talented poet and musician. After he kills an evil merchant he gets a message from a higher power and goes on a quest. Canna Moidart has unearthed an army of robots (“robots” is not very poetic, so Harrison calls them “automata”) but after she defeats Jane, the robots cease to obey Canna Moidart and start killing people at random. It seems the robots were programmed to destroy all human life. (This kind of Ludism goes hand in hand with hostility to the merchant class.) So Cromis and the other aristocrats must travel through a desert created by the industrialism of past civilizations to find and destroy the one huge computer (Harrison calls it “the artificial brain”) that controls all the genocidal robots.

The book is, or tries to be, moody.  On almost every page Harrison describes the wind, or how some person place or thing has been eroded by time. We get samples of Cromis’s T.S. Eliot-style poetry (“…we are nothing but eroded men…”). There is tragedy, with lots of Cromis’s old buddies getting killed. Harrison is also into images; we get detailed descriptions of everybody’s clothes, of various landscapes, and of architecture, with an emphasis on colors.

The book works, and I’m comfortable recommending it to people who like these sword fighting science fantasy things, but I didn’t think it stood out from its genre.  All the other authors I have mentioned in this blog post have done better work of this general type. 

The plot and the characters in The Pastel City are just kind of average; I didn’t really care who won the war and who lived or died.  It could be that the book is too short, that there wasn't enough time to develop any feelings for Cromis and Jane and Viriconium and the rest so that when they got betrayed or killed or whatever I was invested in them.  Canna Moidart, who sets the whole adventure in motion, never appears "on screen."  The high points of the book are things like the eight foot tall power armor a dwarf engineer refurbishes and wears into battle, the killer robots (who collect the brains of the dead), and the truth about the huge "artificial brain." 

I’ll probably give Harrison another shot, but, as I brood and the wind ruffles my black garb, I do not hear any insistent voices beckoning me to stalk this bitter land, a land ravaged by time and the industry of forgotten generations, in search of the sequels to The Pastel City.

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