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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 16 comments

‘Covehithe’ was originally published on the Guardian’s website.

1.

A man and his daughter are on holiday in Suffolk. He wakes her in up in the middle of the night and Miéville maps out the path they take from Dunwich to Covehithe. The focus on concrete geography and illusive mystery combined with the distance between the reader and the protagonists is reminiscent of Nina Allan but here the cryptic delivery is far more successful than ‘The Silver Wind’. We are drawn in, we ask questions.

For example, we are told that the man is called Dughan but we are not told his daughter’s name. Why is she anonymised? And how old is she? At first, she seems to be very young but when the viewpoint switches to her, she is remarkably shrewd: “All she remembered were his returnings, an exhausted, careful man who lifted her on to his lap and kissed her with wary love, brought her toys and foreign sweets.” This is uncertainty is surely incidental to the story but at the same time it is a conscious decision on Miéville’s part which gives it tang.

Another difference with Allan is language. Far from being brickwall blank, Miéville delights in words and you simply don’t get this in the other shortlisted stories. You have to love him for it, even if sometimes he goes too far: “This close to the waves the land felt, as the girl said, misbehavicious. A good word to make her feel better.” A good word? An ugly word, certainly. It is almost impossible to say, a coinage that looks better on the page than it sounds in the mouth. “Trawlings” and “returnings” works but “extrusioned” is a pointlessly ungainly, particularly when immediately followed up with this far more evocative description:

In the glow of the thing’s own flame they saw edificial flanks, the concrete and rust of them, the iron of the pylon barnacled, shaggy with benthic growth now lank gelatinous bunting.

That is an intelligent, animated oil rig emerging from the North Sea and that is the story.

2.

Inevitably we move backwards to answer the question of how we got here (although perhaps “how” is a little strong):

It was the Rowan Gorilla I. That was the first. No Piper Alpha, no Deepwater Horizon; an undistinguished disaster. A tripod jack-up rig lost to storms and hull-fracture in 1988, on its way to the North Sea. Scattered surely by its capsizing and by 30 years below but there, back. Cramped-looking for all its enormity, latticed legs braced halfway through its platform, jutting above it and below into the sea. In the videos the three skyward leg-halves switch and lean creaking towards each other, sway away again like cranes triple-knitting, as it walks the muck on spudcap feet. It staggered like a crippled Martian out of the water and onto Canada.

We might wonder in passing what the fuck a “spudcap” is but this is a lovely passage, blending the earlier lyricism with a bluntness that suits the beast that has been born. The same is true of the subsequent ones in which the Rowan Gorilla I meets its demise but they also mark a transition point in the story. This is where the story’s genesis becomes a bit too obvious: “The Guardian’s short fiction project Oil stories asks writers from around the world to drill down through layers of cliché and cant to explore the hidden reservoirs which fuel our dreams and power our nightmares.” You can’t say Miéville didn’t meet the brief but in a way he met it too well; an author’s muse should have some mystique.

As we move away from Dughan and his daughter, as the events are explicated, the story loses some of its magic to a humdrum bit of future history that doesn’t ring true. It is revealed that Dughan is a Canadian soldier who happened to be there with Rowan Gorilla I at the beginning. He is subsequently seconded to an international task force that deals with the emergence of further rigs. “National governments subcontracted strategy to the UN Platform Event Repulsion Unit.” Doesn’t strike me as very likely, especially since UNPERU is composed of “scientists, engineers, theologians and exorcists, soldiers”. The whole section is told in an entirely different register; we’ve moved from Nina Allan to Paul Cornell.

3.

We return to Covehithe to integrate the two parts of the story. Again, we flit into Dughan’s daughter’s perspective and a security guard questions her age. “Dughan whispered her name” but Miéville conceals it. Why? Names have power. But if, on the one hand, he is aiming for the numinous, Miéville is also having fun. Having playfully referred to the rigs as “petrospectral presences” earlier, he shifts the tone even further into deadpan humour: “They laid eggs, so, many people said, they must have sex. There was no logic there. They were oil rigs.” In the end, I can’t see this inconsistency of tone as a problem but rather the thing that gives the story its power. It seems an entirely fitting ending when Miéville circles back to his opening style to cap the story:

Dughan turned and took in the length of Covehithe Beach. They were out of sight, but he looked in the direction of the graveyard, and of St Andrew’s stubby hall where services continued within the medieval carapace, remains of a grander church fallen apart to time and the civil war and to economics, fallen ultimately with permission.

