The Timeless City of Evil

by Arthur B

Arthur raves about The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss.
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Science fantasy in an urban setting seems to be something which becomes fashionable every twenty-five to thirty years or so. Those who are blown away by the apparent originality of China Mieville's New Crobuzon or Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris stories may be surprised to see very similar themes expressed in the 1970s, both in M. John Harrison's tales of Viriconium and in Brian Aldiss's creation of Malacia, setting of The Malacia Tapestry.

Malacia is a city-state of Renaissance Italy which is two million years old (at least) and exists thousands of years in our future. Its citizens trace their roots to civilisations immeasurably older. The people inhabiting it, despite resembling human beings in every way, are descended from dinosaurs, although rumours persist that some people out there are descended from apes. Winged people and satyrs walk the streets. The Higher Religion of the priests and monks cloistered away in the cathedrals is closely intertwined with the Natural Religion of the magicians who dispense curses and prophecies from their burning altars in the streets. The city is defended from regular sieges by the Ottoman Turks by hydrogen balloons, cannons, and dinosaurs. This bizarre situation persists because of the Original Curse, that the city may never change, which is upheld and defended by the Supreme Council. Despite little changes slipping in here and there - such as hot air balloons and phonographs - it's difficult to bring about social change. The recent discovery of photography might just change that.

In the hands of a lesser author this mad grab-bag of anachronisms would look suitably anachronistic, but Aldiss does an excellent job of making us believe in Malacia. The stranger elements of the setting are introduced to us drip by drip, until by the end everything seems to fit together perfectly naturally. Similarly, as we continue to read we cannot help but find more and more that is wrong and disturbing about Malacia; the coexistence of dinosaurs, Ottomans, a still-thriving Byzantium, phonographs and photography in the same world suggests that the Curse of Malacia has had a strange effect on the entire world. With the Supreme Council devoted to perpetuating the social inequalities that exist in it, there is little to no hope for the poor of Malacia except for the rebellious Progressives who would overthrow the Council and shatter the Curse.

You would assume that the novel would focus on the efforts of a heroic Progressive, but you'd be wrong. Our hero is Perian de Chirolo, struggling actor and rake. Young, carefree, and surrounded by young and carefree friends, de Chirolo has little time to object to the status quo (despite his lowly place in it) and therefore gives it little thought. The bulk of this novel is an intensive character study of de Chirolo, painting a picture of an arrogant, manipulative, womanising fop who treats people like shit and then blames them rather than himself when he comes out the worse for it. De Chirolo falls hopelessly in love with Armida, the young daughter of the powerful Hoytola family, and hopes to advance in society through a relationship with her. This doesn't stop him from attempting to seduce any woman he ends up talking to. His similarly-disposed friend Guy eggs him on through all this, and everything seems stacked against Perian ever changing. Perian is Malacia in microcosm: satisfied with his nature, unwilling to change it, and corrupt to the core. The remainder of the novel shows us how a shattering experience causes him to change. It is through this change that we, at last, see a glimmer of hope for Malacia as a whole.

I don't know why this book wasn't massive, because it's a truly excellent work. Perhaps it was an unpopular message that real-life progressives didn't want to hear in 1976: the idea that carefree, frivolous youth could somehow be damaging to the cause of progress - and, in fact, play into the hands of the status quo - would surely have stung in the wake of the collapse of the 60s protest movements into irrelevance. Nonetheless, Malacia is excellent, and deserves to take its place in that exalted pantheon alongside Ambergris and Viriconium, heights which Mieville's New Crobuzon has yet to reach despite its popularity.
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Comments (go to latest)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 23:40 on 2010-03-04
Not sure if this is the right place, but congrats Arthur: you've finally convinced me to start reading Brian Aldiss.

Right now I've just started on HARM, which is either the tender story of a British Muslim being tortured by an Orwellian Anglo-American security service or a thrilling adventure of a mildly insane man on a decayed space-opera colony planet. Or possibly both.

I've also been flipping through Trillion Year Spree, which I still think is one of the best histories of SF money can buy, despite the fact that it ends in 1986.
Arthur B at 00:58 on 2010-03-05
Well, have a care, the very next Aldiss I read I didn't like at all.

Though I will check out HARM and Trillion Year Spree if you think they're worthwhile...
Niall at 09:49 on 2010-03-05
HARM and Trillion Year Spree are indeed both smashing, as far as I'm concerned. Very much looking forward to the reissue of the Helliconia trilogy (which I've never read) later this year.
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