TagChina Miéville

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!

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.

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.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2010: The shortlist

The shortlist of the 2010 Clarke Award (for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2009) has been announced. The six nominees are:

Gwyneth Jones, Spirit

China Miéville, The City & the City

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream

Marcel Theroux, Far North

Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls

This is an interesting mix of books. I plan to read and review the entire shortlist (I’ve read three already; reviews are linked above, as will the others be), so I’ll have more to say as time goes on, but here’s an initial reaction:

The book I’m most pleased to see on there is Yellow Blue Tibia.  It has met with mixed reactions, but I found it a stunning read. The City & the City is a novel which has generated much debate, and is very much open to interpretation (perhaps more so than any of Miéville’s previous works); I like it, but I don’t think it quite works. I didn’t like Galileo’s Dream as much, but I know there’s more to it than I was able to see.

As for the three books I’ve not read: I had a feeling that Spirit might make the shortlist, as I’ve heard some very good things about it. I don’t know much about the other two titles: I’ve read one of Chris Wooding’s previous books , and thought it good (albeit not great), but I’ve not read Marcel Theroux at all.

Overall, from what I know of these six books, I would say this a nicely varied list — varied in terms of settings, types of sf, and approaches, and in the mixture of well-known and lesser-known names. I look forward to reading the complete shortlist, and finding out who will win.

UPDATE, 26th Apr: Round-up post

Second UPDATE, 29th Apr: The winner

Fantasy and Crime Fiction: The Cases of China Miéville and John Grant

(NOTE: As I once discovered after leaving a post on an old message board, China Miéville used to work with someone called David Hebblethwaite. For the record, I am not that person, and have no other connection to Miéville; John Grant, however, has been a friend for the best part of ten years. None of this, I trust, has had any bearing on what follows.) 

The City & the City by China Miéville (2009)
The City in These Pages by John Grant (2008)

Here are two fantasy-inflected police procedurals, or perhaps two crime-flavoured fantasies, or perhaps both. The two texts offer interesting approaches to mixing crime fiction and fantasy, yet in some ways they are polar opposites.

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mieville First, to China Miéville’s new novel, The City & the City. (I’ve been reading discussions on this book by Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts; I’ll be referring to them a few times in this post.) Two things you can almost guarantee of a China Miéville novel are that it will have an urban setting, and that it will play games (albeit probably with serious intent) with genre. And here, indeed, we get both: our setting is somewhere in the region where Europe and Asia meet, in the fictional cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are unique in that they overlap in physical reality.

(Technically, this is a spoiler, but I reveal it because it makes the book more interesting, and because Miéville reveals it himself forty or fifty pages in. Actually, it’s possible to work out what we’re dealing with before then, because the very first chapter mentions an area called a ‘crosshatch’. Now, ‘crosshatch’ was coined as a critical term in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997); it means a region where different realities intersect — and, in this novel, crosshatches are the points where the realities of Ul Qoma and Besźel become intertwined. Like Jeff VanderMeer in the comments on Niall Harrison’s post, I’m not sure why Miéville feels the need to employ misdirection over this: if you know what a crosshatch is in a fantasy context, there’s no mystery; and if you don’t, the first-person narrator is happy to spill the beans soon enough, so why does he pussyfoot around to begin with?)

Anyway, the cities overlap, and it’s possible to sense both of them at once. It’s not wise to do so, however, because if you cross the border illegally (and there’s only one place to cross legally), you will have committed ‘breach’, and the mysterious forces of ‘Breach’ (more distinctively different names would have been nice) will take you away and… well, nobody knows, but you won’t come back. So people in both cities try their best to ‘unsee’ the other place.

(Another aside, but I found this ‘unseeing’ business rather wearying. It’s very tempting to read it as a metaphor for the way we ‘unsee’ people in our own lives — indeed, the instinctive ‘pull’ towards this metaphorical reading is as strong as any I’ve felt in a long time — but I don’t think it holds up to close examination. To generalise, the people we may choose to  ‘unsee’ tend to be [so we believe] worse off than ourselves; but the default ‘other’ in The City & the City is Ul Qoma, which is better off than Besźel. And actually, we don’t really ‘unsee’ people in the same sense; we ignore them, we might even pretend that they don’t exist — but that’s very different from actively trying not to perceive something, as happens in Besźel and Ul Qoma.

