Continuing the cephalopod blogging …

by Henry Farrell on July 11, 2010

Now that it’s out, I want to strongly recommend China Miéville’s _Kraken_ ( “Powells”:, “Amazon”: ). By complete coincidence, I started Michael Chabon’s _Maps and Legends_ last night. It notes in its introductory essay that:

bq. Many of the finest “genre writers” working today, such as the English writer China Miéville, derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion, and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or to follow them but, flouting or following, to play.

This is a nice description, (a few years before the fact), of _Kraken._ Miéville’s previous book, _The City and the City,_ was very tightly controlled. Its metaphors mostly pointed in the same direction. _Kraken_ in contrast, is full of plotlines and images that _aren’t_ intended so much to cohere, as to play with each other, with the hope (but not the certainty) that they will get on well together. This has its problems. The book’s plot is a little baggy in places. But it also means that _Kraken_ overflows with things counter, spare, original and strange; odd and original monsters, horrible villains and quite peculiar magics. The book, at its heart, seems to me to be about the creative potential of incongruous connections – how metaphors, when they are concretized, may have entirely unexpected implications. If I don’t say more about the actual story, it’s because I don’t want to ruin the surprises. The bit (which readers of this post may recognize in retrospect) when Miéville starts to unfold his alternative world before our eyes is quite wonderful – but I imagine it would be less wonderful if someone had told you about it before you read it. If you like Miéville for his imagination, you’ll like this book. I suspect that he had enormous fun writing it. I certainly had enormous fun reading it.



Saheli 07.11.10 at 6:38 pm

I realize I’m probably violating some sort of blog commenting convention here, but in case anyone feels like answering–what is the best Mieville book to start with, since I’ve never read any? And is there some specific other book that I should read before that? I have this vague memory that is slightly associated with the time Crooked Timber had a Mieville based reading group of someone smart telling me I would get more about Mieville if I had first read ____, but I can’t recall any details, and this has prevented me from picking him up.

Maps and Legends is really great, too.


McDevite 07.11.10 at 7:02 pm

I ended up really strongly disliking “The City & City” and dropping out of it partway through. In part that’s because my academic work has brought me closer to actual policework in nasty regimes, but also because as an Eastern European Grand Fenwick, it never quite sets sail, being both in this world and not quite, with too much of its roots showing. Further, really effective ugly state police work novels by Philip Kerr and Rebecca Pawel undermined the novelty of the conceit.


alan 07.11.10 at 7:27 pm

McDevite, can you recommend starting reads by Kerr or Pawel? I’m not familiar with them. I enjoyed The City and the City quite a bit, though I guess I didn’t read it as a police state novel. It did, however, remind me that I sometimes enjoy Mieville’s worlds more than the stories he tells in them (well, that’s not fair; I quite like much of the stories, but the final quarters often seem to run out of steam, CaTC being no exception). Thanks for the Kraken comments, Henry. I’m putting it on my list.


Antonio Conselheiro 07.12.10 at 1:39 am

Victor Hugo, Erasmus, and Aristotle all had things to say about cephalopods, especially Hugo.


Peter L 07.12.10 at 2:34 am

Saheli – Perdido Street Station / Scar / Iron Council

They are Bas-Lag-o-licious.


Cryptic ned 07.12.10 at 2:43 am

Peter L is correct except that nobody should start with “Iron Council”.


Bill Gardner 07.12.10 at 12:20 pm

Hmmm…. this morning, I had decided not to finish Kraken. The characters are a bit 2-D. Except for the job action by the cats and the pigeons, the jokes weren’t working. And something kept reminding me of Harry Potter. But I infer from Henry that I need to give it a bit more time, so I can get to “[t]he bit (which readers of this post may recognize in retrospect) when Miéville starts to unfold his alternative world before our eyes…”
What I liked best about The City and the City was deducing the structure of the alternative world, and that it worked without magic.


