CategoryMieville China

Thoughts: literary encounters and Catton vs Miéville

luminariesThis post is expanding on a few thoughts I’ve had recently, mostly prompted by reading Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and ‘elitism’ (first published in New Zealand’s Metro magazine in March 2013, then posted on Metro‘s website in December). The whole essayis fabulous, and you should read it. Catton argues that literature itself can’t be elitist, because a book can’t dictate who will read it, or how. But I’m more interested in her conception of literature as encounter, and book reviews as a means of ‘describing and critiquing a literary encounter’. This is such an inspiring idea to me, a different way of thinking about books: less in terms of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, more as an exploration – how did I respond to this book, and why? It’s something I want to try to capture more on the blog.

Thinking about it more, I start to feel that experiencing a strong engagement with a book is more valuable than liking it per se. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not knocking enjoyment of a book, or suggesting that we should feel happy about disliking one; but it seems to me that – less often – we can have deeper reactions to a book which reach beyond that kind of consideration. I’m reminded of when I read Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham a few years ago: the only time in the history of this blog that I’ve abandoned a book and still felt the need to write several hundred words explaining why. At the time, I was annoyed at the book; now I can see how infrequent it has been for me to be so affected by a book I didn’t like, and I feel that’s worth treasuring (it also makes me wonder whether I should give the novel another chance).

Another example. This week, I came across Jenny Ackland’s response to The Luminaries:

It is possible that a book you were on the verge of giving away…still made you want to finish it like no other book you’ve ever read?

Yes

[…]

I am exhausted and exhilarated, and a little bereft.

It’s a wonderful piece that captures just the sort of encounter Catton is talking about. I strongly suspect from this that the experience of reading The Luminaries is going to stay with Ackland for a long time, to put it mildly. But I would also wager that the negative parts of that experience will become integral to the memory of the whole (that’s what I mean by going beyond ‘like’ and ‘dislike’). To my mind, one reading experience this intense – even when there’s rough with the smooth – is worth a dozen moderately pleasant ones.

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Another thought I’ve had recently is that Eleanor Catton’s current breakthrough reminds of China Miéville’s emergence at the time of Perdido Street Station (2000). Fittingly enough, there are striking coincidences (both writers won a major literary prize with their second novel, and at around the same age). But what I’m thinking about is that both came along as young writers with a very intense vision for their work, and an ability to articulate that vision powerfully. They could see their own way to do things, and Miéville opened up a space that changed the creative landscape around him (other writers, too, but it seems to me that Miéville’s voice rang loudest).

There are a couple of key differences: Miéville emerged from and worked firmly within the field of science fiction and fantasy, which Catton does not; she also doesn’t appear to have a creative ‘manifesto’ like the New Weird. It’s also, of course, too early to know how Catton’s career will develop; but it will be interesting to see how, and how far, her influence spreads. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more elaborately plotted historical mysteries, or novels built on formally organised structures, in the years ahead; but to focus on such trappings is to overlook the heart and soul of Catton’s books, which to me is the depth of unity that she achieves. My hope is that writers will take one key lesson from Catton’s work: do your own thing, and do it as fully and as well as you can.

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Since I started planning this post, it has also occurred to me that The Luminaries would make an interesting point of comparison and contrast with Viriconium, particularly in terms of how (if?) they gradually erode story. But that’s a thought for another time!

Three from the archives

Yesterday on Twitter, Max Cairnduff was asking other bloggers which two or three of their posts they would direct him to. I thought I’d share with you the ones I chose.

1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013). This post is both recent and pretty obvious; but I wouldn’t be true to myself as a reader and blogger if I didn’t highlight the contemporary writer whose work means more to mean than just about any other. I think this is one of my most passionate reviews; the essence of me as a reader is right there in this post.

2. How to approach a new genre. This post emerged from thinking about the question of where someone should start with a particular author or genre, and realising that the answer will probably be different for everyone. I was also thinking about how I had changed as a reader: exactly how had I come to appreciate books that I would once never have touched? This was my attempt to explore those issues.

