Everything Is Nice

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

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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.

Written by Martin

29 July 2009 at 11:05

Posted in books, sf

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  1. It’s a lot better if you read it right after reading Neverwhere.

    David Moles

    30 July 2009 at 11:36

  2. Unfortunately it becomes retrospectively even worse if you read The City And The City straight afterwards, as I am now doing.


    30 July 2009 at 12:03

  3. Ah, but how much worse does Neverwhere get?

    David Moles

    30 July 2009 at 13:02

  4. This was my first Mieville, and I read it in 2001 when I was just starting to discover the wide world of non-Tolkien, non-Tolkien-derivative fantasy. Even with the obvious similarities to Neverwhere I was quite impressed. Wouldn’t like to revisit it now, though.


    30 July 2009 at 14:43

  5. There were a lot of things I like about King Rat, even given the roughness around the edges – but the Piper’s doomsday device was so blindingly obvious that it really ruined the second half of the book for me.


    30 July 2009 at 15:32

  6. “The unnessassary italics and capitals are a recuring [sic] feature of the novel and suggest a lack of confidence.”

    How do you come to that conclusion?

    Mark Newton

    1 August 2009 at 20:05

  7. That Drug Dealer is obviously for emphasis but he capitalises Cockney rhyming slang and musical genres throughout. The only reason I can think of for doing this is because he is worried it is not clear what the words mean from context. He also regularly uses italics for emphasis which suggests he isn’t confident of the power of his words to stand on their own. Using italics for thoughts (as quoted above) is a pretty common technique but I still think it falls under the same general category.


    1 August 2009 at 22:03

  8. Shame on you, Mark, picking up on Mark’s typos! You’d never find *me* doing that.

    Although I rather liked the way Gaiman’s surname gets pluralised, here. ‘The Gaimen’: sounds like clones. Or characters from an early Gary Numan album.

    Adam Roberts

    1 August 2009 at 22:57

  9. “He also regularly uses italics for emphasis which suggests he isn’t confident of the power of his words to stand on their own.”

    As does Morgan whom you have lauded for Black Man. Not that I necessarily disagree with the conclusion you draw but I wonder if you would say the same thing about Morgan or chalk it up to stylistic affectation. I would say Morgan’s work hardly strikes me as suffering from a lack of confidence or beginner’s nerves as you seem to be implying about Mieville here.

    Schrodinger's lolcat

    4 August 2009 at 19:10

  10. It is true I like the majority of Morgan’s work, just as I like the majority of Mieville’s.

    I just had a flick through The Steel Remains and it is indeed rotten with italics. I also saw some sound effects and even a dreaded interrobang. Yes, I think these all suggest a lack of confidence since they are all fairly crude ways of jabbing a finger at the reader and saying “this is what I mean”. Hopefully these will be overwhelmed by positive aspects in a way King Rat was not.

    Adam Marks: I blame “Gaimen” on being a Northerner and hence being allergic to vowels.


    5 August 2009 at 08:51

  11. Incidentally, do you write fiction yourself, Martin?

    Mark Newton

    6 August 2009 at 16:09

  12. Sorry, this is strike two on the responding to reviewers bingo card.

    If we are playing the question game, have you read King Rat?


    6 August 2009 at 17:42

  13. I have indeed. I read it after The Scar and Perdido whilst waiting for Iron Council. I have two editions of it, as a matter of fact.

    What I was referring to though, and to this I assume you’re also a wannabe writer: It’s a common fault, which I once suffered from as unpublished writer, to declare that certain qualities of prose are right or wrong etc., when I was judging it by *how I would have written it*. I wasn’t judging the text directly, but filtering it through my artistic lens.

    So on the italics here, I wondered if this is a case of, how you would have written it? Because none of these things strike me as a lack of confidence in both Morgan and Miéville, but merely a stylistic technique, quite a dynamic one in fact, that speaks of a writer really going for it.

    Mark Newton

    6 August 2009 at 17:47

  14. I used to read slush and one of the things a lot of slush had in common was excessive italics, random capitalisation and unnecessary exclamation marks. It is something I associate strongly with the lack of confidence I have described above. It goes back to show, don’t tell; what you see as dynamic, I see as labouring.

