Crimson Peak (del Toro 2015)

MV5BNTY2OTI5MjAyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTkzMjQ0NDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Pretty much all the commentary so far has been about one of two things.

Critics have been unanimous in their praise of how gorgeous the film looks, from its gothicky design to its fabulous frocks and sumptuous colour palette (it also has some nice irises and cunning wipes).

Or they have echoed del Toro’s own point that it is not really a horror movie so much as a gothic romance, full of echoes and allusions, including: Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; the several versions of Jane Eyre and Silence of the Lambs; Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Notorious; Medak’s The Changeling; The Haunting, and Wises’s; King’s The Shining, and Kubrick’s; the Coen’s Barton Fink; del Toro’s own Devil’s Backbone; and so on.

All of these critics are right, and yet without exception they overlook del Toro’s major accomplishment.

Somehow, he manages constantly to keep this astonishing overblown confection of evil aristocrats, ghosts, forbidden rooms, gramophone cylinders, automata, letters, keys, ghosts, murder, incest, idiosyncratic grim-up-north grimness, peculiarly hardy Cumberland moths, violent assaults and revolutionary mining technology just this side of hilariously funny. And somehow he makes it a constant delight, grand guignol at its most operatic, all logic subordinated to production design.

But it would take just one person in the auditorium to start laughing, and it could all go disastrously wrong.

It is not the first time del Toro has walked this particular line. Much as I enjoyed them, Hellboy II and  Pacific Rim edge along a similar tightrope, and are rather less successful in keeping it together.

Early in the film, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) explains of a story she has written that it is not so much a ghost story as a story with ghosts in it, and that her ghosts are actually metaphors for the past. With the kind of New Weird chutzpah that China Miéville once championed, del Toro’s film takes completely the opposite tack. His ghosts are ghosts, not metaphors.

However, the logic of Miéville’s argument meant that while one should be absolutely committed to treating monsters as monsters rather than as metaphors, this should nonetheless leave their metaphorical potential open and even make for more effective metaphoricity. But with del Toro’s pastiche late-Victorian setting lacking the historical resonances of Devil’s and Pan’s Labyrinth‘s (not unproblematic) Spanish Civil War settings, there is nothing really for his ghosts to gain metaphorical purchase, even if they were so inclined. There is some stuff about aristocrats as parasites, and a whole Blut und Boden thing lying around should anyone want to make something of it, but no one does. And del Toro seems utterly uninterested in the gendered restrictions and sexual repression that seem so fundamental to gothic romance.

It is a film of many layers, all of them on the surface.

On the other hand, I loved every deliriously silly minute of it, and you get the impression del Toro did, too.

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The City in Fiction and Film, week one

This year we launched the new single honours BA Literature and Film Studies. The single honours bit is important. In a joint honours with a name like this, generally students could expect to take a couple of modules in the English department and a couple in the Film Studies department each year, with the relationships between literature and film largely unexplored (beyond, perhaps, a module on adaptation). So we set out to do something rather different – to continue to recognise medium-specificities and disciplinary knowledges/practices/skills, but also to bring them together. Various practicalities (staff specialisms and availability, institutional structures, etc) shaped the form this has taken. Basically, each year, students on the degree take one literary studies module, one film studies module, and two modules organised around a particular set of ideas that study both film and literature together; and none of these are shared with other programmes.

In the first year, one of the ‘combined’ modules looks at issues of cultural value and the other one – my one – is about representations of the city in fiction and film. Each week we have a two-hour screening slot, and a three-hour session which combines lecture and seminar activities in various mixes.

I will try to find time each week to blog about what we have been up to.

The first week of a module with new students always has particular tensions between:

1) all the institutional and organisational information that at least needs to be said aloud;
2) icebreaking;
3) encouraging students to start talking to each other and with the whole group;
and 4) actually studying something together

Fortunately, we were able to keep the first intake onto the degree quite small, and the students have already had induction sessions and a class together, so 2) could at least be folded into 3) and 4). Bureaucracies, however, tend to proliferate the items for 1) and drop them in the programme leader’s lap – in this instance, mine. Fortunately, I have great colleagues and we were able to share that load out a bit across the modules. Otherwise we might never have got to 4).

And at least everyone now knows what to do in case of fires or medical emergencies…

There is a further tension between introducing the module as a whole and meaningfully studying something quite specific that week.

In preparation for class, we read China Miéville’s London’s Overthrow and watched The Long Good Friday (Mackenzie 1981).

