Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 3, 2011

China Miéville – Kraken

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:38 am

Kraken is extremely ambitious; it attempts to draw from dozens of zeitgeist archetypes, pulling up their Mysteries and folding them together in a kind of symphonic origami. However, there’s a very fine line between that and “half-arsed in six different directions” and I’m very much afraid that Kraken is on the wrong side of it.

It’s a novel about surfaces & intersections—we see this most of all with the titular kraken. As we’re often told, the kraken dies when it comes to the surface: accustomed to the crushingly intimate pressure of its benthic home, the openness and emptiness of the surface is lethal. We see it also in the arms-length collaborations and conversations between different cults, the way in which they deal with each other using a kind of multivalent ecumenicism, striking theological poses and leaving it at that. The benthic depths of religion are still there, but they ain’t coming here.

This is the kind of novel that absolutely relies on a city setting, and (for the British) couldn’t be told anywhere except London, metonymically denatured as it is. London’s neomythic character is one of atomized alone-in-a-crowd emptiness, with uncountable individual social & ethnic groups touching only along their edges; there’s always another borough, there’s always something new to discover, there’s always an unexpected alley.

In the same spirit as his earlier Un Lun Dun, Miéville packs Kraken with surreal and fantastic imagery; in this case, however, it’s all explained and demystified. In fact, flattened. Some scenes read like Robert Rankin by way of Clive Barker, with their quotidian treatment of putatively horrific tropes, and then a later casual explanation. I’m thinking particularly of an early scene, where our first introduction to supernatural abnatural assassins Goss & Subby (your basic tattered-and-drab nonsense-talking thug and his creepy child sidekick—2/10 for originality, but of course that isn’t the point) is as they unfold themselves out of a small parcel. That could be a real intrusion moment, a way to ram home the way that strangeness has pushed itself into our protagonist’s life—but we’re in neomythic London, so strangeness is nothing new. A few scenes later, our one-step-behind police officers find out exactly how Goss arranged it (there’s a bloke who folds stuff; in neomythic London, you can buy anything if you know where to go) and that’s the last we hear of literal folding. This kind of semiotic flattening is all over the text, however: two of the antagonists are quite literally signs of themselves.

Miéville is clearly doing this flattening & estrangement deliberately, but it doesn’t work for me; the text glances over dozens of different mythoi and literary antecedents (my personal favourite was the cult of Sredni Vashtar) but treats them with as much interest as a tourist who goes home with photographs showing signs to historic buildings. I’m sympathetic, in principle, to the message (“There is no one universal meaning, no divine system. Everyone contends for their share of ontological authority. The future is what you fight to make it. Stuff just happens, and it’s up to us to deal with it. Everyone matters.”) but it isn’t coming across with passion or dedication, only with a kind of weary, intellectually smug postmodern box-ticking perfunctoriness.

I think, also, that the time of clever new portmanteau coinages for fantastika tropes is done. In Kraken, we have “realitysmith”, “Londonmancer”, “mageslick”, and “knacker” (someone who uses a “knack”, rather than someone who butchers dead horses) as well as the evergreen “ab-” prefix… abhuman, abnatural, absurd. It gets tiresome.

On the other hand, Kraken does have a lot of good points. Miéville’s imagination is as fertile and profuse as ever, and some of his inventions—like the kraken cult itself, and Wati the union organiser—are amazing.

Overall: if you read for imagery and whimsical invention, I recommend Kraken. For character and plot, it’s passable; as regards themes and style, it’s a failed experiment. But as always, that’s better than not making the experiment at all.

(Pornokitsch are a lot more positive, incidentally.)

July 11, 2010

Catherynne M Valente – Palimpsest

Filed under: review,Uncategorizable — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 3:41 pm

What should I write about this book—this book that is a city, this city that is a book, this book that is many books and none of them complete?

Cities are built upon cities and the graves of cities; books are nurtured on the warm, rich humus of libraries, the rotted and matured drifts of pages. A word, a phrase here and there, escapes the embrace of time and settles instead into a new book, bedding down in a second home.

People, too, are built on the ruin and the glory of past selves. The things we do, the books we read, the lovers we take all leave their marks on us, and we mark our cities, our books, our lovers in turn.

We must ask ourselves, then: upon what is Palimpsest written? What was reused, what was erased, what was allowed to remain, that this book could come to me like bread still warm from the oven?

