Mon
Oct 18 2010 8:34am

Review: The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid. (—M. John Harrison)

It was the quote heard ’round the nerddom; it set the blogosphere aflame and rose the hackles of readers reared on the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and Stephen Donaldson. He’s an “utter, arrogant asshole” they yelled. Or, “he probably realised he could never come close to Tolkien in worldbuilding and decided it was just unnecessary crap.” Whether in agreement or disagreement with Harrison, shouts were raised and battlelines drawn, all in the name of worldbuilding and its importance to the genre.

And, okay, I’ll admit it, I was one of those angry trolls, though not so nasty in my criticism. I turned up my nose at Harrison, shrugged off his fiction because of (what I considered) off-base commentary on his blog. So, then, it was with obvious, pride-compromising trepidation that I accepted a challenge from Sam Sykes, author of Tome of the Undergates, to tackle Harrison’s work. Along with several others, I was tasked with putting aside my preconceptions, and broadening my horizons by reading a novel that was outside my wheelhouse. Sykes’s choice for me was The Pastel City, the first of Harrison’s many stories set in and around the city (or cities?) of Viriconium.

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength—leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium. (p. 5)

And so opens The Pastel City, with a three-and-a-half page long infodump. Wait. But I thought Harrison hates worldbuilding? Well, yeah, he kind of does. But that’s also kind of the point. It’s like he’s flipping the bird to all those readers who expect to be hand-fed the setting. Ultimately, this section goes a long way in establishing the story to follow and is, besides a few instances here and there throughout the novel, the only background information you’re given about the world of the The Pastel City.

Harrison’s universe has a deep history, spanning millennium long civilizations, but, unlike contemporary authors like Brandon Sanderson or Joe Abercrombie or Steven Erikson, he skirts around that history, only feeding the reader the essential information necessary for them to grasp the situation in the novel. In many ways, it’s easy to be reminded of cinema, a storytelling medium that has little room for extraneous exposition and must focus on the here-and-now of the story. Harrison teases the reader with past events and hints at a wider world, but quickly moves past these distractions, letting the reader fill in the gaps as they will (or not at all, for the author deemed those gaps unnecessary to the overarching plot). Do we as readers need to know why the marshes are poisoned by liquid metal? Or simply that they pose a threat to our protagonists? In many ways, it hearkens back to the simple storytelling found in classic Swords & Sorcery, a sub-genre well revered for its no-fat-on-the-bone storytelling.

From what I gather, Harrison’s other Viriconium stories are less straight-forward than The Pastel City, and perhaps that is where Harrison’s experimental opinions and philosophies are in clearer evidence; but, to my surprise, The Pastel City presents a fairly straightforward plot. It’s typical quest-style fantasy: a besieged city, two warring queens, northern barbarians and a motley band of heroes. Consider, though, that The Pastel City was written in 1970, a full seven years before Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson re-invigorated the genre, and it’s alarming to see how readily The Pastel City resembles the work of some of today’s most prominent fantasy authors.

As a young(ish) reader, one thing I must constantly challenge myself to do is go back and explore the roots of the genre beyond my initial readings as a boy. There’s always that pressure, as a blogger and reviewer, to keep up with the times and be on the cutting edge of new releases, and I wasn’t yet a glimmer in my momma’s eye when The Pastel City was released in 1970; yet so much of Harrison’s work is recognizable in those aforementioned new releases and their young authors—Ken ScholesPsalms of Isaak tells the tale of a besieged and shattered city, a wasteland full of ancient relics and mechanical men; Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun features “magic” that is little more than the misunderstood relics of an ancient civilization. Airships, metallic animals and towering suits of mechanical power armour even hint at steampunk, a sub-genre that’s hotter than everything but vampires. And the way Harrison mixes adventurous fantasy with science fiction shares similarities with another 1977 tale called Star Wars: A New Hope. You may have heard of it. It changed the landscape for science iction storytelling in all mediums.

This isn’t to assume that Harrison directly influenced these writers and storytellers (though Newton’s gone on record with his admiration for Harrison’s Viriconium tales), but he was certainly ahead of his time and so The Pastel City holds up to scrutinization as well now as it did when it was first released 40 years ago.