3. Fantasy and Crime Fiction: The Cases of China Miéville and John Grant. For quite some time, this early post contained my longest response to a single book. But China Miéville’s The City and the City is that kind of book; it reveals an awful lot about how an individual reader reads (so does The Luminaries, actually). I think this post is still my best at engaging with other people’s thoughts on a book. I’m also pleased with how the comparison of the two books under discussion (John Grant’s The City in These Pages was the second) turned out.

Now I’ve done this, I’m curious about what other bloggers would choose; if you have a blog and are reading this, let me know.

Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I’m joining in this week because I was really taken with the theme. I’ve been reviewing books online since 2004, but this blog started in 2009, and I’m concentrating on the period since then. What follows here is not a definitive list of favourites, nor is it in a strict order – it’s a list of highlights. It’s a snapshot of what I like to read.

1. The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

This is a tale of pure serendipity. I was visiting Cambridge, and saw the hardback of The Rehearsal in a bookshop. It wasn’t the subject matter that grabbed me, but the blurbs promising something different. I took a chance on it… and really didn’t get along with its mannered prose style at first. But I persevered and, once I realised what Catton was doing – how completely the novel’s different aspects embodied its theme of performance – I got into it, and ended up absolutely loving the book. The Rehearsal is the fondest memory I have of reading a book in the last few years, and it showed me a new way to appreciate fiction.

2. Pocket Notebook – Mike Thomas

A few bloggers enthused about Pocket Notebook in 2010 – and I really liked its Clockwork Orange-inspired cover – but I never got around to reading it. The following year, I started reviewing for Fiction Uncovered; when I saw Pocket Notebook on their review-copy list, I decided to try it. I was utterly blown away by the vividness with which Thomas created his corrupt-copper protagonist. My only regret is that I didn’t read this novel a year earlier.

3. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

This book has 661 pages. I devoured the whole lot in a weekend. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added quantum physics, Skippy Dies goes from humour to sharp characterisation to social commentary to pathos to the borders of science fiction and back again, without putting a foot wrong. Stunning stuff.

4. Solo – Rana Dasgupta

When I started this blog, I was just beginning to investigate the parts of the contemporary British literary scene that would most interest me. The website Untitled Books was (still is) a great resource, and it’s where I found out about Solo. I love books with wide-ranging sensibilities, and Solo – with its account of a life that feels like a daydream, and a daydream that feels like life – is that sort of book.

5. Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

One of the great joys of book blogging has been discovering small presses. Peirene Press are one of the fine publishers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years, and Beside the Sea is one of their best books. Ostensibly the story of a mother taking her children on a trip to the seaside, darkness gradually emerges from behind the happy façade to build up a brilliant but tragic portrait.

6. Yellow Blue Tibia & New Model Army – Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia was the very first book I reviewed on this blog. I was wanting to catch up on some of the contemporary sf authors I hadn’t read, and my first Adam Roberts novel just blew me away. My second, New Model Army, did the same the year after – a novel that I can genuinely say did something I hadn’t come across in a book before. I can’t choose one of these books over the other for this list, so here they both are.

7. The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

Being surprised by an unfamiliar author is great; but so is reading an excellent book by a writer you already know. A Christopher Priest novel is a maze of realities and unreliable perceptions, and The Affirmation is up there with his best. Priest’s narrative shifts between realities, and his masterstroke is to make our world seem no more (or less) real than his fictional one.

8. An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer

You can’t explore the world of book blogs for too long without coming across books that you’re unlikely to hear of elsewhere. I first heard of An A-Z of Possible Worlds through Scott Pack’s blog, and it really ought to be better known. Lovingly produced by its publisher, Roast Books, this is a collection of stories in a box – twenty-six individual pamphlets, each about its own place. The stories are very fine, too.

9. Coconut Unlimited – Nikesh Shukla

Here’s another way of discovering books in the blog age: finding a writer to be an engaging presence on Twitter; then, a year (or however long) later, reading his or her newly-published book. That’s what happened with Coconut Unlimited, which turned out to be a razor-sharp and hilarious comedy. More interconnectedness: I met Nikesh Shukla last year at a Firestation Book Swap, which Scott Pack usually hosts (although he wasn’t there for that one).

