Saturday, 30 August 2014

Poul Anderson - The Broken Sword (1954)

"'Can you not feel it? The monstrous slumbering power locked in that iron, held by those runes so ancient even I cannot  read them - the power ravenous and resistless and - evil! there is a curse on that weapon, Skafloc. It will bring the bane of all within its might.' Her eyes were wide and frightened. She shivered with a cold not that of the dungeon. 'I think - Skafloc, I think it were best for you if you walled up that sword again.'"

Poul Anderson's 'The Broken Sword' was first published in the same year as Tolkien's 'The Fellowship Of The Ring'. Both books are landmarks in Fantasy in very different ways. Ably informed by their authors' passion for and study of Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas, the books set both the subject matter and the tone of the Fantasy genre from then until the present day. Yet the books could not be more different. Compared to the bulk and meandering of Tolkien's masterwork, 'The Broken Sword' clocks in at a remarkably swift 274 pages, and in place of Tolkien's gentility is a savagery and brutality that harks back to the original sagas and myths that both books draw on. While the tropes and modes that Tolkien set in stone would influence the bulk of mass market Fantasy produced for decades, Anderson's novel, though less well known, anticipates the grimdark nature of modern masters like George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, whilst providing an alternative template to Fantasy for those put off by Tolkien's twee-ness that would be taken up by the likes of Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison. 'The Broken Sword' is frequently regarded as a Fantasy classic, yet after reading Anderson's disappointing 'Tau Zero' I had been avoiding more of his work. Yet where 'Tau Zero' is clumsily written with poorly realised characters, 'The Broken Sword' sings off the page, and while it would be a stretch to paint it as overtly feminist, in this regard it is easily more progressive than 'Tau Zero' and 'Lord Of The Rings', having multiple strong female characters with agency. 

So good it's been a Fantasy Masterwork twice

'The Broken Sword' is about doom. Characters have to face the frequently bad consequences of their and their ancestors' actions, frequently hindered by supernatural forces much stronger than them. It opens with Orm, a viking who kills an Englander and all of his family in order to steal his land, save for an old witch who escapes. The witch, desiring revenge, directs a passing elf to steal Orm's newly-born son and replace him with a changeling, setting off a series of events that can only end in their mutual destruction. Skafloc, Orm's son, is brought up among the elves, learning their skills with fighting, hunting and magic. Valgard, his photo-negative changeling, his brought up as Orm's son, where his aggressive and surly nature isolate him from his family. Whilst Skafloc is beloved by the elves and goes with them to fight in their wars with the trolls, Valgard is manipulated by the witch into killing Orm and his sons and selling his daughters to the trolls in order to become one of their generals. The elves and the trolls are natural enemies and always at war, yet they can't let their fighting get too serious otherwise the gods and the giants will join in, leading to the end of the world. Yet the gods are already involved; on the day Skafloc was brought to Alfheim, a messenger of the gods presented him with a broken black blade, saying that one day he will have need of it. This is Tyrfing, forged by the giant Bolverk, a powerful weapon destined to play a role in Ragnarok.
   The book unfolds beautifully, events following on from one another in inevitable certainty towards Skafloc and Valgard's twinned fate. The book is driven by Anderson's beautiful prose, (something I genuinely never thought I'd write); using almost entirely words with Old English sources, full of inversions, and evocatively poetic, Anderson accurately summons the feel and texture of the Norse myths he draws from as much as the subject matter. Characters even frequently burst into verse, like the skalds, which of course Anderson knows the rules for and follows. Which is not to say he shies away from violence. 'The Broken Sword' features enough bloody battles and brutal violence to satisfy the most hardened of Abercrombie fans. It also rattles along at an incredibly sprightly pace, largely due to the fact that Anderson is incredibly focused on the main thread of the narrative. Lesser writers would have used the diversion of Skafloc and Mananaan's flight from the ice giants to pad the book out, whereas Anderson hints at wider adventures tangential to the main narrative, allowing our imagination to play within the gaps left by the main story and freeing him up from getting bogged down in trivialities while he's building to the climax. The book also manages to tie together multiple strands of mythology. Anderson lifts from Norse, Irish, Celtic and Christian mythology when he chooses, yet has the talent to tie it together into one coherent world.
   Of course none of this would work if the book didn't have strong characters to inhabit this coherent world. Skafloc and Valgard are perfect foils for each other, each cursed by being in the other's natural place, each manipulated by forces outside their control, ultimately their hatred for each other winds up being the last thing they have. The forbidden love between Skafloc and his sister Freda is all the more affecting because Freda is a well developed character in her own right. Freda is smart, resourceful and can handle herself in a fight, winding up with a fairly impressive troll body-count. In the end, she is the one with control over their relationship, and her tragic decision to return to Skafloc at the worst possible time is hers alone. Simirlarly, Leea, Skafloc's elf foster mother, though she is defined in the book largely through her relationship to Skafloc, but is cunning and wily. Leea and the rest of the female elves even get their turn to save the day, as they kill the trolls in their sleep and steal the keys to let Skafloc and the elf army into the castle. Leea and Freda even have conversations that aren't about Skafloc, allowing the book to technically pass the Bechdel test. Again it's not perfect but it's considerably better than 'The Lord Of The Rings' in this regard and many of the Fantasies that follow it. Then there is Tyrfing, the black blade, the broken sword itself, a weapon of evil that howls like a demon, must drink blood once it's been drawn, and ultimately turns on its user. The influence on Michael Moorcock would be clear even if his endorsement wasn't on the cover of the latest printing.