Written by Martin

9 February 2012 at 09:24

16 Responses

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  1. Mieville’s prose is the best so far, and this is also the best constructed story. The structure is very much that of a “literary” short story: precise details of character observation; the lack of plot resolution; a final shift in focus to a single image that makes a thematic parallel to the main story. It’s a bit on-the-nose in that way, actually, but it’s so well done it doesn’t really matter.

    For the story itself, I was just saying to someone the other day, if you’re going to use a very simple metaphor, go large with it.

    Seth Ellis

    9 February 2012 at 16:14

  2. That is an intelligent, animated oil rig emerging from the North Sea and that is the story.

    Indeed. It’s a brilliant conceit, enough to carry the story and earn its nomination, but I have to say that I also find that it dominates everything else. I don’t mind this, really, I like a bit of high-concept in my short fiction (and indeed in my long fiction), but I find Dughan as much of an uninteresting blank as you seem to find Martin in “The Silver Wind”. Which is interesting. I’ve read “The Silver Wind” twice, though, and “Covehithe” only once; I do need to go over it again before I vote.

    (I assume without having read it that this story is in some way a response or homage to Cyclonopedia…)

    Niall

    9 February 2012 at 19:29

  3. Oh, I certainly don’t think Dughan is interesting but he doesn’t have to be; he is an observer, not the narrator. When he becomes foregrounded as an actor in the middle section, I think the story is at its weakest. The concept is what makes it. Maybe Allan should have made the Silver Wind itself as central to her story as the oil rigs are here.

    Martin

    9 February 2012 at 19:47

  4. [...] ‘Covehithe’ by China [...]

  5. I’d forgotten this was part of a Guardian themed series of short stories, a kind of newspaper anthology, which perhaps accounts for a sense of writing to brief that I detected about it, and also a sense of it being a literary conceit, a playful playing with sf words and language. Dare one say science fiction for the Guardian reader who isn’t too sure about science fiction?

    I pretty much agree with Martin’s pinpointing of strenths and weaknesses. What I liked about the story in particular was that it was trying for something a little different, a little gosh-wow. One of the things I always liked about Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes was the way in which the ‘things’, whatever they were, emerged out of the deepest parts of the ocean, where they’d lurked unnoticed. There is something tremendously compelling about the idea that under the surface of the oceans things are going on, even now, that we know nothing about, unexpected and surprising things. So why not oil rigs reconstituting themselves and coming to land to lay eggs? (Though I must admit I did wonder if they wouldn’t, pace salmon, eels, trout, return to the natal dockyard but it’s a small quibble.

    It’s well-written, it’s more vivid than the other stories considered so far, but does it have enough substance to lift it above the others? I don’t know. I could see putting it first simply because none of the others should be first, but is that enough of a reason?

    Maureen Kincaid Speller

    12 February 2012 at 18:15

  6. It looked to me like writing in great need of another draft. China is a skilled writer, but he doesn’t work hard enough at his drafts. To start with “the man” is OK, if “the man” is somehow symbolic or representational, but in this story “the man” eventually turns out to have a name, a job, a background, etc. A later draft would have sorted this out. And, as you say, why is the daughter given no name? Names are everything when you’ve got kids. This is lazy writing, and China should know it. Probably does, but thought he might get away with it.

    Another.one: “Scattered surely by its capsizing and by 30 years below but there, back.” You describe this as a lovely passage, but to me it looks like another kind of lazy writing. The weirdness of the syntax draws attention to itself (no bad thing in fact), but when you do pay attention to it you find a sentence which looks like it was dashed off, but the writer never went back to make the oddness of the sentence actually work. This is the sort of scribble Mike Moorcock churns out when he’s in a hurry, but maybe that’s what a lot of people think is lovely writing. I hope not. We should want odd language, not sloppy writing.

