Where the city is at its emptiest we find ourselves full.
The brief In Viriconium pushes the Viriconium world-story closer to suffocation. Where A Storm of Wings revisited the original melancholic fantasy The Pastel City in extraordinarily dense new language but maintained a rough continuity of character and chronology, this tale of Ashlyme the portraitist and the City’s creeping plague of lassitude and despair repurposes names, events, locations without honouring any of the conventions of late-20C fantastic fiction which were the first two books’ points of contact with the old familiar. Where Storm at times conjured a mix of midcentury sci-fantasy pulp and, say, the abstracted urban dreamscapes of (say) Terry Gilliam’s Aeon Flux, this third puzzle-piece’s Viriconium is a surreal(ist) mix of absinthe-addled painters and Margaret Thatcher reading the tarot and two mad city-gods, neglected and abusive, cavorting in a sickened stream.
The mood is darker than before — Evening deepens — and this being Harrison, the language is perfectly precise, dense (less dense than in Storm, less bloated and cruel) but never rich. No sugar. I winced at this horribly beautiful image, which thankfully some other disciple typed up:
Everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly; while down below, among the ragwort on the towpath, writhed the thousand-and-one black and yellow caterpillars of the cinnabar moth, some fat and industrious, rearing up their blunt, ugly heads, others thin and scruffy and torpid. The Barley brothers ate them and were sick.
Horrible insects appear en masse and are stepped on and eaten. A knife-wielding dwarf comes onstage, but mostly sits in a tower and arranges liaisons with a fortune-teller (though at one point he does stab a handful of washer women). I’d’ve sworn I heard the wings of a metal bird. Which is to say: this is Viriconium, after all, but its previous identities or iterations play out as backward echoes suggesting dreadful true things — it’s familiar enough that its strangeness is piercingly sad and awful. I kept longing for the Grand Cairo, the addled dwarf, to wake up from this story to his ‘original’ tale, strap on his exosuit, and go off to war. But that dwarf was made (up) for another sort of story, and he died the last go-round, didn’t he? And this is what he died to.