We began with some general questions:

  • How are cities defined?
  • How do cities differ from towns?
  • What are the relationships between the city and the country? Between the city and the conurbation or megalopolis? Between ‘the city’ and actual cities?
  • Is the city merely a physical, architectural phenomenon?
  • How are cities experienced and imagined?

Which inevitably lead to our first run-in with that student-frustrating formula: there is no definitive answer.

Louis Wirth in the 1930s defined cities in terms of permanence, large population, high population density and social heterogeneity. The UN seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of cities to mapping space in terms of intensive urban agglomerations and extensive metropolition regions. In the UK, unless you happen to have an Anglican diocesan cathedral, city status is awarded by the monarch – usually after some kind of competition tied to a celebration of the monarchy, such as a jubilee or royal wedding.

Probably the most useful definition in terms of the coming weeks is Richard Sennett’s self-consciously ‘simple’ attempt from 1977: ‘a city is a human settlement where strangers are likely to meet’. Which we unpicked for a while.

The Long Good Friday
Crime movies are often good for social and political commentary. The urban crime movie, particularly as it builds on hardboiled fiction, makes use of physical mobility across the city to explore social, political and economic relationships; and by moving across class and race barriers, it is able to depict crime as mirroring and/or paralleling ‘legitimate’culture. Hollywood’s ‘ethnic’ gangster movie protagonist (Scarface, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar in the 1930s through to, say, Dead Presidents in the 1990s) pursued individual wealth and personal success but because of race/ethnic/class exclusion had to rely on ‘illegitimate’ means. In the 1940s, with High Sierra and Force of Evil there is a shift to depicting organised crime as not really any different from capitalist corporations – a tendency which reaches a high point in especially the second Godfather film, and which results in bankers becoming indistinguishable from criminals in The International. Against that genre history, The Long Good Friday takes on a British neoliberal – or Thatcherite – specificity in the way it maps out relations between between crime, politics, policing, urban redevelopment and international finance. Gangland boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) captures something of the Conservative’s ideological contradiction between

  • a there-is-no-such-thing-as-society neoliberalism of competitive economic self-interest and ‘freedom’
  • a social conservatism (family, nation, social order, white privilege, etc)

The depiction of the Irish and especially the IRA is informative in this regard. The film came out as the Conservative government and their media lackeys were changing the treatment and representation of the IRA from political dissidents to nothing more than a violent criminal gang. This process began much earlier but had a particular resonance at the time – the film was released on 2 February 1981, less than a month before Bobby Sands and others began the second hunger strike in the Maze Prison. The film also sees politics and political commitment treated as an utterly inexplicable black box, and self-serving economic competition as natural, normal common-sense everyone understands and agrees with – a straight-up Thatcher move (that also involves pretending neoliberalism is not a political project, and accelerating the transition, that Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about years earlier, from government to governance).

We also thought about the film’s treatment of urban gay culture – on the one hand, a little bit seedy and secretive; on the other, everyone knows but no one much cares that Colin (Paul Freeman), Shand’s right-hand man, is gay; on the third hand, if you are gay in this movie you do die violently.

The representation of Brixton is also marked by contradictions: multi-ethnic streets (including a baby Dexter Fletcher!), but Shand implies that it is a black neighbourhood and that is why it has gone downhill; he also expresses disbelief at people being forced to live in such conditions, but it is not entirely clear whether this is empathy or a wannabe property developer seeing an opportunity – not an opportunity to build regular folks better homes, but an opportunity to get rich from property speculation.

London’s Overthrow
The Long Good Friday‘s unredeveloped docklands setting and the anticipation of a 1988 London Olympics make it increasingly timely – and a good match for Miéville’s essay. London’s Overthrow was written partly as a response to the propaganda surrounding the London Olympics development, and in the long shadow cast by the police killing of Mark Duggan and the popular protests (or ‘riots’) that swept British cities 6-11 August 2011.

Sadly, all the Olympics promos I could find online contained some airbrushed images of London but focused much more on athletes doing athletics – understandable, if unhelpful in this context. So we took a look at this short London tourism video from 2014 – all iconic architecture, tradition and (financial) modernity, almost entirely North of the Thames, bustling but never crowded, multi-ethnic but quite astonishingly white-looking, prettified. (Frankly, this video is more fun, especially the way it cons you into outrage at seeming to miss the entire point of The Clash, but I am still not sure what to make of this one.)

