Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Review: The Floating Gods

Book Review: 'The Floating Gods' by M. John Harrison

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Floating Gods’ (159 pp, Pocket Books / Timescape,1983, cover artwork by Michael Whelan) is the third and concluding volume in the ‘Viriconium’ trilogy, with ‘The Pastel City’ (1971) and ‘A Storm of Wings’ (1980) being the first and second volumes, respectively. Like the other volumes, it can be read as a standalone entry.

Somewhat confusingly, ‘The Floating Gods’ was first released in the UK in 1982, albeit under the title ‘In Viriconium’.

[You’re probably better off buying the omnibus trade paperback ‘Viriconium’ (Bantam Spectra, 2005) if you want to avoid duplication of effort in terms of getting all the Viriconium material in one convenient volume.]

The plot of ‘The Floating Gods’ is comparatively simple and straightforward: a plague of entropy has seeped into the Low City quarter of Viriconium, bringing in its wake consumption, an enervating atmosphere, and the decay of the neighborhood infrastructure.

The presence of the plague seems to be associated with the arrival in the Low City of two gods, the ‘Barley brothers’  Gog and Matey. The appearance and behavior of these two individuals is anything but godlike; they are crude boors, with disgusting habits, who do little more than drink, vomit on the cobblestones, and quarrel while the citizens of Viriconium look on in bewilderment.

The main character is a young artist named Ashlyme, who, from his home in the High City, looks on with alarm at the inexorable spread of the plague. His close friend, the celebrated artist Audsley King, has become ill with tuberculosis, and lives in her Low City home as a recluse. Other artists and writers in Ashlyme’s circle share his alarm at King’s debilitated state, but having become themselves affected by the entropy in the Low City, can only come up with vague plans and recommendations for saving their friend.

As the plague, and Audsley King’s condition, worsen, Ashlyme finds himself perhaps the only man in Viriconium with enough willpower to confront the source of the plague, and rescue his friends from dissolution and death. But first he must confront the dwarf who serves as the Barley Brother’s enforcer, the impulsive, and homicidal, ‘Grand Cairo’……

I suspect that most fantasy-fiction readers under the age of 30 will find ‘The Floating Gods’ to be a tedious, even boring, novelette. 

It has no Grand Quests, no epic battles to save the Realm from Dark Forces, no armies of vampires advancing on unsuspecting cities, and no glittering artifacts upon which the fate of the world precariously depends. Instead, ‘Floating’ is primarily a character-driven narrative, with a circumscribed setting and and measured pace.

But I think that those who persevere with ‘Floating’ will find that in some ways it is a gem of a book. Harrison’s writing is figurative, and in many ways a part of the New Wave movement, but his use of this style of writing is substantially more skillful than many other authors who have attempted the same approach.

Harrison writes the descriptive passage excerpted below with a judicious use of metaphors, and just enough adjectives to give the reader the melancholy picture of a neighborhood beset with entropy:

…….Strange old towers rose from a wooded slope clasped in a curved arm of the derelict pleasure canal. About their feet clustered the peeling villas of a vanished middle class, all plaster mouldings, split steps, tottering porticos and drains smelling of cats. Ashlyme trudged up the hill. A bell clanged high up in a house; a face moved at a window. The wind whirled dust and dead leaves around him. 

Thus it is that for the quality of its writing, rather than the subdued nature of its plot, I recommend ‘The Floating Gods.’

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