Book Review: The Pastel City, M. John Harrison (1971)

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(Bruce Pennington’s cover for the 1971 edition)

4.25/5 (Very Good)

One of the previous owners of my copy of M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City (1971) must have harbored a pernicious grudge against corroded landscapes and nebulous morals.  So much in fact that they propped up the first volume of the Viriconium sequence against a tree and used it for BB gun target practice. I am still trying to identify the cause of the book’s other wounds… [pictorial evidence below].

As one can expect from Harrison, decadence and decay seeps from the quires of The Pastel City as characters try to create meaning, or grasp hold of half-formed shreds of past purpose, in a world that will continue to crumble regardless of the defeat of evil.  Although not as forceful as The Centauri Device (1974) in its subversion of fantasy/SF quest tropes, M.  John Harrison’s fascination with degeneration of landscape and purpose attempts a dialogue about the nature of genre. That said, I suspect the narrative itself will intrigue most readers of more standard entries, although the characters are not the strapping young desperate to win passionate new love and resurrect the “Golden Age” of the past.  Rather, they are aged and weathered and more inclined to speculate on the nature of ideograms whose indices are long lost and brood on past cataclysm whose current effects cannot be escaped.

The Pastel City is followed by A Storm of Wings (1980) and In Viriconium (1982) along with various short stories including “The Lamia and Lord Cromis” (1971) and “Lamia Mutable” (1972)

Analysis/Plot Summary

The narrative impetus: A civil war breaks out in Viriconium between the young queen and the old queen. The young Queen Jane, the direct descendant of King Methven, holds the allegiance of (most) of a surviving tattered band of washed-up knights, called the Methven, which dispersed after the death of their king.  Canna Moidat, at the head of the Northman, whose “sprawling townships where intricate and beautiful machines of unknown function were processed crudely into swords and tribal chieftains fought drunkenly over possession of the deadly baans unearthed from the desert” (8), conjures terrifying forces to fight the battle against the Queen Jane and the armies of the Pastel City.

The characters: tegeus-Cromis, “of the nameless sword, who thought himself a better poet than fighter” leaves his tower, still filled with despair after the death of his wife, to fight for Queen Jane (34).  His poetic lines embody the state of the remaining Methven: “we are nothing but eroded men…” (65).  He is joined by Birkin Grif who dreams of “immense ancient forces moving in darkness” (42) and the decrepit Theomeris Glyn, who spends his time harassing women. Tomb the Dwarf joins their ranks of brigands, in power armor fashioned from some ancient metal skeleton, he provokes and capers “sniggering like a parrot” (69) as if in some ritualistic dance to ward off the melancholic film that covers all…

The landscape as character: The inhabitants of Viriconium, a decaying empire even before the civil war, “live […] on the corpse of an ancient science, dependent on the enduring relics of a dead race” (14). It is a landscape where scattered objects are covered with cyphers and sphenograms that have lost their meaning; ancient machines whose gears and mechanisms no longer function crumble into acrid dust; strange men ensconced in towers forget their own origins; and where sloth-like megatheria wander sinking cities.

The non-sentient megatheria mirror the movements of the characters:

“Between the collapsed towers moved the megatheria, denizens of the dead metropolis. They lived in sunken rooms, moved ponderously through the choked streets by night and day, as if for millennia they had been trying to discover the purpose of their inheritance” (131)

As Viriconium relies on excavating the machines of the Afternoon Cultures for its survival, the nourishing ruins will run out and turn to dust.  And, as the previous powers mined all the ore from the Earth, the end is neigh and unavoidable.

Final thoughts

Harrison’s first novel, The Committed Men (1971) remains my favorite due to its careful use of surreal scenes and social commentary.  And The Pastel City takes over second place from The Centauri Device (1974)…    The Pastel City’s motivating conflict appears as if a momentary event near the the end of the world.  The quest, but a preordained pattern enacting some lost meaning, cannot escape its deterministic constraints.  A haunting evocation of decadence and decline, M. John Harrison’s prose, filled with hypnotic intensity, is a joy to read.

“Burn them up and sow them deep:

Oh, Drive them down;

Heavy weather in the Fleet:

Oh, Drive them down;

Gather them up and drive them down:

Oh, Drive them down;

Withering wind and plodding,

Oh, Drive them down!” (50).

Recommended for all fans of 70s SF/fantasy.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(BB gun holes and other assorted wounds inflicted on my copy of the1974 Avon edition)

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(Wendell Minor’s cover for the 1972 edition)

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(Gray Morrrow’s cover for the 1974 edition)

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(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1979 Italian edition)

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34 thoughts on “Book Review: The Pastel City, M. John Harrison (1971)”

    1. I’m not sure why I have a copy with BB gun holes… I think it might have been a free copy along with a larger order I made from a collector who unfortunately passed away. I used to get TONS of great books from him if they were duplicates in his collection for a few bucks each.

