July 19

China Miéville’s Mental Calisthenics

Miéville stretches me. Reading his fiction is like doing yoga of the imagination. With each twinge and contortion, I discover mental muscles I didn’t know I had. His fiction defies categorization: it is fantasy and horror and science fiction and biting sociopolitical critique, all in one heady jumble. Miéville has won several Arthur C. Clarke Awards (a British award for science fiction) and won or been nominated for a clutch of others. If you want to make your mind move, read him.

Here is a brief example. In Perdido Street Station, a sculptor first beholds the remade body of a patron who has commissioned a sculpture of himself: “Scraps of skin and fur and feathers swung as he moved; tiny limbs clutched; eyes rolled from obscure niches; antlers and protrusions of bond jutted precariously; feelers twitched and moths glistened. Many-coloured skeins of skin collided. A cloven hoof thumped gently against the wood floor. Tides of flesh washed against each other in violent currents. Muscles tethered by alien tendons to alien bones worked together in uneasy truce, in slow, tense motion. Scales gleamed. Fins quivered. Wings fluttered brokenly. Insect claws folded and unfolded. Lin backed away, stumbling, feeling her terrified way away from his  slow advance . . . . Mr. Motley paced towards her like a hunter. ‘So,’ he said, from one of the grinning human mouths. ‘Which do you think is my best side?’”

My first thought upon reading this was, “Whaaaaaaaat?” I read it again. And again. And then I began to see it. Miéville reminds me of Dickens, if Oliver Twist took place in the sewers and catacombs under London and Fagin (the nefarious manipulator of child thieves) had the face of a fox and a mechanical cog in place of his left eye. In each of Miéville’s novels, characters stumble into societies and subcultures beyond their ken. They must adjust, play along, meet and make uneasy alliances and unexpected friends (and always numerous foes) in their search for knowledge, adventure, lost loved ones, or simple survival. Cities, too, are characters. Each novel is a unique experience. Here is an idea of what to expect from a few of them:

Perdido Street Station includes: a winged man; a woman sculptor who is also part scarab beetle; a roomba with artificial intelligence; a dockworker’s strike; mass murder; a plague of nightmares; thieves; mobsters; secret government programs; and mad scientists. At the end of this novel, I cried. This is the most ambitious and complex of his works (in my humble opinion).

The Kraken includes: the disappearance of an embalmed giant squid; a talking tattoo; cults and believers; London’s weird, inventive changeability; and the end of the world. I love London, and I love this. (It’s my favorite of his books so far.)

Railsea includes: a play on Moby Dick, but with trains, giant maneating moles, a captain with an obsession, pirates, a softhearted doctor’s assistant, and a pet bat. This is the gentlest of his fictions, appropriate for young adults, but absolutely playful and fantastic for those of us who loved or limped through Melville.

Our imaginations tend to lazily follow the same tracks, the same images, through book after book. It’s a recognizable map. But Miéville abandons the clichés to which we, as readers, have become accustomed. His books are rife with literary and social references, but they are twisted into something entirely different. He creates new territory. If you consider yourself a literary explorer, I highly recommend you pick up one of his books. You will see new things through your mind’s eye. I wish you a wonderful journey.