Viriconium sits on the ruins of an ancient civilization that nobody remembers. The society that was technologically advanced enough to create crystal airships and lethal energy weapons is dead. These Afternoon Cultures depleted the world’s metal ores, leaving mounds of inscrutable rusted infrastructure with only a few odds and ends that still work. The current citizens of Viriconium are baffled by what they’ve dug up, but they have no idea what any of it is for.
tegeus-Cromis, “who fancies himself a better poet than swordsman,” used to be Viriconium’s best fighter until he left the Pastel City after King Methven died. But Viriconium is now under threat — young Queen Jane, Methven’s daughter, is about to lose the empire to her evil cousin. Queen Jane needs the help of the men who once served her father so faithfully, so she sends tegeus-Cromis to find and take command of her army. Along the way, he picks up some of his old comrades and is accosted by a talking metal vulture who insists that Cromis go directly to see a mysterious man who lives in an obsidian tower by the sea. According to the mechanical bird, the future of Viriconium, indeed the whole world, depends on it. As the men travel north, they discover that the Afternoon Cultures left behind a lot more than piles of rusting metal.
The Pastel City, published in 1971, is the first part (only 158 pages) of M. John Harrison’s science fantasy epic VIRICONIUM which, according to sources, was inspired by Jack Vance’s DYING EARTH and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Characterization and pacing are sometimes a bit weak, but the scenery in The Pastel City is grand, and I enjoyed the story. In many ways it reminded me of THE LORD OF THE RINGS — a group of comrades (including a dwarf) travel through beautiful and desolate landscapes (across rivers and marshes, through mountain tunnels, etc.) on a quest to destroy something so they can save the world.
A major difference, and what saves the book from being simply another quest fantasy, is the post-apocalyptic vision of an unknown advanced civilization which died out mysteriously, leaving samples of their devastating handiwork behind. Thus, the dwarf arms himself with an 11-foot tall mechanical skeleton and carries some sort of laser. Cromis and his friends ride into one battle on horseback, but leave in a glass blimp. Cool.
I was fascinated by the discoveries that Cromis and his friends made and the hints that the Afternoon Cultures understood the mathematics of the universe. The thought that our heroes may have “woken something from the Old Science” is a frightening one, especially since they have less idea about how to control it than their dead predecessors did. There’s a clear message here, but it’s not heavy-handed. As Queen Jane says:
We have always regarded the Afternoon Cultures as a high point in the history of mankind. Theirs was a state to be striven for, despite the mistakes that marred it. How could they have constructed such things? Why, when they had the stars beneath their hands?
Though I’m reviewing each book in the VIRICONIUM epic separately, I’m actually listening to the audiobook version of the omnibus edition. It’s recently been produced by Neil Gaiman Presents and is narrated by Simon Vance who is one of the absolute best in the business. This is a high-quality production and highly recommended for anyone who wants to read one of M. John Harrison’s best-loved works