Theophylact 07.12.10 at 1:16 pm

I loved Perdido Street Station, but I think The City & The City is his best so far (and I just finished, and loved, Kraken).

The Philip Kerr “Bernie Gunther ” novels, the first three of which have been collectively published as Berlin Noir, are terrific. But you’ll need a strong stomach and a willingness to accept a very flawed hero.


Theophylact 07.12.10 at 1:19 pm

Incidentally, Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation should also appeal to CT followers.


Henry 07.12.10 at 1:31 pm

Bill – you’ve surely gotten to that bit – and if you didn’t like the book at the stage you’re at, I imagine you’re not going to like it.


Henry 07.12.10 at 1:32 pm

And as people have said already, I think that _Perdido Street Station_ is the best place to start if you haven’t read him.


alex 07.12.10 at 1:43 pm

I don’t think Bernie Gunther is particularly flawed; not compared to, say, Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs, who is little more than a bag of grief with advanced combat training.


Bill Gardner 07.12.10 at 2:07 pm

Thanks, Henry. In The City and the City, there was an alternative world within the alternative world. The protagonist starts on the outside, trying to look in, and ends up on the inside, looking out. I thought perhaps that Billy would take a similar journey here.


Henry 07.12.10 at 2:14 pm

Actually, I think that _The City and the City_ is weirder than that still. But I have an essay to write on that topic for another publication, which is already a year overdue …


maestrojon 07.12.10 at 5:31 pm

I simply loved The City and the City and think that is the best place to start to see Miéville at his best. I finished Kraken a few weeks ago and, while I enjoyed it immensely, I am somewhat sympathetic to Bill’s perspective. The characterisations probably are a little 2D in places but the combination of smarts and imagination more than make up for that. The Scar is next in my ongoing Miévillemania…


Frowner 07.12.10 at 5:56 pm

The Scar is hands-down the best Mieville novel, despite a slight excess of “gurning” and “chitinous”–the strongest plot structure, the best characters, and the structure of the story both rebukes readerly expectation and remains interesting. Plus amazing descriptions of very large things; plus a couple of really splendid metaphorical passages, plus some very fantasy-specific evocative prose…ie “a heart the size of a cathedral, beating far below him in the dark”.

I was disappointed with The City & The City. SPOILERS follow.

In a minor sort of way, the central conceit bugged me: seriously, two modern cities occupying the same physical space and there are fairly few traffic accidents? Much of the unseeing works for me, but certain things seemed distractingly unlikely.

Mieville does this thing that seems really condescending to me–he’ll be all “ah-ha, you’re expecting some kind of revelation! or some kind of easily reifiable radical narrative! or some kind of closure! But I will leave you unsatisfied, to remind you that capitalism is bad and seeming coherence only hides the contradictions in the system!” It feels mechanical and didactic in a dumb way, like I’m so stupid as a reader that I absolutely cannot be trusted with marvels, successful agitation for social change, conventional plot devices or semi-complete explanations rather deeply flawed because they will seduce me into mindless consumerism. (The whole plot of The City & The City is to dangle a marvel in front of the reader and then show that it’s an optical illusion.)

BIG SPOILERS: I wish we’d gotten more of the politics of the unifiers, because their failed/set-up insurrection would have been a more powerful critique if it had been situated better. I also wish we’d gotten more about the detective’s thoughts after being captured by Breach about having to join Breach–although that, the flatness of his character and limited introspection, seems like an authorial choice made for political reasons. Which also annoyed me–more of the Mieville slap-the-reader’s-wrist-for-their-silly-commercial-expectations approach.

I will of course buy that Kraken book, just as I buy all his other books. It’s a pleasure to be able to pick up a book whose social and aesthetic concerns are similar to mine and which will not suddenly repulse me by some horrible display of misogyny or racism. (Not to say that Mieville is politically perfect–who is?–but I feel that his books are written for me rather than against me and that’s such a rarity.)