We didn’t have enough time to do more than some headline points about Miéville’s essay:

  • the publicity image of London contrasted with apocalyptic imagery;
  • the publicity image of London contrasted with imagery of a more diverse and stratified London;
  • the city transformed by technologies: the phone camera, advertising and other screens;
  • the city transformed by ownership: public space, privatised spaces, ASBOs (PSPOs);
  • planned London and unplanned London;
  • and, because there is something delightfully wrong about mentioning Jacques Derrida in the first week of an undergraduate degree, controlling the future (l’futur) and leaving potentials open (l’avenir)

If there were world enough and time, it would have been good to contrast some of the youtube footage of the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprising with Wretch 32’s ‘Unorthodox’ video that Miéville discusses. But as it was, there was barely time even to conclude with this image:

235c38c23a9a4c38109ed2b073365b84

From the too-much-information section of the module handbook:
Recommended reading
China Miéville’s novels are usually set in an alternative London (King Rat (1998), Un Lun Dun (2007), Kraken (2010)), or in one of the cities in the fantasy world of Bas Lag (Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), Iron Council (2004)). The City & the City (2009) is a murder-mystery set in two different cities that occupy the same physical space.
Elizabeth Bowen’s “Mysterious Kôr” (1944) contrasts an imaginary city with wartime London as an unmarried couple try to find somewhere they can sleep together.
This concern with the relationships between real and unreal cities is also central to Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895), Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons (1985), Iain Banks’s The Bridge (1986), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), G. Willow Wilson’s Cairo (2007) and David Eggers’s A Hologram for the King (2012).

Recommended viewing
Other movies about the murky connections between crime, business and politics include The Bad Sleep Well (Kurosawa 1960), Get Carter (Hodges 1971), The Godfather (Coppola 1972), Chinatown (Polanski 1974), The Godfather: Part II (Coppola 1974), City of Hope (Sayles 1991), Face (Bird 1997), The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Edel 2008), Mesrine (Richet 2008) and The International (Tykwer 2009).
Julien Temple’s documentary London: The Modern Babylon (2012) offers a history of the city through found footage – taken from films, newsreels, television, etc – that is useful for thinking about the ways in which moving images shape our understanding, expectations and memories of cities. Thom Andersen’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) uses movie footage to explore the ways in which Los Angeles is represented (and represents other cities) in Hollywood films – and to contrast this virtual or imaginary ‘Los Angeles’ with his own experience of living in the ‘real’ Los Angeles. Guy Maddin’s pseudo-documentary My Winnipeg (2007) concocts a fictional history of his hometown.

Week two

The Hogs of Haddon Hall

In Haddon Hall, the seat of the Duke of Rutland, which dates back to Tudor times and beyond, there is a recurring porcine motif. I took these pictures intending to write about the ancient Peak District custom of once a year dressing up your prize pig as Shakespeare – a practice outlawed by an unamused Queen Victoria following an outbreak of Hamlet jokes during her visit to nearby Bakewell.

pig 1

250px-Hw-shakespearepig 3

 

 

 

Then the light caught this chap just right and instead I planned to write about the Duke of Rutland’s unholy cross-breeding of William Hope Hodgson’s swine-things with China Miéville’s skulltopus.

pig 2

But after #piggate #Hameron #swine/11 , there is nothing left to do but post the pictures and wonder quite how long that sort of thing has been happening, how widespread it is and how high it goes.

pig 4

PS There was also this rather cool monkey and a strange flying ukulele-playing bagpipe monster painted on one of the walls.
monkey

bagpipe

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.

 

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (Macmillan 2000)

PerdidoStreetStation(1stEd)[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 79 (2000), 88–90. Which I think makes it the first thing on China to appear in an academic journal. Yay me!]

Vivid as a comic book, Miéville’s King Rat (1998), with its funky London and splendid conceit, and its passages of grace, charm and glee, was one of the most assured fantasy debuts of the 1990s. Like the bass beneath the treble, its narrative momentum and crafter prose danced the enchanted reader past the slipperiness of plot logic and duration. His second novel, Perdido Street Station, dwarfs King Rat – in words, weight, ambition, invention, accomplishment. It is a garuda to the former’s wyrman, and eagle to its flying monkey. Let me explain.

