Tag Archives: China Mieville

The City and the City, China Mieville

<em class="BookTitle">The City and the City</em>, China Mieville

Del Rey, 2009, 312 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-49751-2

Every China Miéville novel is an experience, but I don’t think I was expecting what I got from his latest The City and the City. For the book answers one question that I’ve been reluctant to ask: Is it possible to enjoy a novel during which disbelief is never suspended?

Funny thing, disbelief: While we can probably agree that fiction should strive to represent the human condition as best as it possibly can, those ideals of realism quickly seem to go flying out of the window once we’re dealing with speculative fiction.  After all, suspension of disbelief becomes a necessity and a prerequisite to get any enjoyment out of stories set knee-deep in aliens, elves and blood-sucking fiends from other dimensions.  Not that SF/Fantasy elements are the only thing that require disbelief: In recent years, I have found myself increasingly unable to get into stories with strong libertarian or even right-wing worldviews: Once I start muttering “It doesn’t work like that!”, it’s hard to follow without nit-picking everything in sight.  But while SF readers have long been conditioned to accept whatever premises authors require of them for the rest of the story, what happens when the premise can never be accepted?

So it is that The City and the City first appears to be a standard murder mystery: A woman’s body has been discovered, and it’s up to our hero to puzzle out the events leading to her murder.  Soon enough, though, we get to realize that this isn’t a simple mystery: Our protagonist is not living in one city, but a city that is intermingled with another one, each with separate zones that can be accessed though controlled entry points.  Different languages, different cultures and different laws: Citizens of the two cities are trained from the youngest age to consciously ignore each other until they become blind to the other city.

I’m not doing the concept any justice by stating it as blandly as this, but you can probably see the problems already.  Suffice to say that throughout The City and The City, I kept repeating to myself that this concept was nonsense, that it wouldn’t work like that, that it had more holes than a screen door, and so on.  I won’t even try a pitiful “…but Miéville makes it work!” because frankly, it never worked for me.  Not one single page.  I kept imagining kids leaping over fences, teens sneaking behind bushes, businessmen complaining about inefficiencies and governments slapping down this nonsense.

(Which doesn’t mean that I dislike the idea, or refuse to acknowledge its grain of truth: I suspect that my mental map of cities is very different from others: My downtown is linked between bookstores, Subway restaurants, bus stops and smart shortcuts, whereas even a close friend’s downtown may be riddled by clothing stores, McDonald’s, parking spots and other things I may not care for.  How often, after all, do you walk down a familiar street and suddenly “discover” a building, store or detail that you had neglected for so long?)

And yet, I found a lot to like about The City and the City.  Its lead character is a likable hero, even though his narrative arc is intensely predictable once the mysteries of his universe are revealed.  More importantly, it features perhaps Miéville’s most accessible prose so far: While I have fond memories of the baroque storytelling of his debut Perdido Street Station, The City and the City benefits from mean and lean thriller storytelling, with a stripped-down style that paradoxically hints at Miéville’s growth as a writer.  It’s quite a bit different from anything he has written before, and that too is quite an accomplishment.

It amounts to a very strange, uniquely challenging reading experience quite unlike any other.  I may not completely appreciate what Miéville was trying to do with this novel, but I can’t say I’m displeased to have read it despite never completely accepting the reality of its imagination.  If this is a failure, it’s such an interesting one that it barely counts as a problem.  My disbelief wasn’t suspended, but any hasty judgement certainly was.

Looking for Jake, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2005, 303 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-345-47607-7

After the highly atypical success of Perdido Street Station and the two subsequent “Bas-Lag” novels, China Miéville now has a short-story collection on the shelves: Looking for Jake. Unlike other authors with drawers full of short fiction, this collection took a fair time to assemble because of the scarcity of material to reprint: Miéville is a long-distance writer, and his predilection for writing long means that his short-story output has been comparatively slight, and late in coming: Of the 14 stories in Looking for Jake, only two date from before Perdido Street Station. This anthology will allow readers to answer an interesting question: We know that Miéville can write novels, but is he as good with his short stories?

