Posts Tagged ‘New Crobuzon’

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Okay, so short stories.

Part of me loves short stories. The precision, the concision, the economy of language within them – read The Dead by James Joyce. Part of me, however, longs for the lengthy, relaxed familiarity you get with the characters in a novel, even in the best of the genre.

In the worst collections of short stories, you get the impression that the author has swept up the offcuts and cast-off fragments from his editing desk and served them up.

So reading any short story collection is a double-edged sword for me.

But Miéville has such a range to his writings and such a wealth of imagination and control over his voices and depth to his settings that I was looking at this with a lot of excitement. And in main part, this collection was wonderful and rich. Not every story in the collection chimed with me – but then you’d expect that from a short story collection. We also have more than just short stories here: the collection includes monologues, meditations and screenplays for film trailers as well as short stories. And within the collection, Miéville takes us into his familiar weird fiction milieus: familiar and recognisable locations confronted by the bizarre and inexplicable such as walking oil rigs, floating icebergs and a sickness which surrounds the infected with a moat. In addition to this, we encounter magic realism, horror, zombie apocalypses and science fiction.

Let’s have a quick canter of some of the most successful stories (at least for me).

  • Sӓcken was Miéville’s foray into horror and begins in familiar enough territory: a pair of innocent girls stay in an isolated lakeside cottage in the forests of Germany. Something horrific drags itself from the lake and into the girls’ lives. In itself, the scenario is traditional enough but Miéville’s control over the horror and his navigation of the territories of scepticism, doubt, nightmare and horror was wonderful.  As were his descriptions of the

“nightmare calf born without limbs or head or eyes but full of tumors”.

  • After The Festival was wonderfully viscerally creepy. Imagining a world in which revellers attend celebrations of slaughter and cooking, and afterwards decked themselves with the severed heads of the slaughtered animals was wonderful. Imagine now the worms burrowing from those heads into the flesh of the people beneath, revealing the animal within the human condition, and the craving those people have for those heads.
  • The 9th Technique was, perhaps, the most truly Miévillian in the collection. The description of the diner in which clandestine magical black market transactions was brilliantly evoked and made the purchase of the potent puissance-laden cocoon credible. I wonder how many Miéville-readers wondered whether the cocoon contained a slake moth! Again, the beauty is in Miéville’s descriptions as much as anything: the glass jar in which his protagonist, Koning, placed the cocoon

“did not break and it did not bow or bend or inflate grotesquely as if heated and made soft, but it was harder and harder to lift, denser and denser with shadow.”

  • The Dowager of Bees, in my mind, was the most evocative story and showed the greatest control to maintain its conciseness. A gambler discovers that there are impossible and unknown hidden suits of cards capable of manifesting inside any pack of cards in any game, warping reality around them, inserting additional chapters of rules into rule books whenever they appear. The imagery of the cards themselves – with echoes of tarot cards and magic in themselves – and the idea that these cards were somehow conscious or sentient.

I did miss with these stories what has, for me, been the cornerstone of Miéville’s writings: the urban, thriving, decaying, living cities, whether they be London from The Kraken, New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station or Armada from The Scar. Obviously, that is inherent within the brevity of the genre and at times there are suggestions of it. Dan’s flight in Estate in which he “fingered walls and bollards. He passed a knocked-over bin and knelt to examine it”, where he seemed to be reading the cityscape the way a tracker might read a forest, came close. And then the London of Polynia seemed curiously blank in contrast.

All in all, this collection offers a number of rich and lush gems, all the more evocative for being so concise, and a myriad of interesting ideas and conceits.

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Hmmm… where to start with this one?

It’s a book on which I am still ruminating and which is still rattling away inside my brain after a couple of days. Nagging at me. Gnawing at my consciousness. And Miéville’s writing does that: it dwells and lingers and questions and challenges you. That is why Miéville is one of my favourite authors.

Embassytown is a novel about language – with or without a capital L – and imagination, identity, and thought. And, as always with Miéville, a city. A divided city.

This novel is Miéville’s entry into science fiction so the city is located in a far distant planet. The planet is home to the Ariekei, a particularly alien and enigmatic race known as Hosts to the colonists in the human town embedded in the Ariekene City. The divide here – unlike the sublime The City And The City – is very physical: the Ariekene atmosphere is unbreathable to humans and they are limited to artificially produced atmosphere called Aeoli. Our first introduction to the city follows the attempts of our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, to penetrate

what was not quite a hard border but was still remarkably abrupt, a gaseous transition, breezes sculpted with nanotechnology particle-machines and consummate atmosphere artistry – to write Avice on the white wood. Once on a whim of bravado I patted the nest’s flesh anchor where it interwove with the slats. It felt as tight as a gourd.