(My point here is that I’m left unsure whether I’m supposed to take this metaphorical reading seriously, and there are problems either way. If I am, the metaphor doesn’t work; if I’m not, it’s intrusive. Miéville is surely too canny a writer not to know that this reading is possible, but why make it so noticeable if it doesn’t work? Unless he’s making a point about metaphors themselves, in which case, I wish he’d found a less annoying way to make it.)

Back to the story: our narrator is Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating the murder of a young woman who turns out to be an Mahalia Geary, an American archaeology student, working on a dig in Ul Qoma that was looking at artefacts of the mysterious Precursor civilisation that existed before the two cities became conjoined (whether Besźel and Ul Qoma were originally two cities that fused, or one that split apart, is unknown). Mahalia, it transpires, believed in the existence of Orciny, the third city rumoured to exist in the interstices of the other two, and thought by most to be superstition. She also seems to have made enemies amongst the myriad extremist political factions of the cities. Borlú’s investigation takes him not only to Ul Qoma, but on a journey of discovery to the very heart of his reality… but you’d expect nothing less, would you?

Some negatives: Miéville’s prose and characterisation seem… not so much lacking as unsatisfying; these may be consequences of the story he has chosen to write. There are, of course, moments of very effective writing (on the contrast between the office and the crime scene: ‘Black tea and bread and paperwork, the boredom and striplights, all so much not like the peeling back of that wet-heavy, cumbersome mattress, in the yard, in the dark’), but on the whole, the prose seemed so restrained that the individual cities didn’t come to life in my mind. There’s much more spark when Miéville is writing action and describing the intersection of realities; maybe it’s that the investigation format restricts the author’s opportunities to write those kinds of passages.

In terms of characterisation, Tyador Borlú’s voice comes through as a voice, while nevertheless exhibiting Miéville’s signature style. But Borlú and colleagues feel somewhat flat; they don’t seem to have much personality (though this may be because the narrative is so focused on the investigation that we don’t get chance to see the characters ‘in the round’), nor are they distinctive enough individually.

Be that as it may, the real interest of The City & the City lies elsewhere. Between them, Harrison, Hartland, and Roberts raise two related issues (at least, to my mind they’re related) that get at the heart of what I think is most interesting about this novel. These issues are how far it is possible to accept the fantasy notions as existing in the real world; and how well the modes of fantasy and crime fiction work together. And most interesting about the novel for me is what I think Miéville is trying to do with the fantasy: to take something fantastic, and make it part of reality — and not just in the sense of ‘what would it be like if..?’, but in a truly fundamental, formal sense.

Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland both have problems ‘believing’ in the overlapping cities, or at least in the cities’ existing in our world. I was trying to pin down exactly what they meant, when I realised there was an unspoken assumption in their discussion: it seems to me that they assume the conjoined cities are a product of shared delusion, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, and that the ‘boundaries’ between them are just in people’s minds (so are all place boundaries, technically, but I trust the distinction I’m making is clear).

Now, it never entered my head — and still doesn’t — to think that the situation in the book is anything other than as literally described; I assumed, and still assume, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are two places whose realities are intertwined; their inhabitants don’t have to ‘believe’ in the relationship between the cities, because that is how things are. So, from that point of view, I have no trouble accepting Miéville’s basic reality, because he imagines it solidly enough.

Why do I assume all this is ‘real’ and not delusion? Because of the words Miéville uses: ‘crosshatch’ is the clearest suggestion that we’re dealing with physical realities here, but there are subtler hints. The author makes other critical terms into everyday words (I spotted ‘alterity’ and ‘equipoise’, to name two); people talk about ‘invoking’ Breach, as though it’s not clear to them whether that agency is supernatural or not, or whether that makes any difference. This all seems to me an attempt to deliberately blur the lines between the fantastic and the mimetic, at the level of the text itself; and in that respect, I think it works very well indeed.

