WARNING: This contains massive spoilers to Iron Council, The Scar, and Perdido Street Station.
It seems bizarre that I might write literary criticism which the author might plausibly read. This never happens when I write about Petronius. And so, because much of what I have to offer is criticism, I feel the need to begin with some lavish praise. China Miéville is a writer of astonishing creativity. The material in the average two-sentence Miéville observation would serve a more parsimonious author of fantasy as the meat of a trilogy. (Or more: just consider that there are about 18 Robert Jordan novels, none of which contains a single thought not pilfered, feebly, from Tollkein or Stephen Donaldson.) The roster of novelists whose work I ever feel inclined to employ as the setting for an idle daydream, a fantasy proper, with Lake
Como moved to Rome and so on, is very short, and most of the luminaries joined when I was younger than 15. So, when I tell you that I press Bas-Lag into this service, I am saying that Miéville’s works have captured my imagination in the most literal way.
So what am I complaining about? Because I am complaining; I both look forward intensely to reading his books and feel genuinely irritated by them. On one level this is just a consequence of an aesthetic peculiarity of mine: I hate it when I feel the author is torturing his characters. There they are, the little things; helpless, pinned to the page. Is it really necessary to jerk them around like that? So, no Beckett, thank you. Thomas Hardy? I’d rather not. Now, it by no means follows from this that I don’t like depressing books, because I do. I love Dostoyevsky, and I have to admit he tortures with the best of them, but I feel it to be justified by the demands of the plot in some unspecifiable fashion. I even like George Eliot, but it’s touch and go there. I enjoyed Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth, but only in a second-order way. I admired the
craftsmanship and was interested in the story, but…come on. Stop torturing the characters.
It’s difficult to say at what point I decide that the bad things befalling the characters are so bad that they indicate a kind of
authorial malice rather than unfolding organically from the necessities of the plot. But it is something I feel very keenly. (This may be a defect on my part. A related problem is that I am unable to watch situation comedies. The confusions, the fleeting embarassments, the humiliation; it makes me agitated. On the whole, I prefer to watch people get murdered on Law and Order.)
I first began to feel resentful on this score about the fate of Lin in Perdido Street Station. It seemed to be deeply uncalled for. It has already been established that the slake-moths have two peculiar affinities: for the outré, and for the minds of those who were close to them when they were raised from grubdom. In the person of Mr. Motley we have a mind of spectacular weirdness, and the man responsible for the rearing of the moths. Furthermore he is physically vast. And in this situation, we are meant to believe the moth went for Lin? Of course, it is ridiculous to talk about probabilities in a case like this. It’s not
as if anyone has clear intuitions about the likelihood of various courses of action by magically mutated moths from the cactopic stain. So this is not really the problem. How to put it? I’ll approach the point from another side.
That the heroes should save the city and be utterly unrewarded is clearly an important point for Miéville. He seems to me to be rebuking the reader and the genre, as if to say, "you thought it would all be lays about Nine-Fingered Frodo and the Crack of Doom, and the clouds parting to reveal the Western Shore, didn’t you? Well, things aren’t always like that." Miéville aims to inject a note of authenticity into the genre, a sense of economic and political reality. He rejects the airbrushed feudalism which dominates the fantasy genre. It seems odd to say of a book so utterly fantastic that it aims for
realism, but many of the situations in Miéville’s books, and much of their interest, come from an attempt to answer questions that go unasked in most fantasy works. What would it really be like to live in a world where some people could do magic? Thus we have labor strikes by vodyanoi watercraefters, or the seizure of rockmilk extraction platforms; these things feel fresh and new in a way that dwarves and magical rings cannot, ever again.
In his evocation of New Crobuzon, wonderful as it is, I feel that Miéville lets himself get carried away by his taste for the grotesque. He wants us to see the filth and the factories and the hovels held together with khepri spit; in this he suceeds admirably. Nonetheless, I sometimes find myself wondering, where is the nice part of town? What
do the mansions of the rich look like? At a certain point our New Crobuzon protagonists (in Iron Council) move into (purportedly tony) Flag Hill. Uncharacteristic terseness overcomes Miéville: "It was a landscape of wide-open ways and sumptuous houses sheer onto the streets, backing onto shared gardens. There were flowering trees and
banyans spilling their knotting creepers and making them roots and trunks emerging from between black paving." And? That’s it? Even this brief description calls up an image of vegetal profusion cracking the black pavement. Having exhausted himself on the subject, he turns to his real interest: "There had been a slum in Flag Hill for years, like
an abscess…" Four long paragraphs follow detailing the downward spiral of a failed experiment in city planning, and its eventual colonisation by the rich and transformation into slum museum. "The detritus of slum life was left in place, sterilised and dusted by attendants. IT SEEMS UNBELIEVABLE THAT IN MODERN TIMES SUCH SQUALOR
COULD GO UNCHECKED [reads a plaque]."
