“Can You Shortcut An Insight-Hunt?” China Miéville’s “Railsea”

Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! [Hamlet, I. V. 148-163]

The mole, that subterranean mammal, is a metaphor embodied: visible only before and after its tunneling, the very matter of its life – the movement from A to B – is invisible, and untellable. Where Shakespeare used the image in part as a cheap joke – one assumes Hamlet’s ghost appeared on stage via a trapdoor – Marx used the mole as the conveyor of revolution through history. As is often the case, Marx brings us to China Miéville, whose latest novel, Railsea, depicts characters hunting moles as Ahab hunted whales – relentlessly, monomaniacally, significantly.

The giant, mutated moles of Railsea are explicitly freighted – like the weird trains that chase them – with meaning: their hunters are said to be hunting their “philosophy”, a conceptual as well as a corporeal being with which they are forever associated in the popular imagination. This embodying shapes the text in a variety of complex and metatextual ways in a manner which might surprise some parts of the intended audience for this, a YA novel: most obviously, the prominent stylistic innovation of using the ampersand throughout is explained by the symbol’s similarity-on-the-page to the way in which a train changes direction. “What word better could there be,” asks the author rhetorically, directly addressing the reader for neither the first or last time, “to symbolise the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself?” [pg. 143]

That railsea is the novel’s most striking invention. The world of Railsea is arid and oceanless – moles burst from the desert like the sandworms of Arrakis – and connecting the scattered ‘islands’ of humanity in this unforgiving landscape are vast, criss-crossing stretches of rail. Far from unidirectional, the trains which travel on the railsea are constantly shifting the rails’ points as they ride, switching and navigating the railsea dependent upon speed, direction and gauge. There is something gee-whiz about this improbable world – Miéville makes little detailed effort to sketch in its history, beyond implying that the railsea exists on the charred remnants of a planet which was once our own – that will surely capture a YA readership. Yet the manner in which Miéville explores his conceit – self-referentially, and with quite astonishing prosody – underscores first and foremost a respect to that readership, an aliveness to the fact that a cool premise is not enough to capture the oft-patronised YA audience, but also suggests a less market-oriented project to write a novel on a number of levels and for a variety of readers.

This is a fitting purpose for a novel which revels in multiplicity. Ostensibly the story of its protagonist, the pleasingly named Sham ap Shoorap, Railsea very rapidly expands to encompass a range of supporting characters and their own, various, stories. This ecumenical spirit drifts through Sham’s narrative, and shapes his experience of it: early on, Sham feels sure that “there was something he fervently wanted to do & to which he was excellent suited” [pg. 17], and yet he is consistently frustated in his attempts to figure out what that may be. Indeed, when Sham’s surrogate parents, whose reunion with their charge takes place suspiciously early on, go so far as to tell him, “You’re a proper grown man now” [pg. 89], and proceed thus to invite him to the pub, we begin to understand that Miéville is rather wryly playing with our expectations of the YA bildungsroman. The echoes of Patrick Ness’s generously subversive Chaos Walking trilogy resonate throughout Railsea – Sham’s parents are both men, whilst the other child protaonists, the mysterious explorers known as the Shroakes, are the offspring of a line marriage, and similarly violence is never shied away from (the novel opens by announcing itself to be “the story of a bloodstained boy” [pg. 1]) – but Miéville goes further than Ness, questioning the very concept that a YA novel must teach its protagonist a lesson. Indeed, it is no less an unreliable source as a pirate who parrots a familiar kind of platitude: “Don’t you think there’s someone out there on the railsea on a salvagetrain, & all the time when they pass moletrains they’re like, ‘They do such more exciting stuff than me.'” [pg. 164]  In many other such novels, that would be the moral: here, they’re the poorly expressed weasel words of a thief.