The Hosts aren’t described in detail but remain enigmatic and hard to picture: their motion is crablike, and sometimes insectile; they walk precisely but on hooves; they have both fanwings and giftwings; they see through multiple eye-corals. And, critically, two mouths which speak simultaneously. There is something H. R. Giger about the organic insectile Hosts and their organic “biorigged” City.

The dual mouths creates obvious problems for communication which is exacerbated because their Language

is organised noise, like all of our are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen…. Hosts’ minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue.

The words are the thoughts which they refer to. The signifier is the signified, in Saussarean terminology. As a result, computer generated voices could replicate the words but not the thought and therefore could not be understood as words. The solution? To use twins and, eventually create clones embedded with augmentations to create the impression of a single mind speaking through two mouths who act as Ambassadors between the humans and the Ariekei. Their names with their artificially capitalised second syllable reflect the strange artificial construct that the two people are a single mind: CalVin, MagDa, EzRa, YlSib, BrenDan.

Another complication of the Ariekeis’ Language is their inability to lie: because the thought is the word, the word can only be true. Metaphors are – literally – unthinkable. Even similes can only exist if the actual comparison has occurred and, to that effect, people are co-opted into acting out similes to become enLanguaged. And one such enLanguaged is our heroine Avice Benner Cho. I’m sure that such a language-steeped book has not chosen the ABC of our protagonist’s name coincidentally!

So, does the book work? Yes. Oh gosh yes. In the main.

The City and Embassytown are wonderfully evoked albeit perhaps less rendered than New Crobuzon, Armada or Kraken‘s London. There are fewer textures to the city and fewer dimensions, perhaps simply because Embassytown is a smaller and less diverse culture as a colonial outpost than these other older cities.

Miéville also delights in the opportunity Science Fiction gives to explore his own language with reasonable and credible etymologies and he often throws the reader in without glossing. His characters speak Anglo-Ubiq, a ubiquitous English; humans are described as Terre, derived from our Terran origin; non-human species are known as exots or exoterres from outside the Terran system; computers are Turingware; holographic three-dimensional messages are known as trid, the etymology of which may be clearer if a dash is added tri-d; and miabs deliver post and goods like messages in a bottle. I loved the way these neologisms jarred momentarily before becoming accepted just as part of the architecture of the world.

You do run into the occasional exposition in the novel: Avice’s husband, Scile, is a linguist and her friend Bren is a (part of an) Ambassador and both of them offer explanations of the Hosts’ Language. I had no problem with these occasional expositions: they were done well, timed effectively and weren’t hugely obtrusive.

I was far less convinced by the (fortunately brief) space travel section. The Immer – a strange alternate subspace in which distances were altered – was intriguing but very much in the background. It was little more than an excuse to take Avice off-world in order to have her return and occupy that liminal space of the outsider-native. There is potential within the concept of the Immer – warped dimensionality, fluid distances, strange pseudo-animalistic creatures – the possibility of it being sentient itself…

Did I love this book? Yes. Yes I did. I’m still baffled by it. But that bafflement feels good. I don’t know whether the book’s ending is triumphal or defeatist or, like the Ariekene Language, both simultaneously. At an intellectual level I love that the novel explores language and linguistics so explicitly and dwells on the power of language to enable thinking. Can we imagine that which we cannot articulate? Can thought be circumscribed by words? The book also works as a cracking science fiction adventure: the new Ambassador heralds in a catastrophe, war rages, our lone hero uncovers conspiracies, secret societies and embarks on a dangerous quest.

The narrative drive is suborned to the intellectual and linguistic explorations more than occurs in the Bas-Lag trilogy and the characters are less colourful but it does still work at that level.

Perhaps not my favourite Miéville novel but a great stand-alone challenging read.

Before you finish reading just cast an eye over the following image, the gorgeous cover art for Miéville’s works. See how that duality underplays each image: divided, distinct, disparate and yet conjoined, cohesive and collective. I was struggling a little to maintain the somewhat arbitrary alliteration there! Just gorgeous sensual covers.

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Miéville is one of my favourite authors: acutely political, wildly imaginative and linguistically sparkling.

I discovered him through Perdido Street Station and adored the sprawling city of New Crobuzon: mercantile, rapacious, brutal but utterly compelling. It is a city populated by renegade scientists, scarab-headed khepri, eagle faced garuda, the amphibian vodyanoi, the cactacae and brutally Remade criminals. And badgers. This entire melting pot of a city – which reminds me of the bastard child of Ankh-Morpork and William Blake’s London – is in the shadow of the towering ossified ribs of some unfathomable creature.

Since I read Perdido Street Station, I have delved into Miéville’s more real-world novels, The Kraken, The City and The City as well as the sublimely gorgeous (allegedly) Young Adult Railsea. I had however skipped the other two books in Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy: The Scar and Iron Council.

The Scar is a sequel to Perdido Street Station only tangentially: the events take place in the same world and follow on chronologically but we have a completely different set of characters and setting. And races.

