A city can be said to exist as much in the minds of its residents as it does in any geographical reality. Too expansive and complex for any one person to comprehend in its entirety, such is true of virtually any metropolis in the world today.
The social psychology of cities is one of the themes explored in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium stories; three novels and various short stories all set in or around the titular city. Another such theme is the subversion of a trope of fantasy fiction: secondary world-building, what Harrison himself memorably referred to as “the clomping foot of nerdism”. That is, the desire to map and categorise a fictional place: to cram into an appendix banal detail on the cultural customs of a made-up nation in a made-up world, to invent the language of elves or klingons, or to calculate the number of personnel required to man an Imperial Star Destroyer. Such concerns are by a long way secondary to the construction of story, but have often been elevated to great prominence thanks to a nerdish desire to catalogue, define and contain. So the argument goes.
I mention all of this because my early hours with The Old City: Leviathan brought it flooding back. First: Viriconium, a fictional city I’ve always found fascinating because it is simultaneously a cipher, a source of reflexive fiction, and the context in which some wonderful stories have been told. To remind me of that is high praise in my book. Second: the ineffable qualities of cities, such as the eponymous Old City – so old and so central that it becomes the only city. Thirdly: that the clomping foot of nerdism is the enemy of magic and mystery. What wonder remains when everything is explained to you in dry, tedious detail? That certainly does not happen here.