Book review

With these two novellas, China Miéville shows again why he is like no other writer

Argubaly, no well-known contemporary author has reinvented genre literature the way Miéville keeps doing.

If a popular survey of fantastic literature is made a hundred years from now, chances are that a few names from the twentieth century will have easily survived the long haul. Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, almost certainly, for their unsettlingly matter-of-fact ruminations on the nature of power, time, and space.

JRR Tolkien, for his largesse of vision, and for singlehandedly having created an industry that shows no signs of letting up (for better or for worse).

Mervyn Peake would make the list because of the sheer originality of his Gormenghast books, as pleasant an anti-thesis to Tolkien as is possible, as would M John Harrison, for his Viriconium novels, which kept getting progressively weirder and more aware of themselves as fantasy fiction.

I would personally include some early Gene Wolfe, all of JG Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, while John Crowley (for Little, Big and his Ægypt cycle) and Alasdair Gray (for Lanark) would round that list off nicely.

But what about China Miéville?

He’d surely be an uneasy fit, largely because he’s always been so restless and dissatisfied with an easy, one-to-one relationship with his influences. His tastes are incestuous and provocative, giving the lie to the low-culture-high-culture dichotomy plaguing the arts. He’s as much at ease with his Kafka as he is with his Swanwick; he’ll pull a Borges on you at the same time that he’s imaginatively tapping in on the entire Dungeons and Dragons mythos.

Having said that, I suspect that Miéville’s early works, namely Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council, will not stand the test of time. These are, of course, excellent examples of an uninhibited, voracious intellect, devouring every idea it has ever come across and then proceeding to add a dash of political conflict into the mix for good measure.

But insect-headed women, pirate-ship nations, bureaucrats from Hell and probability swords notwithstanding, these novels of Miéville’s were, in hindsight, exuberant but messy; sprawling and confident, yes, but confused as to how to make a cogent statement, when the author was clearly having so much fun coming up with cool monsters.

Miéville has tempered his imagination considerably since then. His more recent fare sees him streamlining his prose, making it simultaneously more accessible and cryptic, while reining in the imaginary process to focus on fewer things to a much more powerful effect. The City and the City asked intriguing questions about the way we mentally process borders: politically, spatially, and ideologically. Embassytown was a fascinating update on the grand old tradition of Language-SF, a science fictional take on Swift’s Houyhnhnms (go see The Arrival when you can if you want a particularly good example of this kind of thing, and then read the Ted Chiang novella it’s based on).

But what about his two latest novellas, This Census-Taker and The Last Days of New Paris? Let’s take a closer look.

This Census-Taker

You can finish this book in one sitting, but I would advise you not to. Miéville’s language is extremely precise and measured here, needing very careful reading to parse. The story: a boy witnesses the apparent murder of one of his parents by the other. The rest of the novella sees him trying to make sense of exactly what happened.

The murder itself gives Miéville an excuse to inform his reader of the boy’s world, but he doesn’t quite do it like you’d expect him to. It’s all kept deliberately hazy, because it’s clear that the boy is taking for granted certain details about the setting the reader is never completely made privy to.

It’s clear that the whole thing takes place in a different world than ours, with its sly intimations of advanced machinery, possibly remnants of a war, and certain magical “keys” made by the boy’s father which grant wishes. There’s also a generally gloomy atmosphere pervading everything, and affecting everyone’s motivations. In between are some seductive passages that lure you in with unseemly beauty: children of the city, legs dangling on the edge of a bridge, use bamboo poles to fish for bats roosting underneath. How’s that for a beguiling image? And why does the boy’s father keep visiting a cave to dump bodies of animals he’s killed with his own hands?

This short read is full of such dark, hallucinatory imagery which draws the reader in, but ultimately leaves him hanging. Do not look for resolutions, dear reader, but immerse yourself in its suggestions, and its tantalising hints. Give it a rest for a while and then let it work its magic on you. Before long, connections emerge, and everything starts making very disturbing sense.

The Last Days of New Paris

The Last Days of New Paris is an alternative history novella with a twist: in Nazi occupied Paris, during World War II, after the explosion of the miraculous S-bomb, famous surrealist paintings and artworks start coming to life. Paris itself has become a war zone, a space with its own set of rules that needs intimate knowledge of if you wish to survive within it (I kept being reminded, in a good way, of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, and the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic).

Thibaut, the protagonist of our tale, is a member of the French resistance. He exists in an uneasy relationship with the new status quo, having made his peace with the (un)reality, but still struggling to survive within such a new world order. And as for the paintings themselves, Miéville provides the interested reader with page upon page of delightful descriptions of anomalous, awakened beings. Truly, he is in his element here, and there is a certain pleasure in seeing an author as enthusiastic as Miéville reveling in the details of each artwork, be it Breton, Lamba and Tanguy’s The Exquisite Corpse, or Leonora Carrington’s unsettling I am an Amateur of Velocipedes, a bicycle-woman-centaur-being.

The reader who is knowledgeable about the movement stands to gain most from Miéville’s novella, but there is certainly an entirely different kind of pleasure to be had in jumping into the fray with no knowledge of what these paintings are. Thibaut teams up with a woman called Sam and traverses the city, trying to decisively end the war with a little help from their surrealistic friends.

Running in parallel with Thibaut’s storyline is a narrative that charts the creation of the S-bomb, and this in turn introduces the reader to a literal who’s who of intellectuals, artists and visionaries who made Surrealism what it was. Again, Miéville resorts to a lot of namedropping (dangerously bordering on showiness), but his infectious enthusiasm makes you actually want to look these luminaries up on Wikipedia. You might be surprised at what you unearth, and how much you took a movement such as Surrealism for granted.

China Miéville, in short, is (surprise, surprise) clearly doing new things with genre, all over again. His emphasis is still very much on description, and a certain lyricism when engaging with non-human spaces, objects and creatures. I kept wishing though that his characters would give me more of a reason to keep reading his books.

Miéville’s protagonists seem to sacrifice their verisimilitude and credibility in favour of his rich surroundings, environments and cities, and his heady descriptions of spaces and objects. Because of this, and the criminally short nature of the stories, I wouldn’t call these two novellas resounding successes, but part of me is actually glad they’re the unkempt beasts that they are: frayed, fragile but surprisingly potent when you least expect them to be. Miéville does not rest easy on his laurels, and any connoisseur of fantastic literature would find his latest works a sumptuous delight.

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