This distrust of the didactic is mirrored in the stories of others: Captain Naphi, the commander of the Medes, the moletrain on which Sham serves as a doctor’s assistant, is in hot pursuit of a great white moldywarpe; Sham imagines the competitive bar-talk of her fellow captains, each of whom also hunts a philosophy, wryly observing the “one-upmanship, one-upcaptainship, of the themes some quarries had come to mean.” [pg. 85]  When Naphi tells Sham that, “I’m a moler. You are a doctor’s assistant. Whatever you saw or thought you saw, it has nothing to do with your life & aims, whatever they might be, any more than it does with mine” [pg. 79], he takes a dim view of the concept that a person’s role must limit the knowledge they are allowed to accrue. Even the Shroakes, whom Sham comes to idealise, admit that, though their explorer parents “took them all over”, they “can’t say we know anywhere.” [pg. 169]   The closest Sham comes to the de rigeur completion expected of such a character, then, is the refusal not to continue to learn and question: “I’m not a kid any more,” he tells himself at one point. “Shouldn’t take anything for granted.” [pg. 257]

All of this makes Sham one of the best-realised and most well-rounded of Miéville’s characters since Bellis Coldwine, the protagonist of what I consider to be Miéville’s best novel, The Scar. In his recent work, concept has tended to trump character – from the admittedly conflicted, but also necessarily rather shallow, Inspector Borlú of The City & the City, to Embassytown‘s frankly anonyous Avice Cho – and its refreshing to see the two proceed in better tandem. Not only that, but the YA format appears to have freed Miéville to write the kind of prose which first made him famous: combative, rococo stuff full of neologisms and consonants. Indeed, the first half of the novel in particular is amongst the most exciting writing he has committed to paper again since The Scar:

Of all the gapers on the Medes none gaped harder than Sham. Shamus Yes ap Soorap. Big lumpy young man. Thickset, not always unclumsy, his brown hair kept short & out of trouble. Gripping a porthole, penguins forgotten, face like a light-hungry sunflower poking out of the cabin. In the distance the mole was racing through shallow earth, a yard below the surface. Sham watched the buckle in the tundra, his heart clattering like wheels on tracks. [pg. 6]

This attention to the rhythm and the flow – the appositeness – of the words he uses has become Miéville’s trademark, but in Railsea it often reaches a pitch unattained in much of his recent work. It is both more colourful and better targeted than in Kraken or Iron Council, and more disciplined than in his previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, which was replete with rather too much languageplay. Here, the puns – “Give me the inland or give me the open rails, only spare me the littoral-minded” [pg. 29] – and the witty plasticity – “Do please expedite this journey relevance-ward” [pg. 107] – are surprising little gems hidden amongst the layers, rather than the latest addition to an over-encrusted surface. It is true that in the final third of the novel, which shunts more cleanly into plot-driven territory, rolling relentlessly towards the destination long promised by the exploring Shroakes, Miéville rather falls back on dialogue and action, and events conspire more conventionally; but such is the work Railsea has already done that the reader does not feel the urge to disembark.

Indeed, the reader should stick around for the denouement, onto which Miéville tacks a parable about the foolishness of attaching financial value to every possible resource (“such intimations as there are to hunt […] revolve around money,” insists a pirate, against all Railsea‘s evidence to the contrary [pg. 218]). With such patience, he or she will witness Sham informing his monomaniacal captain that her aims are merely, “what you’ve wanted. The rest of us been wanting other, bloody, things!” [pg. 320]  The deliberate foregrounding of the inevitably heterodox significance of any story is the way in which Miéville embodies Sham’s core, but diffuse and open-ended, lesson. “To messy-minded humans,” the narrator intones shortly afterwards, “so glass-clear and precise a drive makes no sense at all. It is considerably less comprehensible than the ravings of those we call insance.” [pg. 329]

If this wilful imposition of an omnipotent voice, this attempt to provide the moral – to underline that variegation is the very stuff of human experience – is somewhat cheating the message of his own novel, Miéville can perhaps be forgiven given Railsea‘s intended readership: leaving them much more adrift in their own expectations could well have been considered a kind of unusual cruelty. Earlier, in fact, the author has gone further: “We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast and awesome hole.” [pg. 295] Distrust all philosophies, Railsea tells us, but hunt them all. This is not a perfect novel, but it is undoubtedly an invigorating one: told with brio and invention, it may remind many of what is not just intelligent or innovative about China Miéville’s fiction, but also what is entertaining and energising. It is something of a joy.


