" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Sunday, January 17, 2021

M. John Harrsion, The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings


 I have still been reading a lot of non-fiction; lately, astrobiology and human evolution being the main topics of interest. However, I did manage some science fiction, choosing my selections from recent reviews by other bloggers I have followed for some time. I will post links after my discussions. As usual, I did not finish the reviews choosing to form my own impressions. I will complete them after I have made my comments. A discussion of M. John Harrison's A Storm of Wings lead me to reread The Pastel City and then move on to A Storm of Wings. Both novels centre around threats to Viriconium, The Pastel CityIn The Pastel CityLord tegeus-Cromis, who has retired to a seaside tower's seclusion, is approached by Birkin Grif, a friend and fellow knight of the order who served the late King Methven Nian. The empire is now ruled by Methven's daughter Methvet. However, her cousin Canna Moidart is the ruler of the Northern Tribes, traditional enemies of Viriconium. 

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes the setting of the Viriconium stories as, "It is a Far-Future science fantasy set on a bleak Dying Earth, whose description plays on Sword-and-Sorcery imagery, though nothing happens of a magical nature. " http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/harrison_m_john

The Viriconium empire follows " Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative," (TPC7)

The economy of the Viriconium Empire relies on salvaging machines left behind by the Afternoon Cultures. They cannot manufacture this level of technology themselves, and the society operates on a medieval level.

To discuss the events in A Storm of Winds, spoilers for The Pastel City will follow. 

Upon learning of this threat, tegeus-Cromis travels to Viriconium to look for two other knights Norvin Trinor and Tomb the Dwarf. He also meets with the young queen, who tells him that the knights should take command of the army she sent north some days earlier. Birkin Grif and his smugglers have already gone to join the army. tegeus-Cromis finds out that Norvin Trinor left for the north years ago.

On the journey, north tegeus-Cromis encounters a metal Bearded Vulture. The bird tells him he must detour to meet someone called Cellur of Girvan. Cellur has vital information about a threat to the empire called the geteit chemosit, tegeus-Cromis ignores this warning. He rejoins Birkin Grif. One night one of the guards is killed. The top of his head has been sheared off and his brain removed. tegeus-Cromis himself is attacked by a huge dark creature with yellow points for eyes. It is armed with a great bann, an energy weapon of the Afternoon Culture that sound a bit like a light sabre.  

Later they are joined by Tomb the dwarf,he is a scavenger and expert on the machines left by the Afternoon Cultures. He has crafted an exoskeleton for himself that he uses in battle. I will now offer a summary of the events in A Storm of Wings and then discuss both works in my remarks.

A Storm of Wings takes place 80 years later. tegeus-Cromis is dead. The empire is still ruled by Queen Methvet. Her commander is Alsath Fulthor, a Reborn Man. There is widespread unrest in Viriconium as a religion called The Sign of the Locust has appeared. It is described as "a theopneustia, existing without recourse to brain and blood: a Muse or demiurge - to express itself. It wears its congregation like a disguise: we did not so much create the Sign of the Locust as invite it into ourselves, now it dons us nightly like a cloak and domino to go abroad in the world." (ASOW19)

The cultists come from all segments of society, including the Queen's guard. The religion has spawned numerous schisms and heresies. They murder people seemingly at random. They hate the Reborn most of all, feeling the Reborn have disenfranchised them within Viriconium society. Most Reborn have left the city for the north, but a young Reborn woman Fay Glass has returned carrying a bundle containing the head of a giant insect. Pursued by a mob, she encountered Gaen Hornwrack. Hornwrack is having a bad day, and it is this rather than any sense of nobility that motivates him to kill several cultists and save the Glass. Hornwrack was a young pilot in training during the War of the Two Queens.  Scavenged airships were in short supply, and he had to watch as the older pilots flew off to battle. After the war, he failed at a number of professions and lost his ancestral lands. He now operates as a very successful assassin in the Lower City, having killed some 80 men. However, Glass's rescue has brought him to the Queen's attention, and he is summoned to a conference at the palace. There he meets Methve, Tomb, Cellur and Alsath Fulthor. Hoenwrack is hostile, blaming the Queen for his problems. She attempts to reward him and draw him into her service by gifting him the armour and nameless sword of tegeus-Cromis. Eventually, Hornwrack is recruited. It is agreed that he and Alsath Fulthor will accompany Fay Glass to her village.

Tomb and Cellur will remain with the Queen. They can follow at least some of the journey using giant screens in the throne room. Before Hornwrack's party can leave, a vision/entity/projection/ appears floating above their heads. It is the grotesque figure of an enormously fat man wearing a strange mask or breathing device. His words are nonsensical, sometimes he appears quite solid, and sometimes he fades away and disappears. Later, Tomb will identify him as Benedict Paucemanly, a legendary airman last seen when he launched his airship Saucy Sal on a trip to the moon. Paucemanly seems to form a connection with Hornwrack and often appears to him on the journey. 


