Sunday, July 31, 2011

China Miéville, The City & The City (2009)

The idea is that there's this eastern European city-state that is in fact two city-states: Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same territory; it's left somewhat ambiguous to what extent this is a "magical" thing--ie, they're occupying different layers of existence--and to what extent it's a matter of willfully disregarding the "other" city. It's clearly some of both, and there are very strict punishments for people who don't respect the boundaries.

This is definitely more subtle than any other Miéville I've read to date, and the world-building is really kind of brilliant. Both cities are very palpable and real, and he stacks in real-world details with great aplomb. My favorite bit is where he quotes a passage about the archaic script of one of the cities, supposedly from Sterne's Sentimental Journey. That's just great. The business too with the "crosshatching"--the bits where the two cities connect up--is executed really well; I would describe it, at times, as haunting.

So what's the problem? Well…I'm sorry to say that all of this really great stuff turns out to be in service to a competently-executed but not terribly exciting murder mystery. I was really interested in the cultures and the reasons for this separation--not that I was looking for everything to be nailed down in a neat and discrete package, but the whole thing would seem to lend itself very well to some very interesting exploration into the nature of belief and nationalism and like that. No such luck, though: deeper ramifications, ultimately, are barely explored. Also, it has to be said, the least believable part of this world is "Breach," this invisible, omnipotent police force that exists mostly-invisibly and cracks down brutally on anyone breaking the separatist rules. The idea that such a thing could really have existed and remained impenetrable for thousands of years…mmph. This is one of those things that, again, could have been employed in a really interesting way but…wasn't.

So that's about that: in spite of being clearly a better novel than Kraken, in some ways The City & The City is actually more of a disappointment, as all the ingredients were there for something really fucking awesome, but that something never really comes to fruition. At the end I was left wondering: really? Is this all there is?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Duck Comics: "Ducktargnan and the Three Musketeers"

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

China Miéville, Kraken (2010)

"But this was not quite the right kraken apocalypse. That was the problem."

So what happens is, when a preserved giant squid suddenly mysteriously disappears from London's Natural History Museum, one of the curators, Billy Harlow, gets sucked into an underworld of eschatological cults (one of which worships squid), wizards, supernatural crime bosses, ancient spirits, and all this stuff.

I was really looking forward to this book--the AV Club review quoted on the cover describes it as "hands-down the most fun book he's written in years," which made it seemed perfect to take on vacation. Well, it certainly tries to be fun, but as it turns out, while it goes down easily enough, it's ultimately a pretty substantial disappointment.

I'll tell you what the problem is: the world that Miéville evokes here is very thin. The novel is crammed full of those crazy Miévillian details--some of which are quite cool, admittedly--but the setting is extremely half-baked (can you half-bake something "extremely?" Never mind). Kraken's London is nowhere near as vivid as the New Crobuzon of novels past; this huge whirl of action--much of it sort of indistinct--seems to take place in kind of a void. So what you have, really, is a big pile of icing with no cake. Kinda messy, sort of tasty at first, but pretty quickly you're feeling vaguely ill.

It's not just the setting, either. Miéville, it has been said, is better at setting than he is at characters, and while I'll not argue with that, I don't think it's a big problem in the Bas-Lag novels; the people inhabiting them aren't Proustian or anything, but they do the job. It's easy to care about and/or hate them.

In Kraken, though--man, I don't think I can even convey to you how utterly one-note all of the characters are…actually, granting them even one note sometimes seems to be pushing it a bit. They're here to propel this not-that-compelling story forward, and that is all they are there to do. One thing I noted here is that, as opposed to the Bas-Lag novels, there is no sex whatsoever. I'm not saying that's a problem in itself, but it is indicative, I think, of a general lack of concern with letting the people be people. For there to be sex, they would have to, you know, interact and have relationships and do human-type things and stuff. But no, there's none of that here, the result being that one of the major characters dies, it's impossible to feel much of anything.

I'll point out a few good bits: there are these villains, Goss and Subby, sort of invincible, out-of-time murder spirits, who are effectively frightening, though really now, if the way to beat them is as obvious as it turns out to be, it's hard to imagine they would've stuck around so long. There's a group called "Chaos Nazis," who operate around a chillingly logical permutation of national socialist ideology. And--just a little thing--I quite liked the idea of a little protective charm consisting of an ipod containing a little demon that sings his own childish renditions of songs you've put on it to help you out. Oh, and there's an okay ending twist that's hinted at well enough that you could conceivably guess it even though you pretty much definitely won't. I approve of that. There are other things here and there that I liked, though not nearly so much as in any of the previous Miéville novels I've read.

There's a potentially great novel nascent here, but that's all there is. There's nothing wrong with a certain amount of self-indulgence, but Miéville just doesn't put in the work necessary for a really satisfying or--contra that bafflingly over-positive AV Club review--fun read.