A Pregnant Widow: The Arthur C Clarke Award 2012

Previously: Embassytown [2], Rule 34, The End Specialist, Hull Zero Three, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, The Waters Rising

I seem to be in what is for me an unusual position within the sf reviewing diaspora: playing the role of apologist. I began my series of Clarke reviews by referring to Christopher Priest’s savaging of the shortlist and those who crafted it. Since then, he has written a gloss upon that post, reminding us that the fury of its original tone was a rhetorical device. No doubt this is true – and it was a ruthlessly effective one – but it has coloured even the moderate voices in the ensuing debate about the six books vying for the Award. David Hebblethwaite wants at least two wooden spoons to hand out amongst the nominees, but his round-up of the shortlist suggests he’d prefer something like five-and-a-half; Maureen Kincaid Speller, meanwhile, writes:

What strikes me immediately about the Clarke shortlist is how conservative its view of science fiction seems to be, and how unadventurous it is. It is almost as though it hankers after the dear dead days of proper science fiction, with spaceships, aliens, alarming science, women in jeopardy, men coming up with all the solutions.

It is impossible to argue that the Clarke’s shortlist is strong. It may well have been immeasurably strengthened not, in the way of many years, by the switching of one stinker for something smarter, but by a wholesale reconsideration of its choices: even the better books on the list preen more attractively because of the company they are keeping. Many seem to single out Magary’s The End Specialist as the real offender of the bunch, and it is certainly depressingly heteronormative; but it is clear to me that it is The Waters Rising which deserves most opprobrium: Magary’s is ultimately a deeply simple-minded novel, but it is not quite so vehemently shapeless. Something has gone very wrong when a shortlist features a book quite so poorly conceived, much less executed, as Tepper’s.

Simultaneously, and on the other hand, The End Specialist seems to me to offer a way in to what the shortlist has got right. It is not a great novel – it is barely a good throwaway thriller – but it is contemporary. I say this expecting a dozen rebuttals, and Maureen’s will be in the vanguard: this year’s shortlist, Magary most certainly included, is backward-looking, populated by tired clichés and tropes, and bereft of invention or dynamism. It is a gaggle of books which feature generation starships and cops and robbers, immortality and post-apocalyptic medievalism. Even the entry from China Miéville, so often cited as the standard-bearer for the next generation of sf writers, looks back to a kind of New Wave-ish aesthetic, all interplanetary hi-jinx and alien lifeforms.

I would argue, however, that the shortlist is a little more sophisticated than all that. That what these books represent is a stumbling in the dark, a pause at a moment in time when not just the genre but our world isn’t sure what will happen next. Allow me to reprise a technique from one of my Clarke pieces – on Embassytown – in which I argued for this reading most strongly. In a wonderful essay on Europe’s current malaise in a recent issue of the LRB, Neal Ascherson quotes Alexander Herzen:

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, MDS asks profound questions of a society which struggles to change (or rather, change ethically) to accomodate its implications; in The End Specialist, the material effects of immortality pose insoluble problems; in Hull Zero Three, the very act of carrying forward one’s society and culture into the future is brought into troubling question. The Waters Rising, punchdrunk on revulsion for our present world, cannot see a way forward for its dead-end empires that is not unconscionably – impossibly – radical. What these books do, and in way or another each renders itself fatally flawed as the demands of their task stretch existing logic to breaking point, is to find familiar tools, in the absence of any visible new ones, to bring to bear on their respective moments of crisis: that is, a chisel is insufficient to the task, but at least it can chip away, begin to find a shape.

This is a shortlist of conflict rather than resolution – which might explain its rather misshapen appearance. Does The Islanders, a work of art which Priest is right to be peeved has missed its moment in the sun, really speak to this sort of moment? I think not. Perhaps, of the frequently cited also-rans, only By Light Alone does. In terms of this shortlist, it is certainly Rule 34 and Embassytown which come closest to seeing a viable Beyond through the fog of systemic failure. Outside of their qualities as novels – and, again, each has downsides (Rule 34 can seem superficial and manic; Embassytown over-conceptualised and abstract) – there is a perhaps unfair reason to overlook the latter: Miéville has won too many Clarkes already. This may be part of what attracts me to Rule 34 as a winner – that and my surprise at even being able to finish it, given my previous experience with Stross’s unstructured ideas-dump prose. I think, too, though, that, if the shortlist can be said to have a story, it is Rule 34 that tells it best. It is the story of our times, a story which as yet has no end and perhaps only the sketchiest of middles.

