Tag Archives: Mieville

‘Embassytown’ Review

Over on Goodreads I have a review in which I have tried to avoid spoilers. Here I go into more depth and there may be some minor spoilers for several of Miéville’s books, but I think I’ve largely avoided that again. Fairly warned though.

I am unashamedly a fan of China Miéville’s work. Look over to the tag cloud and you’ll see his name boldly prominent. I like to read his books, and I like to talk about his worlds and his writing.

Perdido St and The Scar were both magnificent. They changed the way I understood the Fantasy genre, my understanding of genre as a costruct, and what imagination and creativity really looked like. They opened shackles I’d unknowingly worn since my early-pubescent reading of Tolkein, Feist, et al. Fantasy was no longer the cobbling together of the D&D Monster manual. Fantasy was worlds drawn from a global supply of myth and eons of folklore and it was new things as well like physics and invention and theoretical sciences. The Fantasy hero could be a fat, middle-aged scientist, a bug-headed artist, a surgically enhanced man-dolphin. The Fantasy villain could be a moth, or a mayor, or some trans-dimensional benthic leviathan. That said, I’m not one of those calling for Miéville to return to Bas Lag. I am as interested in where he is headed as where he has been.

I liked Kraken and King Rat. I liked the London it showed me, familiar and strange at once, lovingly recreated and then twisted and shaped by myth and magic. I liked the subversions and inversions of ancient tales, of folklore, of nursery rhymes, of drum and bass. I liked the cross-culturalism of a modern city clashing with the ancient history of place. I liked the urban organic. I liked the religiosity and sociology of these ab-Londons.

Although some I know disliked The City & The City, I found it fascinating and I enjoyed the way that he drew back from what could have been absurdly fanciful and made it more about psychological dissonance, whether imposed or by way of self-discipline. I went away and researched towns with amorphous boundaries and cross/hatching. I developed a different understanding of geography and place. I found Iron Council to be a tough slog. At times it was frustratingly slow and tangential, but it had its rewards.

I was so looking forward to Embassytown: Miéville writing sci-fi, on an alien planet, with a whole alien race – a whole alien city – to create, with the technology for AI and constructs. Miéville exploring the artificiality of language, the interstice of translation, cross-cultural semiotics.

Miéville, sci-fi, linguistics.

What a recipe!

This should have been a book which I loved: brilliantly high-concept, detailed world-building, fascinating originality, clever and witty… and yet I really struggled to stick with it.

Embassytown is far from being a bad book. It is a very good book. Structurally it works well: builds a world, introduces us to characters, makes clear the complicated relationships and politics of people and place, twists and turns through an active plot and leads us to a satisfying conclusion.

I know that Miéville’s prose can alienate some readers, but I am not one such reader. His word-play, and his word creation, are fundamentally attractive aspects of his novels for me. In Embassytown we again have many of his signature phrases, his unique formations and phrasing, his extensive vocabulary, and I loved some of the passages. Miéville made me see the power of the adjective used adverbially when, in Perdido Street Station, a small seedling pushes pugilist through train tracks. It is a technique he continues to use to good effect. The Germanic origins of many of the terms gave depth to the world, but the hearkening to Latin and Greek gave variety. Neologisms of mashed nouns (terretech, citynaut, biopolis) were immediately sensible. The abbreviations (autom, exot, trunc) and others perhaps entirely invented (floaking – a term that has every right to join ‘Grok’ in the vocabulary of geekdom and perhaps beyond) fitted so naturally and seamlessly into sentences that it seemed that they just belonged. The numerator/denominator, cut/turn, expressions of the Hosts and the Ambassadors were a fascinating concept, as was the singular identity in dual physical bodies. I loved immersing myself (pun intended) in the language.

I also share an interest in many of the themes Miéville explored: metaphysics, existentialism, philology, the linguistics, the exploration of truly alien culture and the limitations on cross-cultural communication. The essence of self-hood, explored here through the ambassadors whose singular identity manifests in paired bodies, and names like CalVin and EzRa. The same theme I felt was sadly underexplored through the Automs – Artificial Intelligences whose personhood is hinted at but largely dismissed, most fully realised in Ehrsul. Of all the automs Ehrsul is said to be remarkable, even unique, and yet her narrative arc fades during the second act and is all but absent from the final.

