Friday, December 19, 2008

51. Pastel City by M. John Harrison

The Pastel City pictureDoc gave me a beautiful old paperback copy of this under-heralded sci-fi classic. It's one of his favourites from his youth and he wanted to pass it along. You could technically put it in the post-apocalyptic genre, but it's truly a fantasy book. It's so far beyond the collapse of our modern empire that other civilizations have already come and gone. The advanced technological remains still exist in the ruins of the past and the unearthing and using of this old tech by a handful of what become, in effect, magic users, is the only PA trope that separates Pastel City from true fantasy.

The story is about the fading Viriconium Empire, that is slowly being weakened by the northern tribes. The main characters are a bunch of retired Methven, once the elite knights of Viriconium. They are drawn back to their roles by the resurgence of northern attacks who are now aided by a newly-discovered and especially fearsome technology.

Pastel City has some really cool stuff in it. The overall narrative is pretty standard stuff, getting the gang back together again, journeying to some mysterious place, finally kicking some ass like you knew the main protagonist could, but the trappings are so rich and inventive, and described so well, that it doesn't come off as cliched. There is some seriously cool shit in this book: a semi-intelligent robot bird, a noxious dwarf who rides around in a reconstructed power suit with a vibro-axe, brain-eating robot soldiers. Reading that list back, I can see how they don't sound all that original. But their description and involvement in the plot render them truly cool. Description is done gradually, so you get an increasingly detailed and richer visualization as the book goes on. Here is an example of one of the snippets of description for the bird:

When the sun broke through, he saw that it was a bird of metal: every feather, from the long, tapering pinions of the great wide wings to the down on its hunched shoulders, had been stamped or beaten from wafer-thin iridium. It gleamed and a very faint humming came from it. He grew used to it, and found that it could talk on many diverse subjects.

As in the quote above, it's not just physical descriptions that make up the creatures, but enticing, open-ended tidbits about their capabilities. Very nice. I can see why Doc got into this book so much as a young man.

Ultimately, though, I felt a bit distant from the proceedings. I don't think this is necessarily a fault of the author (though after doing a bit of research on the Viriconium books and Harrison, I have a slightly different perspective about which I'll talk about below), but rather an indication of my own dissatisfied relationship with fantasy as a genre. I was never a huge fantasy fan as a geeky teen, but Middle Earth, Shannara and Hyboria were huge to me. Since I've "grown up", I've almost entirely abandoned fantasy as a genre, particularly in my gaming. I had previously thought it was because the rules for D&D 3rd edition sucked so bad that I gave up on fantasy in my gaming (since I so closely associated the genre with the system mechanics), but after reading The Pastel City, I'm starting to think it's the genre.

One of the reasons we read a narrative is because we connect with the characters. They have problems and conflicts and all that and we want to see what they do and how it all turns out. I feel like I am not able to connect with those problems in a fantasy world. Why this is so, I'm not really sure. When I try to break it down, I'm not sure it makes any sense. Most fantasy books, though in another setting, still address human concerns. I just know that most of the time when I start a fantasy book, I feel this kind of intellectual tiredness. I'm not drawn in. In Pastel City, for instance, when a major character dies, I kind of cared, but I didn't feel any real connection to the depth of the relations he had with his fellows. Were they a bunch of heisters brought back out of retirement from their heyday in the '50s, rather than techno-knights of a dying future kingdom, I think I would have somehow felt a much stronger connection.

I wonder if it's because as you get older, your capacity for emotional connection hardens (like everything else about you, except your muscles) and sort of sticks with the worlds you have already invested in. For instance, I don't feel this way about the Hyboria of Conan the Barbarian, a setting I spent a lot of time in as an adolescent. It's true that Hyboria is more pulpy than fantastical. Though I still feel an immense ennui at the idea of reading any of George R.R. Martin's books, which are relatively non-fantastic.

The other obvious counterpoint to my theory is why I enjoy science fiction so much. I really don't know, but I won't bore you any longer with my own internal ruminations. I'll let this idea fester and test it some more as I continue my reading. I am grateful for the Pastel City for helping me reach this insight and for being pretty cool and entertaining nonetheless.

I did a bit of internetting around on M. John Harrison and it seems he was one of those self-loathing genre authors who wished he could have written some fancy literature. He wrote a few things that enraged the geek-o-sphere, denouncing both escapism and world-building. The world of Viriconium suffered from his pretention, getting ripped apart by a simplistic post-modernism (no stable reality, narrator revealed, blah, blah, blah zzzzz) in the later novels and short stories.

Here is a brief essay where he attacks the attempt by others' to recreate an author's world. It contains misguided and jargony pap like this:

Given this, another trajectory (reflecting, of course, another invitation to consume) immediately presents itself: the relationship between fantasy and games—medieval re-enactment societies, role-play, and computer games. Games are centred on control. “Re-enactment” is essentially revision, which is essentially reassertion of control, or domestication.

Unfortunately, that's a mature and published writer saying things like "reassertion of control" and not a freshman in a sophomore lit class at a liberal arts college.

Pastel City is the first and most straightforward of the books taking place in Viriconium, so it could be that my disassociation was also a bit of my own post-modern b.s. detector going off.

As genre fiction becomes more and more respectable, we will have fewer and fewer authors denouncing their own milieu and trying to re-fashion themselves as "real" writers. I do think we should question ourselves and critique notions of escapism and world-building, but let's do it from an objective, questing perspective, not from an inferiority complex.


Unknown said...

Thoughtful post. Although I have never read anything by M John Harrison I had always been under the impression that he was mainly associated with science fiction writing. I had lumped him in with Moorcock and those "New Wave" group who I never could really read other than Ballard.

Doc said...

Glad you enjoyed it (sort of)! I think your characterization of Harrison is pretty spot-on, and pretty funny to boot. I am not an apologist when it comes to my love for what I collectively call "genre fiction". Seriously, if you look at what passes for "literature" and "general fiction" at bookstores these days, you will realize that genre fiction is usually a step up from that mess!