This is fantasy by way of Thomas Bernhard's Frost. The stories are masterfully written and terribly, terribly, demotivating. After finishing each 50 to 200 page story, I just wanted to lie down and take a nap, and gather strength for a couple of days before continuing on. The setting is completely burnt out and exhausted, both ecologically and spiritually. Insanity is just as much of a problem as pillaging barbarians from the Wastes. Everything has been tried before and failed. People occasionally find future-tech artifacts in the cold deserts that have been poisoned with heavy metals, but these machines work for a while, before breaking down, or malfunctioning, or going quietly insane. Mostly the artifacts can't be understood, and the last person who could understand their CRT screens died or went mad a thousand years ago. Farms are planted and then abandoned. Fleets are launched and founder in the ice and fog. Towns and cities disintegrate from madness, from cancerous memories, from alien dreams, from wandering fogs of entropy that infect the space-time. In 450 pages, there is approximately one healthy or warm relationship.
Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan. After the first 200 pages, I thought it was depressing but still quite good. After the first 450 pages, I just didn't see any reason to keep reading it, and I quit reading with ~50 pages to go. That is not a good sign, when the reader's motivation has been so depleted that they drop out after going that far. It's almost worse than dropping out after the first 20 pages, at least then you might have simply misjudged the book. If nothing else it did make me think why I disliked this (and _Frost_), but liked seemingly similar things like _The Road_ or _In the Valley of the Kings_. I think one reason is that while Viriconium is well written, it is also over-written. There is a ton of sensory description, which slows down the plot, and all of the description is depressing. So rather than being fast & sharp & negative, this is slow and muddied and negative, and wallows and circles over the same ground over and over. Where Valley of the Kings has the infinite void of space, layers of deeper blackness within a tomb, and a single word of madness, all in a few dozen pages, Viriconium has hypochondriac art critics, retarded kids and dumb farmers, backwards and dirty nobility living among glowing machines they will never understand, scrawled across hundreds of pages. The word choices are perhaps also not that great. The author went deep into the thesaurus, and on some pages there are a half-dozen words that I don't know the meaning of. And ok, that is unusual at this point in my life, and new words, yay, that should be good? But then I also have to think that well, if I haven't seen this word before in 35 years, what exactly are the odds that I am going to see that word again before I die? And did it really add anything to the novel to pick a series of almost entirely unknown words to describe a scene? Sorry gamboge, bullace, and pthsis. The above problems are compounded by the plotting/character choices. The book is a collection of stories, and each story is populated with different characters. However, the characters do have large overlaps, and they are frequently alternate-reality versions of the characters in the previous stories, or similar characters 300 years later, or various fun house mirrors of the characters that came before. This starts to wear after a while; it feels less like 10 separate stories and more like the same morose story told 10 times.
Anyway. The stories have moments of brilliance, but these are gradually snuffed out by slow, unrelentingly waves of depressing prose.
I would like to give some belated credit to one of the ideas in Viriconium that I come back to with some regularity. In one of the stories, a whole cohort of people stored in suspended animation are brought back to life. These are people from a far advanced technological state, and are returned to a world that is utterly broken and winding down. And the tech-people go slowly crazy? Not so much from sadness, but more from an inability to map the ontologies of their old life onto the new world, and by the ghosts of their old agendas which crowd out the new world around them. I get that! I can imagine trying to explain some of the ideologies and conflicts of today to someone from 200 years ago, things like the EFF or Snowden or all the emotions over GamerGate. And you can just imagine what it will be like once we are 50 or 100 years further into the noosphere, with AR and VR and who knows what other sensorium. The difficulty and strangeness of translating that back to a medieval farmer is excellently captured in Viriconium. Edit 2: 7-11-2016
Crap. Not one month later, and I see the word "Phthisis" in a video game. Also, on further thought I probably could explain all of the above issues to someone from 200 years ago. Though I still stand by the point that future issues related to computers, AR, and VR would not be so easily explainable. Edit 2: 6-1-2020
Yep again. After seeing so many people driven insane by Twitter, I can definitely believe that they would not transition well to a medieval society.