Several characters annoyed me, but most notably Avice and Scile. This is perhaps because of the way the chapters inter-stitch different time periods, cross-hatching the Formerly and the Currently until the two narratives meet and we can finally progress to the finale. This makes Avice seem more inconsistent than she would be on a linear narrative, but even allowing for that I found many of her actions (and inactions) infuriating. Some of the tangents came to overwhelm and distract, there were Chekhov guns which remained loaded and mounted to the wall without ever being taken down or fired. Maybe – likely – this is deliberate. Likely Miéville is knowingly subverting such expectation, is touring us through the world he made so that we might simply enjoy it as an act of creation. He did the same in parts of Perdido, and Scar, and Iron Council, to varying success. He makes Embassytown more central than mere setting, just as New Crobuzon is, or London, or Beza/UlQuoma. To that end he is effective. The immerverse has massive scope for story-telling and an impressive depth beneath what little of it we see. Yet this efficacy comes at the cost of narrative pace and engagement, and for me there were times when the price paid was too great. The pace of the final act is effective, but for much of the middle it is glacial. Slow pace is not inherently a problem, but apparently it was a problem for me in this instance.

I gave Embassytown 3 stars on Goodreads, because for all that was good about it, I did not love it. More accurately, I loved it at times, in passages, intermittently. Other times it wearied me, it dragged, it rambled along and allowed me to follow without my ever really being clear why we were taking these detours. In sections, it floaked.

If you are a fan of China Miéville you should definitely read this. It follows through in detail and sophistication on many of the themes which are closest to his interest. If you are new to China Miéville, or unfamiliar with his brand of Weird / New Weird literature then I’d recommend starting with some of his others before working your way to Embassytown.


The City & The City Review

I’ve decided to shift some reviews I wrote on another blog and have them up here as well. The first of those is of Miéville’s “The City & The City”, which I read last April. More to come.
(Minor warning on the potential for spoilers, but I think I’ve avoided any obvious ones).

China Miéville has always been an author with an ambiguous relationship to genre. He is often to be found in the Fantasy sections of the bookstore (where they still have bookstores), but this isn’t an exact fit. (His most famous ‘Fantasy’ novel – “Perdido St Station” – has a scientist as its protagonist.) He is also an author far more comfortable with urban environments than the bucolic pastoralism of more traditional Epic Fantasy (in the Tolkein tradition). The first question one may ask of “The City & The City” is then which genre it belongs to. It’s an answer I’m not sure I can give.

The title refers to Beszal and Ul Qoma, cities which, for reasons never fully explored or explained, share the same physical space. These two separate political, judicial and social entities overlap and intersect each other, the citizenry of each share physical spaces, streets, parks, weather, even traffic, but they are distinct. They have different laws, authorities, governments, bureaucracies, airports… To call a house physically next door but existentially in the other city would require international calling codes. To pass from one to the other requires a passport and visa. Through an ingrained psychological process of ‘unseeing’ they have learnt to disregard each other and the city they should not be in. This ‘unseeing’ is enforced by the mysterious power of ‘Breach’, but presents obvious difficulties for tourists and the foreign academics coming to study the unique archaeology of the area.  In this element you might suggest that “The City & The City” is a Fantasy, but the label doesn’t really fit. Both Beszal and Ul Qoma are very definitely in our world, even if it is an alternative version. They are located somewhere in Eastern Europe, or perhaps the Balkans, and interact with neighbours as well as with Canada and the US. While the setting feels fantastical there’re no definite indications that the separation between Beszal and Ul Qoma is anything other than a human social construct. Some technologies exist which seem difficult to understand, but whether this is Science-Fiction or Futurism is again ambiguous.

Being a China Miéville novel there is inevitably a political aspect to the sociology of these cities. Both Beszal and Ul Qoma have Nationalists who are prepared to fight to keep their city separate from its spatial twin. Likewise there are Unificationists fermenting a rebellion that will see Besz and Ul Qoma made one. Economically, and in terms of foreign policy, the two cities are diverging and the influence of extra-national forces is felt by both populations. Readers of Political Thrillers will be familiar with the subplots of multi-national corporations and foreign ambassadors. Miéville is explicit in denying that this is a simple allegory of any existing or historical city (Borlú specifically states that this is not like Jerusalem or Berlin), nor is this an easy dichotomy of Capitalism/Communism or East/West. More than political allegory the division between the distinct citizens is a metaphor for almost any major city in the modern world, where our physical space is distinct from our social space, and where we may live next to the same person for decades without having a conversation, but have a close relationship with someone who lives suburbs away. In this way Miéville’s metaphor seems to be for the manner of modern urban socialisation, though he actively discourages any limited reading of meaning in the text.