At first, the answer is reassuring. Cherry-picking the collection for its best material, one quickly settle on a few noteworthy short stories. “Reports of Certain Events in London” is a natural choice, given how it was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award. Much like most of the other tales in the volume, it features unusual storytelling (a writer named “China Miéville” telling us about a package mistakenly received) and an original idea (migratory street-fighting!). “Foundations” tells us about buildings thirsting for sacrifice, with a political twist. “Go Between” is about a man asked to bring things (discovered in the strangest yet most ordinary locations) to other places, with no idea what or who he’s working for and even less of an idea if his work (or refusal to work) is doing anything at all; a fine tale well-told. “The Ball Room” packs a mean chill as a horror story told from within an IKEA-like store, though you’ll have to squint at the table of contents to discover that it was co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer.

Clearly, Looking for Jake shows that Miéville, for all of his critical acclaim, remains a horror storyteller first and foremost. “The Tain” and the title story may be exquisitely written, but they remain post-apocalyptic stories with mean beasties lurking in the background. (In “The Tain”, as the title suggests, mirror reflexions take over “our world”. The scene revealing the idea is deliciously shocking.) I may not have cared too much for “Familiar”, but it features plenty of gruesome and grotesque content. Miéville even allows himself some faint Lovecraftian overtones of someone who has clearly Seen Too Much in “Details”. Unwelcome vision also plays a part in “Different Skies”, which brings to mind a riff on the classic “Slow Glass” concept.

But there isn’t just horror in Looking for Jake: Miéville is a funny fellow in conversation, and so a few humorous stories pepper the anthology. The most obvious of them is “’tis the Season”, a holiday tale (first published in no less a venue than Socialist Review) set in a future where Christmas™ is only available to those with the means to license it. “Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia” re-prints Miéville contribution to the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases: It’s impossible to summarize, but it’s both spooky and hilarious. “Jack” may not be a funny story, but it’s a fine nod toward fans of the Bas-Lag universe, with a twist. “An End to Hunger” is a dot-com tale halfway between humour and horror, though its overall impact is muted.

Not that it’s the only misfire in the collection. Tastes will differ, but I myself couldn’t make myself care for “Familiar”, “Details” nor “Different Skies.” I still can’t make much sense of “On the Way to the Front”, a short graphic short story (with illustrations by Liam Sharp) that’s heavy on mood but light on meaning. In the same vein, a number of stories bury their central idea in too much distraction, with “The Tain” being perhaps the most obvious example.

On the other hand, “The Tain” is the story with the best characterization, which is no accident given how it’s three times as long as the other stories. Miéville’s talent for well-written invention shines through his short stories, but it’s obvious that he needs the space offered by a novel to develop his visions. Still, Looking for Jake offers plenty of thrills for Miéville fans, and plenty of chills for all readers. In fact, it’s a decent introduction to his work for harried readers without the time to read any of his massive novels. The writing is good (if not exactly tight) and the ideas are there. It’ll probably take five years before Miéville writes enough short stories to fill another collection, but Looking for Jake will do until then.

King Rat, China Mieville

Tor, 1998, 318 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-89072-9

Quick: Name China Miéville’s first novel.

No, it’s not Perdido Street Station. Miéville may have stormed the world of fantasy with his first Bas-Lag novel, but his true first novel was an urban fantasy novel set in London. Before becoming a Hugo-nominated, world-renowned literary superstar, Miéville wrote King Rat.

I won’t try to be one of those snotty critics disdainfully pointing out that an obscure first work of a famous artist is totally better than the big hit that made him known to the mainstream (assorted with a contemptuous mention of how said artist “sold out”). King Rat isn’t up to Perdido Street Station‘s level of ambition and accomplishment. The prose is leaner, the characters are simpler and the plot is more derivative. It is, in many ways, the work of a young author.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s not worth reading. While it withers in comparison to its younger, more vigorous siblings, King Rat is a perfectly serviceable example of contemporary urban fantasy, riffing off modern culture and ancient myths. Under any other name, it would be a book worth considering without unfair comparisons to the author’s other works.

