China Miéville, The Scar (London: Macmillan, 2002)

200px-TheScar(1stEd)[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 86 (2002), 132–4]

The Scar returns to Perdido Street Station’s Bas Lag, but it is not a novel about return: it is about departure and loss. Part of that loss is the sense that the author, with his bold opening move of denying New Crobuzon, has learned all he can from Mervyn Peake; and consequently it wobbles, or seems to wobble, in the first 60 pages.

Peake has often been criticised for leaving Gormeghast in the final volume of his trilogy – a criticism with which Miéville does not necessarily agree but to which he has clearly paid attention. New Crobuzon, that brilliant invention and potential albatross, does not appear in The Scar. For the reader wanting a consolatory return, New Crobuzon has become like M. John Harrison’s Egnaro; indeed, an alternative title for the novel might have been ‘A Young Man’s Journey to New Crobuzon’. Miéville is too ambitious to serve up just more of the same, and that is why the novel wobbles at the start (or seems to: I am not exempt from wanting consolation), why the world seems a little thin to begin with, why the visit to Salkrikaltor City seems skimped, curtailed. The opening pages reek of impatience. Like the protagonist Bellis Coldwine, the author needs to depart, to move on, and through her he transforms his refusal to return to New Crobuzon into part of his thematic complex about a mature regard for the universe and the compassionate identification with others that it demands of ethico-political beings.

Which is not to say that those pages are not full of the restless invention, exemplary prose and visualisation we have so quickly come to expect from Miéville. And even when Bas Lag does not seem as dense and filled as it might, there is still the sense of a dense, full world lurking out of sight, of whole other volumes that can only be hinted at. On the very first page we read that ‘Presences something between molluscs and deities squat patiently below eight miles of water’; and on the next page that ‘There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes’. But that is all we are told.

Forced to flee New Crobuzon, Bellis (a former lover of Perdido’s Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin) plans to settle for a while in the colony of Nova Esperium, but her journey is interrupted, diverted, hi-jacked. She finds herself caught up in the plans of the Lovers, the sado-masochistic and megalomaniac rulers of Armada, and in the conspiracies and counter-conspiracies of Silas Fennec (aka Simon Fench), a secret agent, and Uther Doul, the Lovers’ right-hand man. She witness scab-mettlers fight in the mortu crutt style and displays of stamp-fighting; she walks upon Machinery Beach; she eavesdrops upon the Lovers sexualised scarifications; she is courted by Doul and hears him play the Perhapsadian; she learns about oceanic megafauna, the Ghosthead Empire and possibility mining. And she is used, and punished, and used some more.

But that is a mere fraction. There is the magnitude of the Lovers’ hubristic designs for Armada; the resistance of the Brucolac, the ab-dead vampir ruler of Dry Fall; the grindylows’ pursuit of Fennec; the story of Crawfoot and the Conch Assassins; the Remaking of Tanner Sack; Bastard John, the dolphin; the education of Shekel and his romance with the Remade Angevine; the peculiar adventure of the cactacae Hedrigall; awkward friendships and alliances; there is a none-too-secret message hidden in the open, an extraordinarily bad pun (471) involving the Maguffin which drives one strand of the action, and an obscure joke about the author’s doctoral thesis (417–21), which he was completing alongside the novel. There are moments of great tenderness (Bellis teaching Shekel to read; Sack repairing Angevine’s boiler) and tremendous set-pieces (the attack of the she-anophelii; the Brucolac’s revolt and punishment; breaking into the Compass Factory; Hedrigall’s vision). And there is the anxiety of influence, manifested in numerous allusions to The Matrix (a character called Carrianne, Uther Doul’s sword-fighting in bullet-time) and to other nautical fantasies (the Aronnax Lab, the Pinchermarn, Tintinnabulum, Captain Princip Cecasan of the Morning Walker, a godwhale). There are various echoes of Bruce Sterling’s Involution Ocean and a game of pitch and toss borrowed from Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard.

