The OF Blog: China Miéville: A Few Thoughts for Those New to Him

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

China Miéville: A Few Thoughts for Those New to Him

This past weekend over at wotmania, I wrote an online poll about China Miéville (I copied that question and its choices and posted a poll here for you to take) and his most famous book, Perdido Street Station (2000 UK; 2001 US). The results were rather dismaying, with over a quarter at the time of this writing (if you click on the link and see a different Quickpoll, just follow the link at the bottom to the archives and search for one posted around Valentine's Day) voting "Hadn't heard of it before now." While much of that can be chalked up to wotmania's core demographic group (those under the age of 25 who mostly read epic/secondary-world fantasies if anything besides the Wheel of Time), the high number of those who hadn't ever heard of Miéville bothered me just enough that I decided to write a short little summation of his writing. While this will not go in-depth into the reasons why I myself like (and sometimes am frustrated by) Miéville's writing, hopefully the short little snippets I write will be of interest to others. With one exception, the cover art here is for the American editions.

Miéville's first published novel, King Rat (1998) is set in a dark, drum and bass-influenced London underworld. It is a twisted retelling of the story of the Pied Piper and of the influence that music can have on people. The main character, Saul, discovers that his father has been murdered and later that his departed mother was actually a rat (of a magical, shapeshifting form). It is in this exploration of the mysteries surrounding his father's death and his own origins, when set to evocative descriptive prose such as the following, that makes for a compelling read:

The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs. They pass between towers jutting into the sky like long-necked sea beasts and the great gas-cylinders wallowing in dirty scrub like whales. In the depths below are lines of small shops and obscure franchises, cafés with peeling paint and businesses tucked into the arches over which the trains pass. The colors and curves of graffiti mark every wall. Top-floor windows pass by so close that passengers can peer inside, into small bare offices and store cupboards. They can make out the contours of trade calendars and pin-ups on the walls.

The rhythms of London are played out here, in the sprawling flat zone between suburbs and center. (p. 15)
In this, his first novel, we begin to see what later became hallmarks of Miéville's writing: dirty, dank, perhaps occasionally disgusting visual images superimposed upon an urban setting that is run-down, decrepit, decaying, but yet with signs of life (albeit of the more "humble" classes) peeking through. While the ending of King Rat is weak, the novel on its own is a good, darker counterpart to other "underground city" novels.

While King Rat might have served as a testing ground, it is in the Bas-Lag fantasy universe (to date, consisting of three vaguely-connected books that have no protagonists in commons) where Miéville earned his reputation for writing striking prose that on occasion could frustrate the reader as well as enchant said reader. The first Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, is in my opinion a glorious mess. The story itself takes close to 100 pages to get going, because Miéville is so concerned with showing just how decrepit and oppressive the city of New Crobuzon is for its myriad races and social groups. But yet it is this focus on the shit-splattered streets and on the wretched Remade (men and women altered by magical means to have extraneous body parts or mechanical torsos or anything that suited the thaumaturge's fantasy, usually as punishment for some crime, often as petty as stealing to feed one's self) that makes this story so compelling. Instead of a tale of heroics and of rising from the "humble" to the privileged classes (as so many stereotypical heroic/epic fantasies go), Miéville removes the reader from that comfort zone and shows us a fantasy world whose equivalent can be found in E.P. Thompson's seminal 1962 work, The Making of the English Working Class. Instead of cheery rustics, we get the sordid side of New Crobuzon, as this passage shows in horrific detail:

He hated this floor. He hated the slightly blistering wallpaper, the peculiar smells that emanated from the rooms, the unsettling sounds that floated through the walls. Most of the doors on the corridor were open, by convention. Those that were closed were occupied by punters.

The door to room seventeen was kept shut, of course. It was an exception to the house rule.

David walked slowly along the foul carpet, approaching the first door. Mercifully, it was closed, but the wooden door could not contain the noises; peculiar, muffled, desultory cries; a creak of tightening leather; a hissing, hate-filled voice. David turned his head away and found himself gazing directly into the opposite room. He caught a glimpse of the nude figure on the bed. She stared up at him, a girl of no more than fifteen. She crouched on all fours...her arms and legs were hairy and's legs.

His eyes lingered on her in hypnotic, prurient horror as he walked past, and she leapt to the floor in clumsy canine motion, turned awkwardly, and unpracticed quadruped, looking over her shoulder at him hopefully as she pushed out her arse and pudenda.

David's mouth hung slightly open and his eyes were glazed.

This was where he shamed himself, in this brothel of Remade whores.

