Posts Tagged ‘ China Mieville ’

China Miéville – Railsea (Book Review)

Railsea cover

China Miéville – Railsea

Though I am a huge fan of China Miéville, I put off reading Railsea for a full year. It’s his second young adult book, and his first, Un Lun Dun, had been his only bad novel to date. That book introduced a world filled with arbitrary, pun-filled wonders that didn’t even begin to form a cohesive whole, and felt like Miéville was just not understanding or respecting his audience.

I needn’t have worried. Railsea takes an entirely different approach to adapting Miéville’s writing for young adults. Now, I’m not sure how many children are going to want to read through the novel, as it’s filled with big words and complex concepts. If you’re already familiar with him, though, it works, and he feels free to invent his most wild and exciting world in years. It’s difficult to describe the setting of Railsea without making it feel ridiculous. Suffice to say, it involves a desolate world filled with railroad track that trains traverse like ships on the ocean, and the ground below them swarms with burrowing beasts that make it as dangerous to go overboard as it would while sailing. Many trains hunt giant moles, and the captains are generally motivated by Moby Dick-like nemeses. And that’s just the basic setting, without the truly fantastical details. But Miéville, being Miéville, makes it work.

Normally, Miéville’s name on a novel also means that it will be violent, cynical, and likely have an unsatisfying ending. I’ve said before that his gift is for world-building, but his heart lies in world-destroying. This was his main concession for the YA audience. It’s still a bit bleaker than many young books would be – expect some murderous, corrupt government agents, for example – but throughout nearly the whole book, the feeling pervades that this is a “safe” story, which will follow the expected patterns and provide most characters with the ending they deserve. And this does require some people to act in selfless ways that seem to be against their normal personality, as well as some plot-hammering to reintroduce people who are spread about the world. If my familiarity with Miéville made the convoluted (but fun) prose easier to accept, it also made the gentle plot feel jarring. After wishing that he would stick to more standard endings from time to time, I learned that it wasn’t really what I wanted.

Sure, there are other aspects that fit the young adult audience. The basic sketch of the story is definitely designed that way: A young orphan learns about himself, and picks up a clever animal sidekick, while on a quest that introduces him to other children who are more capable than adults. But it is usually hard to pick out the standard YA threads from all the Miévillian flights of imagination. Overall, even though I don’t know how right this is for most young readers, and I found the plot less satisfying than normal, the prose and setting will be a treat for any fan of his. I’m hoping for more pure worldbuilding fantasies like this.

Grade: B


First Looks At DC’s New 52: The Second Wave

Earlier this week, I reviewed all the DC titles that I’ve been reading since the “New 52” launched last year. But as the company has cancelled some titles, they’ve started new replacements. Today, I’m reviewing the three “second wave” titles that I tried out, and tomorrow I’ll catch up on the third wave.

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China Miéville – Looking for Jake (Book Review)

Looking For Jake cover

China Mieville - Looking For Jake

While novels are much more popular these days, I enjoy short story collections as well. Freed of the requirement to develop the same ideas for hundreds of pages, the author can toss out many different stories that capture the essence of their writing style. Also, readers tend to expect happy endings when they devote the time to a full novel, but short stories allow for much more unpredictable variety. Looking for Jake, a collection by China Miéville, has these aspects to some extent, but they seem less significant in this case.

For one thing, Miéville already tends to write stories with open, not completely happy endings. That isn’t any different in this collection than in his other works. The main difference is that he’s just setting up situations and leaving the reader to wonder how they will play out instead of letting us get to know the characters before things work out halfway for them. And since some of his novels (notably Perdido Street Station and Kraken) constantly threw ideas at the reader, the variety that these stories offer also doesn’t seem as different as it would for most authors.

