Tag Archives: China Mieville

My Best of 2010, Part Three

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms

When I review books I tend to write about theme a lot. (I hope I’m less simpleminded and reductive about it than your average high school English teacher.) N. K. Jemisin’s books have plenty of interpretive possibilities–among others, there are ideas here about power, and how it interacts with religion, and how cultures use their gods even as they think of themselves as following or living under those gods–but I must confess that when I read these what I most appreciated was their narrative drive.

I read these books at times when I was frustrated with stories padded with meaningless action, narrative cul-de-sacs, and excess exposition. (Too many recent books, and way too many movies, seem to think that unless they overemphasize and overexplain everything their audiences won’t Get It.) Attention spans are shrinking, but so many novels and films feel weirdly long, harder to sit through than many genuinely longer older works. So it’s a relief to come across novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms which earn their length. These books plunge straight into their plots, deliver worldbuilding and backstory as they go, and waste no time.

These are both “outsider caught in a world of complicated schemes and political maneuvers” books, and both sidestep one of the usual problems with this plot type: it often discourages active protagonists. It’s easy for this kind of book to resemble a stereotypical mediocre hard-boiled detective story whose narrator bounces from thug to thug, gets exposited at, and ends every scene by falling unconscious from a blow to the head. I was glad these books–The Broken Kingdoms in particular–starred narrators who had goals and were constantly making plans.

I also loved that these were two more entries in an my favorite fantasy-genre trend: series whose individual volumes are complete novels, not chunks of a 3000-page epic narrative. (In my cynical moods I suspect the epic-writers have no faith that their audience will come back unless they’re left hanging. In my case, they’re the ones I’m most likely to drop, partly because by the time I’ve picked up volume two I’ve usually forgotten the plot of volume one.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I started writing a couple of paragraphs about this, then realized the paragraphs were threatening to turn into a short essay, as much about the horror genre as about this book. I hope to finish that essay and post it; in the meantime, I’ll just say I liked the book.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

I wrote about this around the time I read it.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

This is another book I’ve already written about.

China Miéville, Kraken

As with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I liked Kraken for the force of its story. It’s probably not China Miéville’s best novel, but he seems to have had fun writing it. The prose reads like it’s running, like it’s tripping over itself to get the ideas out–and there are a lot of ideas here: the book starts with the impossible theft of a giant squid and from there sprawls out in all directions. The pages ooze enthusiasm and some of that enthusiasm transferred to me at a moment when I was having a hard time feeling enthusiastic about anything at all.

Kraken is Miéville’s stab at the “hidden magical subculture existing in the margins of a modern city” genre. (I’m trying hard not to call it “urban fantasy,” because these days that term means at least two different things.) What distinguishes Kraken, besides Miéville’s abundant imagination, is its attitude towards magic. Sometimes these “the real world, but with magic!” stories set up a magic-vs.-science rivalry, in which “science” (or “technology”) is a mysterious force opposed to magic. Which annoys me. First, because it misrepresents what science actually is–it’s a process, not a hegemonic culture, philosophy of life, or force of nature. Second, because these stories always push us to root for magic–which is, wow, so creative and dreamy–and against science, which is cramped and closed-minded and inhuman, apparently. Anyone whose sense of wonder has ever been tripped by witty, enthusiastic science writing knows this is not an honest argument. Fantasy isn’t real, but it’s about reality, and when a story touches something real and isn’t honest about it, in a poetic or metaphorical sense, it grates.

So it’s wonderful that Kraken doesn’t prescribe any particular attitude towards magic. Maybe you’re awestruck, but it’s just as okay to think, as Kraken’s protagonist Billy does while pondering the Law of Sympathy, it’s “trite” that “a thing has power, moronically enough, because it’s a bit like something else.” Billy works in a natural history museum. He’s a tour guide, not a scientist, but he sees the world with a scientist’s eyes. Kraken,unusually for an urban fantasy, suggests that the rational, curious, investigative approach of a scientist might be as valid a way to understand a fantasy universe as it is to understand the real world.

