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Tuesday 25 February 2003

Novellas of Disaster from the British "New Weird"

a review by Rich Horton

  • The Tain, by China Miéville
    (PS Publishing, Harrogate, England, UK, 2002, 89 pages, £8/$14, 1-902-880-63-3)
  • White and Other Tales of Ruin, by Tim Lebbon
    (Night Shade Books, Newburg, OR, 2002, 342 pages, $15, 1-892389-34-7)

M. John Harrison's introduction to China Miéville's novella The Tain (available in limited hardcover and paper editions from the UK small press PS Publishing) places the author among the "New Weird". Harrison doesn't really define his term, except to suggest that definitions are a waste of energy, and that Miéville in particular is a useful ambassador from the shores of the fantastic to the continent of the "mainstream". However, as I was reading (more or less simultaneously) both The Tain and Tim Lebbon's collection of novellas, White and Other Tales of Ruin, I was struck by certain similarities between the two writers, and it seemed to me that the term "New Weird" might usefully apply to both.

Most obviously, both Miéville and Lebbon are, to some degree, horror writers. That is, their fiction, or much of their fiction, directly confronts gruesome and grotesque violence. They might each be accused of wallowing in gore by a sufficiently unsympathetic reader — though both writers generally use the bloody and horrifying events they chronicle for what seem to me worthy literary ends. Which is to say, they don't "wallow" in gore, but they do feature plenty of it, and lots of quite sickening violence. Perhaps Miéville seems more fascinated by grotesquerie, and Lebbon more prone to showing brutal violence. Furthermore, both writers produce quite effective, if sometimes perhaps too showy, prose. And both write long — indeed a few of these stories probably would be better if a bit shorter.

Another point of contact noticeable in the books at hand, though perhaps less generally applicable to Miéville than to Lebbon, is that several of the novellas considered here are "disaster" stories. They deal with the end of the world, in a way that reminds me of the British "cozy catastrophes" of the ’60s, produced by writers like John Christopher, John Wyndham, and even the early J.G. Ballard. But these disaster stories are less clearly SF than those earlier examples, and more horrific, more, well, "weird". (Though here Ballard must be given his due — he was at least as weird in his way as Miéville or Lebbon, though not to my mind so overtly "horrific".)

Miéville's novella is based on a piece by Jorge Luis Borges about the "fauna of mirrors", and their long ago imprisonment, their enslavement to us, such that they must mimic our every action. The Tain (and "tain" is a real English word referring to the silvering of a mirror — I had not known that) tells of what happens after the mirror creatures finally win their freedom. Miéville's story follows two characters, a mirror creature with different urges from most of his fellows, and a man, Sholl, who seems to be immune to the attacks of the mirror creatures. The two threads are tenuously linked, but that link really isn't important. The one thread allows us to learn the history and motivations of the mirror people. The other thread tells Sholl's somewhat surprising "resistance" to the war waged by the mirror people on humanity. The plot really isn't terribly special, however. What held this reader's fascinated interest was the grace notes — the mirror "animals", composed of partial reflections of people; the different quality of light that no longer reflects (physically impossible? No doubt, but that's not the point); the cute explanations of vampirism.

The first two novellas in White and Other Tales of Ruin, "White" and "From Bad Flesh", are the two explicit "Tales of Ruin", in that they both deal with the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe called the "Ruin". In both stories the "Ruin" involves in general environmental and societal collapse, and in particular a plague which slowly kills its victims, after first causing growths or tumors to appear on their bodies. (Lebbon's story notes suggest that not only these two stories but all the stories in this book, and several of his other stories, are set in the same "Ruined" future. To be honest, I don't really think that forcing that relationship is necessary or helpful for the other stories.)

