Saturday, August 08, 2015

China Mieville, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories (2015)

Well, I'll say this: it's the China Mievilliest book that China Mieville's ever China Mievilled, for better and for worse. There are a LOT of stories here that do the “here's a weird thing that's happening, look at the weird thing” routine, to varying effects. This is intermittently effective, as in “Keep,” which has what kind of sounds like the dumbest premise ever— people are contracting this condition where deep trenches appear around them—and make it into an apocalyptic scenario that really cooks, reminiscent of the seeming end-of-the-world situations in Perdido Street Station and Embassytown. “The Dowager of Bees,” about mysterious ultra-rare playing cards, is also neat. But then you have something like “After the Festival,” which seems to be just weird and gross for no reason (there may or may not be a message about the morality of meat-eating there, but it did not redeem the story in my eyes). Or something like “The Bastard Prompt,” which is about standardized patients—actors who simulate symptoms so medical students can practice diagnosing them. Some of these SP's, seemingly in a fugue state, start describing symptoms of bizarre, fantastical disease, and then these diseases start to manifest in the real world, and you think, okay, great. That's kind of clever, I guess. But, really now, so what?

Or, take “The 9th Technique,” which is about torture and Guantanamo Bay in particular. It's actually not a bad story, and the central metaphor is effectively done. And YET—this may just be a personal idiosyncracy, and may not apply to someone who's read less of Mieville than I have—it uses exactly the gimmick that you'd (I'd) expect the author to use, and I just found that hella distracting, draining the story of some of its force. An' don't even get me started on “Junket,” which is based entirely around a goofily transgressive half-idea Mieville had for a movie this one time. I hestitate to even mention “Watching God” and “Estate,” because if I call them pointlessly inscrutable it may just be that I missed something, which is my own damn fault, but I found them so.

Still an' all, I liked the collection better than I think this review implies. There are some real gems here. My favorites are probably “Säcken,” a horror story that genuinely freaked me the fuck out and still does a bit when I think of it and “Dreaded Outcome,” an extremely funny story, really sold by its consistently clinical tone, about a highly innovative school of therapy. And with twenty-eight stories, really, it's fine: if one doesn't grab you, that's okay, soon there'll be another which hopefully will. Like most short story anthologies, it can't help feeling like a bit of a stopgap measure, but THAT'S OKAY. Still, I think we can all agree that what we really want is a new novel. Am I a big ol' hypocrite for demanding a new Bas-Lag book after I've just gotten done unfairly criticizing Mieville for being Mieville? Probably. Still, I think maybe perhaps the short story format provides more of an opportunity for him to fall into self-parody than the novel does, so I'm not too concerned about his future.


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