It begins as a young man, Saul Garamond, comes back home to London after a weekend of camping. A confrontation with his father is narrowly averted, but worse is to come: Shortly after waking up, he discovers that his father is dead, most likely killed, and he finds himself in prison as a prime suspect. But that’s not counting on a mysterious figure called the King Rat, supernaturally springing him from jail and bringing him in London’s underground. London’s real underground. Meanwhile, drum-and-bass DJ Natasha meets a strange flutist with a keen interest in overlaying rhythms…

What gradually emerges from the story is a modern analogue to the Pied Piper fairy tale, although far more violent. There’s a war, you see, a war between the rats and the piper. Now that the story takes place in mid-nineties London, who is to say which technological advantages can change the equation? Poor Saul, stuck with serious paternity issues to solve in the middle of a city-wide fight.

There’s a lot to like about King Rat, and not the most insignificant of those is the fabulous atmosphere that Miéville gives to his semi-imaginary London. His domain is not the tourist London, or the financial or political heart of the nation. His is a London of warehouses, of sewers, of ravers and teenagers.

The novel also comes complete with some cool stuff about updating the Pied Piper myth to modern standards: Mixing in drum-and-bass music in the book’s plot is a minor stroke of genius. King Rat‘s final showpiece is the kind of thing you’d dream up after watching HELLRAISER and listening to too much Prodigy. And to think that we colonials are missing half the local references…

You can also find the book a number of the ingredients that would later make Miéville’s work such a success: Careful prose, downtrodden characters, a fascination for urban spaces and a taste for the grotesque. (A chapter ends with “The glass front of the train burst open like a vast blood-blister. The first Northern Line train of the day arrived at Mornington Crescent station and plowed to an unscheduled halt, dripping.” [P.142] Hardcore!) No one could have predicted the Bas-Lag universe from King Rat, but the points of similitude are there.

Also present, alas, are some of Miéville traditional weaknesses. As short as it is compared to his latter books, King Rat is still a bit overlong and under-plotted. The middle sections, in particular, have a hard time bridging the terrain between the intriguing opening and the dramatic conclusion. Fortunately, you won’t need a thesaurus to read the book: Miéville avoid florid touches and keeps the vocabulary appropriately close to the street.

Fans of urban fantasy shouldn’t miss this book, nor should fans of Miéville’s work in general. It’s interesting even in its problems, and may show where the author will go once he’ll close the books on the Bas-Lag universe. It’s not as successful, nor as ambitious as the tales he’s best-known for, but it’s a good choice for urban fantasy readers. For Miéville’s fans, it should already be regarded as a must-read.

Iron Council, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2004, 564 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-46402-8

Sooner or later, the law of diminishing returns always applies to any fantasy series. The point where the new world, once so shiny and so new, starts to look faded and dull. The change is usually gradual, with plenty of warning signals to stop reading while the books are still reasonably good. China Miéville’s third Bas-Lag book, Iron Council, is one such warning signal; while it’s still an impressive novel, there are signs that the Bas-Lag universe may be running out of steam.

By now, no one needs to be told about the wonders of Perdido Street Station or The Scar: With those, Miéville created a brand-new fantasy playground and used it for superlative monster tales. With Iron Council, Miéville tries something new, doesn’t completely succeed, but manages to finish the book with his reputation intact.

Simply put, Iron Council is the book where revolution comes to Bas-Lag —or more specifically to the city of New Crobuzon, arguably the central protagonist of the trilogy-so-far. In this book, New Crobuzon’s atmosphere has become actively oppressive; so much so that the citizen are openly mulling open insurrection, spurred by the promise of a legendary group of revolutionaries named the Iron Council. The Council escaped, decades earlier, by hijacking a train and leaving in the wilderness. Now, they’re ready to come back, and bring the revolution along with them.

Miéville has never been shy about his political tendencies, but neither of the first two Bas-Lag books made much of it. In Iron Council, though, he’s left free to study the roots and the mechanism of social unrest, even make it the central theme of his book. It’s a risky departure from the material in his first two books, but it works well in sending the series in another direction. At the very least, Miéville should be commended for his willingness to stretch the boundaries of his series.

Sadly, it’s an unsuccessful experiment dogged by its execution. The biggest problem with Iron Council isn’t with the quality of the prose (once again superb, though perhaps a touch too verbose) but with the way his narrative unfolds. Perdido Street Station and The Scar each depended on strong protagonists with a clear voice. Iron Council, unfortunately, struggles without a sympathetic narrative anchor. Jubal is too removed from the action and too powerful to sustain much interest. Cutter is annoying. Low-level criminal Ori shows promise, but he remains offstage for most of the novel.

