Posts Tagged ‘The Scar’

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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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Sedgwick has been on my radar for a few years now, creeping into the shortlists for the Carnegie Medal regularly. I’d previously read his White Crow, and Midwinterblood. The first of those I had thoroughly enjoyed, bouncing between time zones; the second was breathtaking, tracing echoes of a story back through generations and encompassing wartime escapes, ghost stories and vampires, all with a mythic resonance. 

My Swordhand Is Singing is in many ways simpler than either of those: the structure is a straight forward chronological one; the narrative is strongly plot-driven; the language is sparse and economical.

The novel revolves around a father and son, Tomas and Peter, itinerant woodcutters who have settled in a small village called Chust in a Central European setting. In the vicinity of Romania. Or Transylvania.

Sedgwick, for me, captured two things effectively in this novel: the brooding presence of Mother Forest in which humanity is trying to carve out its niche; and the ritualised superstitions the villagers used to protect themselves from the oncoming winter. The tar daubed on houses. Hawthorn briars thrown into graves. The wedding of the dead. The haunting song of the dead, The Miorita. This is a community to which fear clung closely: the practical fear of a hard winter; the suspicious fear of strangers; the superstitious fear of the dead rising. 

Because this is, at heart, a vampire tale – and that may well have been one reason why I had allowed it to slip down my to-be-read pile. Young Adult. Vampire. The fear of reliving the torture that was reading Twilight may have allowed other books to overshadow this one. 



But, I could not have been more wrong! Sedgwick’s undead “hostages” are as far removed from Edward Cullen – or indeed Stoker’s Dracula – as you could want. He does not dwell too long on the descriptions of the undead but they are bloated corpses, twisted by jealousy and malevolence towards the living, more reminiscent of zombies than either the urbane Dracula or the glittery Cullens. 

There are some confusions, I felt, in the depiction of the vampires. Characters told us that they returned to their homes after death, leaving their wives pale and weak – nodding the Lucy Westenra; or cunning enough to pretend to be another person. Yet there was a bestiality to them when we saw them and a bloodlust which seemed just a little jarring. 

This may be the result of Sedgwick’s deliberate attempt to create a vampire tale consistent with its earliest roots. He has clearly done his research and helpfully includes an Author’s Note listing all the names they are known by: krvoijac, vukodlak, wilkolak, varcolac, vurvolak, liderc nadaly, liougat, kulkutha, moroii, strigoii, murony, streghoi, vrykolakoi, upir, dschuma, velku dlaka, nachzehrer, zaloznye, nosferatu. I knew some of these already – and can see potential derivations of The Brucolac, the vampire lord from China Miéville’s The Scar – and nearly broke autocorrect copying them out! I do wonder whether the effort to reconcile such divergent original stories explains for some of the slight contradictions. 

There is a presence in the novel of the Shadow Queen who, even within the universe of the novel, occupies a space  between myth and superstition. This novel’s sequel, The Kiss Of Death, picks up on Peter’s quest to find her. There’s certainly enough here to make me keep an eye out for that one, although, set in Venice, away from the primitive world of Mother Forest, it would have a very different tone. 

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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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