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Issue #127 - March 2006

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In Search of Viriconium

By Cheryl Morgan

Those of you who know me well are probably somewhat astonished that I havenít reviewed this book before. Parietal Games, a book of critical writings by and about M. John Harrison, has been out for months. However, I have put off reviewing it until the issue before the Eastercon at which Harrison will be Guest of Honor because I know the book will be easily available then, whereas you are not likely to find it in shops.

The majority of the book, some 250 pages, is taken up with reviews and essays that Harrison has written over his career. It includes material for New Worlds, Foundation, The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. Much of this is book reviews, and of course old reviews are of limited interest if they are of books you havenít read and probably never will read (especially after Harrison has skewered them). Nevertheless it is all entertaining. The best of the material is probably that from New Worlds, because here Harrison had a degree of editorial control and was able to talk much more generally about genre fiction than you can in a review written for a newspaper.

Having said that, one of my favorite pieces is actually one written for Speculation. It is called "The Chalk Wonít Stay On The Biscuits" and it takes the form of a dialog between two unnamed characters, one of whom is book reviewer and one of whom isnít. In the essay Harrison makes the point that a reviewer is very much like a garage mechanic. Why? Well, you canít diagnose what is wrong with a car if you donít know how cars work and what they are supposed to do. Ditto, you canít say anything sensible about a piece of fiction unless you know something about how fiction works and what it is intended to do. So many reviews I see these days, especially on the Internet, never rise above summarizing the plot and a few words as to whether or not the reviewer liked to the book. Here we do at least try to do what Harrison recommends.

Of course, just like the rest of us, Harrison doesnít always follow his own advice. There are certain types of genre fiction whose purpose is obvious, and which perform that purpose admirably, but which Harrison despises because of that purpose. The shorthand term for such books is Consolatory Fantasy, though "cod-medieval Valium" might be a better term were it not probably a trademark infringement. Harrisonís New Worlds essay, "By Tennyson out of Disney" was one of the first pieces to lambaste the dreadful mire into which so much modern fantasy has sunk. You probably all know the arguments by now, and if you donít then just buy the book (and Michael Moorcockís Wizardry and Wild Romance) so you can get the story direct from the main protagonists.

Although Harrisonís fiercest ire is reserved for fantasy, SF doesnít escape his attention. Heís particularly scathing about the pretensions of much SF to be deeply intellectual when it is often just as formulaic as fantasy.

Dr Who, then, is sci-fi, while Frank Herbertís Dune is not. Dune, you see, is about ecology, anthropology, sociology, etc, etc. Dr Who is just about giant worms (and things that jump out and suck your head off in the dark). If you think Dune is just about giant worms too, you are being cynical and obstructive, go to the bottom of the class.

From a book review column in the New Manchester Review

Having said that, Harrison is happy to acknowledge quality scientific input when he sees it. Al Reynolds is perhaps not the sort of writer you would expect Harrison to praise, but Harrison knows what Reynoldsí writing is all about, and why people love it.

But though it could do with a little more, humanity isnít really the point of space opera. Vast, unhealthy exciting cosmological speculations are the point. The infinitely recessive qualities of the plot and background act as a direct metaphor for our scientific relationship with the world ó the more you think you know, the more there is to find out. [Ö] Al Reynolds occupies the same frenzied imaginative space as Philip K. Dick or A.E. Van Vogt: that he occupies it as a working scientist is what makes this book so exciting.

From a review of Redemption Ark in The Guardian

Finally, Harrison is all too aware of the way in which a science fiction sensibility has entered modern fantasy, reducing much of the genre to mere space opera with swords instead of ray guns.

For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, "Yes, but what did Sauron look like?"; or, "Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?"; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkienís images.

From "What Might It Be Like To Live In Viriconium?", published on Fantastic Metropolis

Of course if you must write medieval fantasies it is probably better to ask these questions and produce historical novels from alternate worlds, but if you want real fantasy the likes of Elizabeth Hand and Graham Joyce are where the action is. Or you can write books that are deliberately weird in their own strange ways, like those by China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer.

Anyway, if you are interested in getting a good grounding in genre criticism and enjoy being hugely entertained along the way, Parietal Games is the book for you. Two thirds of it is written by Harrison, and his non-fiction, though generally written in more of a hurry because of editorial deadlines, is just as incisive as his fiction.

What, however, of the other third of the book, the bits that are about Harrison rather than by him? Well, it is something of a mixed bag. The first point to make is any comparisons are inevitably unfair, because Harrison is a brilliant writer whose work in the book set out as much to entertain as to inform, whereas the other contributors are professional critics who set out primarily to inform. Only John Clute manages to match Harrison for style. Furthermore, the critical material itself is mixed: some of it is definitely in an academic style, other pieces are still academic but more approachable, and two are reprints of book reviews. Iím loathe to criticize the editors, Mark Bould and Michelle Reid, over this because I suspect it was inevitable, but it does make the last third of the book read a little oddly.

Bould contributes an introduction, which as usual is full of interesting ideas. However, when reading Bould I often get the impression from context that words he is using, while they might appear normal, are actually intended to have special meaning in Lit. Crit. jargon. Also Bould makes no apologies for the fact that he is a Marxist Literary Critic, which is very honest of him but sometimes makes him read like he comes from another world.

Rob Lathamís contribution, which provides an overview of Harrisonís career, is excellent. It is very approachable, but equally very well informed. It is a model of how academics should write for a wider audience. Graham Sleightís piece on Climbers is also very good Ė the first few paragraphs provide one of the best summaries of Harrisonís position on fantasy Iíve ever seen. However, I wish it has been a little longer and spent a bit more time talking about the relationship between Harrisonís approach to climbing and his approach to writing fiction, which seem to me to have a lot in common. Harrison is a risk-taker. Indeed, it often seems he isnít happy unless heís putting himself in some really difficult position from which it will require all of his skill to extricate himself.

The one piece that I think fell short of the mark was Graham Fraserís essay on The Course of the Heart. Obviously it is a big ask for me to be happy about someoneís views on one of my favorite books, but Fraser does seem to have got something of the wrong end of the stick. Reading his essay I got the impression that he thought what Pam and Lucas were doing with The Coeur was a valid form of psychotherapy, rather than two sad and damaged people clinging to a myth in desperation. Then I found this:

Pam and Lucas (and so many of Harrisonís other characters) seek to evade life and escape the world not because they do not value the world but, ironically, because they value it to the point of paralysis: they feel its preciousness and fear the pain of losing it.

This to me sounds muddle-headed. Harrisonís characters donít value the real world. What they value is a dream; an idea of what the real world might be. Or, to go back to the Roger Waters line I quoted in my own review of The Course of the Heart, a fleeting glimpse of something better, seen as a child, which the adult has never been able to recover.

Still, Iím not going to let one weak essay spoil my enjoyment (or yours) of a fine book full of wonderful critical writing by one of the best practitioners of the art alive today. If you are interested in genre criticism you need to read this book.

Parietal Games - Mark Bould and Michelle Reid (eds) - SF Foundation - trade paperback

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Parietal Games - Mark Bould and Michelle Reid (eds) - SF Foundation

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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