1 Three Things About Miéville
This post will be substantially pastiche of others I’ve written about China Miéville; remasticated bits encrusted around critical consideration of his new novel, Iron Council. No plots spoiled.
I’m going to pose a few questions for the author. I am not usually
one for sniffing out intentionality behind the scenes, mind you. (Not
that I think there is anything indecent about that angle.) But
unusually, in this case, I find I am curious what the man can have been
thinking. How admirably the world is arranged, since – oddly – he may
Now a brief statement, not of my thesis, but of the obvious, to which my thesis hopes to bear a sturdy relationship.
1) Miéville is a superlative subcreator, to use Tolkien’s term of
art for the art of fantastic world-building. 2) Miéville is a polemical
critic of Tolkien – more so: of Tolkien’s generic legacy – on behalf of
an allegedly more mature conception of fantasy as a genre. 3) Miéville
himself tells stories which are substantially in line with generic
fantasy conventions, in terms of overall form, also in terms of many
types of detail.
So a critical question about Miéville is whether 1) suffices to back
2), with some to spare; for 3) has a notable tendency to corrode the
credibility of 2).
One possibility also to be considered is that 2) is just snarky fun Miéville had, being a punk blowing steam on a webpage. Then 1) and 3) needn’t fight each other by proxy, knocking over and propping 2), but can simply be considered side by side.
2. The cluttered kipple of humanity shall never be swept neat
Ridley Scott said of Blade Runner
that ‘film is a 700-layer cake’. This is a philosophy of production and
composition, but it becomes a point about the content of a fictional
world. Blade Runner was a revelation to SF fans not so much on
account of its ideas or characters or story as on account of the
stunning accretions of visual …(what shall we call it?) kipple, convincing us this
world is thick, clotted; completely peopled (no pun on any
screenwriter’s name intended.) SF, in its thought-experimental way, can
often be disappointing thin, like an abstract technical schematic. You
want to see the clean, essential lines of the idea. But fictionally
that can be a bad idea.
In Blade Runner, the kipple obscuring all clean, essential
lines is largely chronological: 40 years in the future piled onto 40
years in the past, to paraphrase Scott; but it is also cultural,
economic, scientific and social. Humanity turned kipple, our very
memories just odds and ends swept into our heads, perhaps someone
else’s after-thought. History as dustbin of history. Of course, Blade Runner
ultimately affirms the individual human spirit against this. And,
oddly, the story doesn’t really make a lot of sense. A lot of noir and
tough cop clichés jumbled together, but the lavish production makes
this overlookable. We’ll get back to this, implicitly if not
What has Blade Runner to do with China Miéville or Iron Council? I think Miéville wants to write fantasy’s Blade Runner. Make a world in which (as per Miéville’s manifesto) "things are gritty and tricky, just as in real life."
Back to Blade Runner. Yes, yes, it would be wrong to say Blade Runner did anything first.
Dark, brooding, gritty, tricky, messy, dystopian SF existed before. But
the film did something new, largely visually. (I remember hearing
William Gibson at a reading – or maybe I read it. He said he ran from
the theater screaming. In 1982 he was in the process of writing Neuromancer; and, lo and behold, this director has scooped his highly surface-oriented visual conception.) Blade Runner
achieved a decisive gravitational shift in SF sensibility. If it didn’t
cause the shift, it remains a highly visible marker for it. Yes, yes;
by no means were we stuck before 1982 in some Hugo Gernsbackish rut. But – to get to the point – you might say fantasy hasn’t had its Blade Runner.
Yet. No work that drops a world in amongst all the Tolkien knock-offs,
setting those typing monkeys howling like they’ve seen a monolith.
Miéville wants to do that.
Miéville, like Ridley Scott, composes in the medium of kipple:
artful accretions of haphazard junk – animate, inanimate, abanimate – conveying the powerful illusion of depth and density in all dimensions;
time and horizontal expanse, upbuilt habitation and promiscuous
inhabitation. Miéville’s subcreative efforts succeed through sheer
superfluity of … debris; detail, if you prefer the polite term.
This is important because fantasy, like SF, can often be
unsatisfyingly thin, not like an SF thought-experiment but through weak
dependence on cliché. Henry Farrell quoted a nice bit from Mike Harrison some time back:
the word “fantasy” came to describe a monoculture, it was an umbrella
term for work actually fantastic in nature. Nobody “wrote fantasy”.
They wrote personal, strongly-flavoured, individual stuff, and the term
was applied at a later stage in the proceedings. Unpredictability,
inventiveness, oddness, estrangement, wit, could all be found there,
along with machinery for defamliarising the world and making it seem
new. What we have now—or what we had at least until very recently—is
long, evenly-planted fields of potatoes, harvested by machines in such
a way as to make them acceptable to the corporate buyers from
Sainsbury’s, McDonalds, & HarperCollins.
As I wrote at the time (I presume to quote myself since it will turn out I was literally right about the cart):
First, ‘dreary monoculture’ pegs it dead-on; that is the
problem with genre fantasy, and Miéville deserves all credit for doing
his part to muscle the cart out of horrid ruts. (If there’s a new
Robert Jordan novel, it must be Saturday!) And, of course, Tolkien is
sort of at fault for all of this, providing the blueprint for the
factory farm. But, then again, he isn’t at fault. He did nothing of the sort.
the strategy is to recover all those admirable literary qualities by
planting weeds in all the even rows. This points the way to Miéville’s
anti-Tolkien polemics. But let’s work up.
