Book Review: The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

I recently got a copy of the collected Viriconium works, M. John Harrison’s acclaimed “fantasy” series, and will posting reviews of each individual book on here in the coming weeks. First up is Harrison’s second published novel, The Pastel City. Warning: slight spoilers follow.

Far in the future, people live amongst the wreckage of advanced civilizations, surrounded by technology they don’t understand. When invaders from the north threaten Viriconium, the titular Pastel City, tegus-Cromis must reassemble his old crew of heroes, save the city, and face a strange race newly awakened from Earth’s past.

Harrison originally imagined his Viriconium series to be a reaction against some of the more popular fantasy at the time, like Tolkien’s works. This is more obvious in the later books, but there’s still traces of that here, despite the cliché plot. tegus-Cromis, is an older, jaded man who doesn’t even stick around for the final battle. The dwarf character isn’t a member of a separate race but is an actual dwarf like Tyrion from A Song of Ice and Fire. And those expecting intricate world-building will end up disappointed. Although it’s not outright contradictory, like in the later Viriconium works, Harrison’s far future fantasy has a murky history, murky geography, and murky, well, everything.

Despite being his second published novel, Harrison’s prose pyrotechnics are on full display here. The writing is stunning, ornate and dense with metaphor. Honestly, most of the time it felt like I continued reading more for the sheer beauty of the language than for the plot or for the characters (who are, for the most part, puddle-deep)

It’s a decent book, one that definitely revealed Harrison’s potential back when it was first published, but next to the later Viriconium books, it seems slight and uneven. That said, it’s still worth reading, especially for the way the later books riff on the characters and themes presented here.

Why I Love and Hate Gene Wolfe (Some Thoughts on The Best of Gene Wolfe)

I want to start this by saying that Gene Wolfe is one of my favorite authors. He was one of the best, most inventive prose writers of his time, irrespective of genre or field, with a thematic depth rarely seen. The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Book of the New Sun rank among my favorite books ever.

And yet… his writing can infuriate me. You see, Wolfe typically writes “puzzles.” I’ve found these often take the form of stories using a more extreme form of “iceberg theory” (an idea by Hemingway that by omitting certain events or information, a writer can strengthen a story) or have a surface story with a narrator who does not realize what is really happening around them.

Usually these stories improve with each reread (Wolfe even set out to do this–in a letter, he wrote, “My definition of a great story has nothing to do with ‘a varied and interesting background.’ It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.”) However, my peeve with his work is that in practice the first read can feel like an inscrutable slog and it only becomes enjoyable after a second or third (or fourth or fifth…) read, an issue arguably more prevalent in his short stories.

Which brings me to The Best of Gene Wolfe, a selection of stories chosen by Wolfe (with one exception) in chronological order.

Featured are some of Wolfe’s classic stories from the 70s, like “The Doctor of Death Island and Other Stories”, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (the novella), and “The Death of Doctor Island”. I think those three show him at his best in the short form, for the simple reason that you can come away from your first read feeling like you’ve gotten your money’s worth. Sure, there might be a few unresolved plot points, some ambiguous images, but they provide satisfying experiences.

However, the same cannot be said about some of the other pieces, like the odd “Game in the Pope’s Head” or the surreal short “On the Train,” both of which Wolfe probably enjoyed writing far more than most people have reading them. (In both cases, rereads improved my understanding significantly, though not my enjoyment.) In some stories, like “Kevin Malone” and “Redbeard”, a first read had me mystified but certain Wolfe had laid an intricate but worthwhile trap, while a second read through left me feeling the pieces were simply banal.

Part of the issue is that in a difficult novel, it’s easier to just let the waves crash over you, so to speak. Let the mysteries intrigue you, marvel at the poetic density and verbal ingenuity of the prose, and just go along for the ride. No one has completely understood Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Book of the New Sun after one read (potentially, no one has ever completely understood them), but that hasn’t stopped many readers from appreciating them after completing them a single time. With shorter works, it’s different. It’s harder to lose yourself in a five-page story. It’s harder to not have enjoyment hinge on understanding. And it’s harder to lay out a worthwhile puzzle. You don’t want to have readers invest time into solving the mystery only to feel leave them with a solution not worth the time and effort.

That said, I did really enjoy this collection. The great stories (including a few that rank among Wolfe’s best work, up there with New Sun) far outnumber the disappointing ones. And it’s still Wolfe. Mediocre work by him is still mostly better than what many others can put out. Perhaps the lesser works here bother me precisely because it is Wolfe: I expect more from him, so that even when he arguably surpasses other writers, he is still disappointing.

Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

A few weeks ago I reviewed Samuel R. Delany’s enigmatic book, The Einstein Intersection. Today, I’m going over another one of his New Wave novels–no, not Dhalgren (though that will appear on here eventually)–but Babel-17. Written when he was just 23 years old, it tied with Flowers for Algernon for Best Novel at the Nebulas in 1967.

Even at a young age, Delany writes incredibly beautiful prose. True, it can be a bit dense, but it also reads like pure poetry and any effort on the reader’s part is well worth it.

The premise is that far in the future, during an interstellar war, Earth’s side begins to pick up bizarre radio signals during attacks. They christen this code, or language, Babel-17, and enlist a genius poet/linguist to crack it. Along the way, she gets an oddball crew of her own to pilot a ship to help her in her quest to solve the mystery.

The problem is just how interesting this world is. Between ghosts, poetry, people genetically modified to resemble dragons, and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, the world is brimming with life, but at only 180 pages, there’s inadequate time to fully explore everything. I also was a little disappointed with the ending, but for the exact opposite reason. Delaney explains everything about Babel-17 and the attacks and–it’s a bit anti-climatic. A part of me feels like it would have been much better had Delany left a bit more mystery there.

But Babel-17 is still a hell of a read. It confirmed Delany as one of my favorite writers. It’s not perfect, but it is a great book.

Book Review: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

The New Wave movement in science fiction was an attempt at composing more “literary” genre books: less escapism, more beautiful writing and deep themes. Writers associated with this include Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and many others. Among them, one of the most prominent was also one of the youngest: Samuel R. Delany, who won a Nebula award for best novel when he was only 24. In these earlyish works, his prose reads like pure poetry and the ideas behind his books are incredibly thought provoking. “Babel-17,” the book that won the award, explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language effects how we think and express ourselves. His follow up, published just a year later, would win him a second Nebula.

“The Einstein Intersection” is the New Wave at the New Waviest. It’s the story of aliens who have come to live on Earth and live out humanity’s myths. The main plot follows a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but there are also biblical hints of Jesus, the Minotaur, and contemporary figures who presumably got myth status in the future (like Ringo Starr). Preceding each chapter are quotes from philosophers and occasional passages from Delany’s journal as he wrote this.

My only reservation about this is the length. It’s more novella than novel with around 140 pages. It’s incredible just how much Delany can get out of that few pages but I would have liked to see more of the interesting world he built, with three genders, dragon wranglers, genetic mutations, and, of course, the myths.

Fans of light, adventurous science fiction will probably not like this. There are a few action scenes but they are never the focus. Upon a first read, most people will probably be confused at a number of parts, especially the ending. When it first came out and garnered acclaim, there was a fair amount of backlash labeling it “pretentious literary nonsense” (and other New Wave books as well). Even at his most tame, Delany is still controversial (and this is fairly tame Delany. His later works are…pornographic).

Though I cannot bring myself to recommend this to everyone, if you’re intrigued by the premise, check it out.