10. The City & the City – China Miéville

The City & the City generated one of my longest reviews, and I can’t remember reading another book that had so many interpretations from so many different people. It’s a novel to argue with, and argue about. At the time, I hadn’t read one of Miéville’s adult books since The Scar; I remember thinking that The City & the City was good enough in itself, but too quiet to catch on as some of his earlier works had. Of course, I was wrong. It was fascinating to see how the novel was received beyond the sf field, and the book blogging community was a big part of that reaction for me.

Clarke Award 2012: in review

The Guardian’s Robert McCrum recently expressed concern that literary awards were becoming more about gossip than about actual books. Whether or not he’s right about that, McCrum is certainly correct to highlight the value of awards in creating focal points for discussion. As I know first-hand, talking about and comparing a given set of books can be a tremendously stimulating and rewarding experience – but it helps if the books are worth discussing in the first place.

And, on that note, let’s turn to the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. This is the third year I’ve read the full Clarke list and, I have to say, it’s a dispiritingly bland selection this time around. Anyone looking for the cutting edge of UK science fiction publishing – or even just literary excellence – is not going to find it on this list. It frustrates me when I think of the eligible novels I’ve read which are better than any of the shortlisted titles; and the gems I haven’t read which must be out there.

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There’s usually one obviously weak candidate to be struck off the shortlist first; but this year I’m spoilt for choice, which is not a pleasant situation to be in. After due consideration, I think I’m going to hand the wooden spoon to The End Specialist by Drew Magary. This is a novel which fails on just about every level, right down to being a thriller that doesn’t thrill; it’s pedestrianly written, parochial when it purports not to be, ineffective as both a character study and an exploration of a world without ageing… I could go on, but the book really doesn’t deserve more words.

I could do with two wooden spoons, really, because there’s barely a difference in quality between the Magary and The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. This is the book which has been most comprehensively disliked by just about everyone I know who’s been reading the shortlist (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review, for instance). Leaving aside issues of its genre, the Tepper shares many of The End Specialist’s faults – weak writing, poor plotting, questionable morality – but I think its ideas are marginally more interesting. That’s the only reason The Waters Rising isn’t out of the balloon first.

Now on to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, which, unlike the previous two novels, at least achieves a baseline level of competence. Bear’s mystery-thriller-space-opera is decently written, reasonably diverting – and, as far as I can see, has nothing to distinguish it from the many other competent-but-unremarkable science fiction novels out there. We’re now halfway through the shortlist, and we still haven’t come to a book which, in my eyes, has any claim to be on it.

I don’t really want Embassytown to win the Clarke; it’s nowhere near China Miéville’s best work, and – well, frankly, it’s the closest I have ever come to being bored by a Miéville book. I have to acknowledge that, compared to the three novels I’ve already covered, Embassytown is a much better written, constructed, and more ambitious work – indeed, it’s probably the most conceptually ambitious novel on the shortlist – but I think it’s ultimately too dry and abstract to be successful. Better Miéville than one of the previous three, yes – but, better still, one of the remaining two.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross has its flaws – its exposition is at times overdone; its police-procedural plot doesn’t quite cohere – but, of all the books on the shortlist, it is the one which feels most engaged with the present and the near future. The world it depicts is intriguing and compelling; the issues it raises demand serious consideration; and the prose, at its best, is snappy and sharp. This novel does the sorts of things that good science fiction should be doing.

That leaves The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, which I think is a very well-realised study of its teenage protagonist and, in its own way, one of the more challenging shortlisted works. This may be the most successfully achieved of the novels on the list, but it’s also rather narrow in its focus. So it’s quite a fine line between this and the Stross, which trades a little polish for a broader scope; I’d be happy enough for either The Testament or Rule 34 to win. But the thing is that books like these two should really be the bread and butter of the Clarke shortlist, not its centrepiece.