One of the choicest dramatic details in Iron Council is the scene in which The Flexible Puppet Theatre Troupe have their avant garde
production of "The Sad and Instructional Tale of Jack Half A Prayer"
disrupted by the New Crobuzon censors (for "Rudeness to New Crobuzon in
the Second Degree"), then devolve into riot. (Here’s
a Miéville detractor, for example, who gives the Flexibles their
grudging artistic due.) Little bits like this, multiplied a
hundredfold, trick the reader’s eye into regarding the city – its
society, culture, economy, history, people – as real. New Crobuzon, where all roads in Bas-Lag lead, is not
some Potemkin Village against which paper cut-out elves and wizards
stage clichéd clashes with standard issue ultimate Evil. On the other
hand, just because the scenery is palpably real, doesn’t mean the
performers aren’t generic cut-outs. We’re getting to that concern.
Now I’m going to do a stupid critic trick. China can say ‘no, you’re
wrong;’ and I’ll probably take his word for it. Let me seize one detail
and insist it is really a perfect lens through which all aspects of
Miéville’s art can be apprehended.
Miéville seeks to do, for fantasy, what his puppeteers are doing for
Jack. (If you want to know about Jack, read the book, or Henry’s post.)
Consider the art of the Flexibles (their name is, I suppose, homage to
martyred Ben Flex,right?) The fantasy cart of cliche, of which I spoke,
shows up on schedule, in need of renovation and a load of fresh kipple:
There was the usual – the cart-sized puppet theatre
with its little carved figures in garish clothes stock-still on their
stage – but the miniature wings and proscenium had been torn off, and
the puppeteers stood in plain view dressed too-nearly like militia
officers in dark grey. And the stage was littered with other things,
strange debris. A sheet was stretched and hammered taut and on it some
magic lantern was projecting newspaper print …
These Flexibles were consummate – arrogant pranksters yes but
serious – and they played their audience with skill, so that after
every such imposition [forbidden obscenities] was quick and funny
dialogue, or jaunty music, and it was hard to sustain anger. But it was
an extraordinary challenge or series of challenges and the crowd
vacillated between bewilderment and discontent …
No one was sure what they were seeing, this structureless thing of
shouts and broken-up lines and noises, and cavalcades of intricate
incomprehensible costumes. The puppets were elegantly manoeuvered, but
they should have been – were designed to be – wooden players in
traditional moral tales, not these little provocateurs whose puppeteers
had them speak back tartly to the narrator, contradict him (always in
the puppets’ traditional register, a cod-childish language of compound
nouns and onomatopoeia), and dance to the noise and mum lewdness as far
as their joints and strings would allow.
Images, even animations – pictures in such quick cycles that they
jumped and ran or fired their guns – came in stuttering succession onto
the screen. The narrator harangued the audience and argued with the
puppets and other actors, and over growing dissent from the stalls the
story of Jack Half-a-Prayer emerged in chaotic form.
I connect this passage with Miéville’s anti-Tolkien screed:
Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is
massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The
best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot
to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure
glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical
status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and
political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic
rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy
was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a
fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of
fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps – via
Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabinski and Bruno Schulz
and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on – the best
writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to
alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.
… Why not try to come up with some
different themes, as well as unconventional monsters? Why not use
fantasy to challenge social and aesthetic lies?
fishy about it, exactly, but odd that cod would show up in both if
there were no connection. (Cod-childish, cod-Wagnerian. Am I reaching?)
What Miéville is urging is a critical mass of new fantasy, updating the
New Wave of the 60’s; perhaps to be known as ‘the New Weird’. So:
Tolkien’s arse wen is to Miéville’s ‘New Weird’ as traditional New
Crobuzon puppet theater is to the Flexibles’ subversive art. (Am I
3. Oh, sweet ursinality of lifelessness!
this assumption, some thoughts about puppets, mannequins, golems. A
tension. On the one hand, the idea might be that fantasy can become – well, more like Henry says Miéville’s fantasy already is (see also here):
Mieville is a historical materialist, and pays a lot of attention to
the economic fundamentals underlying his created societies. But he’s
very nearly unique among fantasy authors in so doing; most of them
prefer to sweep the dirty business of material accumulation underneath
the prettily woven carpet of chivalry, noblesse oblige &c.
I say something similar, but tongue in cheek, here.
On the other hand, puppet theater – however socially aware and
subversive – is never going to be about economic fundamentals, except
in the most one-dimensional, expressionistic way. So when Miéville writes, in his manifesto, "Characters
are more than cardboard cutouts," this is ambiguous. Is he going to
make these traditionally one-dimensional beings three-dimensional, or
is he going to deploy their one-dimensionality with a bit more
puppeteer dexterity and brains? Two flavors of ‘more’, and not
obviously flavors that go well together.
Let me quote again from one of my old posts, which seems to me prescient about this issue of puppet-mastery.
It took me a while to warm to Miéville. We had a moment of
miscommunication, he and I. He comes wrapped up and recommended by
reviewers as the rightful heir to the mantle of Mervyn Peake (to whom a very fine website
has recently been dedicated. There are poems I had not read and
pictures I had not seen and first edition covers and much wonderful
stuff. May I recommend, in particular, this delightful envisioning of Carroll’s walrus and carpenter; and this rather fey Alice.)
