The Pastel City by M John Harrison

By way of introductory remarks, I would like to state that in the days since finishing M John Harrison’s The Pastel City, I have struggled with my feelings as to this book like most people struggle with whether to get a fourth plate at the all you can eat buffet.

So much so that I don’t know where to start.

At the buffet I start by getting a fourth plate and wondering if it was a good idea when I get my fifth. In a similar ‘don’t think just do it’ approach, let me start by giving you the premise of The Pastel City. Said pastel city, Viriconium, is the hub of a dying empire in a wasteland of forgotten technology that has enemies that would like to speed up the process. Opposing said enemies are a group of former heroes come out of retirement.

So far, so familiar. The plot is a common one, the characters archetypal with little history or internal conflict. The setting must have felt something in its time, but by now it’s reached me after far too many Games Workshop games and other post-technology works. Indeed, part of what puzzles me about The Pastel City is just how generic a lot of it.

And yet so much of it isn’t. Harrison’s prose, full of garish imagery and repeated phrases, is a strange mix of things, with the effect being something like JG Ballard pastiching Tolkien. It is by turns literary and stark, and it drives a plot that boils down what could have been a giant doorstopper into the bare essentials. One day I will learn why they loved to do that in the 60s and 70s, but for now it’s a style that tugs powerfully at my mind.

Not quite powerfully enough for me not to notice it’s a very predictable plot. The mission to stop the enemy is not straight forwards given the presence of killer robots, and mysterious warnings are given and strangers’ aid sought, but I saw most of the beats coming from a good distance. How much does that matter? Perhaps not that much, but it’s usually a very good sign I’m not fully engaged. I mildly want to protest that, but only mildly.

I believe Harrison was aiming for an alienating, unfamiliar, genre-resetting tone with The Pastel City (and everything else he wrote). I believe he achieved the first and didn’t achieve the third, and in both cases at cost to his story. Yet for all that, there is something still lodged in my head that won’t leave, which is always a magnificent outcome for fiction.

All I can really say in conclusion then is to read it and make up your own mind; or read it and don’t, just like I have.

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