In "White" a small group of people has been marooned in remote Cornwall. It has been snowing for some time, and what with the general breakdown of society there is no motor travel or any other way out. They barricade themselves in a country house, and over some days they meet violent deaths, apparently at the agency of mysterious creatures called "Whites". The narrator is mourning his wife's death of the plague, and before long he begins to experience hallucinations of his wife beckoning to him amidst the white snow and the terrible white creatures. The whole course of the story is inevitable, and I will confess that I found it boring. Without necessarily requiring Campbellian problem-solving from my stories, I would like to feel at least some suspense. In addition, the imaginative element was neither very convincing, nor very interesting. (Lebbon alludes to some of his readers asking him what the "Whites" really are. He doesn't know any more than we do. I don't object to that imaginative strategy in all cases, but for me in this case I was more annoyed than impressed by the implausibility and unknowability of the "Whites".) It ought to be noted that "White" has been quite well received, earning a British Fantasy Award in 2000 and being chosen for Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection.

I liked "From Bad Flesh" rather better. Its protagonist is dying of the plague, or the Sickness, and he hears of a mysterious man, called String, who can cure it. He makes his way to the Greek island where String lives, and amidst scenes of mass murder he meets up with an American woman who claims to have been cured of the Sickness. She leads him to String's near-Utopian hideaway, and there he learns String's secret, and must decide if he will accept the cure, and what he will do with the rest of his life. The background includes fine touches such as the Lord Ships that ruled the Earth from the air in the early days of the Ruin. Perhaps best is the subtle and moving depiction, in flashbacks, of the narrator's relationship with the legless woman who first pointed him to String.

One more story in Lebbon's collection deals with environmental catastrophe. This is "The Origin of Truth", the shortest story in the book. It movingly tells of a family escaping London to flee an apparent nanotech disaster. It moves toward an ending as inevitable as that of "White", but it's more successful. Partly this is simply because it's shorter. Partly it's because the veneer of scientific justification for the disaster is more convincing. But mostly it's because compared to the mostly isolated group of individuals in "White" the family depicted in "The Origin of Truth" is more interesting and their shared fate more affecting.

The other stories in White and Other Tales of Ruin may not involve explicit environmental disaster, but they certainly also involve ruin. The least of them is "The First Law", about a few sailors (perhaps during World War II, though Lebbon's story note suggests otherwise) who are shipwrecked on a strange island. The sailors find that the island is full of curiously mutated creatures, and the various dangers, as well as their own weaknesses, inevitably lead them to horrible deaths. Here I make my standard confession that horror for horror's sake interests me very little, and this story's blind and hopeless parading of its characters to a series of pointless deaths bored me silly.

The other two stories are new to this collection, and they are fairly good. "Hell" is about a man who has lost his wife, and who is raising a teenaged daughter. When she disappears, apparently into the clutches of a religious cult, he is driven deeper into despair. Eventually he discovers an odd business that offers a trip to Hell, for those who really need it. The trip features the requisite scenes of senseless violence and tragedy, as if to remind the narrator that some people have it worse than he does, but it also eventually gives him an opportunity to save himself, his daughter, and a chance-met woman from their torments. The story is a bit too long, and it didn't all hold together logically for me, but it is interesting and scary. "Mannequin Man and the Plastic Bitch" is in some ways the most hopeful of the stories here. It's also the most action-filled, or at least, filled with more purposeful action. The title characters are a pair of androids: the man an experimental version infected with the "virus of love", the woman a whore. The plot outline is simple enough: the man wants to rescue the woman from her degrading job, and escape with her to a dimly imagined life together. The usual question applies: does she (not infected with the love virus) really love him? And the central conflict is familiar: what to do about the pimp? But Lebbon's working out of this familiar plot, and his depiction of a rather ravaged and violent future, dominated by depictions of weirdly altered humans, are nicely done.

The Tain is yet another striking and effectively weird story from one of the most impressive young writers around. White and Other Tales of Ruin is not uniformly successful, but it does showcase a promising talent, with an intriguing if despairing vision. Both China Miéville and Tim Lebbon will likely demand our attention for years to come.

Rich Horton now contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found on Tangent Online and SF Site. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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