China Miéville: a user’s guide.

I just received in the mail China Miéville’s only young adult novel, Un Lun Dun, and sat down to read the back blurb with great excitement. Here it is:

What is Un Lun Dun?

It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people, too–including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.

When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.

By the end I was laughing. Of course something goes shockingly wrong. It’s Miéville. I don’t think the man could write a sonnet without having the turn center around a tragic accident the couplet reveals to have been an eldritch plot. (I only learned what eldritch means recently, and I am now using it as often as possible. Eldritch eldritch eldritch.) Saying something goes shockingly wrong in his books is like saying the loins of romance novel heroes sometimes burn.

Miéville is difficult, guys. He is partial to stories starring way too many characters involved in way too many plot lines, and he takes rather more pleasure in graphically torturing and mutilating his characters than I am comfortable with. He’s also the most creative writer I have ever read, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the most creative writer working today. The things he comes up with are simply unthinkable until he thinks them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m glad someone thought them – I’m not kidding about the graphic torture and mutilation. But it’s inarguably original stuff, and I’m willing to give a whole lot of rope to that.

Miéville claims to want to write a book in every genre (though all his books are works of speculative fiction), and the first that I read was in the style of a hard-boiled detective novel. The City and The City is the standalone story of two cities that physically occupy the same space but whose residents can’t acknowledge each other on pain of punishment. (To wit: in an apartment building, my side of the hallway might be in City A and yours might be in City B, but when we pass each other in the hall we can never acknowledge each other by any sign, since we are in different cities. To get from one city to the other, you have to go through a customs clearinghouse, at which point you may only move in spaces in the other city.) Our Hero is a detective who gets caught up in a crime that transgresses city boundaries. What ensues is, as per the Miévillian norm, too complicated to explain or even remember properly, but rest assured it is very exciting.

The City and The City is relatively spare and well-edited for all its excess, and Miéville is an exceptional world-builder. Good world-building is a rare skill (its lack can be exemplified by the Harry Potter books, which I love, but good goddamn, is Jo Rowling fail at world-building), and reading in the presence of a writer who’s doing it well is transporting. It’s hard to even care about what’s happening when you’re excited to be where it’s happening. Also, cards on the table, I’m a total sucker for a story that’s putting a puzzle together. Total sucker. This makes everything Miéville has ever written pure unadulterated Sara-bait.

So I enjoyed The City and The City. I next turned to Miéville’s best-known work, Perdido Street Station, excited to see what lurked therein. The answer is total fucking horror, and not the “good” kind (if you like that sort of thing, since I think this is the one that’s supposed to be in the horror genre, and I don’t know, maybe it’s good horror-genre-stuff, but what I mean is THE BOOK IS HORRIFYING, OKAY). It starts off dark and creepy, but populated by characters you like in a world you’re interested in. New Crobuzon, the city in which Perdido Street is set, is a weird hybrid of medieval-university-town/steampunk/modern-bohemian-party-thing. Its citizens are only sometimes human, if usually nominally humanoid, and include the scarab-headed khepri, the water-shaping froglike vodyanoi, and the most eye- and brain-popping of the lot, the Cactacae. Cactus-people. The khepri and vodyanoi are both drawn from mythology and folklore, but the Cactacae sprang fully formed from Miéville’s twisted little head. This shit is bananas, is what I’m saying, and it’s why I like hanging out in New Crobuzon. Like I said – world-building like a boss. Our Hero, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, is a thaumaturge – steampunk’s academically-inclined answer to a wizard, is my best explanation – and his khepri girlfriend, Lin, is a gifted artist. But shit quickly gets downright unpleasant, by which I mean the book stops being fun to read and becomes purely a trial. You keep going, though, because you need to know what happens.

While none of Miéville’s other books get as miserable as Perdido – and seriously guys, I’m not fucking around, the last book I remember making me feel as shitty as Perdido did was by Bret Easton Ellis – most share the same structural flaws. They are long as shit. They ramble. They are so twisty that it can become difficult to understand and track what’s going on (this is particularly a problem in Kraken). They’re partial to massive bait-and-switches, wherein tons of time and energy is spent building up to a certain plot point, only to find – surprise! – that there’s an entirely different element at work. When he actively engages that, as in The Scar, it can feel rewarding; when it seems uncontrolled and gimmicky, as I’d argue it does in Kraken, it can feel massively irritating. I feel like he really needs an editor who understands him and his style and can reduce the level of chaff in his books. That said, I’ve read five of them and have no intention of stopping now. I took a very long Miéville break after Perdido; I don’t know if I’d gone back if he hadn’t written a book about a giant squid. I’m a sucker for squid. (Get it? Sucker? For squid? I kill me.) But I’m glad I went back, even if around page 500 of Kraken I felt like reaching into the book, shaking the protagonist and saying “CAN YOU GET TO THE FUCKING POINT IT IS PAGE 500 AND I CAN’T REMEMBER WHO ANY OF THESE PEOPLE ARE AFFILIATED WITH ANYMORE.” That is how I felt, but I kept at it. Why? Because these books are like crack for puzzle fiends, and while I hate doing puzzles, I love watching them get solved.