This might not make for the best shortlist, and in some cases it certainly does not make for the best novels; but nor is is true that this is the wilfully perverse shortlist it might first appear to be. A vintage year? No. A vital one? Despite it all, maybe so.

“A knowledge of each other; a community”: Heidegger and “Embassytown”

"Mmm, gnarly quiddity."

The Strange Horizons Clarke Award shortlist review is, as it is every year (hem hem), worthwhile reading. This year, Adam Roberts – who modestly and coquettishly demurs from placing his own novel in his list of this year’s unjust also-rans – has taken the baton. It is impossible for him, too, to narrate this year’s shortlist as anything but a controversial, Sphinx-like offering, begging more than is usual for explication. I was reminded on Twitter this week of the 2005 shortlist, and in that light 2012’s offering is strange beer indeed. If I haven’t quite found a true trainwreck amongst the nominees yet – Roberts is right that The End Specialist is a clumsy, superficial novel, but in the context of the episodic airport thriller it aims to be it passes inoffensively – this is not, alas, the same as saying the shortlist is good.

Amongst the first triad of books he considers, there is only one that Roberts seems genuinely to believe should be on a shortlist of this kind: China Miéville’s Embassytown. Consequently, he spends the largest and most entertaining part of his piece discussing said playful treatise on Language and metaphor. Here’s the money shot: “The problem, if I can put it like this, is that Miéville’s conception of language itself is insufficiently Heideggerian. […]  The ground of Embassytown‘s linguistic conception of veracity (“Everything in Language is a truth claim,” the novel tells us (p. 60)) is parsed via an unexamined correspondence theory of truth [… and this] very lack of dialectical possibility, except in the authorial get out clause of “madness,” in the Host Language vitiates precisely the ground of the novel as a whole.”

Roberts likes the final revolutionary third of Embassytown – when the Hosts learn how to lie and in their conceptual madness destroy the society they have built around their assumptions – but he finds the novel’s central metaphor fatally undermined by an intellectual stumble: baldly (Roberts knows few of his readers will have so thorough a grounding in linguistic philosophy as he), and contra Miéville, it is not useful to conceive of truth as objective. It is at this point, dear reader, that my recent reading collides, and I risk mixing not metaphors but philosophers. Here’s John Lanchester in a recent LRB, on Marx at 193:

In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order. Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

I don’t think that the blindspot Roberts identifies in Miéville is entirely divorced from this Marxist rejection of empiricism (of which school the Hosts are the fundamentalist wing). Where Heidegger places value on being in the world, Marx prizes changing it. For Marx, empiricism is suspicious precisely because it makes conceptual breakthrough more difficult. In my own post on Embassytown, I wrote that the novel “links language not just to sentience but to will.” I think, and I would say this, that thinking about Miéville’s purpose in this way goes some way to squaring Roberts’s circle: that Language is, as characters in the novel happily accept, impossible – that it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what truth is, and how we can arrive at it, that it is static and didactic – is part of the point. Remember Iron Council, that other Marxian Miéville novel which shouldn’t have won the Clarke Award? Embassytown‘s like that, but a bit better. It’s about steaming away from common sense.

I’m not really arguing with Professor Roberts – in fact, I agree with practically every word of his review (though maybe not with “tweedledumtweedledee-ish”), and Miéville’s self-imposed difficulty is that he has muddied the waters between language and politics – but it’s worth adding this warp to the weft of his critique.  Indeed, to follow through on my emerging theme for this year’s shortlist, Embassytown is about creating a new kind of community. That can only be done, within the confines of Embassytown’s exploitative capitalist model, by rejecting precisely the anti-Heideggerian conception of truth Roberts identifies. If you’re to change the world, you first have to change the way you think – and if you’re to depict that change, you must depict the way of thinking that holds it back. Embassytown can be seen, for better or worse, to literalise this process in Language. Its shortcomings – and, like Besźel and Ul Qoma before it, Language certainly has them – are, in its defence, part of the point.

“We’ve Been Like Countless Things”: China Miéville’s “Embassytown”

I find myself writing the second review in a week in which I wish to ignore the author. This isn’t especially because I subscribe to Barthesian canards, though in discussing a novel like China Miéville’s Embassytown recourse to a semiotician might not be so very bad an idea. It’s simply that so many other reviews of this and of the novel I wrote about on Wednesday, Great House, will refer to the controversies surrounding their respective writers that, wearily, their identity becomes almost the least interesting thing about their book. (The great absence at the centre of my piece on Great House, of course, was that Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer – Patrick Ness has summarised my feelings on this ‘issue’ so that I don’t have to.)

