Quick post, just some thoughts…

Iron CouncilWhile there’s a whole lot of focus on China Miéville’s Big Ideas – his seemingly limitless creativity, his rigorous political convictions, his baroque genre smorgasbording – there’s considerably less attention given over to the minutia of his prose, and his identity as a master stylist. It would be a shame if the grand schemes of his stories overshadowed too much the actual words he uses to tell them.

And while most readers acknowledge that he is an incredible stylist, most reviews don’t delve any deeper than vague comments about how cool and adjectival and maximalist his writing is. All of which is true, of course, and all of which I love; but it’d be nice to see some closer sentence-by-sentence readings and appreciations of China Miéville’s texts.

I mean, he doesn’t always hit the mark (describing a forest as a ‘barkscape’ is an attempt at linguistic estrangement that, for me at least, veered dangerously close to twee, much as I love that particular suffix…(though who knows, maybe ‘twee’ was what he was aiming for?)), but when you encounter such gems as this paragraph from Iron Council, then all is forgiven:

Time was stilled. Cutter walked through a ghostworld, the earth’s dream of its own grasslands. There were no nightbirds calling, no glucliches, nothing but the dark vista like a painted background. Cutter was alone on a stage. He thought of dead Ihona. When at last the lights were close he could see a kraal of heavy houses. He walked into the village as brazen as if he were welcome.

Themes here include wilful loneliness and grief; the language becoming suitably poetic in order to handle such things; perhaps an attempt at finding a narrative register appropriate to the lofty (dare I say ‘tragic’) emotions being described. A head count of the rhetorical devices in the above paragraph includes: psychological abstraction (‘Time was stilled’), neologism (‘ghostworld’), description via negatives that reinforce the themes of loss and absence (‘no nightbirds, no glucliches’); there’s simile (‘like a painted background’), as well as metaphor, (‘alone on a stage’), simple direct sentences (‘He thought of dead Ihona’), contrasting imagery (‘dark’ / ‘light’), as well as subjunctive mood (‘as if he were welcome’).

That’s a real magician’s hatful of rhetorical techniques, all of them pushing and tugging and rubbing against one another in a brilliant linguistic maelstrom that echoes the tensions and conflicts roiling up within the protagonist. If you were feeling particularly generous, you might even claim that the theatre-centric imagery is an attempt to recall the literary space most familiarly given-over to addressing tragedy, despair and loss. Just please stop short of saying ‘Shakespearean’.

So, the TL:DR version of this is: don’t lose sight of the details in looking at the bigger picture. It’s something I know I do all too often, and I’ll endeavour to give more space over to close reading in future posts.

New reviews coming soon. Honest.


Railsea – China Miéville

I’ve always believed that fiction is, at best, very problematically related to the real world; and this, to a degree, is the reason why I don’t review many so-called “realist” novels, as I find the greater part of that entire genre (yup, “genre”) to be so much hubristic bullshit.  Having read Railsea, China Miéville’s extraordinary riff on Moby Dick, I’m pretty sure that he feels the same way.  The metaphorically loaded setting allows for an exuberant and playful examination of not only the ways that narrative relates to anything ‘real’, but the fundamental relationships between literary texts, and the fact that meaning isn’t some solid unity of ideas offered up by the writer, but a reader-created end point: a subjective culmination of interpretation, reading history and individual political and moral proclivities.

To achieve this examination, China Miéville has written a book rampant with puns, false references, deliberate misappropriations of the literary canon, and an absolute obsession with the idea of salvage, re-use and doubling.  Reading Railsea, I was continually reminded of Roland Barthes’ seminal essay ‘The Death of the Author’, and the continental notion that all texts are “a tissue of quotations” taking cues from “innumerable centres of culture”, leading in countless directions all at once; a concept for which, if you want to be twee about it, the Railsea itself stands as a great big metaphor.

In Railsea, China Miéville challenges the implied directionality of narrative by having his narrator constantly break the fourth wall and tease the reader with questions and misdirects about the plot’s chronology, its twists and turns and doubling-backs.  Not only is this a nice nod to Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael” reader address, which likewise serves to undermine the reader’s confidence in the narrative’s reliability, but it’s also a pleasing echo of the meandering, looping, back-peddling trains that dominate the book’s imagery. To this extent, I’d hazard to describe Railsea as the first example of post-structuralist teenage fiction I’ve ever read (“a book for readers of all ages” is how it’s being marketed, and in plotting and characterisation at least, it definitely is a YA novel – a raucous teenage bildungsroman with an attendant absence of the profanity and sex that so colours China Miéville’s other work). It’s also gloriously silly.  But characteristic of Miéville’s oeuvre, there’s plenty here for grownups like ..er.., I guess… me. Indeed, Railsea might also be the world’s first example of teenage fiction to contain an impassioned discussion about the vagaries of the floating signifier.  And this isn’t just some tendentious post-facto theorising on my part; Railsea delights in its roots and, much like the inhabitants of its setting, it forges its own identity by melding together what the past has left behind: there’s a kind of traditionality here that manifests in the book’s iconography, language and events.  Railsea is literary salvage.

Parenthetically, I should note however that i) the book isn’t some pompous and grandiose attempt to re-write Moby Dick; Miéville treats his sources playfully – substituting the White Whale with the “bone-yellow mole” is daft, and the text knows it – and ii) I hope what I’ve said above doesn’t give the impression that Railsea is unoriginal or in any way plagiaristic – it’s as fiercely creative and as protean as you’d expect, albeit within a specific literary mode.