The biggest difference is that his novels tend to be set in different worlds than ours, while the stories in Looking for Jake are consistently on modern-day Earth, or in the sorts of post-apocalyptic scenes that could be just a month away. This does create a different atmosphere for his writing. While Miéville’s fantasy/sci-fi “New Weird” blend had a horror influence in the mix, several of these stories could simply be classified as out-and-out horror. And his socially conscious metaphors seem more obvious in this setting, as well. This feels preachy at times (“Foundation” is about the nightmare creatures drawn to a man who participated in a real-life war crime), but is very effective in the best stories (“The Ball Room” begins as a standard ghost story, but becomes more unsettling when we wonder how a profit-driven corporation would react to such a situation).

On the whole, Looking for Jake offers an experience more like a standard Miéville novel than expected. That’s not a bad thing, though. Several of the stories are excellent. Some could have easily been dropped into one of his existing works with little effort: “Familiar” (a sympathetic look at a blob of flesh conjured by a wizard and then discarded) would fit right in to the world of New Crobuzon, and the horrors of “Details” (a creature that appears when your mind makes faces out of the random patterns in cracks or clouds) seem appropriate to the fractured world of cults in Kraken. Others don’t (yet) fit next to any novel, though. The uncertain protagonist of “Go Between”, who follows mysterious orders without knowing if he’s helping good guys, bad guys, or no one, is pure Miéville, but in a new way.

I often believe that short story collections make excellent introductions to an author. (See Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things or Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others.) In this case, though, Looking for Jake doesn’t feel any more like “pure” Miéville than his novels do, and it’s not as consistent as his best. Even if it’s not my go-to recommendation for new readers, though, this has quite a few stories that every fan should experience.

Grade: B-


Embassytown (Book Review)

Embassytown cover


China Miéville is a restless author who resists being pigeonholed from book to book. The one constant element, though, is his love for unexpected and truly unusual ideas. From that perspective, Embassytown is on the same end of the spectrum as The City and The City, having just a couple new ideas that are worth taking the entire book to develop. Embassytown probably doesn’t have the crossover potential of The City and The City, though. While that new book was structured as a more easily-accessible police procedural, this new one is unashamedly science fiction.

In a way, it’s disappointing to see Miéville work in a traditional science fiction space. His irreverent experimentation sent shockwaves through the fantasy community a decade ago, but it seems perfectly normal on the SF side of the fence. However, this is the story of humans figuring out a strange alien race, and that subgenre plays perfectly to Miéville’s strengths.

The titular Embassytown is a human settlement on a planet populated by the Ariekei, an alien race whose language requires one to make sounds out of two mouths at once. It only sounds right to them if a single being is making both sets of sounds, so they simply can’t comprehend speech coming from a machine or from two humans working together. The human settlement can only communicate through “Ambassadors”, pairs of people whose brains have been altered to give them such a strong connection to each other that the Ariekei accept them as a single being.

The premise sounds hard to accept, like one of the minor races that a typical space opera would just mention in passing. In Embassytown, though, this concept is explained and expanded upon so carefully that it becomes meaty enough for an entire book. There are a number of interesting quirks to this system, of course. The Ambassadors’ lives and positions within society are important (as is the way this colony planet relates back to its parent empire – Miéville’s books always involve some cynical politics).The Ariekei, meanwhile, are born with an innate knowledge of their “Language”, but are unable to comprehend that any other forms of communication exist. The Language is so fundamental to them that they aren’t even able to lie, and the fact that humans can speak untruths is fascinating to them. To even use something as abstract as a simile, the Ariekei need to create that simile in real life. For this reason, the narrator of the book once took place in a carefully-orchestrated ceremony to become “the girl who ate what was given to her”. The narrator, Alice Cho, is unable to speak Ariekei Language despite being a part of it, and has no understanding of what meaning she now has in their alien minds.