The Pastel City was written before faux Medieval Europe took its place atop the heap of go-to settings for fantasy writers and, like Star Wars, The Pastel City never lets up in throwing new, breathtaking locales at the reader. The structure of the story is familiar and the land through which tegeus-Cromis travels through is eerie and depressing, but never resorts to the doom, gloom, brown, and grey of so many other post-apocalyptic novels. Where Brooks and Newton write about a post-apocalyptic world covered by the veneer of a recognizable fantasy world, Harrison uses it as an excuse to create something wholly unique and alien.

In the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminum and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses. The twisted, smooth-barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light. At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi.

Charcoal grey frogs with viridescent eyes croaked as the column floundered between the pools. Beneath the greasy surface of the water unidentifiable reptiles moved slowly and sinuously. Dragonflies whose webby wings spanned a foot or more hummed and hovered between the sedges: their long, wicked bodies glittered bold green and ultramarine; they took their prey on the wing, pouncing with an audible snap of jaws on whining, ephemeral mosquitoes and fluttering moths of april blue and chevrolet cerise.

Over everything hung the heavy, oppressive stench of rotting metal. After an hour, Cromis’ mouth was coated with a bitter deposit, and he tasted acids. He found it difficult to speak. While his horse stumbled and slithered beneath him, he gazed about in wonder, and poetry moved in his skull, swift as the jewelled mosquito-hawks over a dark slow current of ancient decay. (pp. 47-48)

Harrison’s prose is wonderfully evocative. He paints a vibrant, eerie picture of a post-apocalyptic landscape, and fills the land with skeletal cities and the long-rotted remnants of a lost civilization; poisonous swamps, where even the clearest water will serve you a painful death; giant dragonflies, a Queen’s shambling sloth-like beasts and the hulking, lightsaber-wielding chemosit. Harrison’s world is Middle-Earth gone to shit, but no less beautiful and visually arresting for its demise. Its history and lore might not be so deeply realised, but Harrison’s world exists with no less power and resonance in the mind of the reader than Tolkien’s seminal Middle-Earth.

What startled me further, especially given the publication date of the novel, was Harrison’s small foray into the philosophies of cloning and, ultimately, what we now look to with stem cell research.

During a period of severe internal strife toward the end of the Middle Period, the last of the Afternoon Cultures developed a technique whereby a soldier, however hurt or physically damaged his corpse be, could be resurrected—as long as his brain remained intact.

Immersed in a tank of nutrient, his cortex could be used as a seed from which to “grow” a new body. How this was done, I have no idea. It seems monstrous to me. (p. 105)

It’s not a fully-featured exploration of the idea (like everything in the novel, it’s sniffed at by Harrison, fed to the reader just enough that they get curious, and then taken away), but it is another example of Harrison’s prescience and shows that he had a pretty firm idea of how not only the genre was going to evolve, but also how our sciences and culture might also grow.

Ultimately, I believe the purpose of Sykes’ challenge to bloggers was to expand their understanding of the genre. Happily, my experience with The Pastel City has done just that. I was ready to hate on it; ready to throw my prejudices at Harrison and his work, but from the early pages, I realized the error in my thinking. The Pastel City is a shining example of the roots of both fantasy and science fiction and deserves its place along the classics it has obviously inspired.

Harrison might not be so widely read as Terry Brooks or Stephen Donaldson, but his influence on the genre is undeniable. You’d be hard-pressed to read recent fantasy and not see the echoes of The Pastel City, whether the author’s been directly influenced by Harrison or not. Like anything that steps beyond the comfortable boundaries expected of it, Harrison’s work has its share of detractors, but for all those complaints about his future work, The Pastel City is an easily-accessible, forward thinking fantasy adventure.

Tolkien famously wrote a “All that is gold does not glitter” and The Pastel City is proof of this. Harrison’s reputation precedes him, but those adventurous enough to look beyond that will find a fun, dangerously astute ode to old school science fiction and fantasy.


Aidan Moher is the editor of A Dribble of Ink, a humble little blog that exists in some dusty corner of the web. He hasn’t won any awards, or published any novels. But he’s, uhh... working on that.

He is also a contributor at SF Signal and the lackey for io9’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. 