Miéville’s mantelpiece strains under the weight of an unprecedented haul of genre awards; Embassytown arrives in a stable already full of some of the finest thoroughbreds the track has seen in the last decade; and, as a longterm fan of his, I could write passably about how this new book resembles The City & The City in form and style more than it does the Bas-Lag trilogy that made his name, despite a return to ‘core genre’ trappings. But the (perhaps enviable) difficulty faced by a book welcomed with such breathless expectation is that it risks being lost in these comparisons and contextualisations. Impossible as it is to separate the novel from these kinds of questions, forgive me for now if I try and decide what sort of a book Embassytown is, rather than what sort of a writer its author might be.

It is, first and foremost, an intellectual pursuit (and, yes, here we might consider, if we were so minded, Miéville’s previous form in using the novel as an engine for an idea): set on a planet at the outer reaches of a future ‘Terran diaspora’, Embassytown is the story of a ghetto-cum-trading-post-cum-consulate, inserted at the edge of a city inhabited by the Ariekei, known as the Hosts by the human interlopers and a species which speaks quite literally with a double tongue. Slyly, this literalness is not matched metaphorically, since the Ariekei are incapable of speaking that which is not – they cannot lie, since for them to speak is to think, and they can no more speak what they do not think than a human can have faith in what they know not to be true.

Two observations about this sleight of hand: first, it is an inversion of the laziest of SF cliches, in which the physical qualities of an alien species are used in some way to signify their moral status in the work’s analogy or social comment; secondly, this encoding in the text of the Hosts’ inability precisely to signify is characteristic of the novel’s extreme subtelty. We might, were we interested here in Miéville’s oeuvre, observe that earlier in his career the criticism most often levelled at his writing was its wildness, its unconstrained insistence upon itself. The Miéville we now read is more controlled, far more ruthless with himself and his language.

This process of self-editing, this consideration of verbiage, may well be what has given rise to a book about language – or, more properly, Language, the capitalised tongue spoken by the Hosts. Language is spoken by two mouths – a Cut and a Turn, to provide their technical descriptors – which humans cannot replicate except by a merciless genetic engineering which bonds test-tube twins as an empathic, double-tongued Ambassador. Ariekei recognise speech only when it is spoken by two voices with a mind behind them – synthesised language is meaningless to them, as is the ‘Anglo-Ubiq’ spoken by the individual humans whom remain unsure that the Hosts recognise them even as sentient. Embassytown thus links language not just to sentience but to will – the Ariekei can only comprehend words like their own which proceed from a directing intelligence. In their inability to lie, however, the Hosts lack what we might think of as the crowning achievement, and the original sin, of such intelligence: invention and imagination.

For instance, Hosts must contrive to place humans in a particular situation if they to be able even to speak of that situation. Thus, the novel’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is taken as a child to a room full of Ariekei, where she becomes the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. She and others – the man who catches fish every week, for example – are entered into Language as similes. “I am like the girl who was hurt and ate what was given her,” a Host might say if just that happened to it. That is, Language does not signify; it refers. Miéville is interested in how language controls thought, and vice versa – about how it holds us back as much as it might enable us to imagine the next place. (Anne at Pornokitsch is particularly good on Embassytown’s moment of revelation.)

Issues of control are especially charged in the complicated colonial relationship Embassytown (the place, not the novel) negotiates: its human inhabitants teach the Hosts how to trade, thus obtaining access to the resources of a planet rich particularly in biotechnology; yet the Ariekei remain, in the superstitious and polite culture of Embassytown, almost god-like in the reverence they are afforded by the humans. When Embassytown’s ruling power, Bremen, dispatches a new kind of Ambassador – one not manufactured on Arieke but compiled on the humans’ distant motherworld – something about how they speak Language ruptures this delicate balance. That Miéville has avoided in the previous pages anything banally analogous to a colonial relationship in our own past enables a series of quite bewildering narrative developments (at times, the reader suspects that this is less a novel and more a masterfully condensed trilogy). He is thus enabled to investigate a whole series of linked questions which would be impossible to juxtapose beyond the confines of a science fiction novel. To be sure, there’s something about Embassytown that gives you the sense you know it, that you’ve read it before – it is avowedly SFnal, to the brink of pulpishness. But Miéville continues to use genre wisely – uses it, as he always has should we care to remember, to refigure and recalibrate ideas and concepts. To posit, that is, new ways of imagining.