    Now, obviously King Rat is a lot better than most slush but it still isn’t very good and it makes me draw a connection. As you say elsewhere, we don’t know what the production process was. Maybe Mieville’s editor expressly asked him to put them in. However, it suggests something else to me.

    So if I am filtering it through anything it is my publisher’s lens rather than my (non-existent) artistic lens.


    6 August 2009 at 18:27

  15. Interesting. When we went through the slush piles for novels there was very little in the way of italics; merely a case of little or no knowledge for formatting.

    A wonderful aside displaying problems of “show, don’t tell” by Ursula Le Guin here: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/AboutWriting13-OnRulesofWriting.html

    Given that Miéville’s editor at the time was one of the best in the country, I would be inclined to argue that the points on italics and a lack of confidence remain unrelated.

    Who were you reading slush for incidentally?

    Mark Newton

    6 August 2009 at 18:33

  16. I used to work for a small agency and an equally small literary consultancy. And yes, the formatting. I’ve always disdained the iron rules of US SF formatting but any experience of slush makes it tempting.

    The second two of those rules Le Guin mentions are clearly bullshit. The first – show, don’t tell – is not. As she says it is a useful principle that can be abused. The same is true of much in life.

    I think authors can almost always stand to have a bit more faith in their readers. This is just one very minor way they can do so.


    6 August 2009 at 19:16

  17. “I just had a flick through The Steel Remains and it is indeed rotten with italics. I also saw some sound effects and even a dreaded interrobang.”

    Fair enough and I see you’re taking the position that Morgan is unconfident in his writing (I find this truly difficult to square with his books, all of which I’ve read – he comes across as a very controlling stylist, not someone using these devices for lack of authorial maturity.)

    Leaving that aside, I see no mention of these identical traits in your examination of Harkaway’s Gone Away World. Not trying to goad you on this but why single out Mieville here when Harkaway’s first book gets a pass on this? If you find these things to be so universally amateur as you suggest, I would have suspected you to come down much harder on that first novel which also seems to posess less narrative self-assurance than either Morgan or Mieville.

    Schrodinger's lolcat

    7 August 2009 at 22:39

  18. I’m not sure I’m singling anyone out, these are just some traits I noticed in a not very good debut novel by someone who’s later works are considerably better.

    The Gone Away World has flaws that I see as being related to it being a debut: structure, all its eggs in one baskets, ending. It also has one big unrelated flaw that I spend most of my post discussing. On the other hand, it is told with a wild, discursive, comic narrative voice which is what makes it so fun. It is a very different style to Mieville (or Morgan) and allows you to get away with a lot. I think Harkaway even includes bulletpoint lists which, yes, is something I would have pulled Mieville up for.

    So no, I don’t think I am singling out but every book is read in its own context.


    8 August 2009 at 09:37

  19. I like to think of all this as ‘Italicsgate’.

    Adam Roberts

    9 August 2009 at 08:57

  20. AR: A weak controversy in comparison to Hugogate! ;)

    Martin: Yes I think that’s a very reasonable assessment of the usage in Harkaway’s text. The comedic energy gives him a much more playful range.

    For the record, I wasn’t trying to imply you were singling out anyone. I find your criticism generally quite sharp and insightful (though I dread the thought of being under your knife should I ever be published!)

    Merely trying to get a peek into the turning of the gears behind a voice I respect.

    Schrodinger's lolcat

    9 August 2009 at 23:43

  21. […] forward to some more thoughts on sound effects and possibly didactic italics when I read Richard Morgan’s The Steel […]

  22. The great thing about blogs is that they allow this informal back and forth. It is good to be challenged. More than anything else I’m interested in talking about books and it is nice to have a dialogue, something that is much rarer in formal reviewing.


    11 August 2009 at 12:25

  23. […] Step 6: Polish – There was a temptation here to add or embellish the text but I managed to resist this and keep true to my original plan. I did make a few punctuation and tense changes as well as Anglicising some of the words (whilst leaving exclamations in the original). Oh, and I removed the capitals from Rock and Reggae, you know how I feel about that. […]

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