All of this, with culture, the mysteries of alien language, and a little bit about space travel through the futuristic empire, makes the first half of the book fascinating. Mysteries slowly start to unravel, though human understanding remains imperfect. For a time, it seems like it may be one of Miéville’s most fascinating and original works yet. However, the novel’s real conflict becomes clear about halfway through, and these mysteries are all put aside in favor of simple survival. Miéville does not write about fear, crisis, and war as convincingly as he brings strange ideas to life, so even as both the human and alien civilizations begin to collapse, the danger feels abstract to the reader. It’s not an uncommon problem for Miéville – his strengths lie in the way he can build up worlds for us, but he personally is more interested in tearing them down – but it is more obvious in this book than in most, since the particular crisis the characters face makes it impossible to keep learning more about the fascinating Ariekei and their Language.

Fortunately, it all does come together again in the final chapters of the book, with the ideas that had been building at the beginning providing the answers at the end. Embassytown may have the tightest and most satisfying conclusion of any Miéville book yet, which should be a very reassuring sign to his fans.

That dragging section in the latter half of the novel is significant, but it really is the only fault in what would otherwise be one of the best science fiction works of recent years. With its original, weird, but still well-justified ideas, Embassytown is well worth experiencing.

Grade: B

The Half-Made World (Book Review)

The Half-Made World

The Half-Made World

I’ve long argued that the “New Weird” is not a distinct genre. Its founder, China Miéville, wrote Perdido Street Station explicitly to show that the line between science fiction and fantasy was an illusion and that both genres deserved more creativity. It’s missing the point to create a separate category for these works. However, after reading Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, I’m starting to accept that New Weird has become its own sub-genre. Just like steampunk or High Fantasy, it definitely has its own expectations, aesthetics, and fanbase.

Fortunately, the New Weird is not likely to become a stagnant literary ghetto like High Fantasy. After all, its central tenet is wild inventiveness and the undermining of any clichéd expectations. The Half-Made World uses the American Western as a foundation for its setting, but with little-understood spirits twisting the familiar archetypes into something new. The larger-than-life outlaws are servants of a demonic cabal named The Gun. The railroads may be bringing civilization and order to the land, but under the auspices of a force called The Line, which sees humans as no more than disposable cogs in a machine. These two sides are at war, and the ordinary people who live in simple, dusty towns have no love for either of the destructive powers.

While the setting is entirely his own invention, Gilman is definitely inspired by Miéville. Not only is the world the book’s biggest selling point, but it rejects the simple answers and black-and-white morality of most fantasy. (The three main characters are an Agent of the Gun, an Agent of the Line, and a prim woman from civilized lands. Needless to say, they do not get along.) The narrative sympathies are humanistic and anti-authoritarian, but even in his fantasy the author worries that evil will triumph. And the story isn’t afraid to disrupt the status quo, no matter how the reader may want to see it continue. Unfortunately, some of Miéville’s weaknesses come through as well: The plot is slight and driven by coincidence, and the the conclusion is unsatisfying. (In fact, Gilman seems to have made a conscious effort to avoid wrapping anything up neatly.)

What truly makes this New Weird is that the setting becomes less familiar as the book progresses. Rather than doing some world-building and then moving on with the plot, it turns out that the similarities to our Old West exist on the surface only. This setting has centuries of history, and the land becomes stranger and less bound to physical laws (literally “half-made”) the further west one goes. Gilman’s prose does a masterful job of setting the scene, laying out just enough details to bring these strange elements alive, and slowly building up the concepts that underpin the world so that the reader comes to appreciate them without needing them explicitly explained. (This is also true of the characters, who remain interesting and reveal themselves through action rather than narration.)

A great environment, good characters, fair plot, and mediocre ending: That’s a pretty concise summary of the New Weird. And despite its weaknesses, The Half-Made World is a stunning and memorable book. I would love to read more stories set in this world. I may wish that innovations like this had been more integrated into standard genre writing instead of forming a new sub-category, but I can still enjoy the results that it produces.

Grade: B

The Year In Books (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1 a couple days ago, here are capsule reviews of the rest of the books I read in 2010.

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