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That’s what I’d like to win, but what may actually take the Clarke? Having been through the Fantasy Clarke panel at Eastercon, I have a better idea of the kinds of discussions which might have taken place between the judges, and I’m fairly sure that the Bear and Tepper are too generic to survive the judging process. The Magary may do (though I hope is doesn’t): there’s an energy to its telling that may – along with whatever the judges must perforce have seen in the novel that I don’t – carry it through. The Rogers may not last long in the judging (though I hope it does) – its narrow focus may prove the book’s undoing, depending on how the judges weight that against its craft. The Miéville will almost certainly be a contender, and is enough of an all-rounder that it might even win. The Stross is difficult to call, though I suspect it will survive in the judging process for quite some time, possibly to the very end. We’ll find out when the winner is announced on Wednesday.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2012: The Shortlist

For the second year running, I’ve predicted only a third of the Clarke Award shortlist. Here are this year’s contenders:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)

Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)

China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone)

Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)

Sheri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

(The titles above will become review links as I work my way through the shortlist.)

It’s customary, on first seeing a shortlist, to rue the absence of certain titles – I’ll name Christopher Priest’s The Islanders as the big genre name I expected to be there; Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys as the book I wanted to be shortlisted because I loved it; and Lavie Tidhar’s Osama as the talked-about genre title I was looking forward to reading – but what of the actual shortlisted books?

It’s no surprise to see China Miéville shortlisted for the Clarke when he has an eligible title, and Embassytown is his most unambiguously science-fictional work yet. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if it won (which would give Miéville his fourth Clarke win), but I found Embassytown rather dry to read, and can’t see it as a sure-fire winner.

There are no other previous winners on this year’s shortlist, but Sheri S. Tepper has been nominated for the Clarke three times previously, in 1997, 1998,and most recently in 2009 for The Margarets. I tried to read that book at the time, but didn’t get along with it; The Waters Rising, though, is sequel to a novel I’ve long wanted to read – 1993’s A Plague of Angels – so we’ll see.

Greg Bear has been shortlisted twice previously, in 1987 and 2004. Like Tepper, I think of him as a writer whose heyday was in the 1980s and ‘90s; but the premise of Hull Zero Three – the voyage of a generation starship goes badly awry, and it falls to the survivors to work out what happened – sounds intriguing enough. I’m less sure that it sounds like the premise of an award-winning science fiction novel, though.

Charles Stross has received one previous Clarke nomination, in 2006. I’ve not read him before, but Rule 34 – a near-future thriller concerning an investigation into the murders of several spammers – has been well-received, and it is probably the book on the shortlist to which I’m looking forward to reading the most.

Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb is this year’s non-genre contender. It was, of course, longlisted for the Booker last year, and has been rather well-liked in sf circles; however, I don’t know that what I’ve heard about it convinces me that it was the best mainstream-published sf novel of 2011. Still, I have been intending to read this book for ages, and now I will finally be doing so.

Which leaves Drew Magary’s The End Specialist as the least-known quantity on the shortlist for me. From my researches, I can tell you that it’s a debut novel, a thriller set in a future where a treatment has been developed to halt ageing, and there have been a range of reactions to the book. The synopsis wouldn’t move me to read The End Specialist, but if its Clarke nod means I’m introduced to an enjoyable book, that’ll be great.

I must own to being less excited about reading this year’s Clarke shortlist than I have been in the last couple of years. The Miéville is far from being its author’s best work. Bear and Tepper would not spring to my mind as authors who might be producing cutting-edge science fiction in 2012, though Stross probably would. The Magary doesn’t sound like anything special; and the Rogers, good though it may be (and strange though it seems to say about a book from such an obscure publisher), feels like the most obvious choice for a non-genre title.

My main sense at the moment is of wells untapped – I can’t help but wonder about the other debuts that were eligible, the other mainstream-published titles, the other books by established names. But I am always open to having my preconceptions overturned, and I very much hope that will happen with this year’s shortlist; there is a lot of overturning to be done.