As I was saying, Miéville comes billed as the new Peake, and he
acknowledges Peake as a main influence. And – well, yes, I can
see it. And it isn’t fair to blame Miéville for departing from his
model (a debt of gratitude is not an obligation to plagiarize, after
all.) Nevertheless, what Miéville has gotten from Peake is not what I
like best about him: the grotesque whimsy and compulsive,
self-delightedly overblown verbal energy of the Gormenghast
trilogy. Haven’t read it? Think Edward Gorey writes The Pickwick Papers. Better yet: read it.
And by the by, here is a nice Edward Gorey cover gallery.
As I was saying, every Peake character is a puppet, and Peake’s
language dances these finely crafted artifacts about in the most
astonishingly skillful – above all visual – manner. It would be very
natural to stage Gormenghast as puppet theater, except it would be less impressive that way because, after all, one expects to see puppets at a puppet theater. To meet with them – to really see them leaping off the page – in a novel; that is a more unique aesthetic achievement.
In that post I quote some long bits to illustrate the difference, if you want to go read more.
And now it occurs to me to ask, although this may seem beside the present point, just what Peake is up to with his puppet Gormenghast
characters? It seems to me the likely answer – sheer aesthetic
self-delight in lavish, expert construction of sets and mannequins – is
expressed well by another author Miéville praises in his polemic, about
whom I have written quite a bit lately: Bruno Schulz.
Here is my post on golems and Schulz’ Cinammon Shops (a.k.a. The Street of Crocodiles). It contains a link to this Schulz page, where you can read some new translations for free. The father character in Cinammon Shops is praised by the narrating son as a champion of escape
… from boredom at reality’s drab dullness. I imagine this is what
Mervyn Peake would have been like, if grossly underappreciated by his
The final and splendid countermarch of
fantasy which that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of the
imagination led on the dugouts and trenches of the sterile and empty
winter. Only today do I understand the lonely heroism with which he
single-handedly gave battle against the boundless element of boredom
numbing the town. Devoid of any support, without acknowledgement on our
part, that astonishing man defended the lost cause of poetry. He was a
wonderful mill into whose hoppers the bran of empty hours was poured,
to burst into bloom in its mechanism with all the colours and aromas of
oriental spices. But, grown accustomed to that metaphysical
prestidigitator’s splendid jugglery, we were inclined to belittle the
value of his sovereign magic which had delivered us from the lethargy
of empty days and nights.
No language of social or
political challenge here, I might note. Unapologetic escapism, which
seems to me what Peake is all about (also, Schulz.) I don’t say
Miéville denies it, but perhaps he is tempted to equate ‘undermining
expectations’ with ‘challenging lies’, or tempted to equate escapism – i.e. a conscious refusal to face wintery reality – with mollycoddling
readers in some warm, snug fashion. (Maybe Miéville isn’t really
equating these things. Maybe I’m reading too much in.)
What strikes me even more about Schulz, in relation to Miéville is that Iron Council
is not just about puppets, it’s about golems, also about a strange
breed, the Remade. Schulz has a whole philosophy of mannequins – of golemetry,to
use Miéville’s term. I have quoted this stuff at length before but will
do so now again because it is perfect for present purposes. (All the
following comes from new translations of Schulz – see link above):
– DEMIURGOS – said my father – did not possess a monopoly on creation – creation is the privilege of all souls. Matter is prone to infinite
fecundity, an inexhaustibly vital power and, at the same time, the
beguiling strength of the temptation which entices us to fashioning. In
the depth of matter indistict smiles are shaped and tensions are
constrained – congealing attempts at figurations. All matter ripples
out of infinite possibility, which passes through it in sickly
shudders. Awaiting the invigorating breath of the soul, it overflows
endlessly into itself, entices us with a thousand sweet encirclements
and a softness which it dreams up out of itself in its blind reveries.
Devoid of its own initiative, voluptuously pliant, malleable in the
feminine fashion, and compliant in the face of all impulses it
constitutes outlaw terrain – open to every kind of sharlatanism and
dilettantism, the domain of all abuses and dubious demiurgic
manipulations. Matter is the most passive and defenceless essence in
the cosmos. All may knead and shape it; it is submissive to all. All
arrangements of matter are impermanent and loose, liable to retardation
and dissolution. There is nothing evil in the reduction of life to
other and new forms. Murder is not a sin. Many a time it is a necessary
infringement in the face of stubborn and ossified forms of being which
have ceased to be remarkable. In the interests of an exciting and
valuable experiment, it might even constitute a service. Here is a
point of departure for a new apologia of sadism.
My father was inexhaustible in his glorification of that astonishing
element – such was matter. – There is no dead matter – he taught – lifelessness is merely a semblance behind which unknown forms of life
are concealed. The range of those forms is infinite, their shades and
nuances inexhaustible. Demiurgos was in possession of valuable and
interesting creative recipes. Thanks to these, he called into being a
multitude of genuses, renewing themselves with their own strength. It
is not known whether these recipes will be reconstructed at any time.
But it is unnecessary, for, even should those classical methods of
creation prove to be inaccessible once and for all, certain illegal
methods remain, a whole host of heretical and illicit methods.
