My life in outer space

The Pastel City – M John Harrison (1971)

The Pastel City

This is the first of a series of four books involving residents of the fabulous city of Viriconium, centre of an Empire heir to the legacy of the seventeen Afternoon Cultures which have plundered and despoiled the earth for millennia. The entire series, written between 1971 and 1985 has been republished in 2001 as a single volume, ‘Viriconium’ as part of Gollancz’ ‘Fantasy Masterworks’ list.
The Pastel City is an archetypal Science Fantasy novel, i.e. Science Fiction whose mood and setting allows it the freedom to employ Fantasy devices and conventions which have a scientific basis. Cellur the scientist, for instance, with his flocks of robot birds can be seen as analogous with an archetypal Fantasy wizard, a mentor figure to the protagonists and, like ‘The Lord of The Rings’’ Saruman, lives in a tower from where he sends out his birds to be his eyes upon the world.
The heroes, tegeus-Cromis (a warrior poet) and his curious ill-sorted companions have cloaks, swords and horses, but also occasionally force-blades, a kind of light-sabre, part of the remnants of an earlier civilisation’s technological weaponry.
They are caught up in a war between two Queens laying claim to the throne of Viricionium in a situation similar to that of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. The Old Queen has garnered support in the North and has resurrected an army of genetically-engineered three-eyed soldiers, bred to do nothing but kill, and consume the brains of their victims.
Superficially it’s a straightforward fantasy quest, but the beauty of this book lies in the quality of the writing and the poetic imagery of the landscape and settings.
Pervading the story is the theme of Entropy and the futility of progress. Harrison ‘frequently uses entropy as a metaphor for the meaningless struggle of everyday existence.’ As Rhys Hughes puts it. [1]

All that is to be discovered has already been discovered by the seventeen preceding cultures which have risen and fallen, and has now been mostly forgotten.
The ‘geteit chemosit’ – the cyborg army which marches across the ruined landscapes – is at first portrayed as a symbol of the potential dangers involved in technological development, and though they are employed as mercenaries in a bloody war it is ultimately discovered that their original purpose was something quite different.
The subtextual message – like that of Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ – is that Humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes.
The novel suffers to a minor extent from some overworked clichés of Fantasy Fiction: the swords, the horses, the rings, although the dwarf concept is given a fresh and original twist in the form of Tomb, an engineering genius who compensates for his small size by constructing a robot exoskeleton using rediscovered technology.
The style is very close to that of Michael Moorcock, who was involved along with Harrison in ‘New Worlds’ and The British New Wave movement. Harrison contributed to Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius Chronicles and there may be a veiled reference to Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ books when Harrison describes tegeus-Cromis’ sword:

‘The right fist rested on the pommel of his plain long sword, which, contrary to the fashion of the time, had no name.’ – (Chapter One)

There is some bad dialogue here and there.
‘He clutched desperately at the fingers of his left hand. ‘Grif, I could not kill it!
And I have lost the Tenth Ring of Neap.’’ – (Chapter Four)

This, for me, crossed the border into self parody.
Structurally, it follows the Mythic Quest structure fairly closely. The hero is forced by circumstance into a quest, encounters allies, meets a mentor, faces setbacks and eventually confronts an enemy – an old friend turned traitor.

[1] ‘Climbing to Viriconium’ – The Zone magazine (Issue #4, Summer 1996.)


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