24 comments
Nix77
1. Nix77
Sorry, I couldn't let this one go: its 'scrutiny' not 'scrutinization'...
Tim Nolan
2. Dr_Fidelius
The Pastel City certainly reads like something very conventional now; I'd be interested to see what you make of the other Viriconium stories. Early M. John Harrison reminds me of early Tom Waits - they're both creators of tremendous ability who began by playing around in other people's genres (quest fantasy and bar-room jazz respectively) and progressed to building art on their own terms.*

Even back then, the opening paragraph of The Pastel City seems like a perfect example of Harrison's attitude to world-building. "This world has a complex history - the details of which do not bloody matter - so having given you some context, let's get on with the story."

I'm very sympathetic to this philosophy, even as a huge Tolkien fan. Firstly, because there is no truly great art that is not completed by its audience. Secondly, because anyone who desparately wants to know (say) what colour the toilets are in Ankh-Morpork has completely missed the point of the story.


*Sure, this is applicable to every creator ever. But I'd argue the progression is more obvious here.
Nix77
3. redhead
My experience with Harrison is fairly naive, I had no idea of his tirade against worldbuilding. makes little sense, as In Viriconium was one of the best "world built" peices I'd ever read. I should really read it again, I remember loving it.

thanks for the write up. Harrison needs more exposure. More positive exposure.
Nix77
4. iucounu
Goodness, you now HAVE to read A STORM OF WINGS. Immediately. I understand THE PASTEL CITY to be the sort of writing Harrison was complaining about; WINGS, the next in the sequence, is him burning all his bridges to Tolkien. It's an incredibly strange and marvellous book.
Nix77
5. kid_greg
I'm not famaliar at all with M. John Harrison, but your quotes from this book seems to be just the kind of prose and language that I enjoy most in sci-fi/fantasy. In fact when I see writing like that it reminds me of the first books of the genre that I read and got me hooked.
Needless to say I've added Viriconium to my Wish List. ( only thing is, right now that list contains more books then I can ever possibly read. :( )
Tim Nolan
6. Dr_Fidelius
For the curious, Gollancz collected all the Viriconium stories in one volume as part of their Fantasy Masterworks series. Just don't try to read it as one big thing - the stories differ a great deal.

@iucounu:
I think I read somewhere that Harrison has repudiated most or all of his work prior to The Machine in Shaft Ten in 1975. This would include the first Viriconium novel as well as The Committed Men and The Centauri Device.
Jason Heller
7. JasonHeller
Happy to see some Harrison tackled. You've got so, so much to look forward to. As pointed out above, A Storm of Wings is the really revolutionary Viriconium book; The Pastel City is fantastic, but it still dwells fully in the shadow of Moorc0ck (although Harrison, even then, is the superior prose stylist). In particular, The Pastel City resembles Moorcock's Runestaff books, and of course Harrison worked on New Worlds with Moorcock (and wrote a few Jerry Cornelius stories, to boot).

After you absorb Viriconium, I'd love to see what you have to say about some of Harrison's later masterpieces, including The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, and Light. Poetic, unique, and heart-piercing books, all of them.
Nix77
8. kid_greg
Hey Doc F- Harrison repudiated his work? In what way?
That's something I sincerly don't understand. He doesn't like his own work from that period?
Nix77
9. John Coulthart
From the man himself:

"Like all books, Viriconium is just some words. There is no place, no society, no dependable furniture to “make real.” You can’t read it for that stuff, so you have to read it for everything else."

http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/viriconium/
Nix77
10. iucounu
@kid_greg, basically, yes, he doesn't. He considers it derivative and also kind of pernicious and useless, I think. (Harrison's grand theme is that stories will kill you if you let them.)
Nix77
11. kid_greg
Wow.. it must be nice to have that option life, "Disregard all the work I did 20 years ago, other them provide some enjoyment to a few people and give me somewhat of an incoming cash-flow, it was pointless.."

Sometimes, people in the artistic fields just blow my mind...

iucounc- sorry I must be slow today, (its monday and i guess I really should be working but hey I'm in the office so that's something) I didn't really get your comment about stories killing you/us. Can you elaborate it for me if don't mind?
Tim Nolan
12. Dr_Fidelius
It might be truer to say that escapist stories will kill you. Harrison's point, at least from the 80s onwards, is that to retreat from reality is an act of cowardice and selfishness. Ultimately it's extremely harmful, both to yourself and to your environment. The universe is not here for our own convenience, and the sooner we grow up and respect that the happier we'll be.