The city crawled with Remade prostitutes, of course. It was often the only strategy available to Remade women and men to keep themselves from starving. But here in the red-light district, peccadilloes were indulged in the most sophisticated manner.

Most Remade tarts had been punished for unrelated crimes: their Remaking was usually little more than a bizarre hindrance for their sex-work, pushing their prices way down. This district, on the other hand, was for the specialist, the discerning consumer. Here, the whores were Remade specifically for the profession. Here were expensive bodies Remade into shapes to indulge dedicated gourmets of perverted flesh. There were children sold by their parents and women and men forced by debt to sell themselves to the flesh-sculptors, the illicit Remakers. There were rumours that many had been sentenced to some other Remaking, only to find themselves Remade by the punishment factories according to strange carnal designs and sold to the pimps and madams. It was a profitable sideline run by the bio-thaumaturges of the state.

Time was stretched out and sickly in this endless corridor, like rancid treacle. At every door, every station along the way, David could not help but glance inside. He willed himself to look away but his eyes would not obey.

It was like a nightmare garden. Each room contained some unique flesh-flower, blossom of torture.

David paced past naked bodies covered in breasts like plump scales; monstrous crablike torsos with nubile girlish legs at both ends; a woman who gazed at him with intelligent eyes above a second vulva, her mouth a vertical slit with moist labia, a meat-echo of the other vagina between her splayed legs. Two little boys gazing bewildered at the massive phalluses they sprouted. A hermaphrodite with many hands.

There was a thump inside David's head. He felt groggy with exhausted horror.

Room seventeen was before him. David did not turn back. He imagined the eyes of the Remade behind him, on him, staring from their prisons of blood and bone and sex.

He knocked on the door. After a moment, he heard the chain being lifted from within and the door opened a little. David entered, his gorge rising, leaving that shameful corridor into his own private corruption. The door was closed. (pp. 341-343)
Although this scene is relatively minor for what follows after, I would argue that this and a couple of others serve as the soul of this novel (and series), imbuing it with a sense of moral outrage over the degradations that people force upon others (and themselves, on occasion) that rarely is touched upon in modern literature. It took an imagined city, full of its weird creatures and monsters, to allow people to see what most "polite" literature dares not show us these days.

While the ending of Perdido Street Station was a bit disjointed (although keeping in line with the notion that there can be no heroes in such a degraded society), Miéville's second novel, The Scar (2002) opens up the Bas-Lag universe and showcases the polity of a massive pirate fleet, Armada, which consists of thousands of lashed-together ships collected over the centuries. In this novel, Miéville has begun to distill his creative thoughts; his monsters (like the anophelii women) are more vicious and unsettling, with scenes of horror that can make some sick to read. But while I believe PSS couldn't decide if its main focus was to be that of the degradations of New Crobuzon or on the non-heroic qualities of its protagonists, here in The Scar Miéville has dispensed with most of the social history-disguised-as-fantasy-setting references. We do see glimpses of collectives and of the insidiousness of greed and how the "working (fReemade) man" struggles against that, but for me, the most powerful part was the Quixotic quest for The Scar itself and of what power potentially lay there. While the ending was rather predictable considering the thematic elements at play, I found this to be a very powerful novel.

The third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council (2004) has divided many readers. I myself found the story and its structure to be very disappointing when I first read it in 2004, in large part due to the middle half of the novel. But yet in many ways (as a recent re-read and a discussion with a few others in the interim has revealed), Iron Council might be the best-written of Miéville's novels. Smaller (at 564 pages compared to PSS's 710 and The Scar's 638 pages) than the other two, the story contained within is much more personal. On my first read, I thought Judah Law's flashback story, which consumes over 100 pages in the middle of the novel, weakened the flow of the novel. However, on a re-read recently, I began to realize that his story, which showcased all of the changes that had transpired in the New Crobuzon-controlled territory since the events of PSS 20 years before, served to highlight quite a few of the themes of the two earlier novels as well as bringing the story forward into the "present." While I still believe that the ending is rather abrupt and could have been clarified a bit more, my recent re-read did open up some interpretative possibilities as to what that ending signified. So while I still believe The Scar was the best of the trio, Iron Council rates a strong second in my opinion for its structure and thematic elements.

Besides the Bas-Lag novels, Miéville has written a novella,The Tain (originally published in the UK by PS Publishing in 2003 as a signed, limited-edition work; later part of the anthology Cities (2004) and the collection I'm about to mention), Looking for Jake (2005), and the YA standalone novel, Un Lun Dun (2007).