And, most importantly, there is a sustained critique of colonialism. The anophelii, isolated and under military guard, are remorselessly exploited by the Samheri cactacae, their access to information tightly circumscribed and their intellectual labours expropriated without reward. There are questions about who are the real slaves and who are the real pirates. There is a clear-headed explication of the mercantile motivation of exploration, and a revelation that changes our perspective on the grindylow. There is Machinery Beach, a complex image of ruination and potential, of the colonised world as both dumping ground and source of commodities:

Some way off were shapes she had taken to be boulders, huge things the size of rooms, breking up the shoreline. They were engines. Squat and enormous and coated with rust and verdigris, long-forgotten appliances for unknown purposes, their pistons seized by age and salt.
There were smaller rocks too, and Bellis saw that these were shards of the larger machines, bolts and pipework junctions; or finer, more intricate and complete pieces, gauges and glass work and compact steampower engines. The pebbles were gears, cogs, flywheels, bolts and screws … thousands of minuscule ratchets and gearwheels and ossified springs, like the innards of inconceivably tiny clocks. … The beach was an imitation, a found-sculpture mimicking nature in the materials of the junkyard. Every atom from some shattered machine. … She imagined the seafloor around the bay – reclaimed reef of decaying industry, the contents of a city’s factories allowed to collapse, pounded by waves and sun, oxidizing, bleeding with rust, breaking into their constituent parts and then into smaller shards, thrown back by the water onto the island’s edge, evolving into this freakish shore. … This is the flotsam Hedrigall meant, she realized. This is a graveyard of dead devices. There must be millions of secrets mouldering here into rust-dust. They must sift through it, and scrub it clean, and offer the most promising bits for trade, two or three pieces picked randomly from a thousand piece-puzzle. Opaque and impenetrable, but if you could put it together, if you could make sense of it, what might you have? (274-5)

And most of all there is the Lovers’ plan for Armada, in which they convince and cajole many to believe, regardless of its tremendous environmental and human consequences, because it might just bring wealth and power.

The Scar represents a further maturation of Miéville as a writer. If the novel lacks some of the profligacy which made Perdido Street Station such a joy it is made up for by a more disciplined approach to narrative and tighter control over intertextual riffs. His emotional and affective range has expanded, without abandoning the eyeball-kicks.

The Scar is the best nautical fantasy since John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and the most important one since B Traven’s The Death Ship.

It is arguably the first major novel of the anti-capitalist movement, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it makes Moby Dick look like a big fat book about whales.

 

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William Godwin’s Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

Caleb Williams.2-1Originally published: 1794
Edition used: Caleb Williams (Penguin, 1988) edited and introduced by Maurice Hindle

Of humble origin, Caleb Williams, orphaned at the age of 18, is taken into the household of the local squire, Ferdinando Falkland. One day, he stumbles upon his master behaving in a secretive manner; on perceiving Caleb, Falkland becomes violent. Falkland’s steward explains the curious chain of circumstances that saw Falkland recently accused of murder and then vindicated, after which his personality underwent a profound change. Caleb begins to suspect Falkland is actually guilty of the murder and let others be executed for his crime. Falkland eventually confesses to Caleb, secure that no one will believe a servant over his master. When Caleb tries to flee the tyranny with which Falkland circumscribes his daily existence, he is framed for robbery. Awaiting trial, Caleb escapes, and from that moment on his life becomes a miserable series of disguises and upheavals as Falkland’s agents dog his steps, never allowing him to settle.

Things As They Are is an intriguing test case for where the boundaries of the fantastic lie. A ‘political Gothic’, there is nothing of the fantastic in it – not even of the apparently supernatural that is later revealed to have a mundane explanation. M John Harrison argues that the problem with much sf is that it has become addicted to the mediating metaphor – the whole paraphernalia of future societies, other worlds, monsters and spaceships, and the grab-bag of technical and rhetorical tools – rather than deploying such image-furniture and techniques to establish a metaphoric relationship between text and world. Much the same can be seen to happen in the flowering of the Gothic in the second half of the 18th century and its subsequent permutations.