(This is not to imply that I have no problems with Miéville’s reality-building; I do have trouble accepting his characters’ response to their reality. I can’t believe people would have the discipline to keep ‘unseeing’ things for hundreds of years; the sheer effort would surely be too great, not to mention that it’s impracticable (you have to be able to dodge out of the way of traffic from either city, for one thing). I also can’t believe that the rules of Breach, shown as they are to be absurd and morally reprehensible (Breach will come down on you like a tonne of bricks if you accidentally stray across the boundary, but will leave the most heinous crime untouched if it didn’t involve actual breach), could have lasted for so long without protest. Perhaps this is Miéville’s comment on people’s unthinking adherence to unjust rules; if so, it’s too exaggerated to have real impact.)

Then there’s the issue of crime versus fantasy, and whether there need be a ‘versus’ at all. Roberts in particular argues that the two modes don’t really work together in The City & the City; and I agree with him — but I also think the novel depends on that being so. I’d agree that the fantasy keeps the pages turning more than does the mystery (certainly I was gripped the most when I was reading about the fantastic elements); but the two are bound together as tightly as the cities themselves. The mystery element plays into and, to an extent, subverts our expectations of the fantasy — and, ultimately, eats away at the fantasy until all that’s left is a core.

The City & the City works well enough as a detection: it has the requisite plot twists, and the denouement is as satisfying in its unmasking of the villain — but that’s all. The fantasy element is by far the most interesting part of Miéville’s novel; and his stripping away of the fantasy to bring the crime story to the fore means the book loses some of that interest. It’s a case of a book which is fine at what it does, but still makes one wish it was doing something else instead.

***

grant John Grant is another writer who’s not afraid to push the buttons of genre to see what happens (and, by coincidence, he was one of the editors of the very same encyclopedia in which the critical term ‘crosshatch’ was coined); that quality is richly displayed in his novella The City in These Pages. As its title suggests, this is an homage to Ed McBain’s ’87th Precinct’ novels — though it soon becomes rather more than that. The basic story is that the boys of New Amsterdam’s 14th Precinct have a serial killer on their hands; they dub him the ‘Humor Guy’ because of the darkly comic nature of his modus operandi (the first sees a local crime boss found inside a giant condom, for example). The killings grow more and more incredible, until the Humor Guy turns himself in, claiming that the world itself is not as it seems…

I’ve read only two Ed McBain novels, but all the same, I recognise enough of the similarities Grant’s novella shares. There’s no need to be familiar with McBain’s work, though. For one thing, the style of prose Grant uses here is a joy to read; rapid-fire, with tongue nicely in cheek (‘[the cops] watched in close-up the stationary back of a truck belching pollution at them. It was in town to deliver farm-fresh organic produce for the health benefit of everyone whose lungs it was corroding’), I’d say it’s more successful than Miéville’s style, in its different way. Characterisation is broad-brush, and sometimes feels awkward (one of the cops occasionally ponders some Big Questions, which proves necessary for later in the story, but still jars a bit with the way the rest of his character is presented), but they’re still engaging, thanks to Grant’s humour.

The crime story is… not really a crime story at all (there is a ‘crime’, in a sense, but it’s not the one you think it is). Certainly it’s not a detection as such, because the protagonists don’t undertake a proper detective process — the Humor Guy calls all the shots. In short, the crime story isn’t the point. What is the point is the fantasy, and here Grant excels. I’ve read quite a lot of his fiction and, enjoyable though I often find it, I sometimes feel that, if I know where he’s coming from, I might be able to see some of where he’s going. Not in this case.

The City in These Pages swings from humorous police procedural to grand cosmic speculation — as I kind of expected it would. But, just when you think you’ve got it pinned down, it wriggles free of your grasp and does something else. Even now, having read it, I can’t decide on a definitive interpretation of what happens. The novella offers many ideas to fire the imagination, of which I’m prepared to reveal one: you know all those brief period of life that you can’t recall in detail — boring journeys to work, and so on? What if those periods of time ‘escaped’ and someone else could live in them? Grant’s skill in juggling ideas like this, and all the other elements of his story, makes for a remarkable novella

***

Let’s conclude by asking once more: do fantasy and crime fiction work well together? Based on these texts, in one sense the answer is ‘no’, because neither is comfortable with being both genres at the same time: Miéville sacrifices fantasy to tell his crime story; Grant uses crime fiction as a springboard into his fantasy story. On the other hand, the friction between fantasy and crime has produced a couple of fascinating works here, even if those works aren’t entirely successful. Maybe a little antagonism between genres isn’t such a bad thing after all.

The City & the City has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

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