Books, science fiction

“Sometimes Life Really Was a B-Movie.”

Every now and again, you write a review you feel a little guilty about. Not only has China Miéville given me hours of pleasure with his previous novels; his latest, Kraken, was given to me as a very thoughtful birthday present by dear friends. So it feels churlish to have to admit I didn’t enjoy the novel – particularly as, I am fairly sure, I just didn’t give it the shake it deserved. But there you have it – I cannot tell a lie. I did not, alas, enjoy Kraken.

In this, as in my reaction to The City & The City, I’m in the minority. By and large, Kraken has received positive reviews which speak of a further gear change upwards for the darling of British SF&F. James Long at Speculative Horizons is typical: “Kraken is an excellent example of the potential that the fantasy genre possesses when its boundaries are pushed and pulled. It’s also the sign of a writer working at the height of his creativity; in terms of sheer imaginative power, Miéville blows most other writers away.” In a sense Long is right, since Kraken is nothing if not a non-stop parade of arresting images – striking familiars, grisly cultists, giant disappearing squid. But what felt lacking to me was the thread which joined all this invention together.

Perdido Street Station was in many ways a more intense blast of imagination; but it also featured vivid characters and a number of plots and subplots which coalesced to tell not just a complete story, but map an entire city. What is interesting about Kraken is that, despite the clear love for London Miéville again displays throughout its length, the novel’s thesis of London – its multiplicity, its near-infinite capacity – never quite comes together. In each positive review of the book, an aspect of this failure is allowed: Damien G Walter admits the novel’s cardboard characterisation; Gary Wolfe notes the curious passivity, the blandness, of its narrators and voice; and though Thea at The Book Smugglers is I think too harsh on the novel, there’s something in the criticism that Kraken is very close to a plotless melange of occurance. It’s a novel full of sound and fury, one might say.

To quote the first two of those reviews out of context is, however, unfair to Miéville. I’ve been distracted and over-stretched in the last week or so, and it may be that I simply did not give the novel its due attention – certainly, Gary Wolfe in particular is a careful reader whom one can usually trust to pay the proper attention. I may have missed a lot that he didn’t. In a way, I hope  I did. Take, for instance, this from his Locus piece:

Sometimes utterly chilling and sometimes very funny, it is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve seen to successfully combine elements of everything from the Victorian terror-tale to surrealism and Pynchonesque absurdity, and a good deal in between (several influences, such as Moorcock and Leiber, Dr. Who and Star Trek, are called out directly in the text, and for a while our hero is even armed with a Trek-like phaser).

This sounds like an awesome book. I hope that in a few months I can go back to the one on my shelves and find it to contain this great, coherent gumbo. What I found it to be, alas, was a somewhat floppy blancmange, all cute genre references without much in the way of meaningful combination. Not only that, but the conceit which asks ‘what would the world be like if all the conspiracy theories were right?’, and then applies the answer to its plot, is hardly as original as many of Miéville’s reviewers have supposed. In his recent review of Lost, Adam Roberts criticised the later years of The X-Files for assuming that everything was true; no milieu, no concept – not even Miéville’s beloved London – can in fact contain everything. This Kraken has a case of indigestion.

This difficulty is reflected even in Miéville’s prose, usually so skilful at leading the reader through what in a lesser writer’s hand would be impenetrable syntax and obfuscatory diction. Put simply, Kraken feels like Miéville squeezing, forcing, it all in. “He knew that he should listen,” we read at one point, “that he should wait and say nothing, if even he could answer the questions, which mostly he could not even if he would, which he would not, because this would not end.” [pg. 300] Got it? No, me neither. In Miéville’s defence, this garbled sentence comes from the point of view of a character being put to the question by a Cthuluish cult. But the bloated style is everywhere: “A pretty drab metaphor, such obvious correspondences; here he was about to pass on a message through the city’s traditional conduits.” [pg. 184] Or, “She glimpsed a look on his face so aghast it almost made you wince to see it, almost you could sob for it if you weren’t held in still-split time.” [pg. 426] You get what Miéville’s trying to do, but wish he’d try a little less. The lack of neologisms and thesaurus fodder this time around is deceptive – the prose here is doing more, not less, heavy lifting.

Or maybe that’s just me. In its dense, reference-heavy, high-octane and tricksy simulacra of a traditional plot, perhaps Kraken simply left my strung-out brain behind. “Kraken is full-strength, grade-A geekitude,” argues Jason Heller at the AV Club. “And as such, it’s brilliant.” Really? It’s brilliant because it has a Torchwood pastiche? Early on, Miéville’s protagonist, Billy Harrow, is told by his best friend that, “You can sneak out of the nerd ghetto and hide the badge and bring back food and clothes and word of the outside world.” [pg. 6] Kraken is a book happy to play in the nerd sandbox. Had it done so with a little more discipline, it may have been a great book – undoubtedly, Miéville’s intellect remains powerful and percipient. But in my reading Kraken failed in its core project to contain its multifarious inventions and borrowings, and as the twisted adventure story it wants to be it cannot satisfy in its pacing. What started out nealty amusing ended, for me, over-extrapolated and wearying.

And yet, every now and then, I write a review about which I feel a little guilty. Go on, read Kraken and tell me how I can do better next time.

Sometimes utterly chilling and sometimes very funny, it is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve seen to successfully combine elements of everything from the Victorian terror-tale to surrealism and Pynchonesque absurdity, and a good deal in between (several influences, such as Moorcock and Leiber, Dr. Who and Star Trek, are called out directly in the text, and for a while our hero is even armed with a Trek-like phaser).
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One thought on ““Sometimes Life Really Was a B-Movie.”

  1. Oh, but is it the truth isn’t it? Every now and then, even our favorite author writes a book that has all the right stuff… but just doesn’t bring it to bare to the work they are doing. I know I can’t do it everytime….

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