By the way, I've just Googled some old interviews and I may have been pitching it a bit early - he consistently cites 'The Ice Monkey' as the real turning point in his writing.
Nix77
13. kid_greg
Actually know that I read the link you posted Doc, I think I may have somewhat misunderstood, what you were noting about Harrison's opinion of his work. So not sure my last post has any relevence.
Nix77
14. kid_greg
@Dr_Fidelius,,wow, Harrison made a pretty harsh point with that. What's a person supposed to do for fun?

Did anyone check to see if Harrison was a Vulcan? :) But I guess he does have a point, like right now I guess I should be working. LOL

But I kind of wonder how serious he was about these thoughts or if he was just referring to getting too "into" the stories because I just ran across that he and Jane Johnson wrote some fantasy books about cats under the pseudonym Gabriel King.. I'm famaliar with those books but I've never read them and I can't say I'm in any hurry to, but seems strange that someone who would state its cowardly to seek escape from reality would write some stories about cats, doesn't it?
Sean Arthur
15. wsean
Aidan, when did you become a tor dot blogger? Right on, glad to see you here.

-Cyan
Aidan Moher
16. aidan
@Nix77 - Unlike Harrison's work, apparently my reviews don't hold up under heavy scrutinization. Good catch!

@Dr_Fidelius - That Tom Waits comparison is hilariously apt. Love it!

@redhead - The impressive thing about The Pastel City is that it manages to build such a convincing universe without falling back on the drudgery of heavy worldbuilding. As Dr_Fidelius points out, does the reader really need to know the colour of the toilets to feel invested in the world? Nope. If there're toilets, we'll make up the colour in our mind's eye. With Harrison's work, I expect a lot of the wonder in the world is partly thanks to the reader's ability to imagine and fill in the gaps.

@iucounu - Noted, I'll have to give that one a shot. Actually, I might as well give the entirety of Viriconium a shot, if I'm really interested in seeing the progression of Harrison's work.

@kid_greg - Glad I could lead your in Harrison's direction! Some people love his prose, others find it dry and lifeless. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

@JasonHeller - It's one thing to dig into a new novel from a favourite author, but there's nothing like discovering a new author with a huge library to dig into. I'll slowly pick away at Harrison's previous work.

@Cyan – Today! This is my first contribution here and I'm very glad to be part of such a great team! I've got a few projects underway that should appear on tor.com over the next couple of months. Glad to see a familiar face!
Nix77
17. iucounu
Oh this is so annoying. I just lost this comment and need to reconstruct it and as ever I can't get it quite as nice the second time. But here goes.

@kid_greg, to explain that fully I'd have to write a bunch of books, but luckily MJH has already done that! He is (or was) a rock-climber - he wrote a magnificent non-SFF novel called CLIMBERS about it - and I think he feels that clinging to the cliff-face of the Real demands your full attention.

THE COURSE OF THE HEART largely concerns a magical experiment, whose nature and efficacy is unknown, and a mysterious Ruritanian country, whose existence is never established. These fantastical elements may or may not be 'true'; but the protagonists, who like many MJH characters are terribly damaged, are obsessed with them. Mapping the terrain, uncovering the secrets and wonders they believe are waiting for them, is what they live for; but it's also destroying them. They are being eaten by the stories that sustain them.

Equally in NOVA SWING - MJH's riff on ROADSIDE PICNIC / STALKER - an unexplained alien Event has taken place in the heart of a city on a distant planet, and the closer you get to Ground Zero the less things make sense. People go in and out of the zone looking for mystery artifacts to sell, but most often they don't come back. What's interesting about the book is that it's almost explicitly a metaphor for the creative process, for telling stories - for the writer delving into the unconscious looking for treasure. MJH's ambivalence about his craft is possibly detectable by comparing the fates of the protagonists - who are all chasing something in the zone - and the supporting cast, who generally aren't.

If anyone hasn't read LIGHT, by the way, the loose prequel to NOVA SWING, it's completely amazing SF and IMHO the best thing he's done. I would recommend it unreservedly along with all the Viriconium books, CLIMBERS, and his short stories.
Tim Nolan
18. Dr_Fidelius
@aidan
Thank you! I've spotted one or two sly references to Waits in Harrison's writing, so I believe he's a fan.