We are not intent – he said – on long winded creations, on long-term
beings. Our creatures will not be the heroes of romances in many
volumes. Their roles will be fleeting and concise, their characters
without far-reaching plans. Often for a single gesture, for a single
word, we shall rise to the challenge of their appointment to life for
that single moment. We openly admit: we will not place any emphasis on
either the permanence or solidity of the workmanship; our handiwork
will be, as it were, provisional, made for a single occasion. If they
are to be people, for example, then we shall give them only one side of
a face, one hand and one leg – namely the one they shall require in
their role. It would be pedantry to worry about their other leg, not
coming into play. From the rear they might simply be patched with
canvas, or whitewashed. We shall state our ambition by this proud
motto: for every gesture another actor. In the service of every word,
every action, we shall call into life another character. Such is our
fancy that there will be a world in accordance with our taste.
Demiurgos was extremely fond of refined, excellent and complicated
materials; we give precedence to shoddiness. We are simply enraptured
by it; cheapness transports us, the scrappiness and shoddiness of the
material. Do you understand,’ my father asked, ‘the profound meaning of
that weakness, that passion for tissue paper in bright colours, for
papier mâché, for lacquered colour, for straw and sawdust? It is – he
said with a woeful smile – our love for matter as such, for its
downiness and porousness, for its singular, mystical consistency.
Demiurgos, that great master and artist, will render it invisible,
commanding it to vanish beneath the pretence of life. We, to the
contrary, love its raspingness, its unruliness and its ragdoll
ungainliness. We like to see beneath every gesture, beneath every
movement, its ponderous exertion, its inertia, its sweet ursinality.
we are back to human kipple – brief, entropic debris of demiurgic
subcreation. I have quoted these passages before, as I said, but
without noting the almost unbelievably harsh irony of the manner of
Bruno Schulz’ own death: murdered callously by the Nazis, who didn’t
regard it as a sin to terminate an inferior form. A point of departure
for a new apologia for sadism, Schulz’ era proved to be, soon after he
wrote this book. (I’ve posted a bit more about Schulz here and (only implicitly) here. His appropriation as an ideal romantic figure in David Grossman’s See Under: LOVE.)
I don’t mean Schulz is, in any sense, complicit in the manner of his
own death, merely because he wrote a romantic phatasmagoria of an
escapist work in which he riffed about murder being all right. I mean,
rather, to give Miéville his due. He urges political seriousness and
social responsibility, even on writers of fantasy, and no doubt he’s
got a point. Puppeteer escapists aren’t necessarily right about
everything. But I am saying (how to put it? I’m not quite sure) that
Miéville hasn’t really worked out what he’s up to – whether his
subcreations are going to be responsibly thick or brilliantly,
expressionistically thin. Fantasy novels matured into economic and
political treatises, or characters thinned into puppets whose strings
are plucked more dexterously. I must say, there is always an artistic
way, but here I’m not seeing a way to combine these two impulses
perfectly happily. I think Miéville is somewhat held back from his full
potential as an author by an inability to decide between modes, both of
which clearly attracted him, either of which he might plausibly master.
4. Paper Cutouts, Feats of Clay
Let me illustrate Miéville’s penchant for mixing political economy and puppetry – colorful grotesques that are theatrical with ones humanly horrible.
In the following passage we hear about how New Crobuzon finds itself at
war with Tesh, City of the Crawling Liquid. (Miéville never actually
lets us see "its moats and glass cats, and the Catoblepas Plain and
merchant trawlers and tramp diplomats and the Crying Prince.")
The arcane Tesh ships, the barquentines and dandy
catboats [very Peakeish language] all raggedy with coloured cloth,
whose crews wore henna and filed their teeth, had ceased to come to New
Crobuzon’s docks. There was a rumour through long-disused channels,
Tesh’s secret and hidden ambassador had told the Mayor that their two
states were at war.
Reports of Tesh depredations in the Firewater Straits became more
common and higher-profile, in the papers and government newposters. the
Mayor had promised reverge and counterattack. Recruitment to the New
Crobuzon Navy was intensified, along, Ori, heard, with ‘booze
recruitment’ – press gangs.
It was still distant, abstract: battles at sea thousands of miles
off. But it had escalated. It had featured more and more in the
speeches of ministers. The city’s new mercantilism was unrewarded;
markets did not open for its exports; the war blocked its sources of
uncommon commodities. Ships went and did not come back. New Crobuzon’s
boarded-up plants did not reopen, and others closed, and the signs on
the doors grew mildew that mocked their proclamations of ‘temporary
suspension of industry.’ The city was stagnant; it slumped and slummed.
Survivors began to come home.
Destroyed soldiers left to beg and preach their experiences to
crowds in Dog Fenn and Riverskin. Scarred, their bones crushed, cut by
the enemy or in frantic battlefield surgery, they also bore stranger
wounds that only Tesh’s troops could have given them.
Hundreds of the returned had been made mad, and in their mania they
raved in unknown sibilant tongue, all of them across the city speaking
the same words together, in time. There were men whose eyes were
haemorrhaged blood-sacs but who still had sight, Ori heard, who cried
without ceasing as they saw the death in everything. The crowds were
afraid of the veterans, as if their own bad conscience. Once, many
months ago, Ori had come past a man haranguing the horrified crowd and
showing them his arms, which were bleached a dead grey.
‘You know what this is!’ he was shouting at them. ‘You know! I was
at the edge of a blast, and you see? The sawbones tried to take my
arms, told me they had to go, but they just didn’t want you to see …’
He waggled his ghastly limbs like paper cutouts, and the militia came
and stifled him, took him away. But Ori had seen the onlooker’s terror.
