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Viriconium (M. John Harrison)

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I read the Fantasy Masterworks edition (all the short stories collected together) and just got completely lost with it. The book was very atmospheric but what was it all about? Was there a guy timetravelling through loads of different Viriconiums? Were there just loads of Viriconiums connected in some strange way? I have no idea but hopefully you do ;)

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M. John Harrison is against such a nerdy and tedious thing as "worldbuilding". He has said as much in his blog.

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Was there a guy timetravelling through loads of different Viriconiums? Were there just loads of Viriconiums connected in some strange way?

That is not relevant. You do not need to know if there are several Viriconiums. You do not need to know if the author intended that to be so. You do not even need to ask that question. Are they just planes of existence? Are they real? Or are they figments of your imagination? Or perhaps, you are only imagining that you are reading a book called Viriconium, whilst other Deornoths are reading other books on different planes of existence?

Nor do you need to know if the timeline is warped or if someone is really time-travelling. These are things to do with worldbuilding, and deal with plot. These are unworthy aspects of books and should be scoffed upon at every occasion according to MJH doctrine.

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I sense much anger and sarcasm in these responses ;)

To be honest, I only just started reading it last night, despite reading/enjoying MJH's other work. I'll weigh in later this week, time permitting, with my thoughts.

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I'd suggest reading this essay from Harrison. But basically, it's the books are a thorough deconstruction of commercial "epic" fantasy.

This is one of Viriconium’s many jigsawed messages to the reader. You can’t hope to control things. Learn to love the vertigo of experience instead.

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I think it's all in the eyes of the beholders. After all, the American Declaration of Independence might be labelled a "verbose rant" by some as well ;)

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But I believe MJH's post has substance as well. I suspect it's mostly just a personal preference issue more than anything else in the end, though.

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I haven't read anything by Harrison, but what I got from his essay is that Viriconium is a "genre-transcending" book. (Much like Wizard's First Rule?) It removes all the familiar trappings of modern fantasy and the like, and forces the reader to fill in the blanks. What I'm not sure about is how much is actually left when he does that.

In short, I liked Martin's essay on "The Heart in Conflict" in Dreamsongs much better.

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I would not mention MJH and Goodkind in the same sentence (figuratively, literally I just did, alas) when it comes to writing stories. I have read four books by Harrison (Light, The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, Nova Swing and have just begun the omnibus Viriconium) and I can assure you it's nothing like Goodkind.

Regardless of what others might argue here, I believe MJH has a wealth of talent for telling the story the way he wants to tell it. He's just simply not interested in outlining all the details that are incidental to the story he aims to tell. He's more interested in an 'experience' and not in a 'realization.' Frankly, who really ought to be giving two shits whether or not Tolkien's Balrog had wings or not? The creature was helluva scary and that was all that needed to be conveyed. For people to ponder and to write about the wing span requirements necessary to support X amount of weight (as I've heard about some actually arguing on the web someplace)...doesn't that detract and defeat the purpose of the scene?

From what I could tell, MJH just wanted to write fictions where that sort of bastardization simply could not take place. It's not for everyone. I do know, 50 pages in, that it's for me and that's all that matters on the personal front :P

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Harrison completely misunderstands Tolkien. In his stories Tolkien paid painstaking attention to the consistency of trivial things, like the phases of the moon, and he wrote an essay on the military structure of the Riders of Rohan featuring factoids such as the number of horsemen in an Éotheod. Tolkien was all into the process he termed "subcreation", and his work was the better for it. Reading and rereading Tolkien, you can catch glimpses to and piece together snippets of an infinitely retreating continuum of self-consistent detail, such that the world, like the real world, can never be tamed into a simplistic sandbox creation like the works of lesser authors, or a definitionless fog of detail that sounds cool at the moment Harrison seems to prefer.

Face it Harrison, your attempt to lean on the reputation of Tolkien to cover your deficiency of craft or self-critical ability is an utter failure. I don't know if you make conscious or subconscious excuses to avoid an aspect of writing you know you're bad at, or if you're really that deluded, but you have no ground to stand on.

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I would not mention MJH and Goodkind in the same sentence (figuratively, literally I just did, alas) when it comes to writing stories. I have read four books by Harrison (Light, The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, Nova Swing and have just begun the omnibus Viriconium) and I can assure you it's nothing like Goodkind.

Regardless of what others might argue here, I believe MJH has a wealth of talent for telling the story the way he wants to tell it. He's just simply not interested in outlining all the details that are incidental to the story he aims to tell. He's more interested in an 'experience' and not in a 'realization.' Frankly, who really ought to be giving two shits whether or not Tolkien's Balrog had wings or not? The creature was helluva scary and that was all that needed to be conveyed. For people to ponder and to write about the wing span requirements necessary to support X amount of weight (as I've heard about some actually arguing on the web someplace)...doesn't that detract and defeat the purpose of the scene?