North of Myrshock, Shankell, Perrick Nigh and the Mandrake Islands; north-east of the Cacatopic Stain and the Shards; east of Bered Kai Nev, the Swollen Ocean, Gnur Kett and the Jheshull Islands; at the confluence of the rivers Tar and Canker, where they become the Gross tar: there lies the city of New Crobuzon, magnificent and squalid, powerful and corrupt, home to humans and others. A mysterious figure approaches. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, outcast scientist and corpulent dilettante, receives an unusual commission, as does his khepri partner, a renegade spit-artist. And so connections begin. Evil, irresponsibly cultivated, is accidentally unleashed. A company – neither quite a Seven Samurai nor a Dirty Dozen – gathers, although they do not all meet. Things emerge: winged rippers, artificial intelligence, the dancing mad god, class consciousness. Chaos theory is transmuted into crisis science. Dirigibles and aerostats criss-cross the troubled sky. The identity of a serial killer is slyly revealed. A vigilante steps in when it counts. Decisions, ethical and otherwise, are taken. People change and changed. Some die. All suffer.

The story told is a familiar one, yet different. It grips and exhausts. The birds, spiders, sewers, rooftops and hybrids of King Rat reappear exfoliated, as do the city’s alternative architectures, the shared worlds existing within but different from the built environment. The appetite for language that occasionally strained the earlier novel has grown to remarkable proportions but is disciplined by the clarity and efficiency of Miéville’s tempered prose; he delineates characters and settings with precision and compassion, building layers of texture rather than ornamentation. Some have suggested that New Crobuzon itself is the novel’s main achievement, but it is difficult to separate city from novel. Their fabric is intertwined and full of echoes: Gormenghast and Viriconium are here, and Cinnabar, Cirque, Dhalgren, Lankhmar, Malacia. London, too, both steampunk and contemporary; and where the lived music of King Rat captured coming-of-age in the late 1980s and 1990s, Perdido Street Station evokes the dark days of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Amid the ghettos and squalor, poverty and the appearance of difference are used as tools of state oppression. Secretive paramilitary forces who police ‘by decentralised fear’ (269) brutally suppress a strike and redefine it as a riot. Government, big business and organised crime are in cahoots. Military funding perverts scientific research and education. A suffrage lottery preserves privilege, and evil resides in a dome built on rubble-strewn wasteground.

Comparisons to Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison are inevitable – Miéville acknowledges them both and even sneaks in ‘a storm of wings’ (159) – so here are some others. Miéville’s obsessive invention rivals William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and, like Neal Stephenson, he wants to tell use everything (but for more important reasons). He writes with the compassion of Philip K. Dick at his best but without his misogyny and crude moral certainty. His gorgeous, tainted images match those of Elizabeth Hand, Storm Constantine and Poppy Z. Brite, but without the cloying atmosphere or swamping effect on narrative that sometimes mars their work. He depicts and art-world as well-realised as Misha’s, but more concrete and lacking in preciosity. He places the maimings and torments one expects to find only in Tim Powers within a political and ethical rather than mythopoeic framework. And he writes better prose than any of them.

He also mock the anxieties of sf’s ‘scientific’ patter and hand-waving, essays political doggerel and children’s songs, pastiches political journalism, satirises Judaeo-Christian despite for women, lampoons academic doublespeak, nods to Jonathan Swift and Ursula Le Guin, canonises the Jabberwocky – and still that is not all.

In King Rat, when the protagonist, Saul, briefly takes up with Deborah, a young homeless woman, he instructs himself not to patronise her but to treat her as a real person; and because the London Saul has come to inhabit is a fantastical one, this passage, with its conscious effort to bridge between textual and extratextual worlds, seems clumsy, a touch too didactic. Noentheless, it provides an important key to understanding the ethical fiction is attempting to construct. Similar moments, lacking in overt trans-diegetical moves and more smoothly executed, occur in Perdido Street Station: a brothel full of Remade whores and an act of betrayal offer mutual understanding; a trip to a freakshow, undertaken after some ninety pages of astonishments, refuses to conjure still more fabulous grotesques but instead portrays degradation, misanthropy and complacency. The nature of Perdido Street Station is such that it cannot gain King Rat’s purchase, however, awkward, on the extratextual world. Instead, these ethical and empathic moments occur within networks of interconnection. The key metaphor is provided by Isaac’s crisis science, which sees through consensual reality to the perpetual moment of crisis, to a precarious potential energy with which to drive revolutionary engines. It is, therefore, no coincidence that it is the striking vodyanoi dockers whose watercræft draws, albeit unconsciously, on this power. There are connections, Miéville insists, and in those connections, in shated being, there is hopeful energy; and, as Isaac, disgusted by the attitudes of other people at the freakshow, is reminded by a radical friend, ‘It turns … It turns quickly’ (88).