      That said, a decayed copy matches the ruminations on decay inside the covers!

      I can’t remember if you told me you read The Committed Men or not. I still think it’s the better novel, and if you haven’t, perhaps it’s the one to pick up if you want some beautiful Harrison prose.

  1. I’ve read this sequence in reverse sequence over the course of 25 years! Viriconium and A Storm of Wings in the 1990s and Pastel City last year (Pennington cover natch!) love them all. In Viriconium and its sequel move way beyond genre conventions (even the subverted ones of Pastel City and Storm of Wings) and reminded me at the time (memory is hazy) of Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter etc. If you haven’t, do check out Moorcock’s Elric series – arguably the progenitor of this sequence.

    1. I am curious what you mean by “beyond” genre conventions (I get it in a general sense but not so much in relation to Harrison). As for Moorcock, I’m almost finished An Alien Heat (1972) and I can definitely say that I dislike the book immensely… Harrison is far superior in the way he crafts his worlds, the poignance of scene and sequence, etc.

      A big hearty YES to Mervyn Peake and Angela Carter though!

      1. We are really disagreeing on these ones. I thought Moorcock’s An Alien Heat had some real human feeling and characters with personality, while Harrison’s Pastel City was a bunch flat lifeless archetypes inhabiting a conventional plot, with lots of flashy but sterile literary fireworks laid over it. And lots of these fantasy/sword fighting stories are about how the empire is in decay or “we are living in the ruins of a superior civilization;” Elric and Lord of the Rings and some of Howard’s work (Bran Mak Morn?) and Burrough’s Barsoom all have that sort of vibe going on.

      2. That’s fine!

        But yes, I feel like An Alien Heat is an endless string of repetitive shows of decadence and extravagance while The Pastel City had Harrison’s more artful prose creating intriguing images and scenes and some real emotion on tegeus-Cromis’s part regarding the loss of his wife and confusion about what to do in a changing world.

        The endless sequences of extravagance in An Alien heat feel like “sterile” “fireworks” which lack any literary ability. At least Harrison has that….

        But really, it’s fine to disagree. I find Harrison more appealing in almost all ways.Regardless of our disagreements, I still think you’ll like The Committed Men (1971)!

      3. So, my view on An Alien Heat has changed a bit… I think that the relationship between Jherek and Amelia is convincing. But, I find it slight in most other ways.

      4. Re: relationship of Jerald and Amelia:

        I’m glad you like it, it was, for me, the centerpiece of the novel.

  2. I meant in the sense that there are virtually none of the conventional tropes of “swords and sorcery” – Viriconium takes on a similar role as Tanelorn in Moorcock’s work and time/ place seem to stretch and bend. The decay and sense of grotesque is still there and elements of contemporary northern England creep in. As I said, memory is hazy but if you like Pastel City then i think you’ll love the rest. In Viriconium and Viriconium Nights were written in the 1980s weren’t they so I guess Harrison had developed his writing style.

    1. Yeah, A Storm of Wings was published in 1980 and In Viriconium in 1982. While Viriconium Nights (1984) is a collection with some of his 80s and 70s short stories in the same world.

      Harrison certainly hasn’t disappointed me yet and I love the “decay and sense of grotesque” — although, the grotesque element was even more pronounced in The Committed Men (1971) which I reviewed around a month ago.

      https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2016/10/09/book-review-the-committed-men-m-john-harrison-1971/

      1. The cheapest one on Amazon UK is £7.99. It was quite expensive in the US for a long time as well — but, I checked the price regularly and got it for a dollar + shipping.

  3. Hi Joachim

    A great book, Harrison manages to capture a lot of the end of civilization feel from Committed Men but with a fantasy vide. Moorcock in his Eternal Champion series did a lot with this far future or alternate future type setting but the setting was not as nicely realized or the books as well written as The Pastel City, they got very formulaic. In that vein I preferred Vance’s Dying Earth or Gene Wolfe Book of the New Sun. I enjoyed seeing the Urania cover by Thole I picked several of them up while in Venice along with some Allison covers.

    http://ajaggedorbit.blogspot.ca/2016/10/my-wife-and-i-returned-from-8-days-in.html

    I will have to give The Storm of Wings and The Centauri Device a try.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

    1. I apologize for the delayed response to your message Guy.

      You definitely right in pointing out how Harrison recasts the end of “civilization feel” from The Committed Men in the fantasy template. I think they can be read in dialogue in many ways, although the end of TCM felt more positive.

      I think Thole’s cover might best convey the feel of the contents? Although, despite my dislike of the cover Gray Morrrow’s cover for the 1974 edition does as well but both avoid the decay elements of the story.

  4. I’m surprised you missed (or didn’t comment on) Pastel City as an attack on the epic fantasy genre. The whole Viriconium sequence serves that purpose, and while Pastel City is a more subtle and indirect attack than it’s sequel it does still have that character. It’s a constant undermining and subversion of the fantasy novel.