Lacking a way in the heart of the story, the reader struggles through the book. There is a lengthy flashback that doesn’t quite work. The storytelling is fractured between places and time, never achieving the deliciously compulsive readability of Miéville’s previous novels. There is also a sense that the ending, while completely deliberate, betrays a lack of nerve in going to the end of the path he has made for the story. It stops in mid-track, perhaps to be elucidated in another novel.

And that’s where the law of diminishing return kicks in. For all of Miéville’s sustained imagination (the last image of the book is one that will stay with me a long time, to say nothing of the Iron Council’s initial bid for freedom), Iron Council is starting to repeat itself and betray the limits of the Bas-Lag universe as shown to the readers so far. There is less to this novel than the previous ones, and over-critical readers may see in this book the beginning of the end.

It doesn’t have to be, of course: Maybe the next novel in the series will tighten up the writing, feature a fascinating central character and meld Miéville’s political themes with a rousing story. Certainly, this may even be a minority opinion: Iron Council itself has been warmly received elsewhere, even earning a Hugo nomination. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s something missing: a little bit of fun.

The Scar, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2002, 638 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-44438-8

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about China Miéville is how he manages to delight both highbrow critics and all-average readers by writing… monster books. Despite the critical acclaim, the superb prose and the strong characterization, Miéville has built his reputation on Perdido Street Station , a monster-hunt book, and followed it with The Scar… another monster-hunt book.

Granted, lumping both books in the cheap horror genre bin is disingenuous. It fails to do justice to the craft of Miéville’s writing, the wild invention of his setting, the attention paid to his characters or the touch of humour and tension he weaves into his novels. There is nothing in common between, say, Perdido Street Station and Dean R. Koontz’s Phantoms, even if both feature nightmare-sucking giant moths. Miéville’s stuff is an odd blend of horror intrigue in a fantasy setting approached as a science-fiction world. Add to that the requisite action and adventure, and you’ve got yourself a total entertainment package.

Billed as a sequel to Perdido Street Station, The Scar is more of a subsequent story set in the same universe. It begins in the aftermath of the events of the first novel, as linguist Bellis Coldwine flees the city of New Crobuzon in fear for her life. Following the unsettling events described in Perdido Street Station, friends of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin have started disappearing as government operatives start taking far too much interest in what they might know. An ex-lover of der Grimnebulin, Coldwine decides to take matters in her own hands and flee by sea to a far-away colony. But stuff happens, her ship is boarded by pirates and she finds herself shanghaied to Armada, a floating city where she is left free… but unable to get away.

There’s more. Much more. A gigantic sea creature. A race of man-sized mosquitoes. Vampires, humanoid cactaes, remade men, spies and other horrors and marvels. Much as he did with Perdido Street Station (and, presumably, King Rat), Miéville continues to stretch the definition of urban fantasy in all sorts of directions. This time, The Scar takes place mostly at sea, bringing along plenty of echoes from other nautical adventures even as it delights in describing the inner working of a very special city made out of ships loosely tied together. New Crobuzon it ain’t, but it’s certainly a neat idea. Miéville has a skilled eye for description, and if The Scar does something surprisingly well, it’s to survive the absence of New Crobuzon (perhaps the central character of Perdido Street Station) by presenting us with another creation that’s just as fascinating.

As with all good horror stories, The Scar also features its quota of fascinating moments, from descriptions of the city to ominous hints about the monster at the bottom of the tale. If you hunger for well-written fantasy that doesn’t try to lose all of its readers along the way, this is the one.

There’s also plenty of good things to say about the characters of the novel. The anchor is, of course, dry and intellectual Bellis Coldwine, who acts as a reluctant narrator to the events of the book. While a solitary person, she also comes in contact with a number of Armada’s other inhabitants, from fellow ex-New-Crobuzoners to Armada natives. Her uncanny knack for being at the right time at the right moment isn’t entirely accidental.

If the novel has an annoyance (beyond a number of lengthy passages; skip the all-italics chapters), it’s the unconventional form taken by the ending. In some way, it flinches and shies away from the objective of the quest. In others, it depends on an arbitrary authorial decision, a decision that torments even the characters as they ask “of all the chances that this could happen…” It is potentially annoying without being too much so; you can actually read it, say “huh, neat”, be satisfied by the revealed visions of what didn’t happen and avoid disappointment. Maybe Miéville has something else in mind for one of his next books. Maybe we’ll re-visit The Scar some day.