From what I could tell, MJH just wanted to write fictions where that sort of bastardization simply could not take place. It's not for everyone. I do know, 50 pages in, that it's for me and that's all that matters on the personal front :P

Heh, I can tell from the essay that he isn't anywhere near Goodkind's level of idiocy/terrible writing. But it did sound a bit similar to the "I don't write fantasy" quotes we've heard so many times.

Also, I agree on the idea that too much attention to detail can detract from a story. Criticism of a movie like, say, Saving Private Ryan for using the wrong type of sights on a sniper rifle scope is an exercise in meaninglessness. Inconsistentcy or lack of realism in tiny details rarely detracts from a story. (Also, the balrog's wings were made of "shadow and flame." It doesn't matter how big they were, it definitely wasn't using them for lift.) But as with everything, a balance has to be struck. For an experience to be an experience, the reader generally has to understand to some degree why things are happening, what significance it has in relation to other places/people/events. That requires the "realization." And while I prefer the realization of a world to have a strong component of mystery, I'd never advocate leaving the reader fill in all the blanks themselves.

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Somehow I doubt Harrison will be reading any of this ;)

I suggest a re-reading of what Harrison was pointing out. He signalled out others who were taking Tolkien's story and trying to postulate this and that from things that Tolkien did not deign to write about since it was unnecessary for his story. Things such as how the orc regimented were organized or how Sauron looked - they were trivial to the experience and thus Tolkien rightly left them out.

As for the bit about the Riders of Rohan, etc., keep in mind that those were posthumous postings of almost every single scrap left over. In LotR, it was not necessary to have multiple pages devoted to all that - Tolkien knew when to pull back and "tell" briefly rather than to "show" everything. MJH got that point loud and clear, I'd have to say, based on his novels that I have read. And trust me, MJH doesn't "lean on" Tolkien at all - if anything, he pushes back away from it to approach the speculative from a different angle. Not for everyone, but Harrison certainly has had a huge impact on many writers who consciously write in a style markedly different from that of the epic style.

But I'll return later to talk about the actual omnibus, once I finish reading it (hopefully tonight).

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db18,

I pretty much agree with what you're saying there. Harrison doesn't leave things so disorganized that the reader cannot puzzle together a meaning - he just merely doesn't explicate every single damn detail to cut off any real imagination on the reader's part.

SPOILER: The Course of the Heart

In this 1990s novel recently republished by Night Shade Press, there is a necromantic experience that goes awry. We are not told (or shown) directly what happened to the four characters, but we see their effects in the form of one being tormented by "dwarves," another smelling roses at a certain time, etc. Harrison displays the consequences of that action for the reader to read and the fact that we have to guess at what the specific event keeps the focus away from the "magic" and instead concentrates it on human lives devastated as a result. It is a very powerful story, how their lives were torn asunder and how relationships ended as a result of this mysterious event, one where they apparently "crossed over" briefly into a different world. And MJH tells it in 200 pages. It is still fresh in my mind, 3 months later.

I put the above in spoiler tags in case some might be "offended" that I revealed anything related to one of my favorite MJH stories. However, the plot device that triggered those occurrences takes place "off-stage." In this case and in most of his stories that I've read, Harrison focuses on the effects more than the causes, which is his right as an author to do. Many readers do not prefer that style of fiction writing; he wasn't writing for them.

So to bring it back to Viriconium, based only on the first half of the first short novel, I'd have to say that there's something in the effects of the past and the Pastel City that might be playing a role in what is happening. There is that sense for me that Viriconium is not as much a static place but instead is a remembrance of things that have transpired. I could be wrong, however, seeing how little of it I have read.

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Remember the Appendices of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien would have wanted to put even more stuff there, but was limited by the pagecount. That's why he had to cut the stuff about the types of Gondorian coins. Meanwhile things like the Elvish names for weekdays don't ever get mentioned in the narrative, but you get them in the Appendices anyway, in both their Quenya and Sindarin forms. And there are many more examples where that came from.

(Incidentally, Tolkien has drawn a picture of Sauron. It was in an idea for the cover of The Return of the King. I've seen it on the Internet.)

It is important to not confuse worldbuilding and world-description. I maintain that there cannot be too much worldbuilding (unless the time consumed becomes so extreme that the story does not get written, and there can be so much worldbuilding that any increase won't be visible in the story) but a narrative can only take so much world-description.

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Ah, a good old MJH discussion! :P

It's been a while since he last came up with one of his dumbass quotes. . . I figure he's about to unleash another golden nugget of wisdom our way! ;)

Patrick

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Just for you, Pat...

Click here

*goes back to reading*

Oh, look at the poll results here as well. Surprising? ;)

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