Had Tesh truly remembered the lost science of colourbombs?’
say this is perfect pitch. Right on the line between grim realism and
gleeful puppeteering. The colourbombed veteran could be an Otto Dix painting. But it seems to me, frankly, that the pitch can’t – anyway, isn’t – maintained.
But first, another good example. New Crobuzon employs thaumaturges
in its Punishment Factories to remake criminals into grotesques. The
philosophy of these remakings is, as it were, a sinister Foucaultian
twist on Schulz’ father figure’s simple delight at demiurgic
potentiality of dull matter. Poor criminals are Remade (then made to
work to pay for their own remaking.) Their limbs replaced by animal
parts or machine parts, to fit the crime or merely to mock and degrade
their possessors. Very ghastly descriptions. A boy with insect legs
growing all around his neck, like a ruff. Humans who die if their coke
fires go out. Unsuitably Remade slaves forced to work, building the
transcontinental railroad that is, in fact the focus of much of the
novel. (See Henry’s post.)
– Fucking useless,
one overseer screams and beats a fallen man who wears many delicate
eyes on his hands. – What fucking point is there making more Remades if
they’re peacocks like you? I tell ‘em every godsdamned week we need Remade built for industry, not for their sodding whims. Get up and fucking haul.
nightmare image. As Schulz writes: "If they
are to be people, for example, then we shall give them only one side of
a face, one hand and one leg – namely the one they shall require in
their role." Ugly industrial implications. (Which is worse, in human
flesh: enforced whimsicality or machine efficiency?) But I fear that
soon, as per Belle’s post, Miéville is no longer succeeding as an expressionist but perversely refusing to show us anything nice or pretty or pleasant, despite having promised to show us everything, politically and economically speaking. (Where are all the nice parts of town?)
On the other hand, golemetry is nice; a kind of Hegelian dream. In Iron Council Judah Lowe considers:
is it I’ve done? … I made a golem from gas. Can I make a golem from
even less solid things? Golemetry’s an argument, an intervention, so
will I intervene and make a golem of darkness or in death, in
electrycity, in sound, in friction, in ideas or hopes?
What is Hegel’s World-Spirit but a strangely animate, yet strictly unliving golem of an Idea?
As a counterpoint to that: if you pity humanity as so much
entropic kipple, swept together and apart by the absent-minded broom of
history, then golemetry can be a humanism. Pennyhaugh lecturing Judah
on this science:
The living cannot be made a golem – because with the vitality of orgone, flesh and vegetable is matter
interacting with its own mechanisms. The unalive, though, is inert
because it happens to lie just so. We make it meaningful. We do not
order it but point out the order that inheres unseen, always already
there. This act of pointing is at least as much assertion and
persuasion as observqation. We see structure, and in pointing it out we
see mechanisms and grasp them, and we twist. Because patterns are
asserted not in stasis but in change. Golemetry is an interruption. It
is a subordinating of the statis IS to the active AM.
The difficulty is acknowledging, as the father says, "the profound meaning of
that weakness, that passion for tissue paper in bright colours, for
papier mâché, for lacquered colour, for straw and sawdust," while yet shoring up any mere brief interruptions against immanent destruction.
On that note I pass you over to Henry’s discussion of Walter Benjamin and the nunc stans of Iron Council, lest I spoil a plot.
Let us now consider stories Miéville
tells. The first thing I would like to say is that I greatly enjoy
these stories. Hours of entertainment. The second is that I find that
my fellow contributors have, by now, said most of what I was going to
say in a negative vein. Belle makes the point that Miéville exhibits a
peculiar obsession with whimsically grab-bag tactical situations. Matt Cheney says it bluntly:
The three books [Perdido, Scar, Council] are adventure novels, ones with similar plots overall:
a mystery is raised and slowly solved, leading to unexpected outcomes,
the main characters’ lives are imperiled, the setting threatened with
total destruction, and then lots of people kill each other, with
bittersweet results. The formula works well in Iron Council up
until the last two hundred pages, partly because of the complex
juxtapositions of chronology and events, but threatening New Crobuzon
yet again with eldritch forces from beyond seemed unnecessary, and I
could have lived with about half as many battles, because the book
began to feel more like a scenario for a roleplaying game than a novel:
one seemingly impossible battle ("Good dice roll!") leads to an even
more seemingly impossible battle ("Your weapons aren’t effective
against noncorporeal entities, but luckily coming down the hill…")
leads to another and another and….
While I hope Mieville
develops a new formula soon, I also understand that the one he keeps
reverting to is inherent for the kind of story he wants to tell, and
that it has been done much worse by other writers. Many readers won’t
mind at all – will, in fact, find the innumerable battles to be the
best moments of the books. Mieville has so much else to offer, though,
that it seems a shame he always ties things up by having his characters
spend most of their time killing each other.
me add one detail. Miéville has an odd (given his polemical stance)
penchant for Hollywood-style special-effects extravaganzas just before
credits roll. I am sure he is not in any conscious sense pitching for
Hollywood. An unelective affinity, perhaps. It is also true of many
small scenes that one thinks: better as CGI. For example, from the end of Part I, about 10 seconds of quality (but expensive) screen-time:
golem was crude and instructed with murderous simplicity. Moving with
assasin speed it reached arms that weighed many tons and held the
handlingers [nasty beasties that possess animal hosts]. They tried to
face it. It took only minute beats of time for the golem to drive stone
into the animal and break its neck, crushing the handlinger, the
hand-parasite squirming in the horse’s man.