Ultimately, what keeps me coming back to Miéville is his wild, unrestrained creativity. Yes, he gets long. Yes, he gets disturbing. But these are the price of admission to his verdant, crazy brain. It is a price I am willing to pay.

If you’re interested in jumping into the Miéville pool, I recommend starting with The Scar. While it follows Perdido in the Bas-Lag chronology, the two have nothing to do with each other and you won’t lose anything by reading it first. Of the Miéville books I’ve read, I think it’s the most accessible, best constructed and least upsetting.

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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8 Responses to China Miéville: a user’s guide.

  1. SWNC says:

    The Scar is probably my favorite Mieville–I have a big weakness for nautical fiction, and it’s definitely less “hide under the bed” dark than Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun and Iron Council are his weakest works, I think. Un Lun Dun, because, like many adult authors, he underestimates what it takes to write great children’s fiction, and Iron Council, because it’s so blatantly political. Have you read “Embassytown” yet? I though it was awesome.

    • Sara says:

      I disagree about Un Lun Dun SO SPECTACULARLY. (I started this post like two months ago, lol, and have read it since.) What did you think was lacking? I thought it suffered from the usual Mieville problems of pacing and bait-and-switch – which problems tend to complement each other really awkwardly – but otherwise loved it. It might be my favorite of his books.

      I haven’t read Iron Council or Embassytown yet, but apparently Embassytown is about aliens and language, so sign me the fuck up immediately. What other nautical fiction would you recommend? I found myself really enjoying all the boat stuff in The Scar.

  2. SWNC says:

    I didn’t dislike Un Lun Dun–it just didn’t grab me in the way his other works have. Maybe because it was a children’s book and because I knew that, dark as Mieville can be, nothing really terrible was going to happen, it lacked some of the emotional depth of his other books?

    For nautical fiction, you simply cannot beat Patrick O’Brian. He has a wonderful series set during the Napoleonic Wars, featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, a naturalist and sometimes spy. I love them as much for the dry humor and the friendship between the two main characters as for the naval battles. Our own WAKnight has written about them over at his place: http://testudomeles.blogspot.com/2011/07/greatness-of-patrick-obrian.html#more

    • Darth Thulhu says:

      I will admit to being properly worried for the protagonists during Un Lun Dun. The originals of faerie tales often have massive amounts of cautionary tale death and maiming, and Un Lun Dun was very modern-faerie-tale. If anyone might have gone there in full, and just started ending people, it would be Miéville (or, to a much softer register, Gaiman). I was fully willing to anticipate the worst, so the story held together for me.

  3. Darth Thulhu says:

    I loved Perdido Street Station. Loved

    Really alien aliens like the Cactacae? Loved!

    Intense noir horror atmosphere? Loved!

    Inevitable obliviation of characters who get too mixed into the Bad Stuff? Loved!

    Seriously, it’s up in the best horror writing of the past twenty years.

    The rambling build leading to a twist is definitely a Miéville trope, and I agree he could tighten it up, but what I appreciate about the nature of the sickening twist is that it perfectly nails the “floor dropping out beneath you” aspect of the horror reveal. No matter what Miéville is writing, there’s a bit of horror involved, and the best descent is the descent where the character thinks they understand what is going on, marches onward, and then comes upon the Secret Truth that suddenly reveals that they have been unknowingly making Terribly Bad Decisions for much too long now.

    It’s the dawning of the awareness of Doom. Maybe you should have left well enough alone, right? Maybe you shouldn’t have put that puzzle together? Because now that you have solved the puzzle, you are Doomed. Doomed! (or at least severely inconvenienced and scared)

    Absolutely love it.

  4. xelgaex says:

    I kind of thought that the Cactacae were at least in part a reference to these guys. But maybe that’s just my personal nerd-ery. Nothing else really suggests he’s drawing from the Final Fantasy mythos, that I remember.

    I really like Miéville but the PSS is probably my least favorite of his works. (Spoilers follow.) The whole abducted girlfriend trope creeps me out a bit normally. (Because it’s almost always going to be about him and his feelings.) Add in some serious serious body horror and, no, I was not a happy camper at the end of that book. But I came back for the creative worldbuilding. And I did like The Scar much better so I agree with that recommendation.

    • Sara says:

      Oh my god the abducted girlfriend thing. I didn’t wind up getting to it here, because I went more broad strokes, but the biggest reason I walked away from Miéville for awhile after Perdido was because the sexism was so staggering and appalling that I couldn’t deal. I have no idea how someone who writes about women so positively in his other works could write something as woman-hating as Perdido. He clearly is not a big fucking sexist (c.f. Un Lun Dun and The Scar).

  5. Renee Perry says:

    My personal favorite Mieville is his newest, Embassytown, but he’s never a waste of time. I think part of his problem is he’s immensely ambitious and can default to a baroquely over-heated style. At the same time he’s a fountain of ideas, even for a sf writer.

    His first book, King Rat, also turned me on to Drum n Bass for which I’ll always be grateful.

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