At its heart though “The City & The City” is a detective story in a highly unusual setting. The narrative follows the investigation of Inspector Borlú of the Beszian Extreme Crime Squad. A body has been found dumped: a Jane Doe. Quickly Borlú’s investigation begins to hint at a larger conspiracy. Mysterious and anonymous tip-offs are phoned in, slim leads are followed, forensic tests are done on the body. In many ways the narrative has all the features of Crime Fiction, perhaps with a Noir element. Borlú runs in to the jurisdictional problems which are a familiar trope of this genre, but with significantly different challenges. His investigation uncovers more possible victims, and perhaps evidence that would call in the absolute powers of Breach. Borlú’s own understanding of his world, his city, Ul Qoma and the unique relationship they share is challenged, and the novel invites you to keep turning pages as the narrative twists and reverses and opens up to an extraordinary denouement.

Miéville channels the earlier Detective SciFi of Philip K Dick, the political fear of George Orwell, the hard-boiled detective of Raymond Chandler, and the Noir imagery of “The Third Man”. Although the publishers (and The Times) make a comparison to Kafka this is not absurdism. The concept of Beszal and Ul Qoma seem surreal, but it is really an exaggeration: a hyperbole of our border jurisdictions and the real examples we can find in places such as StansteadCoolangatta, or  Baarle-Hertog.

Miéville is an obviously intelligent writer, and though his vocabulary here is far more accessible than in some of his other work, his ideas and imagination are evidence of this great intelligence. In lesser hands the conceit of this setting would be fragile, or slippery, of overwhelming. In “The City & The City” it is none of these things. Miéville handles the subject matter with confident assurance and never loses control of the beast he has created. The narrative itself is weaker and at times takes a second place to the setting, and the characters, while well drawn, are simplistic.

His greatest ability though is to present us with the utterly implausible and make us believe it. He brings us along with him as we tour the streets of the preposterous cities, and we go along without objection, accepting and enjoying the world as he gives it to us.

Highly Recommended


Grimdark

So I’ve basically played the role of a vaguely interested observer in all this, but something Joe Abercrombie tweeted today – a piece by Daniel Abraham in Clarkesworld – has finally motivated to reach into my proverbial pockets and draw out two-cents, which I now humbly submit to the debate.

As Abraham notes the moniker “Grimdark”  is taken from Warhammer 40,000 (affectionately known as 40k). I played the game as a young fella. I had my armies (Eldar predominantly, but I did put a bit of an Orc Horde together and was compiling some Imperial Guard when I gave it all away. The miniatures  including some incredibly carefully and poorly painted Banshees and Scorpions, were sadly lost in a house-fire) and would spend long afternoons plotting the fractional movements required for victory or poring over a codex seeking some tactical advantage. I didn’t get too much into the surrounding mythology of the 40k universe, but it grew exponentially whilst I played and subsequently. I am aware now that entire novel series are devoted to the expanded universe, in much the same way you’ll find with Star Wars and Dragonlance and such.

I am familiar with the line from which “Grimdark” apparently comes: In the grim darkness of the future there is only war.

Two of my favourite modern Fantasy authors (Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan) have been labelled as writing Grimdark, as well as Mark Lawrence,  an author highly recommended to me and near the top of my to-read list (after I finally finish Red Country, which I am powering through at amazing pace). Judging by Abercrombie’s thoughtful response, and Richard Morgan’s, neither of them are thrilled at the assignation (though Joe seems to have embraced it with his twitter handle), but more on that latter.

Mark Lawrence’s response basically summed up my own, but seeing as we’ve made it this far, let’s unpack it a bit.

Genre is a fraught concept. At its best it’s a useful framework for understanding tropes and narrative archetypes, at its worst it’s a cage, a ghetto, a straight-jacket. Mieville’s reference to Tolkein as the “Big Oedipal Daddy” of Fantasy is perhaps a starting point in identifying how the Fantasy genre came to be seen both from within, and from without. Fantasy was escapism for nerds. It was largely derivative to its progenitor (and “Author of the Century” no less) and it operated within variations of his British agrarian idyll being threatened by malevolent forces.