Of course the novel has flaws – some might find the Alien movies cast too large a shadow, or that Isaac’s mourning seems skimped (but not without reason), or that Miéville cares too much about his characters (whatever the hell that means), or that the reader is left as battered and drained as the company – but make no mistake: Perdido Street Station is the rich hallucinogenic dreamshit of genre, mutating into socialist fiction.

Wake up and smell the ordure.

On Matters Locomotive and Tentacular; or, Four or Five (More) Things About China Miéville

[After finding yesterday’s old piece on China, I remembered doing this one, too. But on reading it, I have no memory at all of writing it. It’s from the Readercon 17 programme, back in 2006 when China and James Morrow were GoHs.]

This was the plan, the plan was this: I would get the first post-rush hour train from Bristol to London and be there by noon.

tentacles‘There’ is the Starbucks in Borders bookstore on Oxford Street, our default meeting-up place in central London, and we would leave ‘there’ as soon as possible, and grab some pizza at a place around the corner (where, a year earlier, our arrival had been greeted with rapturous applause from the staff – not because they recognised China, but because they’d been open for almost an hour and we were their first customers that day). And after lunch, although the pretext for meeting up was discussing essay proposals for a book we are editing on Marxism and sf, we would head to the Natural History Museum to see the thirty-foot long, newly-on-display, giant squid.

That was the plan, the plan was that.

So of course that was not what happened.

Readers of King Rat and the stories in Looking for Jake (and a forthcoming project, as yet still a secret [Un Lun Dun, I guess]) will know that London is a strange place, where all kinds of unexpected things can happen; that the fabric of the city itself is fantastical. Strange chimera flit through the crowds, pausing to take fliers advertising clubs and bars and language schools from fastidiously scruffy young men and women being paid way less than minimum wage for their cash-in-hand labour, and roar in anguish, in bafflement, at this world which is no longer theirs, and retreat temporarily into the interstices, before emerging once more, hooked on it. Creatures, remnants from another time, can be glimpsed in the reflective surfaces of department stores and sandwich shops, phone booths and passing buses. Others dance across the rooftops. And then there’s the people, who are pretty fucking strange.

But our delays and derailments are far more mundane. Family. Trains. And by the time we get ‘there’ it is gone two o’clock. (There was an amusing incident involving a borrowed phone in case China needed to contact me, which he does, but by text, which my quick briefing on this new-fangled technology did not cover. I manage to find the message but am uncertain how to reply. I amaze myself by finding China’s number in the phone’s address book, so I call and leave him a message. The number later transpires to be that of his old phone. But I will omit this is at makes me sound much too old yet insufficiently curmudgeonly. And has nothing to do with trains or cephalapods.)

Lunch is relocated to an Italian restaurant, which does a pasta dish China likes involving little balls of fried courgette and spinach. Our arrival prompts neither adulation nor irony.

51M+qPPQDFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘Trains,’ I tut, to boost my curmudgeon-score as we share a mezze and several varieties of bread. But we have been talking about trains a lot, lately. I have a crazy notion that there is a book to be written about trains and early cinema and time-travel (but very distinctly not about early railroad films or time-travel movies), and China’s voracious reading, especially the research for Iron Council (and for his review of Stefan Grabinski’s The Motion Demon), keeps throwing up gems. It’s like having a really good research assistant I don’t have to supervise or pay (although he has still not returned my copies of The Iron Horse, Once Upon a Time in the West and Emperor of the North Pole).

These are the three things he tells me.

‘The seemingly obvious use of the railroad to “mean” Manifest Destiny, as in Zane Grey’s The U.P. Trail, is only permissible because of the peculiarity of that particular railroad. It really did only have one line, at least for a brief moment, but much longer iconically, and that’s been the source of a lot of notions of the unilinearity of the railroad, which are completely spurious. Not even a consideration of the siding or even the parallelism of tracks (necessary unless all trains are going only one way, a patent absurdity). So railroads aren’t even a misused symbol – they only work symbolically because of a lie.’

‘Of a failure, no, a refusal, to observe accurately,’ I suggest, ‘because that would strip the metaphor of its political potency.’