It rests upon three pillars. The first, a thing of steel and mother of pearl, is the portal quest; four very different people find a new world, and there is a destiny only they can fulfill. The second is strange and fantastical, but nobody else gives it more than a passing glance; after all, they see it every day. The world is revealed slowly, in sidelong allusions and small pieces to be jigsawed together—or tossed down and left to make what pattern they will. The last has the dream-logic and strange gravities of a new relationship, of an unexpected seduction, of the discipline you never knew would be your life.

It subverts the portal-quest, in that there is no wizard, no eternally trustworthy guide—and in that the transitions between worlds are quietly backgrounded. An immersive fantasy is normally one in which the reader is the only stranger, and little care is given to make her feel at home; this is very much not the case in Palimpsest. The only intrusion is that of our protagonists, and in the end, that is accepted rather than resolved. And, whilst in the liminal fantasy, the fantastic approaches and retreats (or, conversely, is approached and retreated from) here the fantastic and the reader take their places in a winding, looping dance of approach & retreat, teasingly, seductively. But we all know how those dances end, and so it is with this.

Despite the size and complexity of the city of Palimpsest—which is, after all, almost de rigueur for city fantasy—it feels very circumscribed, very personalized. And the story tells you, its own self, that this is for you: that no other reader has been given the same book.

So, then, let us close the book, and leave the city to live happily ever after. When we return to it, it will be made new.

May 1, 2010

Holiday reading

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:18 pm

I’ve just come back from two weeks in the Scottish Highlands, so here’s a brief roundup of what I was reading while I was there. (Some of it, anyway—the ones that interested me enough to post about.)

Fire in the Mist, by Holly Lisle

Not bad at all. Notable for the use of conflicting histories, and that not all friendly cute things are Nice. It uses the bog-standard male-female dichotomy (want to split a society into two competing groups? Make one exclusively male or male-dominated, and one female) but that’s a matter of taste as much as anything. Most SF readers are quite a lot more strongly gendered than I am. One solecism leapt out at me, though. Finding a cute dialect/fantasy name for everyday things is all very well, but meals? “Nonce” is obviously based on “nones”, but has a completely different time-based meaning. On the other hand, calling the midday meal “midden” is… rather inappropriate.

War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

This is a wonderful book. It’s a pseudo-history, it’s full of footnotes, and my copy has a really, really beautiful cover, with a painting by Paul Klee. The footnotes are full of newspaper clippings in more than one language (with a detailed history of the collection and explanations of why it’s incomplete), reports of scientific conferences, and extracts from memoirs. Overall, it gives a wonderful picture of a drastically changing world, and of the humanity who ruined it for themselves.

The Dramaturges of Yan, by John Brunner

This is quite a silly book. Nevertheless, it’s great fun.

City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer

There is very little I can sensibly say about this book, not because it is not a book about which sensible things can be said (they can, in profusion) but because the ideas, the eidolons, contained within its pages wreak their effect insensibly, with bare reference to the reader’s normal notions of narrative and literary propriety. It spatters the mind like raindrops, here and there in no apparent order, but nevertheless everywhere.

Ten Little Wizards, by Michael Kurland

A successor novel to Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books. Not bad at all.

March 2, 2010

Ian Whates – City of Dreams and Nightmares

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 10:09 pm

Angry Robot, published on 4th March 2010. Info & sample chapter here.

This is a classic City Fantasy – the city of Thaiburley is just as much a character here as New Crobuzon, Lankhmar, or Haven are, and an inventively realized one. It’s a classic multi-level enclosed hive of scum and villainy, but a much gentler polity than most of the dystopias you see depicted like this—the ruling authorities appear to be both competent and well-meaning, for instance.

The author’s style is very discursive & up-front, happily explaining the action & his characters’ feelings to the reader; it’s not something I like, and I’d far rather see more description and less discursion, but I know a lot of SF readers do prefer it. The other two criticisms I have are that the book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test until halfway through, and the title. City of Two Opposed Yet Generic Fantasy Nouns is not exactly arresting – the effect it mostly has on me is to remind me that I still haven’t actually read City of Saints and Madmen yet, and I really should. The relevance of the title to the book is also rather ambiguous, though there are hints at the end.

Few of the thematic elements are unexpected: we have psionic magic, gruesome patchwork biotech, nonhumans communicating soundlessly and making artwork out of their excreta (distinct shades of Miéville there), street gangs, and incongruous levels of technology amidst filth, swords, and untreated suppurating wounds. They’re well integrated into an interesting, complex world, though, and this is a very solid debut for a series I’ll be wanting to keep an eye on.

Powered by WordPress