The 1971 Sphere reprint has a beautiful cover, but includes the Bowdlerised text in which Anderson himself made his own book less awesome. Both Fantasy Masterworks editions happily restore the original 1954 text.
In the end, the gods manipulate elves, trolls and humans alike for their own means. Odin has been driving everything from the start, to fix Tyrfing and to breed Skafloc and Freda's son, whom he claims from Freda as a price for saving Skafloc, so that he can be a hero who will wield the dangerous sword for the gods. This ties into the book's main theme of fate. All the characters are up against hugely powerful forces, there is nothing for them to do but to choose how they will face them. Having left 'The Broken Sword' open for a sequel, Anderson never wrote it. But it's enough that he wrote this great book, one that we can be thankful for both its own merits and its influence on generations of Fantasy writers to come.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Big Sky Fanzine Issues 3 and 4 - SF Masterworks special - available now!

A special announcement. The e-fanzine Big Sky, edited by Pete Young, has just released a two-part special edition covering the complete Gollancz SF Masterworks series, a series that regular visitors to my blog will know that is very close to my heart, and featuring contributions from yours truly! The fanzine includes my reviews for Samuel R. Delany's 'Nova', Ursula K. Le Guin's 'The Left Hand Of Darkness', (both issue 3) T. J. Bass' 'Half Past Human', as well as reprinting my reviews of Robert Heinlein's 'Double Star' and John Crowley's 'The Deep', which originally appeared here on this blog. In addition it features reviews and commentary on the complete series by many other talented bloggers, writers and professional authors (Ian McDonald, Jo Walton, Scott Lynch, G. K. Chesterton and TIM POWERS!). Please do visit Big Sky's index page here and give them a read, there is a wealth of fantastic writing here. I would like to thank the editor Pete Young for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this project, and for his tireless work and enthusiasm in putting the whole enormous project together. I am pleased as punch, and incredibly honoured to have my work published in this fanzine, which really is a great read - check out issues 1 and 2, which I did not contribute to but which feature a wide range of interesting and informative articles from early Japanese SF to a detailed discussion of pulp. Thanks again Pete.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

M. John Harrison - 'Viriconium' (1971-1985)

"Time is erosion: an icy wind blew constant abrasive streams of dust over the bare rock of the ridge: it had been blowing for a thousand years."

"'Viriconium', remarks Ansel Verdigris in his last ironic essay Allies, 'is a world trying to remember itself. The dumb stones perform an unending act of recall.'"

"Where the city is at its emptiest we find ourselves full."

"Viriconium is all the cities that have ever been."

