Sunday, July 18, 2004

Scarred

I finished reading The Scar, by China Miéville. It took me a few weeks, but what a ride!

(Both the Pan Macmillan China Miéville site and the Runagate Rampant have articles and tidbits, but neither has been updated recently.)

In so many ways, it is the complete opposite of Perdido Street Station (which, frankly, I preferred, I think.) Perdido Street Station was dark and urban (just like me!); The Scar was a wide open space.

The opening chapters reminded me of, of all things, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, perhaps for no other reason than that it takes place at sea, and I've never been one for sea-faring tales. There's a sense that somehow it doesn't belong with the others, which is a silly point to make regarding a book that is just the second one set in the world of Bas-Lag. Perhaps it's a strength that it makes you feel adrift, between places, not connected, with nowhere to firmly plant your feet.

Hmm.

With each new New Crobuzon novel, Miéville must specify more and more of his imagined cosmos; there will be fewer shadows at the corner of things, his vision will become more described and less implied. In this book, for example, I found the external perspective of New Crobuzon as a naval and imperial power shrank the city, imaginatively, so that it became just another late nineteenth-century analogue European city, rather than occupying the almost mythic, archetypal and unaccountable place it did in the earlier novel.

Where PSS followed the building of character, making choices, taking responsibility, becoming human, The Scar witnesses the unraveling of character.

Even the "science" at the crux of these novels is opposite.

The Scar mines "possibility." "They set free forces that they were able to tap. Forces that allowed them to reshape things, to fail and succeed simultaneously — because they mined for possibilities. A cataclysm like that, shattering a world, the rupture left behind: it opens up a rich seam of possibilities... For every action there's an infinity of outcomes... Tapped by possibility machines, outcomes that didn't quite make it to actuality were boosted, and made real."

Like being able to watch Schrodinger's cat and choose.

Behind PSS was crisis energy and the "conviction that underlying the facticity of the world, in all its seeming fastness, was an instability, a crisis pushing things to change from the tensions within them... Things, while even as they were, were always in crisis, always pulled to become their opposite."

If what was and what was not were allowed to coexist, the very tension — the crisis at the center of existence — must dissipate. Where was that crisis energy in the real becoming what it was not, if what it was not was right there alongside what it was?

One of the blurbs for The Scar boasts, "This is not your grandfather's science-fiction/fantasy novelist." I don't know what that means.

I can't wait to get my hands on the next Crobuzon novel, but it may be a year or so before it's available in paperback. In the meantime, I read what others have to say about it.

The New York Times says that:

Iron Council, by China Miéville, is an exemplar of what some are calling the Next Wave in British science fiction. The name is a sly reference to the New Wave of the 1960's, when English and American writers . . . cast a suspicious eye on genre staples like space travel and future technology. The Next Wave . . . mixes left-leaning politics and a taste for horror into cautionary tales of societies gone wrong at the core.

The generic comments apply equally to the first two Bas-Lag novels. This world is slowly being revealed to us, for us to figure out as we go.

Without ever spelling out the details (any more than Isaac Asimov explained the intricacies of his robots' "positronic brains"), Miéville treats magic as another form of technology, one that follows dimly apprehended rules and that typically exacts a cost greater than its practitioners anticipate.

Miéville's language is interesting and skilled, chosen with deliberate purpose:

To convey both the weirdness and the familiarity of his vividly elaborated world, he peppers his sentences with unusual words("serein," "strath," "atramentous," "cuneal") that will send most readers to a good unabridged dictionary—- and back again to this challenging but deeply rewarding novel.

Adam Lipkin's review at Bookslut is immensely frustrating. Make up your mind Mr Lipkin:

"clearly an immensely talented writer"
"He nicely nails tough bits of dialogue or characterization."
"The man can write. He just chooses not to."

Mr Lipkin seems intent on disliking this book, not because it's bad but because it doesn't quite break the molds its fans claim, because it's not as good as Miéville's popularity should warrant.

This is a world that is just begging for a good story. If Miéville ever decides to work on his storytelling skills as much as his world-building ones, that story might finally be told.

A great writer could (and should) make their experiments work to forward the plot — or, at the other extreme, lose the pretense that the plot actually matters. Miéville, however, lets his own desires to examine politics and flout literary conventions get in the way of simply writing a good book.

As a fan, I have to say that Miéville's constructed world is so fucking amazing, the storytelling doesn't particularly matter. In fact, the digressions and lost trails help make that world believable. An examination of politics is vital — that's why I read this stuff: to explore ideologies, their social consequences, their moral implications. I don't believe Miéville has any pretense about plot.
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