Book and story notes: Miéville, Brown, Hyslop

China Miéville, Embassytown (2011)

The rumour before publication was that Embassytown would be China Miéville’s first proper oray into science fiction; and, technically, it is – but Miéville is a fantasy writer at heart, and setting a novel on a planet in deep space with aliens hasn’t changed the essential feel of his work. Our narrator is Avice Benner Cho, a human native of Embassytown, which lies on a world whose indigenous species are known as Hosts. The Hosts can only understand their own language, and even then only if it’s spoken by a sentient being; as the Hosts have two mouths which they use simultaneously, humans communicate with Hosts through specially-bred clone pairs called Ambassadors. The start of the novel sees the arrival in Embassytown of a new Ambassador named EzRa who are, uniquely and impossibly, not clones – and when they address the Hosts, they start a change of events that will lead to all-out war.

Embassytown may not represent a dramatic shift in genre for Miéville, but it is his first novel in quite some time not to be set at least partly on present-day Earth, and here things do feel different. I’m thinking in particular back to Perdido Street Station; granted, it’s a good ten years since I read that book, but I remember it glorying in its own strangeness. Embassytown is more subdued and remote: partly this is a function of its narrator, who admits that she’s not naturally one for the limelight; and Avice’s voice remains correspondingly cool and measured throughout. But it’s also appropriate to the story Miéville is telling, as it concerns a species and mode of communication which are so very inscrutable.

Yet, even though I recongnise its importance, that distancing effect still stops me from really engaging with the novel. There’s certainly some interesting fantasy in there: for example, the Hosts cannot lie, even to make metaphors; they can use similes, but have to enact the object of comparison first – and they can involve humans, including Avice herself. However, mostly, I find the issues around Hosts and their language too abstract to really work as the key emotional anchor for the story; and that is what puts Embassytown in the lower tier of Miéville’s works for me.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Kat Brown, ‘A Marvellous Party’ (2011)

This new story from Shortfire Press concerns Adie, whose boyfriend Simon breaks up with her on a railway-station platform just as they were about to go on holiday for Christmas. He boards the train, and she returns dejectedly to her flat – where her friend Becca invites Adie to a party that might just turn her life around. There’s some neat writing here, as Kat Brown creates an atmosphere very efficiently, with a few choice details; whether it’s life in Adie’s flat (‘John [her flatmate] dropped four Nurofen into a carton of orange juice’), or the party itself:

Glazed middle managers buzzed around a beige buffet, and Becca was absorbed almost immediately by a cloud of sequins and novelty jumpers. Adie took a glass of festively disgusting red wine and was swept into conversation by a group who spoke only in buzzwords.

Brown won this month’s Literary Death Match in London with ‘A Marvellous Party’; it’s not hard to see why, and I imagine that the story works just as well read aloud as it does on the page.

Jess Hyslop, ‘Augury’ (2011)

Another new Shortfire Press piece, in this case one that won its author Cambridge University’s Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing – again, it’s clear why. Jess Hyslop takes us to Nazi-occupied Guernsey, where Peter Davies gets by after a German soldier shot him in the leg; he only survived because his neighbour, Anne Brehaut, found him and took him in – not that Anne’s blind husband Louis was keen on having a man in the house who could see her when he himself couldn’t. Now, Peter fixates on the Brehauts’ shed, where he’s sure they’re keeping a bird; or perhaps he’s really fixating on Anne.

Peter Davies comes to life as an ambiguous, not-quite-sympathetic character, who has been scarred (emotionally as well as physically) by his injury, and left world-weary and cautious:

What currently worries him most is Talk. There is a lot of Talk about. This Talk is surreptitious, taking place at odd hours in odd corners amongst what he considers, frankly, odd people. And it is idealistic, which means that it is dangerous. It is exactly the kind of Talk he tries not to get involved with, the kind that he will hurry past with his head down, if he catches so much as a whisper.

The tension which builds throughout this story comes from never being quite sure what the characters might do, or what their true motivations are – right up to the sharply effective ending.