Great Moments In Important Clarification Dept: from the back cover, we learn that, according to Entertainment Weakly, "[China] Miéville, never predictable, lobs a grenade into the urban-fantasy genre, remaking it into wild comedy." I suppose if you were half asleep, you might've thought it was referring to Melville.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Duck Comics: "Darkest Africa"

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

What a drag it is getting old.

In fantasy novels with non-human races, typically all of them are longer-lived than humans. Naturally, this is a Tolkien thing, which pretty much everyone seems to have adapted. If they aren't longer-lived, then they're assumed to have pretty much the same lifespan as humans. I don't think China Miéville specifies the life expectancy of any of his many Bas-Lag races, but if he does, I'm quite sure none are ever less than that of humans.

Why is this? Why NOT short-lived races? I mean, surely someone has done fantasy (or SF) along these lines, but it's certainly not the dominant thing. Several reasons, I think: first, because it lends to non-human races a mythic, legendary quality; we're just brief candles and like that, but they just go on and on. Second, because it provides a certain obscure comfort to imagine that while we're done after a century on the outside, there could be other people for whom that isn't so. There's a li'l wish fulfillment here, I think. And finally, and relatedly, the idea of people destined to die "young" is just discomfiting to us, even if it's not "young" for them. We have trouble conceptualizing that as anything other than a major bummer for them. We may not be able to conceptualize the other way either, but that's not important: we're pretty sure we'd like it, and that's all we need to know. This points out a certain laziness in our thinking.

I can only think of two examples of short-lived races (though, again, I'm sure there must be many more). First, there are the gnome-people in the third area of Quintet's SNES game Soul Blazer. If I recall correctly, they're only supposed to live a year or so (but they make the most of it!). Given that we're talking about an old, not-super-sophisticated videogame with a questionable translation, I think this is actually handled rather well. Second, there's Kes from Star Trek: Voyager, whose race was I think only supposed to live to ten or thereabouts. I don't remember anything even remotely interesting being done with that--certainly no real, sustained effort to imagine what such a thing might be like--but then, that could've been Voyager's tagline: "Never doing anything even remotely interesting."

Monday, July 04, 2011

Whatever Comics: "A Very Goofy King Midas"

Friday, July 01, 2011

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000); The Scar (2002); Iron Council (2004)

On vacation, I had Perdido Street Station with me; I had tossed it in with a bunch of other books just to be on the safe side. I'd had it lying around for a long time, but somehow I never had the wherewithal to actually give it a go, even though I'd heard good things about it. It was kind of thick and dense, and most fantasy--if you even want to dignify all these attenuated Tolkein-lites with the word--just bores the shit out of me. But anyway, having a few books left to choose from, I just sort of idly picked PSS up, deciding, okay, I'll just read the first chapter or so and see how it grabs me. I kept reading. I'm pretty sure I must've muttered "holy shit" at some point. Possibly even "holy fucking shit." And almost certainly "that is so goddamn cool" on a number of occasions. And the rest is history. I tore through it in record time and soon after quickly dispatched The Scar and Iron Council, Miéville's other two novels set in this world.

Miéville's fantasy has absolutely nothing to do with Tolkien's, except possibly in the sense that it's self-consciously being nothing like Tolkien's. While I am not sufficiently widely-read in the genre to make absolute generalizations, it sure as shootin' seems to me that if you took Tolkien out of the equation, you'd also wipe out ninety percent of all contemporary fantasy (no comment on whether that would be a good or bad thing). Whereas it's easy to imagine these three novels existing in a Tolkien-free world. Which is not, of course, to say that they were conceived ex nihilo; Miéville acknowledges Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison as influences, and I'm sure that--once again--someone better-versed in this stuff than me would be able to untangle the novel's roots.

But I would be surprised if anyone could find anything quite like this. First and foremost, Miéville sets out to amaze. What's great about him is that, while he's a Marxist with a PhD in economics who looks like a member of a post-apocalyptic street gang (actually, that's really just in the well-known photo in the back of PSS; he looks much less terrifying when he's smiling), although his novels are far from apolitical, he's never just out to lecture: he just plain likes awesome fantasy shit, and he has a hell of a fucking imagination. His city of New Crobuzon is one of the most thoroughly vivid and tactile fantasy cities you've ever seen, and he's able to brilliantly evoke huge, sprawling cultures and thousands of years of history in just a few words. From interviews I've read, I gather that, while he has some underlying history and whatnot worked out, it's certainly not obsessively systematic like Tolkien, but unlike certain writers we could name, he's absolutely brilliant at revealing by concealing--ie, giving you just enough to send your imagination into a mad frenzy. Which isn't to say that he doesn't also provide plenty of detail about those places, races, and cultural artifacts which are important to the stories. This shit boggles my mind. Seriously. Now, a few thoughts on each individual book.

Perdido Street Station

The protagonist, Isaac, is a human. His lover, Lin, is an anthropomorphic bug woman. The fact that Miéville can make this completely insane thing seem perfectly reasonable is a testament to his authorial power: a guy with the audacity to do something like that and the ability to pull it off is surely a rare thing.

