Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bleak Cities

With some unexpected horizontal time on my hands (ice, ankle), I've managed to do a bit of pleasure reading, including two novels by China Miéville (Perdido Street Station and The Scar) and Paul Feyerabend's autobiography Killing Time. I'll write more about the Feyerabend later, perhaps in connection with the recent dissing of 12-toners in the new music blog land.

For the moment, a word about Miéville: I haven't read much fantasy, in fact, I don't think that I have much patience for it, but never mind, Miéville's not a fantasy writer, he's a first class novelist who happens to write in the fantasy genre (or "weird fiction", as he prefers it). Online criticism seems to inevitably begin with the question of Miéville's relationship to Tolkien; I guess it's a natural impulse, in that Tolkien is the 900-lb balrog in the fantasy cage, but it's a misplaced impulse, first and formost because Miéville can really write (and there's a big brown paper bag out there waiting for Tolkien to write himself out of it). Although Miéville's novels carry the complete, and apparently essential apparatus of fantasy with an entire imaginary world thought out in astonish detail (geographic, ethnographic, etc.), he manages to convey this thoroughness without the obligatory Tolkienesque maps and appendices. The text of the novel sufficed (although, I admit, one might have fun in actually trying to draw some creatures from the descriptions or map-out the seas of Bas-Lag, much as Nabokov so nicely drew Gregor's beetle anatomy or mapped out the Samsa apartment, in his lecture on "Metamorphosis" in Lectures on Literature). I think that the richer comparisons for Miéville's novels are to be found elsewhere, starting, for Perdido Street Station, with the urban visions in Dickens, and for The Scar, with the Odyssey and with Moby-Dick, all voyages with deeply scarred travelers and awesome beasts.

Miéville has a real gift for inventing names for people, places, and the things between, but he also has the gift for giving these inventions an emotional edge, and one that is grounded in a secure moral and ethical viewpoint, even when the real situation is loaded with regret or ambiguity. Curious perhaps, given his academic background, his visions of political structures in Bas-Lag are rather vague. The mayor of New Crobuzon strikes me as as much of a caricature villain as the mayor of Sunnydale in the TV Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The encounter, in Perdido Street Station with the ambassador from Hell is, however, a scene of classic comedy. (When the film is made, only John Cleese, seated behind the appropriate desk, could play this bureaucratic with appropriate elan).

I've already packed Iron Council, Miéville's third Bas-Lag novel for my trip next week to Greece. More about that later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool stuff.