Henry 07.12.10 at 6:08 pm

Frowner – I don’t want to go into it here, because I have to write it up properly, but I do think that there is a different reading of TCATC, under which it isn’t a confidence trick at all, and not having an ‘origin’ for the fantastic element is a necessary part of what is driving the book. But if you are interested in my take (no need to be, obviously), you’ll have to wait a couple of months. One thing though which is worth noting (and this is based on conversation with China, so I know it’s intended). The ‘unseeing’ in the book isn’t literally not seeing, or anything like it. Instead, it’s a social convention that everyone will pretend not to have seen what they did see, and what they knew they saw. If you read through the book carefully, you’ll see that most forms of unseeing that are described involve accidental seeing (in the first instance, the narrator seeing someone who also sees him) and then pretending not to have seen. It’s thus a kind of social convention. This makes it a lot more plausible (explains how there aren’t traffic accidents) and also helps make the metaphor a more powerful way of getting at the ways in which we all ‘unsee’ stuff that we don’t want to see – e.g. people pretending they don’t see others begging on the street etc. Hence the lack of traffic accidents.


Music of the Spherical Quotients 07.12.10 at 7:41 pm


I started reading Mieville because of Crooked Timbre, and generally appreciate Henry’s taste in books. (He turned me on to Stross, too, breaking up my dysfunctional marriage to literary fiction.) I loved the Perdido Street Station trilogy. But I was pretty disappointed by Kraken, which felt like a mashup of Harry Potter (or perhaps Lev Grossman’s The Magicians) and American Gods. The best stuff in there — fusion of man and machine, strange embassies — was recycled from Perdido Street Station.

What I really like about Mieville is his original world-building; here the world is more familiar, and the writing is sometimes really clunky. Plus, the whole squid-as-god thing is just kind of … silly, right?


Frowner 07.12.10 at 7:49 pm

Henry–yes, I do understand that the unseeing is metaphorical, but the sheer physical presence of lots of cars in crowded streets and the idea that everyone is “unseeing” them semi-consciously and effectively all the time really distracted me. I live on a busy street, and people have trouble avoiding collisions when they’re consciously looking for cars!

The “confidence trick” of the book isn’t the unseeing, though–it’s the idea that there is a…I don’t know, a luminous/resonant/transcendent/conspiracy-esque reality that can become known/be revealed by the book. Instead, there’s Breach, and a dodgy professor. (I do think that leaving City 3 unknown is a good touch.) I don’t think that’s an awful theme for a book, but it’s very rebuke-y. I don’t much like M John Harrison’s “Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” (which I’m pretty sure I’ve read Mieville praising) for pretty much the same reason. Not because there needs to be ZOMG magic, but because of the assertion that the average reader is a politically bad reader, foolishly seeking the luminous and the transcendent and in need of correction, and the idea that this correction is central to literary endeavor. (That’s more of a Harrison theme than a Mieville one, yes.)


Frowner 07.12.10 at 8:14 pm

(I also fannishly want to addthat I do like Mieville’s books very much in general and recommend them all over the place. (Also M John Harrison’s, mostly.)) Looking at my earlier comments I don’t think I conveyed that. The City & The City certainly has plenty of vivid parts–the visiting parents and the factions in particular are memorable for me. And I do think that the peripheralness of all the weird little geared artifacts is very interesting read against his other books.)


Laleh 07.12.10 at 8:34 pm

I always thought The City and the City actually worked through (and subverted) a whole lot of IR and politics concepts really wonderfully: indivisibility of borders, the power of conventions, the power of authorities, the authority of authorities, the competition between authorities, you name it. I think it doesn’t have the same exuberance of the Perdido/Scar/Iron Council, but it is very much a novel to take the piss out of (while really thinking very seriously through) some really big concepts.