    And I’ll repeat Harrison’s exhortation from his blog: “Read as one book, not as three novels followed by a collection of afterthoughts”. Pastel City is not much without the rest of his Viriconium works, short stories and novels alike.

    https://ambientehotel.wordpress.com/viriconium-faq/

    1. Your comment makes me wonder if you read my review or not… or, if you read my review of The Centauri Device as I placed it in dialogue with that novel. I can also detect a visceral (hasty?) reaction on your part which is misplaced to say the least.

      I’ll quote myself as you seemed to have skipped (or didn’t read at all?) that part of the review…

      ” Although not as forceful as The Centauri Device (1974) in its subversion of fantasy/SF quest tropes, M. John Harrison’s fascination with degeneration of landscape and purpose attempts a dialogue about the nature of genre. That said, I suspect the narrative itself will intrigue most readers of more standard entries, although the characters are not the strapping young desperate to win passionate new love and resurrect the “Golden Age” of the past. Rather, they are aged and weathered and more inclined to speculate on the nature of ideograms whose indices are long lost and brood on past cataclysm whose current effects cannot be escaped.”

      At least in my book that indicates that he is debating (and critiquing) the nature of the genre he is writing about/in.

      As for Harrison’s own comments, I think I can read a book and comment on it individually as he published the second in the sequence almost a decade later…. I have also read, linked handily in the review, two of the short stories in the sequence as well.

  5. Re: the last commenter’s comment: I think you’re right to read and review The Pastel City on its own. I read them all together via the Viriconium collection, and I remember thinking of The Pastel City as a light kind of appetizer of what’s to come– almost unsure of itself in the context of the following novels– and strange that it came so much earlier in the sequence… then promptly forgot about that until you reminded me the other day in a discussion about how much older TPC is compared the rest of the sequence. It stood on its own for nearly a decade, so it makes sense to assess it within that publishing reality.

    I need to read this sequence again. I’m sure it’s all the more richer the second time around. And yes, Harrison’s writing is exquisite. It’s easy to lose track of the narrative just to see what he’s doing with those sentences.

    1. And I agree that the bb holes do serve the motif, but what a sad thing to do to the book. (Are they really bb holes? To me, it looks like some angry kid to a sharpened pencil to it and jabbed the hell out of it.)

      1. I am positive that they’re bb holes for a few reasons. First, they go almost all the way through the book. Second, they are smaller than that of a pencil width. And third, there is no indication of pencil lead marks etc that might be left if you jabbed a book cover etc. It’s the vertical wounds that confuse me, they only go through the first few pages.

    2. If anything, more fruitful comparisons can be made with his work of the same time (The Committed Men, The Centauri Device, short fiction) — which was firmly in the New Wave movement, which (as you know), had run its course by the early 80s. I think your keen comment that it “almost unsure of itself in the context of the following novels” is more a sign of later changes in his work as a writer as the novel feels very similar in many ways to its closer contemporaries The Committed Men and The Centauri Device….

  6. As you’re aware (or perhaps not yet, but soon enough will be 🙂 ), there are a handful of stories in The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories that are clear sketches for the books (plural) that would become the Viriconium sequence. Spun the other way, it’s obvious the series/cycle/tetralogy/whatever were bubbling in Harrison’s mind for some time, even if it took more than a decade to get all down on paper and into print.

    Regarding the comparison of Viriconium to the likes of Elric et al, I’m with you, Joachim. Harrison is fully conscious, on a line by line, word by word basis, of the balls being juggled by the narrative. It is a considered and relatively sophisticated literary creation. Elric et al have some parallels in terms of theme or content, but the approach is very different. More precisely, Elric has a sub-text, but only one; the rest is standard genre fare. Viriconium has many sub-texts. From just a practical standpoint, Moorcock was cranking out multiple books per year – an indication of the relative time and care spent on each compared to Harrison’s slower, more deliberate pace. All are enjoyable in their own right; Harrison just offers much more substance.

    1. Jesse, I pointed out in the review that I read both Viriconium stories in The Machine in Shaft Ten. I did not know that there were sketches for the later novels. I most likely will not read Elric, I am already apathetic towards sword + sorcery type quest fiction that unless it really does operate at the more for metafictional level I can’t image that I will have much fun reading it.

  7. Nice review, and regardless of what M John Harrison says I think it certainly can be read on its own. It’s among my favourites, though I think later ones in the sequence are stronger yet.

    You do remind me too that I need to read my copy of The Centauri Device and to track down a copy of The Committed Men.

    1. Thanks Max. Personally, I wonder how much of Harrison’s “this must read read with the sequels” is tied up with a retrospective construction of a literary entity, rather than a more organically created sequence of work that unfurled with fits and starts…

      The Committed Men remains my favorite of his 70s novels.

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