@kid_greg
You can see why he has a reputation for being rather dour. But he's not opposed to people enjoying themselves - as you say, the cat books are him having fun (they were published under an open pseudonym to distinguish them from his 'proper' work).

I'd go on, but a) you've pegged me as a shameless fanboy by now, and b) I'm only repeating the man's own words. You're better of reading the interviews at Zone-SF, Strange Horizons and Infinity Plus. He also offered some comments in response to
Abigail Nussbaum's
blog post about his work.

(Sorry, I get link-happy - it's the librarian in me).
Bobby Stubbs
19. Valan
In the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminum and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses. The twisted, smooth-barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light. At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi.

Charcoal grey frogs with viridescent eyes croaked as the column floundered between the pools. Beneath the greasy surface of the water unidentifiable reptiles moved slowly and sinuously. Dragonflies whose webby wings spanned a foot or more hummed and hovered between the sedges: their long, wicked bodies glittered bold green and ultramarine; they took their prey on the wing, pouncing with an audible snap of jaws on whining, ephemeral mosquitoes and fluttering moths of april blue and chevrolet cerise.

Over everything hung the heavy, oppressive stench of rotting metal. After an hour, Cromis’ mouth was coated with a bitter deposit, and he tasted acids. He found it difficult to speak. While his horse stumbled and slithered beneath him, he gazed about in wonder, and poetry moved in his skull, swift as the jewelled mosquito-hawks over a dark slow current of ancient decay. (pp. 47-48)






The last imagery I read that was that good was written by Robert Jordan.

Yet another author to add to my ever-growing list of reading material. And to think I had no idea where to start just a year ago, and now I'm set for a good 2 years. What with new Jordan/Sanderson, Erickson, and Rothfuss on the way (plus I still have to read Erickson's Toll the Hounds and Dust of Dreams), the insane amount of science fiction recommendations from my roommate. And the Black Company. And probably half of what Tor.com throws at me. OK 3 years.
Frederick Huxtable
20. tegeus-Cromis
FWIW, my favourite character in The Pastel City is Tomb the Dwarf, the nerd's geek, the geek's nerd.

If you want a story that is anything but straightforward, may I recommend The Lamia & Lord Cromis? What can you make of a sentence like:

Everyone was impressed by his cursory examination of the victim.

Because, as it turns out, tegeus-Cromis does hardly any examination.
Nix77
21. kid_greg
@ iucounu/Dr_Fidelius/aidan - In regards to Mr. Harrison's veiws on escape from reality being cowardly acts; I guess he has point when his reality is hanging from a cliff-face, but I think he should take into account, regular folks' reality. Like mine for example; sitting in a cubical keeping servers running so some big corp can sell groceries. :( When taken from that aspect, maybe venturing forth to the wonders of imagination, might be the act of bravery. :)

On a brighter note: I was on Amazon doing the "Look Inside" thing for Viriconium. This book just got moved closer to the top of my TBR list.
Nix77
22. T.N. Tobias
Reading Light was a SF/F renaissance for me. I had lost hope in there being any artistic merit being left in the genre. I found Light on the bookshelf and picked it up for it's cover. Fantastic book. Through it I got into authors like Jeff Vandermeer, KJ Bishop, James Morrow, Mervyn Peake, and Thomas Pynchon. Through them I found I was excited to write again. Thank you, M John Harrison.
Kathleen B
23. stampeyb
great post! lots of stuff to add to my TBR list...
Nix77
24. iucounu
@kid_greg (after a long pause, sorry): from his interview at Strange Horizons (my bold):

My feeling about escapist fiction has softened a little down the years but it has never really changed. I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape. After you grow up, you should start reading for other purposes. You should have a more complicated relationship with fiction than simple entrancement. If you read for escape you will never try to change your life, or anyone else's. It's a politically barren act, if nothing else. The overuse of imaginative fiction enables people to avoid the knowledge that they are actually alive. (In fact, various evasions, various kinds of fantasy, seem to me to be a kind of bad politics in themselves, the default politics of the day, through which we maintain our Western illusions of freedom and choice.)

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