    Chris Priest

    15 February 2012 at 13:07

  7. I agree that switching so quickly from representational Man to the specific Dughan is a weakness and perhaps reflects a less than total commitment to integrate the two halves of the story. But with the daughter, I’m not sure laziness is a term that works. After all, how hard is it to name a character? It is the default convention and Mieville has deliberately not done so. This works for me, although I’ll admit I’ve no idea what is intended.

    As for that specific sentence, I can see it as sloppy but for me it is casual, a loose oddness. There are other instances where I agree that Mieville doesn’t quite get there but not enough to undo the story for me and it strikes as a story that needs a bit of laziness, that might be destroyed by an attempt to lock it down. It is another question whether we should be rewarding such stories though.

    Martin

    15 February 2012 at 15:03

  8. > As for that specific sentence, I can see it as sloppy but for me it is casual, a loose oddness.

    OK, but the very next sentence is: “Cramped-looking for all its enormity …”

    “Enormity” means wickedness or outrageousness, but from the context China clearly meant to say enormousness. You feel he didn’t want to use an ordinary-seeming word like “enormousness”, so plumped for what he hoped was a posher version. It’s a common error, chav-speak. But China must expect to be judged by the highest standards, and shouldn’t be making common errors. Alright? (To quote another of his more irritating solecisms.)

    It’s not pedantic to expect sentences that parse or words that mean what they should … sentences and words are what it’s all about. China is gifted, but at the moment he’s not converting his gift into hard work, and so he looks sloppy.

    Chris Priest

    15 February 2012 at 23:41

  9. I’d have thought both outrageousness and enormousness were intended. It is a living oil rig, after all.

    Martin

    16 February 2012 at 12:24

  10. China’s not the only one to get ‘enormity’ confused with ‘enormousness’. DeLillo did it in his last novel. Like Chris, I’m always narked by the annoyingness of this. Or by its annoyity. It’s up there with ‘it’s’/’its’.

    Adam Roberts

    17 February 2012 at 16:24

  11. Via Niall Harrison and of some relevance to this discussion, Joel Burges’s on loving Miéville’s sentences:

    I love Miéville’s sentences because they are simultaneously beautiful and political. I love them because their aesthetic power is that of a stylistic intervention into the idiom and ideology of fantasy as it is transmitted from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin. I love them because, especially in Miéville’s 2004 novel Iron Council, they intervene in that genealogy with a toolkit borrowed in part from the Cormac McCarthy of the baroquely existential Blood Meridian of 1985, even as they betoken the barer life of sentences in McCarthy’s 2006 bestseller The Road. I love them because in all of this they claim style as a locus of contemporaneity.

    Martin

    18 February 2012 at 08:46

  12. Mieville’s enormity may be an actual error or one of his frequent and wilful nonstandard uses of existing words and phrases; De Lillo’s is perfectly correct.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enormity (look at the usage discussion)

    marco

    18 February 2012 at 11:26

  13. I’m vastly more annoyed by the use of the term ‘chav-speak’ than by a perceived misuse of ‘enormity’.

    Tim Maughan

    20 February 2012 at 09:01

  14. [...] Priest, on the other hand, hadn’t published a novel since 2002’s The Separation (which also won both the BSFA Award and the Clarke). So this was an Event and, by all accounts, lived up to the decade long wait. The two novels kept swapping pole position between them and the fact they ultimately drew has some of the same cosmic justice as Paolo Bacigalupi and Miéville sharing the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel. My money is on Priest to just edge it for the BSFA Award but Miéville may take the short story award with ‘Covehithe’. [...]

  15. [...] by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – in which I review a bloody good fantasy novel. 8) ‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville – in which I discuss a story that lost the 2011 BSFA Award. 9) ‘The Copenhagen [...]

    Four « Everything Is Nice

    24 September 2012 at 13:20

  16. [...] Miéville bestrides the genre stage like a colossal sentient oil rig. He’s been shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Novel four times (winning for The City [...]


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