The Viriconium Sequence Critical Essays

M. John Harrison


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Primarily a writer of short fiction, Harrison helped edit the New Wave’s seminal journal, New Worlds, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The New Wave intended, among other goals, to deconstruct the conventions and subvert the language and clichés of traditional science fiction and fantasy. The Viriconium sequence distorts and plays against the standard tropes of swords and sorcery, alien invasion, and future history.

The best structural parallel is Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), in which three interlocking novellas explore the ramifications of a single question rather than the lives of particular characters. Harrison’s novels explore the ramifications of a city, Viriconium, with almost mathematical poetry and precision. New Wave writers J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock are obvious general influences, as is the lyricism and alien outlook inherent in Cordwainer Smith’s short stories.

The Pastel City often has been compared to the work of Jack Vance, especially The Dying Earth (1950). Unlike Vance’s magic-has-returned scenario, Harrison postulates a future in which the tools of an advanced culture have fallen into the hands of a less advanced cul-ture. Most important, Vance’s practitioners of magic/ advanced technology have ritualized its use, while Har-rison’s characters use this technology without such ritualization. The cautionary nature of The Pastel City...

(The entire section is 570 words.)