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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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.