It's not often that I read a book and decide on the talent of the writer within the first few pages, but that is precisely what happened by page ten of The Pastel City.
I came to M. John Harrison through the circuitous route of China Mieville's List of 50 Books Every Socialist Should Read, and each of the many writers I have met for the first time through that list or revisited because of that list have impressed. Thus I was sure I would like Harrison. And like him I do. I decided by page ten that I liked him, and by the time I reached the end of The Pastel City my like became love.
He can write and write well. I was instantly captivated by his perfectly realized descriptions. Not too sparse, not too heavy, just right. Those descriptions, however, were just preparing me for his gripping characterisations. Lord tegeus-Cromis appears, and he is instantly engaging. I've never met a character who captured my imagination so quickly. The swordsman who fancies himself a better poet than fighter, the lover of exotic musical instruments, the denizen of a lofty tower who covets his isolation, he is a man I loved immediately and that love never waned.
So Harrison's writerly talents were more than enough for me to walk away loving him and his novella, but his skill as a creator thrusts him into a rarified place in my personal canon of greats. I think, perhaps, that I witnessed the birth of steampunk in The Pastel City. It sure felt like steampunk to me, albeit steampunk wrapped up in post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi. There is the inexplicable tech -- the clockwork birds and the geteit chemosit (the shadow, brain removing troops of a distant culture) -- there is the mixture of swords and science, there are towers and cities and wastelands. Some may say this is more strictly a post-post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi, but surely the kernel of Steampunk is present in Harrison's early work, as much as is present in Tim Powers' early work (and many consider Mr. Powers the original Steampunk writer). I don't think it is my imagination that Viriconium feels so much like Ambergris or that Tomb the Dwarf's exoskeleton feels like something straight out of a Bas Lag novel or that the mood and tone reflects the work of Stevenson then Moorcock then Hunt then et cetera. I think M. John Harrison is the unsung father of early Steampunk.
Whether that is true or not, however, he is an excellent writer, and his work deserves a serious audience. Why aren't we reading and teaching this man? It is a wonder that we're not.
Great writer? ✓
Genre progenitor? ✓
Intensely creative? ✓
Want to read more? ✓
Lots of love? ✓
5 Stars? ✓