China Miéville, Looking for Jake and Other Stories (2005)

“‘It lives in the details,’ she said. ‘It travels in that…in that perception. It moves through those chance meetings of lines. Maybe you glimpse it sometimes when you stare at clouds, and then maybe it might catch a glimpse of you, too.'”

He may be best known as a novelist, but China Miéville’s short fiction is worthy of attention, too. Reading the stories collected in Looking for Jake, I feel as though I’ve gained a fresh understanding of his concerns as a writer. Miéville has often used the term “weird fiction” in conjunction with his work, and a good number of the tales here exhibit what is for me one of the key characteristics of that type of fiction – namely, the paranoid sense that the skin of reality is as thin as a soap bubble and that, if you’re not careful, you’ll discover what’s hiding beyond.

Take, for example, the story ‘Details’ (from which the quote at the head of this review is taken). As a boy, its narrator would go once a week to Mrs Miller’s house to take her the bowl of blancmange specially prepared by his mother. It turns out that Mrs Miller eats that for breakfast because it’s entirely smooth; she has seen something in the apparently-innocent everyday patterns of lines around the house, and that something looked back at her. Even memories or daydreams with patterns are not safe (“the thing’s waiting in the texture of my dress, or in the crumbs of my birthday cake”). Of course, it’s always possible that she’s delusional…isn’t it?

The paranoid uncertainty over the nature of reality is even more palpable in ‘Go Between’, where one Morley finds mysterious packages hidden in the items he buys from the supermarket, with instructions to send them on. What’s in these packages, what or whom they’re for, who sent them – and how they could know what he’d choose to buy – are all mysteries to Morley. One day, he comes across what will seemingly be the last of these packages, and starts to have doubts (did he make a mistake at some point? Might his actions even have inadvertently caused disaster or suffering?) and decides not to forward the parcel as instructed. Miéville brilliantly increases the tension of Morley’s conflicting thoughts as the protagonist watches terrible events unfold on the news – is this what happened because he didn’t send on the parcel, or just coincidence? – until the story ends in just the right place.

Though I wasn’t previously familiar with much of Miéville’s short fiction, I had read the story ‘An End To Hunger’ in a couple of anthologies; it’s interesting to read it again now in light of the other tales collected with it. Probably the least fantastical of all the stories in the book, ‘An End To Hunger’ is set in 1997, when its narrator meets Aykan, a “virtuoso of programming” who already views the internet as yesterday’s news. In time, Aykan becomes incensed by a click-to-donate website named An End To Hunger, whose methods he regards as corrupt; Aykan institutes a series of attacks against the site, until… Even though we’re not talking about somethings on the other side of reality in this case, the sense of secret forces at work in the world still prevails, and is brought into sharper relief by the context of publication.

As well as a writer of weird fiction, Miéville is, and always has been, a writer of the city; this latter is displayed in almost every piece in the book. ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ is presented as a series of documents sent erroneously to the author; these describe a secret society’s investigations of ‘wild streets’, unpredictable thoroughfares which cannot be trusted to remain in the same place. Miéville’s approach to the story is effective in gradually unfurling the ramifications of its central idea, and the tale has the requisite frisson of uncertainty over whether what’s happening is real or all in the characters’ minds. The title story of Looking for Jake is another of the most strongly ‘urban’ pieces, this time describing a London which has been overrun by entropy, many of whose inhabitants have disappeared; this is one of those stories where it’s not so easy to pick out individual turns of phrase which are key in creating the atmosphere, but there’s nevertheless an accumulating sense of a washed-out, threateningly empty city.

Rounding out the collection are stories that show the variety of colours in Miéville’s palette. These range from ‘Familiar’, the tale of a monster grown from a gobbet of flesh, which has the kind of squelchily descriptive prose familiar from many of the author’s novels; to ‘The Ball Room’ (co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer), which lends a menacing aspect to a children’s play area with considerable economy. ‘Jack’, set in the same world as Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, is the story of a semi-legendary freedom fighter/terrorist in the city of New Crobuzon – but, in typically tricksy fashion, we never see the man himself directly; and ‘‘Tis the Season’, in which Christmas itself has become licensed, showcases Miéville’s sharp sense of humour.

