Posts Tagged ‘china mieville’
‘3 Moments Of An Explosion’ was originally published on Rejectamentalist Manifesto.
China 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 & The City) and ‘Covehithe’ was on the Best Short Fiction shortlist last year. That’s in addition to his Hugo, World Fantasy Award, three Clarke Awards and seven Locus Awards. You often get the impression that he could publish his shopping list and it would be up for a major award. Which is pretty much what has happened here – Rejectamentalist Manifesto is Miéville’s blog. The items on his shopping list are:
- A semi-satire on consumerism burden with crap portmanteaus and handled better in the margins of ‘Limited Edition’.
- A wannabe gonzo interstitial story that only reachs goofy and literalises the technology/drug metaphor of ‘Immersion’ to no greater effect than the metaphor.
- A smoke beast urban horror as pointless as Lost and as under-nourished as ‘The Flight Of Ravens’
You can read it as a compressed novel but I’m more inclined read it in the same was as ‘The Song Of The Body Cartographer’: as a nothing. Still, it is better than ‘4 Final Orpheuses’. But then again, ‘better’ is a useless concept when it comes to these blog posts. Putting this story on an award shortlist seems rather like compiling M John Harrison’s blog posts into a How To Be A Writer book.
Exhibit A: The prologue of Railsea by China Miéville.
This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
There he stands, swaying utterly as any wind-blown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.
Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost glows against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour.
The situation is not as macabre as it sounds. the boy isn’t the only bloody person there: he’s surrounded by others as red & sodden as he & they are cheerfully singing.
The boy is lost. Nothing has been solved. He thought it might be. He had hoped that this moment might bring clarity. Yet his head is still full of nothing, or he know not what.
Exhibit B: The new cover for Railsea by China Miéville.
Talk about tonal dissonance and false expectations!
‘Covehithe’ was originally published on the Guardian’s website.
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.
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.
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.
As an aside in my post about BSFA Award for best novel, I promised to review the shortlist for the short fiction award and then set out my ballot and predict the winner. But then I had a thought: perhaps other people would like to read them at the same time. All five stories have been made available online so they are accessible to everyone and it would be nice to get a bit of a debate going. With that in mind, I’m planning to run a short story club here next week, starting on Monday, 6 February 2012 and looking at a different story each day. Here is the schedule, including links to each story:
- Monday: The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
- Tuesday: The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell
- Wednesday: Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley
- Thursday: Covehithe by China Mieville
- Friday: Of Dawn by Al Robertson
I’ll post my thoughts as well as links to any existing online reviews and then it would be great to hear thoughts from others.
As you will probably know by now, the Guardian devoted Saturday’s Review section to science fiction. Since I like to spend my Saturday mornings reading both the Guardian Review and science fiction, this is obviously something I welcomed. My anticipation was slightly soured by a comment piece from Iain M Banks that was published online on Friday in advance of the Review. He opens with a long analogy about a young writer pitching a hackneyed detective story to his agent before revealing his target:
Now, even the most gifted literary author will be sufficiently aware of the clichés of the detective story not to let an initial burst of enthusiasm for a new idea involving any of them get beyond the limits of his or her own cranium, and even if they were foolish enough to suggest something on these lines to their agent or editor they’d immediately be informed that It’s Been Done . . . in fact, It’s Been Done to the Point of Being a Joke . . . and so all the above never happens.
Or at least, it never happens quite as described; substitute the phrase “science fiction” for the word “detective”, delete the 1930s murder-mystery novel clichés and insert some 30s science fiction clichés and I get the impression this scenario has indeed played out, and not just once but several times, and the agent/editor has – bizarrely – entirely shared the enthusiasm of their author, so that, a year or two later, yet another science fiction novel which isn’t really a science fiction novel – but, like, sort of is at the same time? – hits the shelves, usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.
The subs have entitled the piece “Science fiction is no place for dabblers” which seems a fair enough condensing of Banks’s argument and it pissed me off for two reasons. The first is that it is such a depressingly squandered opportunity; Banks has been given the chance to connect with a new audience to discuss something he is passionate about but instead treats them to a tired moan. It is the tendency alluded to by my title, a quote from China Mieville that appears in Justine Jordan’s profile elsewhere in the Review. Haven’t we got anything better to talk about?