Recently I was walking down Charing Cross Road with my father. I had studied in London for a year in 2011, but my father had grown up there in the 60s and 70s. As we walked down the road from bookshop to bookshop, he told me about the places he used to visit as a child and young man, and how much the city had changed. I realised in that moment how different my London and my father's London was. Cities, especially those with a rich history, are hyper-real, a conglomeration of history, legend, and different people's experiences and interpretations of them, all superimposed over the physical buildings and streets. M. John Harrison understands this, and this is what he explores vividly and evocatively in his Viriconium stories. Viriconium, as Audsley King  notes in 'In Viriconium', "is all the cities that have ever been", glorious, crumbling and decadent, situated in the vast decaying wastelands in the last days of the Earth. M. John Harrison wrote three novels about Viriconium, 'The Pastel City' (1971), 'A Storm Of Wings' (1980) and 'In Viriconium' (1982), plus a series of short stories collected in 'Viriconium Nights' (1985). Each of these is lyrical and powerful, though quite different. Taken together they make up a singular, haunting piece of work. Viriconium is so vividly realised it is almost a character itself. Like a real city, it is mutable, living and breathing. In defiance of Fantasy tradition, Harrison intentionally disrupts the continuity between stories. The very name of the city changes, characters and events in one story are reimagined as myths or legends in another. Viriconium is a palimpsest, constantly rewritten by the different perspectives, hopes, dreams and fears of its citizens. The differing interpretations and versions of the city serve to make it more lifelike, and make it all the harder to leave behind. I think it has become my new favourite book.
   I was originally intending to talk about each of the installments of the series individually, but seeing as so much of the power and effect is generated by the cross-talk of characters and themes between stories, I don't think that's an appropriate approach to talking about Viriconium. The edition I read is the 2000 Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks version - this is important as the sequence and even contents of the various Viriconium omnibuses has changed between versions. The Fantasy Masterworks edition is thoughtfully sequenced, with the three novels presented in sequence with the 'Viriconium Nights' stories interspersed throughout. It opens with 'Viriconium Knights', which previews the events of 'The Pastel City' as a legend and the hope of a better Viriconium for the people who live there. With its outlandish, almost grotesque characters with bizarre names and its vivid crumbling edifices, the Viriconium stories from the start bring to mind Mervin Peake's Gormenghast books, and its last days of Earth setting owes much to Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. It anticipates Gene Wolfe's 'The Book Of The New Sun' and Simon Ings' 'City Of The Iron Fish' both in its setting and the way it subverts traditional Fantasy tropes. And in its setting of a shifting, magical city beset by calamity it superficially resembles Samuel R. Delany's 'Dhalgren', another great favourite of mine. But really these comparisons do little more than hint at Viriconium's unique flavour; it simply isn't much like anything else, which is always of great value.
   'The Pastel City' and 'A Storm Of Wings' are both more plot-driven than the other Viriconium stories, and both feature the city under threat of invasion. In 'The Pastel City' the threat is an ancient weapon, merciless golems that steal people's brains, and in 'A Storm Of Wings' it is giant alien psychic wasps. In these stories it is most easy to see the influence of the more imaginative sword and sorcery stories that influenced it. However from the out they go against Fantasy convention. 'The Pastel City' is violent enough to stand next to anything Joe Abercrombie wrote. Its protagonist, tegeus-Cromis, likes to think of himself as a poet rather than a warrior, yet it is clear that the reason he is chosen for these tasks is because he is a supremely efficient killer. Over the course of the book he becomes more and more disillusioned with his role as a tool for violence, and in fact winds up missing out on the big climax. tegeus-Cromis' character arc finishes before the siege of the city and the confrontation with the rival Queen, so we don't get to see it, an incredibly bold narrative move that it's still difficult to imagine coming across in a Fantasy novel to this day. The world-weariness of the protagonist reflects the bruised and battered Earth, now a toxic wasteland largely uninhabitable thanks to the destructiveness and greed of humanity.

 The relationship of 'A Storm Of Wings' to 'The Pastel City' is interesting. It is more of a direct sequel than the other Viriconium stories, yet in some ways it is a retelling, recapitulating the themes and events of the original. Tomb the dwarf and Cellur the Lord of the Birds return from the previous book, but in an unusual move tegeus-Cromis has died in the intervening years, so he is replaced by Galen Hornwrack. Hornwrack is an assassin, dispossessed by the War of Two Queens from the previous book, and his selfishness and pissiness contrast directly with tegeus-Cromis' honour and dignity, yet he is required by Queen Methvet Nian and by the narrative to fulfill the role of tegeus-Cromis in the story. This he does but ultimately on his own terms. The alien invasion is used to explore the central theme of all the Viriconium stories, that the places we inhabit are a combination of the different perspectives of the people who live there. The perspective of the alien insects and of the humans is so radically different their two realities prove to be incompatible, with disastrous results for both. Outside of the city of Viriconium, travelling in the wasteland, stripped of the consensus reality provided by the perspective of their fellow humans, the characters start to forget who they are and to become archetypes. In this way the book explores the use of archetypes in Fantasy, something the genre strongly relies on but outside of, say, Michael Moorcock, generally doesn't comment on. The fate of airman Benedict Paucemanly anticipates that of several characters in Harrison's 'Empty Space'.