Nevertheless, and despite the swift narrative clip Embassytown establishes and maintains throughout, the novel risks becoming unbalanced towards its end, when the linguistics takes a necessary-but-noisy centre-stage. Avice routinely skips through and over time – the first half of the novel is told non-linearly, and its second habitually elides whole episodes – and this permits the novel an awful lot of room to grow almost out of sight, to plant ideas and concepts which feel to the reader to have a life of their own. But these are blotted out as the climax approaches, leaving only the promise of another novel in the series to answer our questions and tilt the uncertainly precarious finale of Embassytown one way or another. In a novel which does so much so elegantly, however, these are brutish complaints: in just 400 generously spaced pages Embassytown gives us interstellar flight (Avice has a brief career as an ‘Immerser’, travelling in the sub-reality shortcuts which connect her universe’s outposts), societal collapse (the passages which deal with the consequences on Ariekei civilisation of the Language spoken by Bremen’s Ambassador are some of the novel’s most memorably horrific), and conceptual transf0rmation (if the Ariekei can develop similes, how might they untether them from their referrents – how might they lie, fabulate, invent?).

Despite – or perhaps because of – this heterodoxy, Embassytown remains very much itself. It is muscular, confident and unusually coherent. It isn’t an homage, or a response, or merely the latest horse to arrive in the paddock. It is Embassytown, by China Miéville, and will require further thought.

Travailes Upon The State

A noted coalitionist.

In 1609, Sir Thomas Overbury expressed the case of those Englishmen who were pro-French yet anti-Catholic, a squared circle which superficially contradicted the Protestantism of all proud Englishmen:

“Now the only body in Christendome that makes head against the Spanish Monarchy, is France; and therefore they say in France, that the day of the ruin of France, is the Eve of the ruine of England: And thereupon England hath ever since the Spanish greatness, enclined to maintaine France rather than to ruine it.”

In Overbury’s eyes, England was, as it were, lashed to the mast.

Go read China Mieville.

SF and Experimentalism

SF makes this man cry.

A piece in the Observer’s New Review last weekend looked at an alleged decline in experimental fiction in English. “Avant garde fiction,” argued the writer, William Skidelsky, “at least in Britain and America, isn’t flourishing.” Skidelsky seemed to be defining experimentalism as a formal phenomenon – that is, one of style and structure rather than subject or theme. He opened his argument by recalling an NYRB review from Zadie Smith, in which she wrote that, “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.”

I’m not sure that analogy quite works on any level, but my first thought was the exclusion of genre fiction from the discussion: there are many exits from this highway on which Smith can perceive only one type of car (told you it didn’t quite work), but they lead off to ghettoes and undergrowth. Surely science fiction, that literature of ideas, is a redoubt of expertimentalism? It can’t be by accident that one of Skidelsky’s cited experimenters – David Mitchell – brings to his work a science fictional perspective, or that any number of other literary adventurists (Simon Ings, Scarlett Thomas) also know the genre. On further thought, though, I couldn’t say hand on heart that science fiction at its core was any more expeimental in the terms set by Skidelsky.

Take China Miéville, who, despite what I perceive to be recent mis-steps, remains one of SF’s most exciting and inventive writers. Formally, his novels are standard narratives: expansive, discursive and roccoco narratives, but straight-forward all the same. You might not be able to use Smith’s term ‘lyrical realism’ to describe his novels’ content, but their style is not so far removed. For every Philip K Dick, who (at times only) wrote novels which approached a Joyceian sensibility, science fiction has a John Brunner, whose Stand on Zanzibar is only experimental in so far as it echoes a standard form established by Dos Passos; or an Ian McDonald, a writer whom, for all his flair and multiple perspectives, tells a straight story straightly. McDonald’s Brasyl is an example of how SF can use the fluidity of time to add grain to its structures in a way that literary and mainstream fiction often cannot – but Woolf did Time Passes in 1927. Temporal hi-jinx is not in and of itself so very daring.