The Tain can be read as a fable of sorts, a take on the hatreds engendered by the 19th and early 20th century Imperialist states. One day in London, the mirror people (Imagos), long forced to be mimicries of the people whom they hated for imprisoning them in such a stifling state (the story behind is this based on a Jorge Luis Borges writing that is excerpted at the end of the novella). So what happens when the repressed break forth and unleash all sorts of mayhem on the populace? It is that question which serves as the impetus for this tale.

Looking for Jake collects all sorts of shorter fiction that Miéville has written from the late 1990s to 2004. Most of them are set in a modern setting, but with elements of horror that leads to heart-racing, apprehensive reads on the part of readers who aren't for sure how (or rather, if) the characters will survive to another day.

Finally, Miéville's foray into Young Adult fiction, Un Lun Dun, is a rather uneven affair. Although the writing, while toned down a bit, is superb and the plot developments occur at a reasonably fast pace, there were times that I felt as though the writing, good as it would have been in most cases, failed to keep up with Miéville's imagination. The story of a prophesied savior who failed to save anything (leaving the heroism to the overlooked sidekick) was intriguing, but it just lacked the layers of depth that I have come to expect from Miéville. While as a YA novel it achieves most of its purposes, I cannot help but be reminded of the richness of Miéville's prose in other stories that has been stripped away here. However, it still is a worthwhile read, but I would recommend for adult readers to try Miéville's other works before reading this one.

Hopefully after reading this long bit, some of those quarter over at wotmania (and others here and there on the web) who haven't heard of Miéville will be willing to give one of these books a try in the very near future.


Unknown said...

Nice Post. I would have thought anyone reading fantastic fiction over the last few years would have at least heard of Perdido Street Station. I agree that the Scar is probably the most enjoyable book of the trilogy, but I thought PSS was better than Iron Council.

Mieville came and gave a reading to promote Un Lun Dun here in Portland last year and also discussed his love of drawing the monsters in his books. The sketches that were used in Un Lun Dun really added to my enjoyment, and I hope he'll consider using drawings in future 'adult' works as well.

Anyone interested in the new weird should check out the Vandermeer's new collection in addition to Perdido Street Station, et al. I'm slowly working my way through it, and it is good stuff.

Lsrry said...

Agreed about the sketches. So much I could have added, but I constrained myself to only a couple thousand words at most. Glad to hear you're enjoying TNW anthology, as I thought that was one of the better ones I've read in recent years.

Unknown said...

I'm also looking forward to their Steampunk and Pirate anthologies. Unfortunately, I feel like I've read most of the stuff in the Steampunk collection, but I plan to buy it all the same. The Vandermeers seem to have a great sense of how to put together a collection, picking stories that compliment each other rather than just tossing a bunch of decent stories together and calling it a book.

Any idea when we'll see a new book from Mieville?

Lsrry said...

Agreed about the VanderMeers' editing abilities (their Best American Fantasy was one of my favorite 2007 anthologies). As for Kraken, all I know is there's a late 2008 list date for it on Amazon UK.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Good write-up Larry. I'm 33 and had been secure in the knowledge that Mievielle's body of work was a classic in the making. It never occured to me that Perdido was becoming forgotten by a younger crowd. I don't think that Perdido is the strongest of the books but it might just be the one (so far) to be most remembered by furture readers and considered a classic.

"imbuing it with a sense of moral outrage over the degradations that people force upon others (and themselves, on occasion) that rarely is touched upon in modern literature."

As a reader of mystery/crime fiction I'm not too sure that I agree with this. But I'm not going to jack this into another direction, I just wanted to say that I disagree. Also In addition to some novels/authors I would say that the "highest moral outrage" currently being expressed is by David Simon in The Wire.

Lsrry said...

Fair enough assessment there, Brian. I too think Miéville's latter works are stronger, but it's PSS that either captures or loses a great many. As for that statement, I probably should have qualified that with "fantastical", since there are other works that I can think of that do touch upon some of the same themes. However, taken as a whole, there just aren't all that many "social justice" novels being written today in the same vein that a Hard Times was written. But you're right - quibbling would take this in a whole new direction :P

Robert said...

What an excellent article Larry! As someone who's never read any of Mieville's work, this was perfect :) I just got a copy of Un Lun Dun, but I'll probably start with either The Scar or Perdido Street Station...

Lsrry said...

Good to hear that you're going to try him out for size, Robert :D There's a lot in there that I think would appeal to you, especially how Miéville uses language to great effect. Let me know what you think of his stories later, okay? :D

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