Gary K. Wolfe reviews China Miéville

Ever since his first novel King Rat in 1998, China Miéville has been reconnoitering that rambling edifice of crypto-London mythology that has been catnip to fantasists from Chesterton to Moorcock to Powers to de Larrabeiti to Gaiman and most recently Dan Simmons (and which in a broader sense might include a fair amount of mainstream work from Dickens to Iain Sinclair). Although his New Crobuzon novels and last year’s The City & The City continued Miéville’s fascination with cities, he focused on London in particular in stories like “Reports of Certain Events in London” and his young adult novel Un Lun Dun, both of which are echoed in his new novel Kraken. But Kraken, it’s fair to say, is a few leaps beyond either of those – it’s the first full metal jacket deployment of Miéville’s vast and loony imagination in the service of reconstructing London as a fantasy venue, and as a psychic space roomy enough to include both cosmic apocalypses and renegade iPods, ancient sorcery and weaponized origami, sentient oceans and debates over Darwinism. Sometimes utterly chilling and sometimes very funny, it is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve seen to successfully combine elements of everything from the Victorian terror-tale to surrealism and Pynchonesque absurdity, and a good deal in between (several influences, such as Moorcock and Leiber, Dr. Who and Star Trek, are called out directly in the text, and for a while our hero is even armed with a Trek-like phaser).

That hero, such as he is, works as a curator in the Darwin Center of London’s Natural History Museum, which has amongst its prize exhibits a giant squid, Architeuthis dux, the Kraken of the title. Billy Harrow is conducting a routine tour when he discovers that the squid – together with its massive tank – has mysteriously and impossibly disappeared. The police are called in, and soon the investigation is taken over by a secretive unit called the FSRC – the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit – and this in turn gives us a second point-of-view character, investigator Kath Collingswood. Things escalate rapidly. A squid-worshiping cult is suspected of the crime and may have an interest in Billy as well, but after he goes into hiding his friend Leon is visited by two of the book’s most chilling creations, Goss and Subby, a jovial, smoke-breathing assassin and his boy companion, who have apparently resurfaced periodically through centuries of English history (“There was no specificity to Goss and Subby,” the narrator tells us in a line that nails the whole nature of the book’s legendry). Once Leon is dispatched, his girlfriend Marge provides us with a third, more innocent point of view, which enables Miéville to develop his rapidly ballooning narrative from several different angles. Marge is the one whose iPod is turned into a protective amulet by a sorcerer, and who gets one of the better lines in the book when it inexplicably starts playing Sarah McLachlan: “If you’re into Lilith Fair I’d rather take my chances with Goss and Subby.”

The level of sheer inventiveness in Kraken is exhilarating, though it never slows the pace of the basic let’s-all-save-the-world plot. We meet the secret society of Londonmancers and their leader Saira, who date back to the days of Gogmagog; the Communion of the Blessed Flood which waits for the inundation of London and whose scriptures include Ballard and Garrett P. Serviss; the ancient Egyptian spirit Wati, who can only survive in statues and images of humans (and also is a labor organizer among the animals who serve as familiars to London’s witchcraft community); the criminal mastermind Tattoo who because of an earlier betrayal now lives only as a tattoo on the back of the hapless Paul; the mysterious police consultant Vardy, whose true agenda remains hidden; the long since executed sorcerer Grisamentum, who resurrects himself in a wonderfully baroque way (though readers of Un Lun Dun may see it coming); even the sea, as unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition (“nothing could stay hidden from an inquisitive sea”). We’re introduced to a street that exists only in the 1960s (a nod to “Reports of Certain Events in London”), to creatures that assemble themselves from the detritus of the city (another nod to Un Lun Dun), to “monsterherds,” “gunfarmers,” and to a kind of fire called “katachronophlogiston,” which not only destroys what it touches, but burns it out of time and memory. It’s a delight simply to watch Miéville haul his inventions onstage like a demented ringmaster, without slowing the frenetic pace of his narrative, and if by contrast the hapless Billy comes across as a relatively pallid and passive hero (though he gets his mojo late in the game), or that the other viewpoint characters recede too comfortably into their bystander roles, these are at worst minor complaints. Characteristically, Miéville saves his best reversal for last, and while it would be extremely churlish of me to say much more, this spectacular celebration of the possibilities of fantasy is also, it turns out, a celebration of reason, and its initial setting in the real-life Darwin Centre with its real-life giant squid is no accident.

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6 thoughts on “Gary K. Wolfe reviews China Miéville

  • June 27, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I must say that I completely, and sadly, disagree. China Mieville is one of those authors that I’ve been admiring and enjoying for years, but I think this book is a huge misfire. Extremely self-conscious, pleased with its self-perceived cleverness and trying too hard to be “cool and hip and edgy”, all those things don’t make up for the lack of basic narrative. The entire novel is a series of scenes where people talk about how high the stakes are in a story we never see. Nothing ever happens other than people talking about how big is what is going to happen, what has happened or what might happen, which most of the cases is something they cannot begin to describe since they don’t know, and neither do we. Kraken lacks a basic plot, and is simply a premise overblown in a hurry with lots of self-conscious writing attempting at sounding clever. But it is a very different thing to pretend to be and act clever than being clever in the first place. I was very disappointed to see such a good writer get trapped in the “one book a year” scheme, coming out with a seriously undercooked book that doesn’t begin to explore the possibilities of its premise. The automatic and uncritical adulation the reviewers are giving him aren’t doing him any favors. Kraken is a bunch of ideas in search of a novel tied together by “hipster” writing. For many that would be enough. For Mieville that is nothing, and I believe he should try harder and keep up his own standards. I say this from admiration and respect of this authors, whose books I’ll continue to buy and read. But please, don’t drop your guard again like this and, to reviewers, please stop raving about the emperor’s new thong.

  • June 28, 2010 at 2:33 am

    I guess that a book that attracts diametrically opposed reactions isn’t, at least, bland 😉

    My reading is with the OP; this may be the best novel Miéville has yet written (caveat: The City & ytiC ehT is still on my to-read shelf), and certainly it’s an extraordinary achievement. Yes, it’s structurally complex, but it *does* cohere and works beautifully (and profoundly horrifically where that’s fitting) on all the many levels it is written on.

    The only place I’d agree with @richard is in, perhaps, half to two thirds in, where the writing does unravel slightly, into unflowing episodic action, as though a final editing runthrough was skipped or rushed. But even then, there are moments of writing easily as extraordinary as illuminate the first half and final chapters. It *does* all make sense, make a unified whole; the inner story lines (the strike, the ambiguous role of the police, etc) not only work in their own terms, but inform and add clarity and depth the novel as a whole.

    Like Iron Council, I can’t see this one going down very well with rightist USian godbotherers, though 🙂

  • June 29, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Not his most ambitious novel, but enormous fun. He was enjoying himself, and it shows. The unwrapping scene and the Sredni Vashtar cultists are both particularly excellent.

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