Arguably this continued until recently, arguably very recently, arguably it continues still. Many would point (as Abraham does) to Thomas Covenant, and fair enough. Others would point to George RR Martin, whose Game of Thrones was published in 1996 and featured many of the traits now assigned to Grimdark: the amorality, the incest, the rape (so much rape, so casually put to the page), the murders, the attempted (and successful) infanticides, regicide, ultimately (spoiler alert of sorts) the death of the apparent protagonist before the end of the first book.

But Grimdark seems a more modern label than either of these. Perhaps it is the HBO effect and GRRM’s ever-growing fanbase, but even that is older than Grimdark, being in place for two years at least. And so the finger is pointed at Abercrombie (whose First Law books were published in 06,07 and 08), Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire 2011, 2012…), and Richard K Morgan (A Land Fit For Heroes 08, 10…).

Morgan is particularly interesting, because it’s his Fantasy books that see him labelled as Grimdark, but his previous series (published between 2002 and 2005 and focussed on Takeshi Kovacs) wears a label of sci-fi/noir. As Morgan himself points out it is the elements of Noir that he brings to Fantasy which are most likely what is used to label his work Grimdark. The Kovacs novels have been credited with reviving Cyberpunk (the genre spawned, or at least identified, by William Gibson‘s Neuromancer) by grafting “the Gibsonian subgenre” back onto pulp fiction, and I think particularly in this Noir Pulp. It’s a link Abraham makes as well in his Clarkesworld piece, though by Abraham’s distinction I personally see Kovacs as more Hard-boiled than Noir. Kovacs does make moral decisions that go against his self-interest, the difference perhaps is that Morgan makes his protagonist pay the cost of those decisions. Kovacs gets no free pass for having done, or having tried to do, the “right thing”.

Likewise with Abercrombie’s flawed “heroes”.  Logen Ninefingers has a past he wants to escape, but can’t. In much the same way as Morgan’s protagonist Ringil Eskiath (who shares a name with a Tolkeinian sword), Ninefingers isn’t given the freedom to just put aside the consequences of his past acts. He wants to be a better person, but it’s not going to be easy to change, and will be harder still to convince others of the change. Shivers suffers even more-so. The change in the Northman is pronounced, from when we first meet him during the final stages of the First Law, through his Styrian experience and his final, decisive, blow in The Heroes. It is not a change for the better. And yet it is a change we, as readers, can understand, perhaps even sympathise with. Is it enough to mean well, even if your actions bring ill consequences? Can we redeem our wrongs by good acts? Would I not too struggle to maintain the finer parts of myself if I had suffered as he suffered? I think these are essential questions for readers of this sub-genre, whatever we decide it should be called. I think these are essential questions for readers of all literature. Especially that last one.

Is it not this question that we ask ourself as Casablanca ends? Would I send the woman I love away, on a plane with another man? Would I risk something of myself for others, even if there was little hope of personal gain and a genuine risk of personal suffering?
When Harry Lime, atop the ferris-wheel in The Third Man, asks how much money it would be worth for one of those specks to simply stop moving, are we not being asked how much we value human life, being challenged to explain that value, or at least to respond in some way to a character who values it little at all?

Certainly in gritty stories, in amoral characters – or just overly pragmatic ones – we are challenged. I enjoy as a reader that I am. I enjoy as a writer exploring those questions and developing ways in which I can use characters to provide different perspectives on these questions and others like them.

The problem then with Grimdark is that it is used so often pejoratively, and often by those who are seeking to define what they dislike about a certain type of story. Abraham sub-titles his piece “Literatures of Despair” – a phrase he explains, but which I don’t accept. Morgan’s response dialogue is telling. The complaints (of the straw man) become ones of taste and of subjectivity. Some blood, but not too much. Some danger posed to the protagonist, but don’t kill him. Some hint of the enemy being evil, but no rapes or torture. A little military-based murder is ok, but no gore please.

I think allowing anyone – even a readership – to define a genre in such a way, to set up boundaries and borders in which writers should (or must operate), is a stultifying influence. Even more so if those arbitrary borders are then policed by self-appointed guardians, wielding indignation and harking back to a supposed Glorious Age.