Film has used science fiction more experimentally, perhaps – from La Jetée or Solaris to Primer and 2046 – and one wonders if the way in which science fiction has become a dominant aesthetic of film gives directors a courage that their literary counterparts, still fighting a losing battle against their own field’s dominant mode, might lack. There are, of course, always writers at the edges – John Burnside in Glister, or Jeff VanderMeer in City of Saints and Madmen – who ask questions of the dominant mode. SF is certainly no less experimental than mainstream or literary fiction – the New Wave largely saw to that. But is it, despite all its potential for mind-bending pyrotechnics, for the most part cruising in a similar gear?


“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).

Mr H and Mr H Discuss The City & The City: Part Two

China Mieville’s The City and The City has just been published by Macmillan. It’s been getting some good press, yet I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. Nor did Torque Control’s Niall Harrison, so we’ve been talking over the book and trying to get at why we weren’t as impressed as other reviewers. The first part of this conversation can be found over at Torque Control. The second starts here, though those intending to read it should avoid both these installments – unlike other reviews of the book, we couldn’t contrive in this format to avoid discussing the central conceit of the novel, which Mieville has been quietly encouraging critics to obscure. Anyway … onwards.

"The City and The City", UK cover
"The City and The City" in the UK


Thanks for that Encyclopedia quote — I think it’s clear that the uncomfortable slush of elements is part of the point, then. That makes the book interesting as a lark, but winds up being integral to its failure. Mieville’s love of the neologism and pun isn’t new to this book, though, is it? He’s used termplay to do some heavy lifting in each of his novels, and in fact I’d say it’s central to his technique. It seems to me that one of the ways he inspires that ol’ sensawunda is by keeping things so vague: his characters, his cities, his political structures very often seem to be at one remove from the reader. We never quite understand them, and that deliberate inscrutability is key to his art. It’s on show here, too — those clever wordplays hint at without expositing different ways of thinking and being, whilst all of the characters, even Borlu, remain just in one way or another undrawn, unknowable.

And, again, this is where the ‘In Our World’ stuff intrudes. You can’t make a world so similar to ours as to be exactly that unknowable, you can’t hold it at one remove from us for a long enough period of time for us to begin to believe in its impossibility. As we’re agreed, it is very difficult to imagine the ways in which the Cleavage was enacted and sustain because we do know how the world works, and the author cannot succeed in dangling that knowledge just a little out of reach. I think you summarise the ambivalence of the book’s political position well — the complexity of the issues are not underplayed, and the book allows even hardline nationalists to be simulatneously both right and wrong — but, again, much of it is too familiar to us to fit this radically different way of living. I know exactly what you mean about thinking Borlu a dolt, but as I said I can believe he has been conditioned — or as you put it, believe he believes — but despite that the concept, too, remains doltish. This is fatal: it makes the complex politics fall down, because the ‘nationalism’ on show is so obviously a false iteration, and the depiction of culture so gratingly artificial. The book tries hard to depict a difficult world which must be inter-connected to survive, but in which borders are crucial and cannot be ignored; yet that conceptual failure undermines the whole edifice.

So, sure, globalised business exists apart from both unity and division, of course, which is why the businessman appears hypocritical from both perspectives — but whether the nationalists criticise the ‘false consciousness’ of the twin cities, their nationalism is in turn equally false because of the novel’s own weaknesses. I’d like to think that all this falseness is some clever piece of cultural criticism, but I fear the novel is in fact just poorly conceived. The mystery stuff is a case in point: undoubtedly, this is an homage to noir and suchlike, and in particular its first chapter is very strained in its attempt to read like Chandler (a much harder effect to achieve than is often allowed). The twists and turns of the story are quintessential mystery novel, and the nearly comedic summary by the detective at the end a study in the form. But none of that part of the novel ever felt to me remotely as inventive as Mieville’s fantasy stuff — imagine the mystery without the fantasy setting, and you get something close to the masterfully over-cooked genre parody in Cloud Atlas.

Over on his blog, MJH is saying ‘read that book whatever you do’. I don’t get it.