The novel is very discursive; there are a lot of little side paths that don't necessarily contribute to the main plot (about which I'm trying not to say a lot, because revealing much more than what's on the back cover would spoil the fun); they're basically there because Miéville wanted to show you this awesome thing he thought of. And since most of the things he thinks of are indeed awesome (exception: "handlingers." Those are just dumb, and I can't believe he brought them back in Iron Council), that is not, to my mind, a problem. Fact remains, though, there are a few problems that manifest themselves, especially in the book's back half. First, there's the fact that the narrative--which had been fascinatingly unpredictable for the first three-four hundred pages--ultimately resolves itself into what is essentially a very long boss fight. Now that's not to say that there isn't some cool stuff going on here, but given the wild, unbounded imagination that gave birth to this world, this seems disappointingly prosaic, even if the bosses in question are quite terrifying. Second, there's the ending. Watch me discuss this without spoiling it: there are two unexpected things in the end. One of these is fascinating, and my only complaint is that it could've been explored in greater detail. But the other…well, you know how sometimes an author will force a happy ending where it doesn't belong, just 'cause? And you know how sometimes another author will do the opposite of that, on the basis that we can't have this be too ebullient, given that this is meant to be a Dark and Gritty novel? Yeah, that happens. And it strikes me as such an obvious mistake. I mean, yeah, okay, he was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the thing, give him a pass, but still. Bah. Oh, and thirdly, there are a few too many dei ex machinae, I think. But that's less of a big deal, ultimately.

The Scar

Naturally, the second novel lacks a bit of the shock-of-the-new that the first provided--but really, only a little. Miéville's imagination still goes to eleven in all sorts of awesome ways. It largely takes place at sea, and the evocations of fantastic marine life are just great. Also, none of the above-mentioned problems are in evidence, so hurrah for that. The novel is a bit less rambly than PSS, but the bits of the world that it reveals are just as fascinating; especially amazing is one of the races that Miéville introduces--his world is lousy with all sorts of different races--called the anophelii (I think I can say the name without giving away anything about them).

Some people have objected that, compared to Isaac, Bellis is not a very sympathetic protagonist, but I don't know about that--she's certainly a little on the cold side, but given the circumstances of her life, this seems fully justified. I had no problems with her. I also very much like the fact that the secondary-protagonist is a "remade;" there was no such character in PSS who had any sort of agency that we were able to see. Miéville is a very humane writer, and clearly eager to humanize everyone and destroy taboos of all sorts.

Oh, also, there's a truly hair-raising naval battle. Unlike some writers, Miéville understands that the way to do an engaging battle sequence is not by endless, obsessive battle choreography.

On balance, I'd say that The Scar is the strongest of the three.

Iron Council

Remember how Miéville is a Marxist? Well, this is his overtly political novel, directly engaging with issues of colonialism, labor activism (involving that ever-popular emblem of modernity, the railroad), and socialist utopianism. It's also a bit of a mess. Don't get me wrong! There's still a lot of really awesome shit here. In particular, the long, hundred-fifty-ish-page flashback sequence detailing the formation of the title thing is just brilliant; probably the best thing in any of these books. But the novel can't quite match it's own ambition, and in many places it comes across as a bit half-baked. For example, one of the main characters, Cutter, is gay (one of the main-ish characters in PSS was implied to be a lesbian, but that had no bearing on the story, whereas here, Miéville really jumps in with both feet). So you think, oh man, there's gonna be something about the intersection of queer sexuality and radical politics, and it's gonna be super interesting. But there's really not, and the whole thing goes nowhere. Part of the action is meant to be undergirded by his deep love for another of the main characters, but there's essentially no way to know why he feels the way he feels. It feels as if Miéville meant to do something more than he actually does. Also, there's a sort of parallel plot involving underground radicalism in New Crobuzon that just sort of peters out. And this business of the city being at war with another city-state kind of goes beyond mere half-bakedness. The whole last-minute business with the "Ambassador of Tesh" is just nonsensical.

Most of this only becomes evident after you're done with it, though; by and large, it's still super-awesome while you're reading. And I don't regret that reading for one minute; as I said: plenty of great stuff here. One of the characters, Judah (cf) is an expert at making golems, and never before have I felt so strongly that goddamnit--why can't magic be real? Cause that is so awesome, and I so badly want to be able to do it.

Miéville has said that he fully intends at some point to return to this world; he's just giving it a rest for now to prevent it from becoming played out, and to stretch his writerly wings. Which is an entirely respectable thing to do; still, you'd better believe that at such time as another Bas-Lag novel does come out, I will so be all over that shit.

In any case, if it's not clear I recommend these novels for kids of all ages. Well…maybe not all ages--they're pretty hard-R-rated--but if you can't handle them, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog, either. Shoo! Shoo! Oh, and once you're done, you can check out this interesting Miéville symposium on Crooked Timber, featuring a final post by the author himself.