I ask you, fellow reader: is it your impression of the city of New Crobuzon that there are areas of such cleanliness and elegance, and these so large or numerous, that any citizen could possibly be unaware of its multifarious teeming slums? Don’t they ever look down from the cable car thing?
To return to my point, it is very important that the heroes of Miéville’s books both triumph against all odds to save the city or the world, and have things go badly for them. If there’s one thing you can be sure about, it’s that there won’t be a ticker-tape parade with the mayor of New Crobuzon pinning medals on everyone. It is my sense in reading the
books that this important choice is a rebuke to the reader, and to generic conventions. The latter is a fine thing; the former irritates me. It is as if Miéville were standing over my shoulder as I finish Iron Council and saying, "surely you didn’t think they would have a sucessful revolution. You’re so naive. Life isn’t like that; it’s a messy business, and bad people with power tend to keep it." Well, all right. I might accept this rebuke from another author. But in this case, there is no fact of the matter about what Bas-Lag is like. It could just as well be the sort of place where people do have successful revolutions. But this is not quite what I mean, since I seem to be criticizing Miéville for making certain choices which are
obviously his to make as world-creator.
I think the source of my irritation is really this: Miéville shows himself very willing to take advantage of all the other fantasy conventions except this one. Doughty, seemingly mis-matched heroes prevail against impossible odds? Do they ever. Conventional authorities unwilling or unable to fight the looming threat, such that a small band of adventurers have to go up against some world-spanning evil stuff? Yep. Even the battle scenes, in their spectacularity,
sometimes call to mind the static set pieces of a Tollkein battle. Miéville’s love of the bizarre also leads him to arrange battles which resemble nothing so much as a role-playing game gone wild: you have only twenty lightly-armed zombies in dirigibles, while your opponent commands a troop of pixies whose bite is near-fatal…etc. It is fun to read these things, but it makes me feel that anyone who is willing to have whispersmiths ride in at the last moment to reinforce light golems versus elementals shouldn’t be so darn superior about generic conventions.
That Lin should get killed, OK. That she be raped and have the legs of her scarab head torn off one by one, and then have her mind partially destroyed so that her personality and her art are lost to her? Come on, dude. That is just uncalled for. It seems gratuitous: I’m willing to make things go maximally awfully for this character just to confound your generic expectations. I am perfectly aware that it is…peculiar, to say the least, to be exercised about abuses done to imaginary people by their creator, but there it is.
And so, I feel that the paralyzed train in Iron Council is emblematic of the arc of Miéville’s novels. It is spectacular and
grotesque, studded with the heads of magical beasts, forever moving forward, but quite unable to reach any destination. The long series of weirdness just freezes at a certain point. Nothing is resolved. Isaac saves the world and his only reward is the brutal, worse-than-death destruction of the one he loves. The Toroan revolutionaries kill the mayor, and nothing follows from it. There is a massive revolution, which effects no changes on the polity.
Miéville’s burning desire to not have things end up neatly leads him even to vitiate what accomplishments there are. The heroic journey of the Iron Council is retrospectively shown to be part of Wrightby’s schemes; the Councillors were saved by Drogon’s machinations, not their own efforts. The assasination of the mayor is shown to be the outcome of a single woman’s grudge, and in some sense not a political act at all: "’We done what they wanted. We done what they come here to do.’ ‘Yes’ Yes, but it isn’t the same. It was a sideshow, it wasn’t what you were here for, and that’s different, that makes it different." Even the abortive revolution is revealed to be part of Spiral Jacob’s plan, a useful distraction and nothing more.
So if there is one thing I hope for in a new China Miéville novel, it’s this: kick out the jams. If some people set off for the Scar, let them damn well get there. (Uther Doul’s apparent subversion of a plan he has been risking his life to further for the last 700 pages is utterly motiveless.) If someone has a revolution, then change some things. I’m not asking for the mayor of New Crobuzon to pin medals on people. Please, just unbend a little. If you’re willing to have your band of adventurers save the world against overwhelming odds, you should be willing to let some small good issue from it, some resolution. As Ann-Hari says to Judah Low,"you don’t know, and now we don’t either, we’ll never know what would have happened." I want to
find out what happens.