Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Book Review: The Pastel City

Book Review: 'The Pastel City' by M. John Harrison
5 / 5 Stars

I remember picking up the Avon Books 1976 paperback edition of The Pastel City back when it first was published. It stood out from the other paperbacks on the shelves of Gordon's Cigar Store due to its unusual green color scheme (historically US paperback publishers shied from using green as they considered it a 'slow selling' color) and the outstanding cover illustration by the well-known artist Grey Morrow.

At 157 pp, The Pastel City was a quick, but very rewarding, read. At the time I thought it was one of the best sf novel's I'd ever read.

In 1976 there was no such thing as the internet, nor Google, so I had no real idea of who Michael John Harrison was, or that The Pastel City was his first novel, released in the UK in 1971 by the New English Library with yet another fine cover illustration, this one by Bruce Pennington. 

Over the years I've read additional works by Harrison, including the other volumes in the 'Viriconium' series, as well as his short stories (of which Running Down and The New Rays are among the best).

But upon re-reading The Pastel City several times over the intervening years, and most recently just a few days ago, I remain firm in my belief that this novel is one of the best sf novels ever, and a good candidate for the best sf novel of the 1970s.

The plot and setting of the novel also have well stood the test of time. Harrison used a straightforward plot for The Pastel City: when an army of barbarians descend into the Southlands on a mission of conquest, a group of aristocrats, known as the Methven, and led by swordsman and poet Lord tegeus-Cromis, band together and fight for the existence of their Queen and the fate of the Pastel City, Viriconium.

Their efforts are complicated by a sinister development: the barbarians have resurrected a long-buried technology and pressed it into their service. But such weapons have the unpleasant habit of eventually turning on their owners...........

There are any number of things that make The Pastel City stand out. One is its inventive use of metaphors, similes, and poetic phrases. At the time the book first was published such things were becoming part and parcel of the New Wave movement, and their appearance in sf novels was by no means unusual.

However, unlike so many instances when metaphor and simile and 'purple' prose came across as obtuse and self-indulgent for too many authors, Harrison employs them with care and deliberation, and the result is that the prose in The Pastel City stands as a fine example of how the stylistic ideologies of the New Wave era could be used in rewarding manner.

The concept of Entropy in its broadest sense was very much in fashion during the early years of the New Wave movement and unsurprisingly Harrison incorporates it into The Pastel City

But again, where many sf authors, like Brian Aldiss, sought to mimic J. G. Ballard in their treatment of entropy, often with underwhelming results, Harrison is much more thoughtful in evoking the theme within the pages of his novel, using descriptive passages to imbue The Pastel City with sensibility that recalls, but does not copy, Ballard.

Summing up, The Pastel City showcases the best aspects of the New Wave movement and stands the test of time as a great sf novel. This is a book that belongs on everyone's shelf.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you. I read it not too long after it came out and I still go back to it every few years. He's also written some other great things. The 'Light' trilogy although a little confusing at times is well worth the time the reader puts into it.


Abraxas said...

A masterpiece of sf by a true artisan of prose.