Most of the characters in this story display a striking lack of motivation or purpose; this includes Hornwrack, the two Reborn, the people of the Lower City and the inhabitants of the fishing village Iron Chime. 

Even the landscape they travel in seems to reflect this dissolution of the past or the loss of established order.

"the World is coming to bits," said Galen Hornwrack, and someone answered dryly. "The world is being exchanged for something else."

"It comes to me that each of us suffered during this northern transit an emptying or bleaching of identity in preparation for the future we could not describe." (ASOW94) 

The plot, especially the journey north, devolves into chaotic episodes with only the occasional visitations by Benedict Paucemanly pulling Hornwrack along. The Reborn are little more than encumbrances. 

"The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued create a by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning to them: taunted by amnesia of the soul. (ASOW3) 

As one might expect for this type of novel, the feeling of senescence is strong in both works but becomes almost overwhelming in A Storm of Wings. I have to admit the last half began to wander a bit for me, but in the end, the revelations around Benedict Paucemanly on the moon enthralled me.

These novels ticked a lot of boxes for me. They conjured up memories of the dying earth novels of Clarke Ashton Smith, Jack Vance. The lack of magic and the fact that Viriconium exists amid the remnants of more technologically advanced societies brings to mind Gene Wolfe's The Book of The New Sun series or Mark S, Geston's brilliant novels Lords of the Starship and Out of the Mouth of Dragons. ( I promised to look at Lords of the Starship here but never did. I will get to it.) 


There also seems to be a bit of the nihilism of Moorcock's Granbretan from Hawkmoon novels and the fevered dreams of Melville's Perdido Street Station, more books I loved. And the removal of brains in A Storm of Wings brings to mind my favourite Laumer novel, A Plague of Demons


Books often speak to me of other books I have known and loved, and that is what keeps me reading and indeed posting.

Some years ago, I read The Pastel City, which encouraged me to read Harrison's novel The Committed Men, which I loved and discussed here. There are many similarities, with a small group of characters moving through a blighted landscape populated by groups struggling to live amid an almost unrecognizable landscape.


What I had forgotten, was what a wonderful writer Harrison is. 

"Clinging grimly to a stanchion as the daring young Courier flung his ship about the dangerous sky, he felt as if he were sitting behind the eyes of a tumbler pigeon:...," (TPC94)


"Something in the resigned, defeated landscape ( or was it simply waiting to be born? Who can tell at which end of Time these places have their existence?) called out to his senses.., " (TPS102)

"Somewhere between midnight and dawn, in that hour when sick men topple from the high ledges of themselves and fall into the darkness.., " (ASOW2) 


"Here, organic towers, tall shapeless masses of tissue cultured from the plasm of ancient mammals, trumpeted and moaned across the abandoned wastes of another continent." ..,(ASOW5) 

We have several other novels by Harrison around the house Helen had Nova Swing and Light and I know there is another Viriconium novel here if I can find it, so I am looking forward to reading more of his work. 

And this all started because I noticed Joachim Boaz's post here.


Cover credits

A Storm of Wings, Chris Achilleos

The Pastel City, R to L Bruce Pennington, Gray Morrow

Monday, January 11, 2021

James Edwin Gunn (July 12, 1923 – December 23, 2020) Transcendental, volume one of The Transcendental Machine Trilogy

 James Gunn passed away in December and I have been meaning to put something together since Helen told me. I read his novel The Immortals as a teenager (I vaguely recall seeing an episode of the TV series as well) and one of his final short stories, "Quantum Theory" in Asimov's Science Fiction in 2019. I knew Gunn primarily as a critic and scholar of science fiction. His introductions to the stories that appear in his series The Road to Science Fiction have in some cases radically changed my understanding of the stories. I read his 
 Hugo winning Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction at the same time I reread the Foundation Trilogy and enjoyed it immensely, again it greatly added to my understanding of Asimov's work.




I was surprised at how many of Gunn's books I had accumulated when I scanned my shelves. I knew I wanted to read something of his and since I had Transcendental the first volume of his Transcendental Machine Trilogy I decided to start there. I knew it involved aliens and space travel. I did not know it was 

" an epic, high-concept space opera, is a Canterbury Tales of the far future in which beings from many planets hurtle across the universe to uncover the secrets of the legend of Transcendentalism"


However when I found out I was okay with that. Actually I had begun reading A.S. Kline's translation of The Canterbury Tales, a text I first encountered in high school, a few days ago so it was a funny coincidence. Also as you can see from my library books the idea of alien lifeforms fascinate me.