The man was quicker. He spat fire that billowed without effect over
the golem’s face. With impossible strength the man wrenched at the arm
of coagulated stone and dislocated it, so the golem moved clumsily. But
its grip held. Even with its arm falling off in grots, the golem pulled
the dangling man down, gripped his legs with one pebbled hand and his
head with another and twisted him apart.
As the host was killed, while the flung-apart corpse was still in
the air, the golem ceased, its task done. Its rocks and dust fell. They
cracked and rumbled in a bloodied pile, half buried the dead horse.
The host’s ruined parts rolled into bracken and sent blood down the stones. Something was spasming beneath the suit.
‘Get away,’ Cutter said. ‘It wants another host.’
Drogon began to fire at it while the corpse still descended. The
thing had just come to rest when something many-legged the purple of a
bruise scuttled from its clothes. It came with an arachnid gait.
They scattered. Pomeroy’s gun boomed but the thing did not let up
[awkward term for not getting killed], and it was only feet from Elsie
screaming when Drogon’s repeated shots stopped it. The whispersmith
walked toward it firing as he went, three bullets sent precisely to the
thing hidden in the grass. He kicked it, hauled it up ragged and
It was a hand. A mottled right hand. From its wrist a short tail grew, it wung deadweight and dripping.
‘Dextrier,’ the whispersmith said to Cutter. ‘Warrior caste.’
Now frankly this is not
what the novel is made for. You might try an apologetic line about
orthodox Flexible Puppet Theater dramaturgy: "Images, even animations – pictures in such quick cycles that they
jumped and ran or fired their guns – came in stuttering succession onto
the screen." But even that admits it belongs properly on the screen. Blow-by-blow splatter can never be novelistically great, as opposed to sort of fun.
Even so, I had fun. More than that, I admired Part I of the novel for
the unbelievably fast pacing. As a little experiment, I counted the
number of new and original settings and/or exciting battles from the
first 40 pages of the book. (Obviously a somewhat subjective metric.) Iron Council
clocked in at a respectable 25. Perhaps you won’t quite believe me that
this is a good thing, but it truly does end up being far, far better
than an advanced D&D module with a manticore in one room and,
through the door, 30 orcs, and, in the corridor, a gelatinous cube, at
the end of the corridor, a barrow wight and a chaotic evil cleric.
Temporally, the speed is perfectly in order: "their roles will be
fleeting and concise, their characters
without far-reaching plans. Often for a single gesture, for a single
word, we shall rise to the challenge of their appointment to life for
that single moment." Geographically and socially, the effect is not
like an ill-conceived dungeon graph-papered out by a 12 year old with
no sense that he’s left nowhere for the orcs to get food or go to the
bathroom. No, it’s like a Hieronymous Bosch painting. You admire this
inventive cramming of grotesques onto one canvas. It’s better for being absurdly busy. You don’t ask: what do the bird-head guys eat? Who is paying that mason to build the wall?
(Does he ever go on strike, and then who gets hired to scab? That guy
with all the scabs?) Do they barter with those dead guys coming out of
the eye of the demon? Etc.
Again we are back to the problem of political economy vs. puppeteering expressionism.
Miéville’s talent for generating an ungodsly superabundance of
incidental Boschian detail was truly impressed on me when I read,
recently, Steph Swainston’s The Year Of Our War.
It has been heralded as proof there is such a thing as ‘The New Weird’.
It’s not just China Miéville. (Although I fear the sub-genre will soon
be afflicted with it’s own tag, the equivalent of ‘elves and dwarves’;
‘bugs and drugs’, maybe.) Swainston’s book sports an effusive Miéville
blurb, but I felt it didn’t measure up, largely because the travels of
its winged protagonist, Jant, across Swainston’s world didn’t leave me
with such a rich sense of what that world contains. It didn’t feel like
a 700-layer cake. Maybe 70-layers at most. I didn’t suffer the illusion
that I was seeing every square inch of the mire even while being
dragged through it at high speed, the way I feel with Miéville. Somehow
this made it more apparent that, underneath the bugs and drugs, The Year of Our War
is basically a stock ‘the dark forces are coming’ fantasy, plus soap
opera costume-melodrama infighting among the stalwart defenders. It
wants to be The Lion In Winter meets Aliens, with a touch of Naked Lunch. But I think the Lion In Winter bit didn’t quite come together, nor the Naked Lunch bit, leaving bug fights, which are really quite impressive. I quite enjoyed it. It just didn’t think it was great. It was entertaining escapism.
In Miéville’s case, rapid-fire grotesque inventiveness – puppet a
page – serves to disguise the conventionality of much of the narrative
(although, as per Henry’s post, a case can be made for Iron Council
marking a sort of departure.) The disguise holds, largely, but it
remains a disguise. And the only problem with our author being a
conventional genre storyteller is – well, it just doesn’t fit with the polemic about this more mature, genre-busting sort of fantasy we are supposed
to be getting. As Belle puts it in her post, if you are going to let a
few absurdly overmatched heroes defeat the slakemoths, there is no
obvious reasons why a preposterously successful revolution shouldn’t
be staged. The mature sense of ‘history is painful that way’ just
doesn’t resonate with the rigged, affirmative (sentimental, call it
what you will) ‘Frodo and Sam can make it!’ conventions otherwise in
effect. And there is a serious problem going for psychological realism
while indulging these action-adventure genre expectations. No real
person would be so heroic, so the sense of these characters as real
people melts away like wax, when the action heats up, leaving us with
… well, genre mannequins. (And after all that painstaking effort to
get the wax to look right.)