The City and the City

Cover Art

China Miéville’s The City and the City is another Nebula nominee. It’s a police procedural set in two imaginary cities. If you haven’t read it, it might be best to stop reading this review now. The City and the City doesn’t dump its premise on you all at once; odd details pile up, and one or two chapters in the true premise hits you and remaps your entire perception of the story.

On the other hand, if you’ve heard of The City and the City at all, you probably know the concept. Some stories have twists that will never surprise anyone again, because they’re part of our common mental furniture. Everyone who sees Psycho knows not to get too attached to Marion Crane. Among SF fans the premise of The City and the City is already just as well known. So I won’t be spoiling anything for most people when I explain that The City and the City is set in two imaginary cities that occupy the same space.

The citizens of Beszel walk the same streets as the citizens of Ul Quoma. No one remembers how, or why, the cities split, but over the centuries the divergent cultures maintained separate identities with complicated mental defenses. The cities learned to unsee each other. Tyador Borlú, the Beszel police detective at the center of the story, walks among Ul Quomans and is effectively alone. All his life he’s been trained in selective attention. He doesn’t acknowledge that Ul Quoma is there. If he did, he’d be in trouble; no one wants to come to the attention of Breach, the group that polices the imaginary boundary between the two cities.

This sounds like fantasy, and maybe it is… but only just barely. We “unsee” things all the time. Things we don’t want to acknowledge… or people we don’t want to acknowledge. When I Googled The City and the City to check the spelling of names and places, I found a review that mentioned the secret cartography of London gangs:

These political alignments and the ground they contest are unknown to most of the inhabitants of the city, but mean life and death to others. A fascinating but depressing report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year explored this territoriality. It included maps drawn by teenagers that revealed their neighbourhoods as patchworks of “safe” and “no-go” areas, an exquisitely complex secret topography.

That sounds just like the “crosshatched” maps of Beszel and Ul Quoma.

Unseeing isn’t always a bad thing. The human brain can only process so many things at once; if we consciously acknowledged everything we perceived, all the time, it would be hard to sort out which details were immediately important. You don’t want anyone stopping in the middle of a crosswalk, distracted by the ants and the weeds and the cracks in the asphalt, while a car hurtles towards the intersection! And when you’re traveling home on a crowded bus, politely “unseeing” the other passengers lets everyone read or talk to friends or just unwind in the pretense of privacy.

But sometimes people take selective attention too far. One of the clichés that get thrown around a lot when people talk about the United States is the “melting pot.” This isn’t a great metaphor—it raises images of people rendered down into homogenous goo, being assimilated but not assimilating anything themselves. But it does at least approach something true: put cultures next to each other, and they mix. They trade. They fall in love. Which is scary for the people who’ve built their identities around belonging to the culture on the top of the pyramid. So they build walls, and patrol the deserts. Certain neighborhoods become anathema. Certain people are not “real” citizens. They squint suspiciously at anyone who looks like they don’t belong, and refuse to acknowledge that sometimes the people who “don’t belong” have actually been around longer than they have…

Beszel and Ul Quoma can only maintain their purity as totalitarian states. No one in either city has a choice in what to see or unsee—no one gets to decide what’s important to them. The division between the cities takes precedence over everything, even life and death. If Borlú came upon an Ul Quoman dying on the street, he’d have to unsee and walk away, or face Breach.

This is a problem for a man investigating a murder that crosses between cities. I could predict Borlú would have to choose between catching a killer and throwing away a lifetime of mental training. What surprised me was that Borlú steps outside the barrier between Beszel and Ul Quoma but doesn’t permanently disrupt it. Order is maintained, the status quo continues. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised—Miéville’s never seemed optimistic about the possibility that things might change for the better. (Iron Council ended with the image of a revolution that perpetually approaches but never arrives.) You can climb over the walls, but you can’t tear them down. Borlú can refuse to look away from the unseen, but once he does he can never return to ordinary life.