We first met the protagonist Riley in the waiting room of a space elevator, which will take him and his fellow pilgrims to a starship named Geoffrey. The pilgrims are en route to find the Transcendence Machine, whose existence was predicted by the Prophet, a mysterious figure no one can identify. They have just fended off an attack by the barbarians who inhabit portions of the planet. Riley and a heavy planet alien named Torder decide they should enlist some of the other pilgrims into a protective association. Since Riley and Tordor don't know if they can trust each other, they both choose different pilgrims to approach about joining. Riley's first choice is a human woman named Adia. She declines, so he enlists two space crew types called Jan and Jon. Tordor chooses a flower-headed alien 4107; he then approaches an alien in a coffin-like tank who declines. His last choice is bird-headed Alpha Centurian. Even though Jan was on watch, Riley wakes to find he has grabbed the arm of a weasel-like alien who approached him with a knife while Jan was drugged.  The arm comes off and the alien retreats claiming he only intended to warn Riley that Jan was asleep. Riley returns the arm and knife to Xi (it will grow back). He notes that Adian watched the entire encounter but did not warn him. She says Xi did not intend to kill him and that even if he had only the tough will survive. 

Riley was woken by his pedia, a device that is implanted in his head. It watches over Riley, supplying information he needs and quotes from old earth literature, including The Canterbury Tales he could do without. The elevator finally arrives, and the pilgrims depart. On the trip up, the unbreakable cable breaks, and the car is launched into space. The captain of the Geoffrey rescues them, and Riley learns it is his old friend Ham. 

When humans first moved out of the solar system, they encountered the Galactics, a group of alien species that travel via Nexus points. War breaks out with some aliens siding with Earth and some against it. The war is bloody and prolonged, but eventually, peace is negotiated. All the races agree that anyone who violated the treaty will be destroyed by the rest acting together.  Riley was Ham's navigator during the war. Their ship was destroyed, and both men were severely injured. They did not realize the other had survived. Since the war, Riley has been a troubleshooter or mercenary for a number of organizations. While on vacation, Riley was either abducted or possibly the simulation he was using is hijacked. He is told he will be rewarded for joining the pilgrims and gaining control of the machine. If he finds the Prophet, he is to kill them. It is at this point that the pedia was installed in Riley's head. If he refuses to carry out the instructions, it will kill him. Riley does not know who has recruited him.

Once on the ship, the pilgrims begin to tell their stories. Some stories are private and not shared with the entire group. It is here that Gunn's work suffers a bit by comparison with Dan Simmon's take on The Canterbury Tales in his novel Hyperion. Simmon's stories are longer and more vividly imagined.  The first three stories in Gunn's work are a bit pedestrian. They are based on historical or biological analogs and seem familiar or predictable.  They lack some of the alien aspects one might hope for. They are individual histories and also serve as capsule histories of the species, which is handy. Tordor comes from a race of herbivores who raise selected children in a brutal Spartan-like military environment. Xi was raised in a nest where the weakest siblings were killed by the strongest. Kom, the Sirian's story, was more interesting. The children develop in the father and eat their way out. With advances in medical technology, the father typically survives. Kom and his father do have a good relationship until mom eats dad.

It is only with Adia's story, which she tells Riley, that the book comes into focus for me. Here we start to get the needed backstory. The stories from now on will be related not as part of a travel ritual but in response to specific events, making them much more effective. When they are introduced, I was anxious to hear them. They also become more original. The next tale by the flower headed alien 4107 relates the rise of a race of sentient plants. This story introduces the world-building originality and narrative arc that brings science fiction to life for me. The idea of how racial memory would shape the development of a race of plants fascinate me.  They use plant-based ships and uplift other vegetation, oh my. 

4107 also has the best quotes. 

"How can I describe the impact of intelligence? Each species represented here has experienced it, but none remembers. Florians remember. The history of our species is recorded in the seeds of their consciousness. At first it was only the memory of process, the irresistible bursting from the seed pod, the passionate thrusting upward toward the sun...," (203)

"And then the humans erupted fro Earth-meat inspired by hubris...," (211)

I love the Florians; they are a very nicely realized culture, and Gunn handles their introduction to the larger Galactic society really well.

Overall I enjoyed Gunn's novel. It had many of the space opera elements, action, alien cultures, and scale that I enjoy.  As I became more familiar with the setting and characters, I grew more interested in the story. I wanted to see how these elements fit into the plot going forward. I only have volume one, but I notice the entire trilogy is available on Kindle at a reasonable price, and I will be buying it. Today.