Save for a few interludes, we follow the novel through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine, a somewhat acerbic, chain smoking cynic, fleeing New Crobuzon for its distant colony Nova Esperia. That journey is interrupted, however, when Bellis and her fellow passengers and entire ship are taken by pirates and subsumed into the floating city of Armada.

Armada is a fabulous creation, nearly as puissant (a word you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read the book) in the imagination as New Crobuzon. A floating city. Composed of thousands of hijacked ships from a hundred cultures over hundreds of years. Lashed together. Re-configured. Broken apart and re-fitted. And despite its isolation in the oceans, it hums with life: factories, libraries, bars, farms and parklands all knitted into the carcasses of the stolen ships.

We encounter new races: scabmettlers whose blood congeals immediately on contact with the air to form impenetrable armours; vampires, known as vampir or haemophages – haemophage what a great word! – who don’t stalk the benighted streets but who rule one of the city’s ridings openly in the shape of the Brucolac; the bloodsucking mosquito people or anophilii trapped on an island; the part crustacean cray people; and the grindylow who shadow the narrative from the opening pages but who don’t make an appearance until the final chapters.

I loved the grindylow who seem to occupy a space between the monstrous and justice. This is Miéville’s description of them once he introduces them into the story:

They jutted prognathous jaws, their bulging teeth frozen in meaningless grimaces, massive eyes absolutely dark and unblinking. Their arms and chests were humanoid, tightly ridged with muscles and stretched skin, grey-green and black, shiny as if with mucus. And, narrowing at the waist, the grindylow bodies extended like enormous eels, into flat tails several times longer than their bodies.
The grindylow swam in the air. They flickered, sending quick S-curves down the lengths of their extended tails, rippling them liquidly.

As is typical with Miéville there are a number of stories working simultaneously. The novel is about Bellis’ refusal to be assimilated into the city of Armada and her eventual resignation; it is about The Lovers – the most powerful leaders in the city – and their plan to raise a monstrous sea creature, the avanc, harness its strength to tow the city and reach the titular Scar, a break in reality, in order to mine possibility from it; it is about the machinations of Simon Fench and his attempts to be rescued from Armada; it dwells on Tanner Sack, a Remade convict freed by Armada, who embraces his new life and second chance with both arms – and both grafted-on tentacles.

Ahhh the avanc! There is something deliciously Lovecraftian in this vast inter dimensional sea creature, summoned, harnessed and docilely and implacably towing the city. The descriptions of it in seismic and geological terms are astoundingly beautiful and powerful. Does this creature echo something Melvillian too? The desperate quests, first for this massive leviathan and then the Scar itself, had something of Ahab in them.

Scars in the novel are as significant as you’d expect from a novel with this name! The Lovers cut and scar each other over and again to prove and mark their love for each other, freggios intended to claim a lover and mar their beauty to ensure their fidelity. Tanner Sack remakes his own Remade body to become amphibian. Floggings leave scars. One of the most moving depictions of scars may be Shekel (a teenage New Crobuzoner who forms a relationship with a Remade woman

She was Remade she was Remade (Remade scum), he knew it, he saw it, and still he felt incessantly what was inside him, and he felt a great scab of habit and prejudice split from him, part from his skin where his homeland had inscribed him deep.
Heal me, he thought…. There was a caustic pain as he peeled off. Clot of old life and exposed himself open and u sure to her, to new air. Breathing fast again. His feelings welled out and bled together (their festering ceased) and they began to resolve, to heal in a new form, to scar.

Once Tanner had re-Remade his body, the doctor informs him that he will scar but that scars “are not injuries…. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”

I also found that the passages in which Bellis translated particularly resonant with the sense that language was passing through her without the associations of meanings. My next Miéville book is going to be Embassytown, his foray into science fiction, which (I believe) will again explore the idea of interpretation, translation and the power of and our relationship with language.

This is one of those novels which, when you finish it, leaves you with the sense that you have only scratched the surface. The same feeling, in fact, which Bellis is left with. Who actually was in control of the city? Who or what was Uther Doul? What was his actual relationship with the Lovers who appeared to be his superiors; the Brucolac who haled from the same culture, albeit the Brucolac was an ab-dead vampir and Doul a living human; and with Bellis? Did Bellis come to accept that Armada could become her home?

Having cast as eye over a handful of other reviews of this book, I think Miéville’s had a bit of a pounding on sites like Goodreads. People have complained that he overuses certain phrases such as puissance for magical power or thaumaturgy for a steampunk mixture of magical and scientific force. I think they’re missing the point: Miéville is consciously eschewing or subverting typical cliched fantasy tropes and creating his own. Oddly, I did feel that his descriptions of the cactacae relied overly on the phrase “fibrous vegetable muscles”. However, having just searched for the word vegetable in my e-version of the book, I find that it occurs only four times. In over 500 pages.

Perception can be a strange thing!

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