Friday, July 19, 2013

The Pastel City

Robert Macfarlane recently wrote an appreciation of M. John Harrison that made me want to seek out his novel Climbers when I have more time.  It also reminded me of Harrison's Viriconium stories, set far in the future, which were being brought to a conclusion at the time I was at school and reading a lot of science fictionThis, from The Pastel City, is the kind of strange entopic landscape I used to enjoy: 'in the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminium and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reed and tall black glasses.  The twisted, smooth-barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light.  At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi.'

Other landscapes in these books are more recognisable, like the glacial moor that the characters traverse later in The Pastel City, a place 'of bright green moss, and coarse, olive-green grass, and delicate washed-out winter flowers discovered suddenly in the lee of low, worn drumlins - of bent thorn and withered bullace, of damp prevailing winds that searched for voices in stands of birch and pine; of skylines, wrinkled with ridges; of heather and gorse, grey cloud and weather - of sudden open stretches of white water that would swell in Spring, dwindle and vanish with the coming of Summer - mysterious waterways...' 

An interview Harrison once gave to Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction lodged in my mind; his obvious frustration with genre limitations and the difficulty of writing books that fully satisfied him seemed very honest and unusual.  I have just dug this out again to reread it.  Harrison was talking in December 1980 and the interview concludes with the wish that some 'young science fiction punks' would emerge and shake things up (six months later I was reading a striking short story in Omni called 'Johnny Mnemonic' by a writer new to me, William Gibson).  Here is how Harrison described the role of landscape writing in the two Viriconium novels he had then written.
'The landscapes of The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings are quite obviously the landscapes of upland Britain: the Peak District, the Derbyshire moors, the tops of the Lake District.  The landscapes in A Storm of Wings in particular have references to the Derbyshire moors, because on top of hills like Kinder Scout the landscape really is rotting and falling to pieces.  It's a genuine desert, drying up and blowing away on the wind every summer.  It has dreadful bogs in which you can sink without trace on a Sunday afternoon only nine miles from Sheffield.  They are the landscapes I now live in, and they obsess me.  Hilary Bailey said of many of the landscapes in A Storm of Wings that though they were bleak and awful, one had this sneaking suspicion that the author would like to go on his holidays there.  Hilary is very acute.'

1 comment:

Philip Wood said...

Your take on Harrison reminds me of the impact J.G.Ballard's 'The Drowned World' had on me. I come from Bury and lived in the Peak District later on, so I'm intrigued.

I've had William Blake on my mind recently:

I wonder how much Science Fiction writer owe to Blake's transfigured landscapes. Thanks for your thoughtful post.