The mezze is really good.

$_35Iron Council riffed heavily on Frank Spearman’s Whispering Smith. Spearman was a sort-of libertarian, reportedly Ayn Rand’s favourite writer, did lots of stuff about rugged railwaymen. Whispering Smith is a troubleshooter for the railroad who is allowed to go anywhere and do more or less anything, including kill anyone necessary, to “fix problems”. It is an extremely perspicacious critique of rugged individualist/libertarian railroadism (as I’ve christened the ideology), because contrary to the “enlightened self-interest” of the Randists and half of Spearman’s own characters, the thrusting of the rails is only possible with a roving assassin – a man in a permanent state of Schmittian law-making exception! – bringing peace for capital-expansion at the end of a gun beyond the bounds of the rails. So the railroad relies for the always-spurious solidity of even its semiotic status to the right on an implicit awareness of beyond-railroad coercion of the most violent kind. Spearman, a cunning writer, recognises this and rather than attempt to conceal it, hides its in plain view.’

‘Agamben,’ I mutter, sipping a rather non-descript red wine, knowing that his Schmitt reference is more astute than my name-drop (but then he did study – and write a book on – legal theory). I refill my glass and reflect on how it is possible for China to talk so enthusiastically about stuff despite his rather non-committal approach to drinking.

220px-Sanatoriumpodklepsydra‘And then there’s Bruno Schulz, using trains (in several different ways – history as both inside and outside the train itself, on the rails as well as in the corridors) to think about the alterity of history and alternate possibilities. I’m increasingly interested by the idea of the multi-track nature of railroads, let alone Grabinski’s sidings, as key to their importance. There’s this astonishing passage in his ‘The Age of Genius’ in The Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass:

Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread. There they have their antecedents and their consequences, which crowd tightly together and press hard one upon the other without any pause. This has its importance for any narrative, of which continuity and successiveness are the soul.

Yet what is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided and allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the air, homeless and errant?

Could it be that time is too narrow for all events? Could it happen that all the seats within time might have been sold? Worried, we run along the train of events, preparing ourselves for the journey.

For heaven’s sake, is there perhaps some kind of bidding for time? Conductor, where are you?

Don’t let’s get excited. Don’t let’s panic; we can settle it all calmly within our own terms of reference. Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events which cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which to shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. It will all happen imperceptibly: the reader won’t feel any shock. Who knows? Perhaps even now, while we mention it, the doubtful manoeuvre is already behind us and we are, in fact, proceeding into a cul-de-sac.

‘Isn’t that fucking amazing?”

I have to agree.

I also have to confess.

This was the plan, the plan was this: over lunch we would talk wisely and wittily about arcane things, scare the children at the next table with our profanity and their parents with out erudition (or vice versa). It is not that China is scarily geeky (although he does know his shit), nor that I cannot write convincing dialogue (although I cannot); but rather that China’s words come from a long and almost painfully helpful email he sent me after a phone conversation about matters locomotive.

Conversation over lunch that day really focused on our childish enthusiasm for all things cephalopodic and tentacular. I’d recently rewatched Jon Lurie’s series of fake fishing documentaries, Fishing With John, in which he takes various celebrities – Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe – on improbable fishing expeditions. The series ends with a two-parter in which John – who died while ice-fishing with Willem in the previous instalment, a fitting punishment considering they used the proper equipment rather than chainsaws to cut through the ice – is discovered to be not only alive and well but taking Dennis Hopper fishing for giant squid in the Andaman Sea. After arduous travels, unsuccessful angling, a sidetrip to see some squid-worshipping monks who warn of the giant squid’s hypnotic powers, they finally meet with success, of a sort. A giant squid rises to the surface. But all is not well. Disorientation strikes Dennis and John. What is going on? Has something happened? They leave Asia disconsolate, because despite seeing their prey up close, it hypnotised them, and they believe their expedition a complete failure.

Jeff VanderMeer’s name of course crops up, as it always does in squidversations. But a new potential source of delight is introduced. An aside about James Woods not sleepwalking through a performance but actually sleeping through a performance in ER triggers a memory deep in China.

‘Have you ever,’ he asked, ‘seen Tentacles? I’ve only heard about it – a 70s Jaws rip-off about a giant octopus – in which John Huston literally phones in his performance. Apparently, he finally gave in and agreed to appear in it on the condition that he didn’t have to leave his own home to do so. So his performance consists of him sitting on a lawn-chair on his own lawn, saying things over his own phone like, “Hmmm, yes, that does sound like it could be the work of a giant octopus”.’

