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.


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