Friday, April 13, 2012

The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

It wasn’t easy to find a copy of The Pastel City by M. John Harrison, considering that it was first published in 1971 this wasn’t all that surprising. I did manage to get one, but it made me wonder why if it was considered a must-read book in the genre why was it so hard to get? I also hadn’t heard of the author or the work, but I’ve had some recent good luck (Ken Grimwood’s Replay) on that front with the list recently. Maybe The Pastel City would be another diamond in the rough.

I’m not sure where the quote on the front came from, it may have been a review, but there was no source cited, possibly the publisher came up with it. It proudly proclaims ‘The best fantasy since Dune.’ I suppose I should give them point for not referencing Lord of the Rings, but I’ve always considered Dune a sci-fi novel and Dune is a whacking thick book, The Pastel City at 144 pages barely qualifies as a novella.

It’s part of the Dying Earth milieu. The Pastel City is an important city in the remnants of a once technologically advanced society. As with some of the other books in the list I found myself question it’s fantasy qualifications. The world of Viriconium may or may not be a future Earth, that’s never made clear, and there is a dwarf, but again it’s not clear if he’s part of a magical race or he’s the way he is due to a medical condition. He does have an affinity with metal, so it may have been the former and Harrison was using him to poke fun at the genre.

The story is very basic, the protagonists, who come across as stock standard sword and sorcery clichés wandering across the bleak and blasted landscape, spend their time arguing, philosophising and fighting. Most of the time they don’t even know why they’re fighting, it’s just what they do.

Harrison is a great user of language and his prose is undeniably beautiful, especially when he’s describing the landscape down to the tiniest detail. However I also like to see a tightly written plot and strongly defined characters and I didn’t get that with The Pastel City.

The characters for the most part, like the main characters in Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, from which Harrison could have drawn inspiration, were largely interchangeable and fairly shallow. The only one I could tell apart clearly was Tomb the Dwarf, and that was largely because he was nearly always referred to as a dwarf, plus Tomb is a pretty cool fantasy name.

The book was short, which was good, because I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much more time reading it. It and the author were both highly recommended in the list, so it’s a shame it didn’t connect with me. Maybe it wasn’t the right work to get a real feel for how talented M. John Harrison is. Later works that also have as their setting a world that has been significantly altered by technology that has either disappeared or created a disaster are Terry Brooks Shannara series, I believe the later books actually explore the events that led up to the creation of the Tolkienesque world readers first encountered in The Sword of Shannara. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books also make references to a technologically advanced society and characters occasionally encounter remnants of that civilisation. Mark Lawrence’s debut Prince of Thorns is set in a future Earth that has been altered forever by a nuclear catastrophe. The Pastel City may in part be inspired by Jack Vance’s Dying Earth concept, but not having ever read Vance I can’t really give any recommendations there.


  1. It's such a tragedy that so much of these older works are out of print and impossible to find. I'd found The Pastel City in a MJH collection called Viriconium that was published about 8 years ago. Sadly, it's probably out of print now too. :(

    I too read The Pastel City before reading any Jack Vance, so not only did I have no idea what "in the Dying Earth style" meant, but when I did finally get to read some Vance (also, woefully difficult to find), I thought to myself "this is like M John Harrison!" No silly, it's the other way around!

    i don't know what to tell you about The Pastel City. the writing is pretty, the metaphors are interesting, the characters are neat, but man, it is a chore to slog through all that dense writing that doesn't seem to go anywhere! if a coherent plot is what you're after, Harrison might not be the guy for you. He's all about the surreal and weird.

  2. It is a tragedy that so many classic works are now hard to find, and with epublishing it really shouldn't be the case. I had the same problem with Gaskell's work as well.
    Sometimes I find authors that I wasn't previously aware of on the list and really like them, other times not so much. If The Pastel City is representative of Harrison's work he's unlikely to an author I'd look for. I don't mind surreal and weird, but The Pastel City didn't even really have that.