The second problem is not Banks’s topic but the way he makes his case. Specifically, the way he scrupulously avoids any specifics and never names names. Who are the writers he has in mind? Who are dabblers who need to be taken to school? We’ve no idea because he doesn’t tell us. People in the comments are quick to make suggestions though and the usual suspects are soon trotted out: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy. Once someone is named as a dabbler, the validity of applying such a label can be debated (as it is in the comments). Banks doesn’t allow us that opportunity though. Personally, I am pleased that The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go and The Road exist but then I doubt Banks actually had those particular authors in mind. But who knows?
The result of his vagueness is that all writers of non-genre SF are tarred with the same brush. By reducing a disparate bunch of artists to a monolithic Them, he makes a real conversation about the way writers from outside the genre engage with the genre when they write science fiction impossible. Because there is certainly a kernel of truth to what Banks is saying. Elsewhere in the paper Ursula K LeGuin says the same thing: “You can’t write science fiction well if you haven’t read it, though not all who try to write it know this.” However, she continues: “But nor can you write it well if you haven’t read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup.” Dialogue is a two way street.
Banks concludes with an attempt at magnanimity that comes close to saying something similar:
However, let’s be positive about this. The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction – regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers – shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well. It’s certainly desirable.
It certainly is desirable and we should be positive but that is a bit rich coming at the end of such a negative piece. Further more, Banks’s point is made far more eloquently by the very existence of the edition of the Guardian Review in which it appears. It is therefore rendered both irrelevant and rather graceless. The contrast is further made by the Review’s lead feature in which leading SF writers – including LeGuin – choose their favourite novel or author in the genre. Here is their list of “leading SF writers”:
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Ursula K LeGuin
Kim Stanley Robinson
I think it is safe to say that this is not a list a fan would be likely to come up with and I’m sure a lot of people would turn their nose up at the idea these are all leading SF writers. It is, however, a list of interesting authors saying interesting things about science fiction. More than that, it is a list without boundaries; it is a list that is open and optimistic and interested in dialogue. So let’s all be positive.
I’d strongly recommend reading Jonathan McCalmont’s review of The City & The City by China Miéville. It is long (over 4,500 words) and really gets at the novels strengths and weaknesses. Like many readers, he found the police procedural aspects lacking. Personally, I liked it, however, McCalmont does raise the intriguing prospect of what the novel might have looked like if it had been a collaboration with Derek Raymond.
My review of The City & The City by China Mieville is up now at SF Site:
This is simply Miéville’s finest work to date. Never before has he demonstrated such sustained control over both message and medium. It is also — and, given the venue this review appears in, I feel this needs stating — his least fantastic. You could read The City & The City as being entirely mimetic, excepting the Ruritanian presence of the cities themselves. Yet at the same time it presents a world which is odder, more unsettling than all the splendid monsters of Bas-Lag. While telling a noir story, he has stripped away the pulp elements that were joyously present but also de-stabilising in his earlier work and replaced them with a deeper strangeness.
King Rat, China Miéville’s debut novel, is often ignored in discussion of his work. The reason for this is probably twofold: firstly, it is a fundamentally different type of fantasy novel to the Bas-Lag books which made his name; secondly, it isn’t very good. It was published in 1998 when Miéville was 26 and the world was a different place. Mornington Cresent is still a ghost station and mobile phones are not yet ubiquitous:
I’ll hold out a bit longer. I won’t be another black man with a mobile, another troublemaker with ‘Drug Dealer’ written on his forehead in script only the police can read.
The unnessassary italics and capitals are a recurring feature of the novel and suggest a lack of confidence. King Rat opens with an almost embarrassingly enthusiatic set of acknowledgements and from there on it is the rough and ready work of someone still finding their way. Saul returns to London to discover he is part rat and is drawn into the underground to discover his true nature. At the same time the Piper (as in Pied) is hunting down King Rat, who in turn believes Saul is the weapon he needs to deafeat him. There are several minimally sketched secondary viewpoint characters who waste time on the way but really it is just Saul blundering around, heading straight for the inevitable climatic showdown with the Piper. Old stories, modern gods, secret London; it shares a lot of its concerns with the work of Neil Gaiman, particularly Neverwhere (1996). It also clearly shows the direction Miéville was moving – if not his exact route – and it is no suprise it ends with a rat revolution but it isn’t worth picking up for any reason other than to see how he has come.