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[Saturday, September 06, 2003]


Me old China

A comment recently asked me why I like China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson to the extent that seeing them talk for an hour had me bouncing up and down in glee. So I thought I'd try to address that, starting off (arbitrarily) with China.

A couple of years ago I broke my arm in a cycling accident. This resulted in surgery, which resulted in me having -- once the plaster came off -- a row of about 15 staples running from just above my elbow to just below it. Big, surgical steel staples. I dearly regret never getting a picture taken; they were only in for about a week. They looked cool as Hell. My friend Catherine commented that they made me look like on of the Remade.

Which, of course, baffled me utterly. She explained that in China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, the Remade are humans who have undergone some magical/scientific surgery to modify their bodies, generally as punishment. I filed the book away on my To Read list, but it was then only available as a trade paperback, and I hate buying trades; they're expensive, and they don't fit in my jacket pocket.

A fast forward of a few months brings me to Copenhagen Airport, where a miscalculation has left me with nothing but half of a Robert Louis Stevenson omnibus to read before a two-hour layover and a nine-hour flight. I'm pretty sure that the remainder of The Black Arrow and all of Treasure Island, not a long book, will not last; and lo and behold, a bookstall with an English-language section beckons. And there is a mass-market paperback of Perdido Street Station, with a great oil-painted style cover. Out comes my Mastercard, and into the bag goes the book. I am saved, saved!

It turns out, of course, to be more than just a lifesaver; it's riveting. An urban fantasy, in a city -- not too far away from the nameless one of Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles, another favourite -- inhabited by several species, with water-magic and commuter trains, labour unrest, and domestic robots. It has a scientist as hero. By turns it is horrific and surreal -- we meet moths that eat minds, the Ambassador from Hell, an outlaw hero with a mantis claw instead of a hand, and a flying man -- a garuda -- who has had his wings cut off for some crime that nobody who talks to him can even understand. And under all that, rather like Peake or Moorcock, there is a constant moral note, a sense of outrage at complicity in everyday injustices; and even the heroes find themselves complicit. They are not, in general, particularly heroic, either.

I have to admit that my reasoning for liking China's books so much is not that he's doing anything radically new. He's just doing things I like well. In some semblance of order:

  • It's good fantasy. He does that 'far horizons' thing well -- casually mentioning a name, and a half-sentence of description, such that you immediately sit up and go "Wow, that sounds cool! I really hope there's more about that place, or that person, or that thing." The creations brought wholly on-stage have that proper mythic feeling -- like they were always there in your mental basement, just needing China to shine some light on them.
  • It's good urban fantasy. Like many people of my age, I discovered urban fantasy by way of Charles de Lint. But much as I like Charles de Lint -- at least before he got all gloomy -- he doesn't have a feel for cities. To me the original manifesto for urban fantasy is G.K. Chesterton's much-neglected The Napoleon of Notting Hill. To Chesterton, cities are fantastical things in themselves: lamp-posts and subway trains are as strange and mysterious as trees and rivers in the wilderness. There's no need to have an irruption of the wilderness into the city, it is already wild -- no less wild because all its denizens are human, and all of its landscape built up over centuries of cycles of human activity and neglect. China has this feeling for cities. Peake had it, too: Gormenghast is basically a city. (Actually, I have a pet theory that Gormenghast is really flying through space on a generation starship heading for the Andromeda Galaxy, but never mind that.)
  • It's pretty decent science fiction: the world of Perdido and The Scar behaves according to natural laws, though they differ in fine details from ours. And, of course, nobody there quite knows what they are -- though Isaac dan der Grimnebulin is getting a clue -- and so there's lots of leeway to surprise them with. There is technology using common phenomena, like trains and robots: the artificial intelligence uses that old "Dial F for Frankenstein" idea that a certain level of interconnectedness is sufficient to yield sentience, but so does a lot of perfectly respectable SF, so I swallowed it even though I have big trouble with it in the real world. Also, Perdido has a Scientist As Hero, and a lefty scientist to boot. Which brings me to:
  • Despite all this, it's humanistic and democratic fantasy: hope doesn't rest with the Return of the Divine King, nor with (as in the odious David Eddings) pragmatic but wacky end-runs around their own stated ideals. Okay, brief pause: actually I hate this much more than just hoping for a King to fix everything. At least that kingship is some sort of understandable structure, amenable to checks and balances. But more and more, especially in the light of recent events, fantasy epics where the so-called "Good Guys" literally get away with murder, because, well, they're the right side and they really need to win make me want to toss the book down a large flight of stairs. I live in a basement, and have qualms about abusing library books, so generally this doesn't happen, but, you know, I've done it in my heart End pause.
  • He turns a great phrase. After his reading at Worldcon, he admitted to doing a lot of plot-wrangling to keep phrases he really liked in the books: like in the The Scar, he decided he absolutely had to use the phrase "Malarial Queendom". And frankly, I'm a major sucker for that sort of thing.

posted 8:34 PM |