Henry 07.12.10 at 10:05 pm

Frowner – there’s some clash of aesthetic tastes here, but also of interpretation, that maybe comes out more clearly in “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” than TCATC. A story which I unmitigatedly _love_ by the way. I don’t think that MJH’s argument (if you want to call it an argument – that’s probably too reductive) in that story, is completely destructive of fantasy, or is intended to be. He’s _not_ saying that the reader is a Politically Bad Reader for seeking out the numinous (or at least, _I_ don’t read him as saying this). What he is more interested in is how badly you can get fucked up when you mistake the numinous for real life. Or to put it a different way, he writes about the ways in which various forms of representation (‘high fantasy’ writing; advertising) pretend to abstract the numinous from its actual lived context and make it into a kind of engine of endless desire and cost-free satisfaction. But fail of course, and burn you, so that you fall back into the world. Which is where you should be, and have been from the get-go. He can be a curmudgeonly bastard, but is also a genuine romantic. I’m certain that he does genuinely does believe in the numinous-in-life. “Sparks in everything.” Including the lavatory mirror of the Merrie England Cafe.

It’s also worth reading the version of “A Young Man’s Journey …” in _Things That Never Happen_, where he changes the word “Viriconium” to “London” throughout, to make the story (as best as I recall the explanatory essay), more “honest.” What he’s up to is what Yeats was up to with “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” This doesn’t seem to me a rebuke of the reader so much as a desire to pull back fantasy into contact with real life, and to figure out what they generate when they grind up against each other.

For more, it’s worth seeking out his old message boards (I think Kathryn Cramer put them up on the internets a few years ago).


Frowner 07.13.10 at 8:49 pm

Actually, I have Things That Never Happen and have read the story in both formats. I can’t help but read it (with that horrible “smell like burnt rubber rising up from the Iser” IIRC and the terrible death of the man who gets stuck) as a rebuke to the desire for the numinous. Especially in context with all Harrison’s other stories.

But now that I think about it, it’s not the rebuke itself that bugs me; I’m much more a fan of fairly solid Delaney or duChamp-like fantasy and SF where there’s nothing but politics, economics and the very intermittent thrill of interesting worlds. It’s more the Harrisonian move towards “nothing is numinous, everything is awful and decaying or else twee”. (“Science and the Arts” is the twee alternative; I don’t remember whether that’s the one where feminism has rendered the heroine so unsure of her body and sexuality that she is perpetually sick and sexually frustrated, but I think so.)

Like in “Old Women”, where there’s nothing much left of the narrator, the old women in the title or even the narrator’s nemesis by the end of the story; the decaying blossoms that the aunt paints are a nice stand-in for the world.

I just don’t see any really-there numinous in Harrison’s work. (Have not read the latest one; was very offput by Light, with the good old revelation-of-sexual-abuse as secret motive.) Which is why I’m so puzzled that everything falls into decay and horror all the time. If you’re not expecting paradise, surely the world no longer looks like decay by contrast?

I’m always puzzled by Harrison’s characters, too, mostly because I never seem to meet the spiritually-empty creative-class types so common in Things That Never Happen. I meet a lot of awful people and sometimes I am one–wolf to man, etc etc–but people like the couple in Gifco or in that “no one drives themselves anymore” story….I take their existence on faith but they baffle me.


Henry 07.13.10 at 9:20 pm

But I don’t think that Harrison’s world _is_ one where nothing is numinous. It’s one where _everything_ is potentially numinous – at least fleetingly.

If I was to advance my own theory of MJH (which may, or may not accord with MJH’s theory of MJH, although it accords with my understanding of same) it would be something like the following. First – that the key to fantasy in his view is a moment of choice, where for a split second, everything seems possible. The moment of temporary suspension when you can choose between many, many things, but _have not chosen_ is (a) source of the numinous. But once you _do_ choose, you fall back into the world. And you _have_ to choose – to think that you can remain forever suspended in that blissful moment is infantilism. But second, _just that kind of infantilism_ is what is produced by certain modes of fantasy, whether they be commercial advertising or high fantasy epic. The idea that you can ‘have it all’ – not only that choices are costless but that you can remain forever in that dizzying moment of endless possibility. This seems to me to drive an awful lot of Harrison’s short stories and novels. The numinous _is_ there – the ‘sparks in everything.’ But it’s fleeting, and if you try to grab it directly, you’ll end up very unhappy. I don’t see this as being ugly – nor do I think that Harrison is obsessed with the awful and the decaying. There are moments of genuine lyric beauty shot through all his work. That said, I think he’s deeply distrustful of representations that promise the numinous (including his own, often very lovely, prose style), but that he certainly does not deny the numinous itself (merely efforts to abstract it and to marketize it).


