Fantasy Masterworks 7
The periodic re-issue of classic SF and Fantasy novels in the way that Millennium are doing with their Masterworks is undoubtedly A Good Thing, since it brings back into circulation books that are amongst the very best the genres have to offer. Younger genre fans are able to buy and read these excellent works, while it enables older fans (like myself) to replace much-loved but mouldering old copies with fresh new versions, and have an excuse for re-visiting old favourites at the same time.
However, this is sometimes a mixed blessing. As Edmund Wilson pointed out, no two people read the same book. By extension, a book read twice by the same person, but decades apart, is likely to elicit significantly different responses. That which one found exciting, provocative and profound at twenty can sometimes seem strangely bereft of such qualities when revisited at fifty. The book that existed in the reader's mind, glowing faintly with the patina of fond memory, is something else again when it becomes crisp black print on white paper once more.
The two books here by M. John Harrison are a case in point. In the seventies, Harrison seemed a daring writer to me, one of Michael Moorcock's sidekicks at New Worlds, and very much an important figure in the British New Wave writing of the time. The Pastel City (the first part of the Viriconium volume) seemed to fit in nicely with Moorcock's own works, extolling as they did the constant struggle between life and entropy. In Harrison's case, that struggle was played out in a very low key, melancholic way, taking Vance's Dying Earth and recasting it into the surreal. Three decades on, that which was daring seems strangely muted, almost lifeless, as though entropy has had its way with the text, leeching it of vitality, leaving instead a studied, overly self-conscious style hiding a not terribly exciting or interesting fantasy storyline yawningly revisited a thousand times before and since. And it is worth bearing in mind that The Pastel City is still the best of the Viriconium stories. Thereafter, it is downhill all the way, as the storylines get ever slighter, the characters ever more enervated, while the stylistic frippery of the writing becomes more elaborate, more obscuring, and on the whole far more boring. Maybe in my fifties I'm just not attracted by nihilism in the same way.
The Centauri Device seems to have weathered the years better than the Viriconium stories. True, Harrison's trademark melancholia still pervades the book, but it is invested with more energy, and a sharper cynicism is at work in the storyline. A space opera that contains some of the elements that can be found nowadays in Ken MacLeod's work (a keen awareness of political issues, for example), The Centauri Device works because of the energy driving along the plotline. Written some years before Neuromancer, it nevertheless has a certain cyberpunk mentality about it, in its fast moving nature (owing much to Alfred Bester, perhaps), with hero as outlaw, trying to maintain existence despite pursuit by opposing governmental agencies. If the plotline's extension of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the sixties and seventies into a galactic struggle somewhat dates the story, it still has the ability to astonish and amuse, something I wish could be said for the Viriconium stories.
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© John D Owen 14 October 2000