If you’ve never read China Miéville before, Looking for Jake represents a fine introduction to his work. If you only know him from his novels, this collection will show another side to this singular writer.

This review was first published in the September 2011 issue of The Short Review, which also carries an interview with China Miéville.

Elsewhere
Read ‘An End To Hunger’
Niall Harrison reviews Looking for Jake
China Miéville websites: publisher’s site; author’s blog.

China Miéville, Kraken (2010)

In the heart of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum lies its star attraction – a preserved giant squid. Curator Billy Harrow prepares to take another party of visitors in to see it, only to find that it has, impossibly, been stolen – even the squid’s tank has disappeared. Subsequently, Bily is drawn into a world of feuding cults, where he discovers that some believe the giant squid to be a god, that magic works, and that the end of the world really could be nigh.

After the tight focus of The City & the City, China Miéville returns with something very different: the sprawling, restless imagination that characterised his Bas-Lag novels is back, this time applied to a contemporary London setting. As you may expect, then, Kraken is fizzing over with fantasy notions: talking tattoos, origami that works on more than just paper, unionised magical familiars, to name but three. The whole foundation of the magic in this novel involves persuading reality to take on certain shapes by finding similarities (however tenuous) between things – or, if you believe it, maybe you can turn it into truth. One of the greatest delights of reading Kraken lies in seeing all the different ways Miéville deploys this.

But there’s more going on here than a story about a giant squid god. Well, actually, there is and there isn’t. I’ve read a couple of interviews with Miéville in which he advocates literalism in fantasy – by all means make your monster a metaphor if you wish, but let it be a monster first and foremost – and I think he’s woven that idea right into the fabric of this novel. The fantastic happenings might be based on metaphors at root, but even the most outlandish of them are still real in the world of the book. ‘How was you going to deal with that, Billy?’ asks one character when Billy has encountered the talking gangster tattoo. ‘How you going to get the police to deal with that?’ (96) In other words: this is beyond what you know, and the ways you know can’t help, so face up to it. Miéville lends a perhaps surprising amount of gravitas to even some of the most comical fantasy ideas in Kraken.

Which is not to suggest that there’s no fun to be had; on the contrary, there’s a great sense of playfulness mixed in with the seriousness – but the two can’t always be separated out with ease; the idea of familiars being politically aware and going on strike, for example, made me smile even as it had important consequences in the story. I particularly enjoyed some of the dialogue in Kraken – the banter between Baron and Collingswood, two coppers from the specialist cult squad; and the words of the whimsical-but-dangerous Goss, who, along with his boy, Subby, is after Billy.

There is much to enjoy in Kraken, then, but I can’t shake the feeling that, beneath all the pizazz of the fantasy, is a fairly ordinary chase/detection plot – and that is what’s stopping me from being fully enthusiastic about the novel. But I think it would do Kraken a disservice to end this review on a sour note, because to do so would be to understate just how enjoyable a read it is; this may not be Miéville’s very best, but it’s good all the same – and a good Miéville book is always worth reading. Kraken is no exception.

Link
China Miéville’s blog

Clarke Award 2010: And the winner is…

It was a full house last night at the Apollo Cinema on London’s Lower Regent Street, as a bunch of interested parties (including your correspondent) attended the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony. Clarke Award history was made as China Miéville became the first author to win three times (and all in the same decade, no less).

This could be a major year for Miéville — The City & the City had already won the BSFA Award for Best Novel, and I’m almost certain it will win at least a couple more awards. And deservedly so — it’s a very good book, genuinely unique (as far as I can judge), and one of its author’s best.

A good winner of a literary award should, in my view, be a book that you could give to any reader interested in quality fiction and say, ‘You must read this.’  The City & the City is such a  book. You won’t read another book quite like it, you won’t read the same book that I (or anyone else) did — but you should read it.

Index of my Clarke Award 2010 posts

Clarke Award 2010: in review

The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.

The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.

I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.

There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.

So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.

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