alex 07.14.10 at 7:28 am

Numinous, schmuminous; are there big explosions? Do enemy spacecraft hide in the photospheres of nearby stars? Can characters gland themselves into hour-long orgasms?

Why, yes, I do like Ian M. Banks’ work, funny you should ask…


Daniel Wolf 07.14.10 at 2:01 pm

One of the most attractive attributes about Kraken is that the novel is a perfect satire on (or antidote to or revenge for) the entire secret-coded-ancient-religious-cult-or-cabal-conspiracy genre. Yes, Dan Brown and all his friends or competitors whose works get displayed in airport bookshops, forced on the captive reading-hungry audiences who forgot to bring along something good, who nevertheless get their comeuppance with Mieville’s trajectory, beginning in the Darwinian cathedral ersatz that is the London Museum of Natural History and then treating each oddball faith, faction or conspiracy as if it could plausibly inhabit the same universe, consequences be damned.


alex 07.14.10 at 2:12 pm

So it’s Foucault’s Pendulum fanfic, then? ;-)


Daniel Wolf 07.14.10 at 2:13 pm

Re: unseeing. The most startling thing about unseeing is not how unusual or implausible it is but rather how common and familiar it is. Anyone who has ever worked in a minimum wage job — say, in a department store or restaurant — knows the experience of being able to look across a crowd and notice only the other employees and unsee the rest, with the slightest signals being used to sort out a complex visual and social field. In such a field, masses of people get processed as noise and are erased from immediate consciousness.


Henry 07.14.10 at 2:33 pm

bq. Why, yes, I do like Ian M. Banks’ work, funny you should ask…

Our Iain (nb sp. pls) is, as it happens, an enthusiastic fan of M. John Harrison. He wrote a very nice introduction to my now-extremely-battered copy of MJH’s _Viriconium_ (the one with the classy Ian Miller cover).


Henry 07.14.10 at 2:35 pm

Yep Daniel – and that is part of TCATC’s task – to use this metaphor to unpack the sociological and political implications of unseeing.


alex 07.14.10 at 2:37 pm

I thought, shall I check how many ‘I’s, and then I thought, no, why be a peddant?


Frowner 07.19.10 at 2:35 pm

Henry–perhaps you won’t see this since I’m commenting so late, but I really, really like this:

But once you do choose, you fall back into the world. And you have to choose – to think that you can remain forever suspended in that blissful moment is infantilism. But second, just that kind of infantilism is what is produced by certain modes of fantasy, whether they be commercial advertising or high fantasy epic. The idea that you can ‘have it all’ – not only that choices are costless but that you can remain forever in that dizzying moment of endless possibility.

and find it very persuasive. I think this really explains a lot of stuff I’ve thought about MJH’s work. I still think he’s a bit finger-shaking/guilty-reader, but this does totally change my mind about the numinousness thingy.


Henry 07.19.10 at 4:13 pm

I have the advantage of having spent a few years back in the day chatting about this stuff on MJH’s old bulletin board at the Third Alternative. This also means that I was, sort of, a kind of hanger-on in the creation of the New Weird, which more or less happened on that board – I opened Jeff VanderMeer’s New Weird anthology a couple of weeks ago, and found some of my ephemeral (and not very impressive) online verbiage, printed there along with the more serious contributions of people who could, like, actually write fiction.

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