  In between 'The Pastel City' and 'A Storm Of Wings' the Fantasy Masterworks edition gives us the 'Viriconium Nights' short stories 'Lords Of Misrule' and 'Strange Great Sins'. The former cynically recontextualises tegeus-Cromis' role as a hero and Viriconium's role as an empire. The latter is the first appearance of the horse's skull, an image that would become a recurring motif throughout the Viriconium stories and again crop up in the shape of the Shrander in 'Light'. These recurring images provide a  thread that connects Viriconium to M. John Harrison's SF work. As in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the Viriconium stories are built around strong and incisive character work, as well as our relationship with our past. If the characters in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy are haunted by their past, the whole setting of Viriconium is haunted by the mistakes humanity made before it.
   Most of the rest of the 'Viriconium Nights' stories are placed between 'A Storm Of Wings' and 'In Viriconium'. 'The Dancer From The Dance' expands the story of the ballerina from 'Strange Great Sins' and reimagines 'A Storm Of Wings' as a local legend, or perhaps a suppressed psychic memory. Insects become another recurring Viriconium motif. 'The Luck In The Head', in which a woman wearing an insect mask convinces the protagonist to launch an assassination attempt on Mammy Vooley using what may be tegeus-Cromis' laser sword, works as a metaphor for the events of 'A Storm Of Wings' or converts the events of that story into a metaphor for it. Mammy Vooley, a fragile old woman whose delicate physical appearance is in direct opposition to her despotic power, appears as the Queen in the 'Viriconium Nights' stories, a fictionalisation of Margaret Thatcher and a direct opposite to the beautiful Methvet Nian, the Queen in 'The Pastel City' and 'A Storm Of Wings'. 'The Lamia & Lord Cromis' again reimagines tegeus-Cromis as distinctly less than heroic whilst providing him with a mythic foe. The overall effect of these shifting and contradictory interpretations of events and characters subverts SF and Fantasy's traditional overwhelming hunger for background details, world building and context whilst demonstrating how unnecessary they truly are. Viriconium gains vividness and power from all these shifting perspectives rather than losing them.

   'In Viriconium' is the last of the Viriconium novels, and more abstract than its predecessors. Based around the images of an imaginary tarot, the novel looks at the lives of the painters, artists and down-and-outs of the city as Viriconium is struck by an existential plague, brought about by the incarnation of its gods. In a brutal subversion of the Christ myth, the Barley brothers incarnate experience humanity by being humans at their absolute worst, a pair of drunken hooligans vomiting on the street and beating helpless victims. As the city collapses around him, the painter Ashlyme tries to save Audsley King from dying of the plague. He comes up against the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the plague police, and has to deal with The Grand Cairo, the Barley brothers' dwarf. The Grand Cairo, who, like the dwarf in 'The Dancer From The Dance' was forced to become a dwarf by his parents keeping him in a restrictive box in order that he might have a lucrative circus career, mirrors the repression and resentment of Audsley King, who has become famous for the sublimated sexuality and violence of her paintings. The events of 'A Storm Of Wings' turn up again, this time as one of The Grand Cairo's ludicrous paranoid fantasies, and the aristocratic thugs of 'Viriconium Knights' reappear as struggling artists. The themes and images from the previous stories appear, perhaps at their most powerful here where the focus is more on the characters and setting rather than the plot, allowing the work as a whole more room to breathe. Like tegeus-Cromis back in 'The Pastel City', Ashlyme very much sees himself as an artist, but his major contribution to the plot is one of violence, a necessary act that frees Viriconium of its invaders whilst his attempt at rescue ends in farce, perhaps achieved with Galen Hornwrack's blade from 'A Storm Of Wings'.
   The collection ends with 'A Young Man's Journey To Viriconium'. Harrison has said that the series can be read in any order as long as the reader finishes with this one, and I can't imagine a more effective ending for the Viriconium stories. It is set in our world, and the protagonist discovers that two people from our world have travelled to Viriconium by entering a mirror in the bathroom of the Merrie England Cafe on New Street in Huddersfield. Though of course this gateway won't work for him. This final story explores why we need Fantasy, why we need Viriconium, whilst warning against exactly that. Viriconium, with all its manifest squalour, decadence and horrors, with its dream-like, shifting realities, the crumbling ancient beauty of the High City and the ramshackle slums of the Low City, is almost more vivid than the real world. Yet for its citizens caught within it and those in our reality haunted by glimpses of it, we are both forced to confront the reality that faces us. It is an appropriately haunting note to end on, and makes it all the harder for us to leave.