In the meantime, there’s more than enough stuff here to keep us entertained. Miéville’s talent at writing top-notch pulp fiction is just as good here than in the novel that established him as a major writer, and few will be disappointed by this follow-up. The writing is delicious, the characters are worth our interest and the narrative is packed with fascinating asides. What are you waiting for? An excuse to flee the city?

Perdido Street Station, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2000, 710 pages, C$27.00 tpb, ISBN 0-345-44302-0

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, in part due to a feeling that it doesn’t have much to offer: locked-in traditional high fantasy is almost as rigidly defined as today’s contemporary world, and that’s a straight trip to boredom. Granted, this is less a reflection on epic fantasy than it is a reproach to the writers unwilling to re-invent a genre fatally tainted by Tolkien.

But wait! China Miéville is a writer willing to shake it up and Perdido Street Station is the novel I’ve been waiting for. A smart blend of science-fiction and fantasy in an environment quite unlike anything ever written before, this is the kind of book that leaves a deep impression on neophytes and jaded cynics alike.

Some novels are about characters and some are about stories, but this one is about a city: New Crobuzon. Set in an imaginary universe where kinds of magic work nearly as well as Victorian-era technology, New Crobuzon is a vast playground, a place where rivers converge, races commingle and all railways end at the gigantic Perdido Street Station.

One character will introduce us to the city: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an eccentric human with an insectoid girlfriend and an interest in a magical science called Crisis Theory. His reputation has already travelled some way and so one day he is accosted by a stranger, a mangled bird-man who has crossed half a world in order to be able to fly again. Helped along by a generous quantity of gold, Isaac soon finds himself tasked with re-creating the gift of flight. In a universe equally shaped by science and technology, this would seem to be an easy task. The only problem would be to pick only one method. But Isaac is more meticulous, and before long he’s collecting all types of creature in order to study how they fly, and how he may be able to re-create the effect.

If Perdido Street Station has one flaw, it’s that the early part of the novel is riddled with coincidences. Isaac’s call for creatures just happens to net him a caterpillar than just happens to feed on something that her girlfriend’s manager just happens to have when he visits, and naturally his girlfriend just happens to receive a commission from someone who may know a lot more about this situation, but then Isaac just happens to be contacted by something that just happens to know of a betrayal… and so on.

But whereas in other novels the heavy hand of authorial influence would be too obvious for comfort, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much in Perdido Street Station. This, after all, is a novel of discovery, a novel of a place rather than of plot. Not that the plot doesn’t start moving after a lengthy set-up: Pretty soon, thanks to some unfortunate events, New Crobuzon is plunged in nightmarish terror and its denizens race feverishly to find a solution. Their appeals to the lowest powers are rejected (!) and so they must appeal to an even stranger force… even as Isaac discovers an occult conspiracy he did not suspect.

The delights of this novel are many, but few are as satisfying as the gradual discovery of the city and its inhabitants. Cactus-people, automatons, terrible dream-suckers, a dimension-shifting entity called the Weaver, insect humanoids and scores of other creatures all figure in Perdido Street Station, splendidly shown by Miéville as he delights in showing off the wonder of his world. There is a lot of material in those 710 pages.

In some ways, this is like a dream setting for a role-playing game. In others, it’s a pleasure to see Miéville introduce all of these elements, then use them all in the road leading to the spectacular climax of the piece. There are striking images throughout the novel, whether it’s the description of the city, scenes where our characters travel through dimensions or when they witness, helplessly, creatures feeding on a victim’s mind.

This, by almost any measure, is a major novel. Written with skill and reasonable clarity, it cuts right to the heart of fantasy to show us an original world. Characters are well-drawn, wonders are unleashed at regular intervals. There is deep horror, unconventional twists of fate, satisfying developments and heart-breaking conclusions. Modern and classical at once, Perdido Street Station combines the technological love of SF with the possibilities of fantasy and the unnerving tension of horror to deliver an experience unlike any other. Make a place in your reading stack for this book; it’s more than worth it.