In short, just because Miéville’s stories are "gritty and tricky, just as in real life" doesn’t mean they are gritty and tricky in the same way
life is. Life doesn’t usually go in for conventional Freytag’s
triangle-style structures. (At this point I despair of ever finding a half-remembered quote
from John Barth about Freytag’s triangle and funhouses, only to find – to my amazement – that google knows all, sees all.) As I was saying,
certainly life doesn’t go in for ‘the bomb is going to go off and
everyone will die if we can’t stop it!’ Hollywood-style rollercoaster
ride of thrills, spills, chills n’ kills. Life itself goes in more for the Jim Woodring,
"Dear Supreme Altruist, Thanks
very much for placing within me the bomb that never stops
exploding,"-style story. And, in a way, that’s what Miéville is going
for with the train story. Fair enough. But the bomb story-line is
straight outa Hollywood; all the grit and trick can’t change that.
To conclude on a positive note, when I think back on the scenes I have liked most in all these novels … well, first
come the sheer accumulations of kipple, considered in its own right.
That comes in first, second and third. Next come the scenes – as per
above – in which for a brief moment political economy and puppetry seem
balanced, but those moments can’t last. For the rest, I like the
moments when one or the other mood (political economic or puppet) is
clearly ascendent. In Perdido Street Station, when Rudgutter and co. are negotiating with the devils for help against the slakemoths, then they realize the devils are afraid
so they have to turn (shudder) to the Weaver. That scene is such giddy
puppetry of power politics and ‘fixers’ who have to be called in when
things get ugly. In the same vein, the overall ‘hunting of the Snark’
arc of The Scar is nice (thanks for pointing that out, Henry; I
gather China himself clued you in to the puns on names. I didn’t get
them on my own.) For someone so influenced by Peake, Miéville really
doesn’t do comic. Which seems to me regrettable. He ought to try to
write more comic stuff.
Moving to the political economic pole, we have the rough labor politics of the vodyanoi dock strike. (I’ve posted about that here.) Very nice. Also, the secret agent spinning yarns about a grindylow invasion in The Scar. In Iron Council
the best parts, I think, present us with the character of Weather
Wrightby (whether right be?), captain of industry behind the
transcontinental railroad; plus Judah’s stint working for Wrightby as a
scout-turned-anthropologist among the doomed stiltspear. There is a
kind of low-key novelty to this wryly insistent insertion of social
types and troubles from our world. Herein is supposed to lie the
maturity, I suppose. It would be easy for these bits to devolve into
parody, or plain hokiness, but they don’t. (Not that parody is bad. It can be quite good. I’m thinking of stories like Andy Duncan’s "Senator Bilbo" (in here)
in which race relations in the Shire after the fall of Sauron are
envisioned. Orc immigrants, but old Bilbo can’t stomach ‘em. Nice pun
on Senator Bilbo. Miéville does things like what Tolkien parodists do, but without it turning into parody.)
Anyway, I think Weather Wrightby, who is oddly sympathetic in his
monomaniac avuncularity, comes closest to meeting the high standards
Miéville sets himself: not to portray good and evil simplistically.
Wish there were more of him in the novel. That character had potential.
I meant for a bunch of thoughts about Tolkien
to get worked in somewhere above, but now I’m not sure where to insert
the shoehorn and start pushing. Surely I have said enough. Here goes.
First, it seems unfair to swipe at Tolkien for "boys-own-adventure
glorying in war". A man who fought at the Battle of the Somme – who saw
friends die horribly in the mud, who was friends with C.S. Lewis, left
for dead on the battlefield – may be guilty of glorying in war. But he
cannot plausibly be accused of doing so in a boyish ‘you only think
it’s fun because you haven’t seen the mud and blood’ way. If Tolkien is
morally disordered, the disorder is of a different order. (Am I
remembering the inklings’ war records right?) I recall a bit from the
audio commentary to The Two Towers, from Tom Shippey. I’ll just fire up that DVD and transcribe roughly:
all these writers [Lewis, Tolkien, other inklings] – traumatized
authors … they have to write their own explanation [of W.W. I]. And
strangely, but pretty consistently, they can’t do it by writing
realistic fiction. They have to write something which is in some way or
other fantastic. So, after W.W. I, medieval literature seemed to be
entirely relevant again. It was actually addressing issues which people
had forgotten about, or thought were outdated. Well, they were wrong
about that. They’d come back in.
that they were veterans doesn’t make them right, but it does complicate
the interpretation of their response to their experiences. Also, it
might be countered that there is a great deal of ‘boyishness’ in
Miéville’s own battle scenes. At their best they are like Bosch
canvases, or inspired puppet theater. But the narrative thrill of Judah
Lowe’s golemetry powers – honed in games played in New Crobuzon, then
taken into the field – is much the same as that of the protagonist’s
victories in Ender’s Game. Instead of video game kid makes good, we have wargamer champ makes good. (That’s a bit too harsh.)
Regarding narrative structure: one of the striking things about Tolkien is how badly
he writes. Or rather, how he does things no self-respecting commercial
author would try, apparently because he was writing to please himself
and didn’t know what the ‘right’ way to do it was. He composes text
like masonry, as I’ve said before; which is just how he conceived of
his beloved Beowulf, as per his essay "The Monster and the
Critics". This is what gives Tolkien his monumental dignity. It’s not
like monoculture farming. It’s gothic architecture; admittedly, clumsy
stuff. This is what makes his hoards of imitators think they can be
just plain clumsy and get away with it, commercially. Which they can.