Neither wise nor witty, neither arcane nor profane; more geeky than erudite; but it certainly did scare the children sat at the table next to us. And their parents.

***

Coda 1. We did actually discuss the proposals and finalise the line-up for Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction.

Coda 2. The little balls of courgette and spinach are really rather good.

Coda 3. While China’s books are available at all good bookstores, it is worth noting that Tentacles is also available on region 1 DVD, but while I was able to pick up a copy for just five bucks, there is a heavy price to pay: it comes with the Joan Collins movie Empire of the Ants, a low point in a career hardly distinguished by its heights.

Coda 4. We never did get to the Natural History Museum to see the giant squid.

Coda 5. Unless we did but just can’t remember. Hypnotic powers, y’know.

Four or Five Things About China Miéville

[Just stumbled across this old thing I wrote for the Wiscon 17 Programme Booklet in 2003, when China and Carol Emshwiller were GOHs]

Skulltopus011 Saturday September 28th 2002 was a bright and clear day in London. Which was just as well, because China and Emma were late. A group of us had arranged to meet at the National Film Theatre’s Café on the South Bank of the Thames at 12.30. From there, we would cross the river to the Embankment to join the protest march against war on Iraq and for a free Palestine.

In a way, though, the delay didn’t matter. Despite early police claims that there were only 40,000 protestors, it was clear there were ten times that number. It’s not like anyone would have noticed if we were late.

But coffee had been drunk and impatience was setting in and the crowd on the opposite bank was swelling and China wasn’t answering his mobile phone.

Suddenly, in the distance, a sighting.

Arms were waved. Watches were pointed at extravagantly. Tutting noises were made.

China and Emma arrived. China was breathless, not from rushing but from excitement. ‘Sorry we’re late, but you won’t believe what we’ve just seen. We had to stop and watch. We were walking through the park, and there was this pelican. Fucking huge, and it just swooped down and ate a pigeon. It was gross. You could see the pigeon struggling in its gullet.’

China was right. Nobody believed him.

Not that the story was completely implausible. It’s just that impish Mike Harrison had already started the rumour that en route they had popped into John Lewis – an irredeemably bourgeois department store – to buy some things for their new flat.

To this day, nobody believes China’s story about the pelican and the pigeon. But for some reason everybody seems to take a special delight in preferring to believe Mike’s version of events.

***

One of China’s favourite passages of our sf explanation is to be found in Eric Flint’s 1632. It goes like this:

So that’s about it folks … Somehow – nobody knows how – we’ve been planted somewhere in the middle of Germany almost four hundred years ago. With no way back.

It seems like this passage might soon occupy that special place in China’s heart once reserved for a line from the underrated Prince of Darkness:

Nothing anywhere ever should be able to do what it is doing.

***

China’s taste in movies is a bit hit-and-miss.

He’s right about Prince of Darkness – it is underrated. He’s right about Being John Malkovich – the more you think about it the worse it becomes. He’s right about Donnie Darko – it is a little too knowing for its own good. And he’s right about Daredevil – even it if was identical in every other respect, it would have been massively improved by casting Eric Stoltz instead of Ben Affleck.

But he will insist on the genius of the first five minutes of X-Men.

And that Fight Club is a great movie.

***

One of China’s favourite comic book panels is to be found in an old Trigan Empire strip from Look and Learn. It is night-time. On a roof in a city an old man and a young lad are stargazing. Suddenly there is a noise. They both look alarmed.

What was that?

say the old man. The boy replies:

It sounded like a large party of men rushing stealthily down the alley!

***

Last autumn, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. We got home from my first session of chemotherapy about 3.30pm on Friday 15th November. Around 4.00pm the doorbell rang. China and Emma had sent me a huge bouquet of flowers with a hope-it-went-okay kind of message. Later that evening I phoned to thank them, and the first thing China did was apologise in case receiving flowers from a male friend made me feel awkward.

It was a rugged, ironic, manly thing to do; but, in truth, I’d never before received flowers from a male friend and I’d no idea feeling awkward about it was even an option.

***

Perhaps these tidbits, incidents and events will provide a future biographer with things around which to drape some insights into China’s character. But I will leave it to you to decide what it all might mean.

[A sort of sequel piece can be found here.]