Without wanting to put words in that other Mr Harrison’s mouth, my guess is that what he values about the book is that it challenges us to think about what we mean by “fantasy”: not in the taxonomic/lexicographic literary sense we’ve just been discussing, but in the real-world sense. Why do we choose to believe the narratives by which our day-to-day real-world lives are shaped — narratives, in the end, as virtual as any “fantasy novel”? What do we gain and lose by it? That sort of thing. You say that wordplay is not a new feature of Mieville’s works, and that’s true, but I’d say that in The City & The City the way in which words actively shape reality, rather than merely reflecting it, is more foregrounded than in anything else he’s written, precisely because it is a version of our world being shaped.

Of course, if you read it and remain un-shaped, it’s less impressive. Your point that we already know how the world works, and Mieville can’t hide it from us, is an excellent one, I think. I appreciated the extent to which Mieville added more and more exceptions to the rules, ultimately making it clear that everyone who believes in the separation does so because they choose to do so. I thought the Ul-Qoma ex-pat community in Beszel was really very well handled, nicely disorienting; and I appreciated that he acknowledged that unsmelling or unhearing would be rather more difficult than unseeing, to the point of it sometimes being impossible to know whether to un-sense something or not. But again, ultimately these are portrayed as temporary, resolvable confusions, whereas it seems to me they would quickly become catastrophic, peoples’ choice or no.

"The City and The City" US Cover
"The City and The City" in the US

As to the book’s other advocates … I’m waiting on a review from Clute at the moment, and I gather he liked it; I’ll let you know what his arguments are. Gary Wolfe, in the April Locus, feels that it is Mieville’s “most disciplined and sharply focused novel to date” (I suppose it is), that “what’s most impressive … is not what amazes us about these imaginary cities, but what is familiar about them” (which I take to mean he bought into the conceit more than I did), that it’s “quite unlike anything [he’s] seen before” (to an extent, although there are books like Hav); and he’s pleased by “the manner in which [Mieville] respects and maintains the integrity of the police procedural”, even while unpacking the book’s mysteries. That last one I thought was a bit of a problem, actually. Borlu’s job requires him to be highly observant; but his life requires him to be highly selectively observant. Surely a deliberate contradiction, but also one that handicaps the novel a bit, since Mieville resolves it by having Borlu’s narrative be basically un-visual (until near the end, when he really does see both cities at once). Points for impressive technical achievement, somewhat fewer points for a believable detective protagonist.


I’m still not sure I was as impressed as you by the wordplay stuff: sure, the way the residents of the cities use language shapes their reality, but this isn’t restricted to fantasy novels, or even very good ones. That Mieville finds some useful ways to depict this common process is power to him, but I don’t find it that noteworthy, within his oeuvre or outside it. As for what we think might be MJH’s reasons for liking it … well, OK. The book certainly does that, but for all the reasons we’ve been discussing it does not manage to do it very well. Again, why give a book a pass because it merely tries to something? Likewise, Wolfe is right on all his counts in terms of what the book does but, as you say, whether it does those things well is a trickier question. I don’t at all find the detective fiction stuff particularly clever — in fact, I kept thinking that Martin Cruz Smith should have been in Mieville’s acknowledgements. At times, The City & the City reads so much like Gorky Park that I find it hard to believe Mieville is unfamiliar with it (though he may be). Gorky Park was a bestseller, but in terms of the genre of police procedural it is as by the numbers as Mieville.

This is less maintaining the integrity of a form to my mind, and more using it as a crutch as everything else falls down around you. What keeps the novel together is its tight crime focus — it could not work as a straight fantasy novel, because its elements do not cohere. Yes, the tension between the two forms (as personified in Borlu) is deliberate: but it sets up something for us to watch, to focus on, so that we pay attention to the world largely as background to the mystery. Canny. Mieville says here that he’s always seen something of the fantastic in detective novels, that they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not. Going through all those Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s not difficult to accept what he’s saying. But if he’s right, then what detective fiction manages better than The City & the City is to convince us that the world of its fiction is very much ours, and that what happens in the story could happen in our lives. MJH may like the central questions of the novel, but Mieville’s attempt to write them large is to my mind what dooms the book to failure in this key generic regard.

I agree that Mieville is as clever as he can be with the conceit — I too enjoyed watching, as the book went on, all the imperfect ways in which unseeing and unsensing were at times negotiated — but ultimately you come back to that failure to hold our world in this world together. I’m glad others have been more convinced by the book — but I think we can agree that we weren’t, and that there are serious problems with the book that tell us why.