While the Gothic imagined terrible incarcerations in crumbling vaults and subterranean dungeons, Godwin turned to the reality of the contemporary judicial and penal systems as described in The Malefactor’s Register; or the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (1779) and Howard’s 1777 report on The State of Prisons, and as witnessed on visiting Newgate prison and in the treatment of fellow radicals such as Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot.

While the Gothic generally used such torments to thrill its readers with the depiction of sensibilities under distress, Godwin – who was not above such things – also turned his Gothic imagination to an elaboration of the prison as a model of the social world.

Falkland-discovering-Caleb2-e1300118099300While much Gothic fiction can be read as a kind of sadomasochistic proto-feminist expression of the internalisation of particular historical restrictions on female experience, Caleb stands as a kind of typical subject for whom the whole world is carceral.[i] The ‘paranoid’ depiction of society as a prison-house becomes an important fantastic metaphor in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken/Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1924), Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess/The Trial (1925), B Traven’s The Death Ship (1934), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Samuel Beckett’s Le Depeupleur/The Lost Ones (1971), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), throughout Philip K Dick’s work and in countless other fantastic and dystopian fictions.

But at what point does one judge the metaphor to have become sufficiently concretised in the diegetic world to make it a fantastic world?[ii]

One particular moment is worth considering in this light. Hiding out in London, Caleb encounters a hawker peddling a fictionalised account of his life:

Here you have the MOST WONDERFUL AND SURPRISING HISTORY AND MIRACULOUS ADVENTURES OF CALEB WILLIAMS: you are informed how he first robbed, and then brought false accusations against his master; as also of his attempting divers times to break out of prison, till at last he effected his escape in the most wonderful and uncredible manner; as also of his travelling the kingdom in various disguises, and the robberies he committed with a most desperate and daring gang of thieves; and of his coming up to London, where it is supposed he now lies concealed; with a true and faithful copy of the hue and cry printed and published by one of his Majesty’s most principal secretaries of state, offering a reward of one hundred guineas for apprehending him. All for the price of one halfpenny. (278)

Robbed of his liberty, Caleb is now stripped of his identity as other characters take this popular account for the truth about him. And it does indeed contain some superficial truths – he has escaped prison, been sheltered by a gang of thieves (although committing no crimes himself), become expert at disguise and made his way to London – but not the truth, especially not what has forced him into this behaviour. But this virtual self becomes a doppelganger, permitting him no rest, even as Falkland’s exercise of arbitrary power takes on a life of its own separate from and outside of his control. Elsewhere, much is made of the difference of justice as it exists on paper and as it is experienced by those subjected to its institutional practices – a long time before Borges or Baudrillard, Godwin observes not only the distinction between map and territory but also the supersession of the territory by the map.

Ultimately, even if Caleb’s misadventures are not judged to be fantastical, they nonetheless pose important questions about how we conceptualise fantasy. If M John Harrison’s Things That Never Happen (2004) collects the fiction of a fantasist working to strip the fantasy out of fantasy, Godwin’s Things As They Are seems to tackle the same problem from the other side.

220px-CalebWilliamsIt should also be noted that Caleb provides a template of sorts for the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) – Shelley was, of course, Godwin’s daughter – and that like Shelley’s novel Things As They Are cries out for queer reading.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[i]
This is not to imply that female characters cannot be typical subjects, nor that male experience should be normalised as in anyway typical.
[ii]
Things As They Are bears some obvious similarities to such noirish crime movies as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy 1932) and The Big Clock (Farrow 1948), itself a possible prototype for Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977); and a similar question about the boundaries of fantasies is posed by the heady and tortured prose typical of Cornell Woolrich’s crime fiction.