If Grimdark is Noir come to the Fantasy worlds then it is no new thing. Indeed it’s taken a generation or two to move from the mainstream into Fantasy. In 1991 Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars:  Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture. The cinema-going audience were ready for a story in which the secondary character, an advisor to the FBI (and thus in some way on the side of the ‘good guys’ even if reluctantly) was a cannibal serial-killer. Lector’s escape was celebrated, anticipated not as a defeat of the ‘good’ but as a victory for a character with whom the audience had become fascinated.

On television we watch Dexter, the serial-killer with a ‘Dark Passenger’ and a mission, and hope he doesn’t get caught. We admire Omar Little, a man we have witnessed murder and steal. We hope that Walter White can keep cooking and distributing crystal-meth, because doing so doesn’t make him a bad guy… not exactly… kind of… I don’t know. And that’s the point. These characters are fascinating and exciting and wonderful precisely because I can’t answer that question.

Is it any wonder the audience of modern Fantasy is ready for similar characters? Is it not a good thing that I started questioning why I should still be barracking for Monza to get her revenge, that I should question whether the world wouldn’t be better off if the ‘bad guy’ had’ve just killed her off in chapter one? I want characters who are flawed, who make mistakes, who do things I would never do, who suffer in ways I hope never to suffer. If it serves the story, put those guys through the wringer. Carve them up, piece-by-piece, and let’s examine what’s left at the core of them.

All of that’s fine. All of that means that I – now only two chapters into Red Country – honestly don’t know if I want Shy South to catch up to the bandits who took her brothers or not… and surely that uncertainty, that hesitancy, surely that’s a powerful narrative force.


Another milestone

Well, thanks to all of you who have visited my site I have just pushed past the 2,500 views (in the 11 months or so since I started the venture). That’s averaging over 200 views a month!

So to mark the occasion I give you some of the more unusual Google searches by which people have found their way to me:

The gayness of Joe Abercrombie, or his characters, seems to lead down my path. Several people used variants on this theme, including:
“joe abercrombie the heroes gay characters”, “joe abercrombie gay characters” and “joe abercrombie gay.”

Someone was evidently looking for the “gaiman mieville ghetto”. A scary sounding place indeed.

Someone was hoping for a “midichlorian triumph”

I’m not sure the person who typed in “pet monkey climbing nets” really got much help from my website. Likewise the person who wanted to know “how to summoning the jinni” was probably in the wrong part of the internet.

And then there’s the inexplicable:
“new vw commercial starts with children laughing then adults laughing then elderly laughing”
“short story the toyota with characters,setting,conflict,resolution and theme”
“how does empress wu zetian relate to the disempowerment of women”
“jar jar stretched tongue”

and… drum role please…

“mike tyson gender change”

How the hell did ‘Mike Tyson gender change’ get people to come here? I don’t know. If that was you please comment below. I can’t figure that one out, but they count to the 2,500 views. Hopefully the whole process is interesting enough to keep you cooming back and pushing me toward and beyond 5,000 in 2013.


Genrecon 2013

Well people Genrecon’s inaugural event in 2012 was one of the highlights of my year and was a real kick-starter to help me get serious about the craft and business of writing. It introduced me to some wonderful writers at various stages of their careers, from fellow amateurs with an ambitious pitch to professionally published authors, self-published authors, agents, editors, publishers, international award winning best sellers. It had it all, and while it certainly fired my enthusiasm and drive it also opened my misted eyes to some of the harsh realities which lie behind the dreams of auctorial super-stardom.

So it is with great excitement that I receive the news that Genrecon 2013 is up and running. The start of the guest list was announced today and none other than Chuck Wendig is one of the International guests. I’ve mentioned his work and his website here before. I’m a big fan. When I came away from 2012 and thought about who would make a great guest for 2013 Chuck Wendig was right at the top of the list. I and several others tweeted as much at the time and if you don’t believe me check the records.

So what a year 2013. Neil Gaiman was here recently. China Mieville’s at Perth Festival (unfortunately I won’t get to go to see him, unless I make some irresponsibly hasty decision to skip work and fly across the continent).Apparently as part of the Supernovas and as side shows both Raymond E Feist and George R R Martin will be in Australia this year. It’s like my bookshelf come to life.

So check out Genrecon 2013 people, but not yet. Wait until I get in on the early bird special, then you can check it out.