But that is not Tolkien’s fault.
Here again there is some interesting information on the Two Towers commentary, so I’ll keep roughly transcribing.
Tolkien started writing, ran into trouble. Instead of cutting and
pasting and blocking, he went back and started writing it all over
again. Got into trouble. Started all over. Got a little further. Got
into trouble. Went back to the beginning. Like the waves coming up the
beach, each wave got a bit further, but each one retreated back to the
starting point, as the voice on the commentary approves. But it’s worth
adding that when a person behaves like that we thinks it’s a bit
obsessive-compulsive. (This fits well with my somewhat strained
characterization of Tolkien as an untutored outsider artist. Yes, yes, I know. He wasn’t exactly isolated. He had C.S. Lewis and other inklings to critique his work in progress.)
LOTR is not structured like a proper novel, important characters not
developed, too repetitive, opening too slow, ending too short, great
deal of talk, long stretches of no action, Council of Elrond is 15,000
words of a badly chaired committee meeting, including much talk from
characters who haven’t been properly introduced to the reader. What
courage to expect that the reader will put up with this nonsense! What
brilliant naivete not even to realize it was courage to try!
Now more from Fran Walsh (half of the adapting team for the
book-to-film) and (I think it’s Shippey again?) on the oddity of the
narrative structure of The Two Towers. As a narrative it’s two
books, almost artificially made one. The storyline through Rohan. And
the Frodo-Sam-Golem story. Not really significantly intercut. You lose
whole character groups for 150-200 pages at a go. Could have been a
dangerous sacrifice of momentum. A sense of (wait for it) realism
comes from a sense of not knowing what’s going on, and what is going to
happen next. Because the structure of the story gives you rather few
genre cues, so oddly is it constructed. You can’t deduce what’s going
to happen by surveying the angle of the plain on which you stand and
deducing where you are on Freytag’s triangle, in other words. A lot of
the tension is the reader just burning up to know what’s going on in
the other narrative thread and having to defer gratification, rather
than being treated to lots of comforting, fast Hollywood intercutting.
Anyway, the present point is that there is a sense in which – in
constructing the story – Tolkien let his tutored competencies as
philologist, historian, pedant and obsessive-compulsive hobbyist run
away with his untutored incompetencies as commercial fiction writer. To
glorious effect. What has happened since then, in the fantasy genre
factory, is that Tolkien’s highly personal idiosyncracies have ossified
into cliches. Personal limitations that were authentic in him are not
authentically transferable to just anyone else who wants to mimic them.
Miéville, despite the tell-it-backwards inventiveness of the anamnesis section of Iron Council (see Matt Cheney’s post),
is in some sense a more conventional fantasy novelost than Tolkien.
This is not to say that Miéville is actually part of the monoculture
culture, after all, but it could be argued that in certain respects he
is closer to it than Tolkien himself. Although Tolkien is the source of
And so: Tolkien, like Miéville, is suspended between thick and thin.
Thick world-making. Oddly thin characters. In Tolkien the characters
range from the just plain wooden to beautiful, architectonic figures.
In Miéville they range from animated fantasy genre clichés, just
muddied up a bit, to well-danced flexible puppets. It is precisely the
oddity of lavish world creation plus paper-thin or wooden
characterization that has so vexed many of Tolkien’s detractors (Edmund
Wilson, for example.) Miéville may be in the same boat with his critics
(as I argue in Oo, that wicked watercraeft.)
So perhaps what Miéville should do is try to get even further off the
factory farm not by trying to get away from Tolkien but by following
him in this respect: writing less clearly commercial fiction and trusting his audience will understand what private preoccupations made him do it that way.
In other respects, of course, Miéville is free to go on being
annoyed by elves and dwarves and Sam’s dog-like devotion to Frodo. (But
remember! Homosociality does not equal homosexuality! How often must we
Tolkien defenders make this defensive point?) I have saved a snippet of choice Chuniania from the abyss of the man’s disappeared blog.
Tolkien is the "wen on the arse" of Mieville’s brand of fantasy. He has
some cute descriptions of the Master: "cod-Wagnerian pomposity,"
"small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quo," and
"belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political
complexity." I suppose one of the first questions that arises when
evaluating this claim is to what extent these qualities are present in
Tolkien’s source material. Beowulf, to take one obvious example, does
not have the "cod-Wagnerian pomposity," if I understand what Mieville
means by this delicious phrase correctly, but it most certainly
reflects a belief in "absolute morality" and a fondness for
"hierarchical status-quo." Indeed it would be surprising if it didn’t,
considering its origin.
said at the beginning it is quite possible Mieville really didn’t mean
all that stuff he says against Tolkien on that old page; that he just
put it out there to get a rise. Which would be quite alright. It would
mean I’ve rested a little too much critical weight on it here, and in
my posts over the last year and a half. But it does seem to me that
Miéville could probably clarify to himself what he is up to, in a
salutary way, by trying to say exactly what it is that he
objects to. Strip back the polemic and see what sober core of dispute
remains. Since, after all, he and Tolkien have so much in common. As
Shippey says, there is a brand of writer who can’t respond to reality
realistically. This lot have to write fantasy. Tolkien is one such.