And that mode is the ‘Sea Quest’.  While I’d hesitate to use the word ‘uncanny’, Railsea unremittingly presents the reader with the familiar tropes and literary procedures of classic maritime adventure stories, albeit deracinated from their original contexts and placed instead within a world that has endured at least one apocalypse, one alien visitation and a whole miasma of climate change. The Railsea itself, for example, is more akin to a vast desert than an ocean; criss-crossed with so many rail lines that a train can, via some vividly described switching mechanisations, pretty much travel wherever it wants. If this seems counter-intuitive (trains unbound by the conventional limits of track to act more like ships than, well, trains), then you’d be right:  Railsea’s defining aesthetic is this re-placing of traditional maritime staples within a steampunk or fantasy (or whatever you want to call it) world.

The protagonist, for instance, is your prototypical cabin boy with ideas above his station; he’s charmingly presented – likeable in a way that so many over-ambitious and precocious heroes of modern teen fiction just, aren’t – his journey is driven more by the impetus of curiosity and investigative clout than some flood of Big, Important events beyond his immediate control.  There’s also a tentative back-story that hints at a personal childhood tragedy but without wallowing in the melancholic; a level of authorly restraint which I found particularly refreshing.  This hero is knowingly named ‘Sham’, which is not just a further indicator of the layers of fakery and salvage that pepper the narrative, but also a wry joke on Miéville’s part; an expression of comic humility over what he’s doing to Moby Dick.  There are pirate ships, slave galleys, wrecks,  sea monsters (okay, okay ‘Rail’sea monsters – both organic and mechanical), mutinies, bawdy ports, cannon battles and sea lore; and while it’s impressive quite how many facets of the classic sea adventure Miéville has managed to cram into the book, there’s the occasional passage that’s just too much, and smacks more of genre trope box-ticking than anything serviceable to the plot – notably a marooning on a desert island/‘Man Friday’ sequence that the book could probably do without, and a few too many pirate chases, which eventually begin to stifle the plot and hinder the momentum.

But why, Tomcat, you ask, why this explicit focus on form? Well, these relatively abstruse concepts of genre appropriation, doubling, copies of copies, and a narrator that calls into question the reliability of his own story – these are the foundations of Railsea’s structure, rather than some patina achieved through a gimmicky prose style and just pasted over the narrative.  Obviously the fiction works on a literalized level, so you don’t have to be into the theory of storytelling to enjoy the book – but it’s always nice to know that such ideas underpin the writing, rather than simply sugar coat it.  The central message of Railsea might be: narrative is unreliable and ungraspable and tricksy, but fuck it, let’s embrace it all the same.


The obligatory treasure map, for example, is a description of a photograph of a photograph – a kind of blurry remove from the original landscape in much the same way that Railsea is a blurry remove from Moby Dick, or Literature is removed from the everyday, waking world. A copy: the same, but not the same. It’s a mise-am-abime that serves as a metaphor for the way texts reproduce themselves within other texts. What the treasure hunters are following isn’t a faithful reproduction of the real world – it’s a, kinda… sham.  Such problems of authenticity are comically counterpointed in the book’s Ahab analogue – the damaged and obsessive Captain Abacat Naphi (note the Captain Ahab anagram) – whose prosthetic arm is eventually exposed as a fake fake – a shell covering very human insides.  This offers a pleasing bathos to the apparent nobility of her quest to kill the White Mole, and exposes her “philosophy” (as she calls it, as if she’s read and understood Moby Dick on a level that most of us couldn’t) as being as much about glory and a constructed personal narrative than it is about revenge.  What’s significant to Naphi isn’t that her arm was really lost, or that the White Mole dies at her hands, but that there are stories of her arm being lost and that there are stories about the White Mole dying at her hands; stories to be reproduced and told over and over.  One of Railsea’s most memorable passages is the description of previous captains’ successful hunts – Naphi is captivated by these: she wants to be a story.  What’s significant is the narrative representation of her adventure – Naphi’s “philosophy” isn’t a quest for revenge, but a quest for narrative.


I’m wary of making any grand claims that China Miéville adheres to theory x or theory y; and I definitely wouldn’t suggest that the Derridean dogma “There is nothing outside the text” is the heuristic that Railsea is attempting to espouse.  But a challenge to the veracity of narrative is unquestionably part of Railsea’s aesthetic – and even if constantly questioning the truth content or value of what we’re told is not a particularly useful ontology (a way of approaching the world), it makes for a very fruitful and interesting poetics (way of approaching a text).  There’s more that I could go into, such as the quasi-devotional Moletrain refrain of “Well grubbed Old Mole”, which is actually a direct quote from Marx, which is actually a deliberate misquote of Hamlet etc. but I don’t want to get too list-like in exploring these kinds of removes – hell, there’s loads of them!

Sorry if you were hoping for a more comprehensive overview, but there are plenty of great Railsea reviews that focus on plotting and characterisation, and even some good debates over its suitability as teen fiction etc. etc. – and I encourage you to check these out.  For what it’s worth, I think Railsea is amazing – and if none of this narrative theory stuff is your particular brand of literary tote bag, don’t worry – the book has baddies and goodies and chases and violence and jokes;  and monsters too – in buckets.


Details – China Miéville

I’m still waiting on my copy of Railsea, so I’ve written something about one of China Miéville’s short stories, instead.

Details is characteristic China Miéville: it’s a real grab-bag of genre tropes and influences: psychological thriller–meets–locked room mystery-meets–Lovecraftian cosmic horror.  And while you may be justifiably concerned that this kind of genre alchemy is better suited to the liberty and breathing room afforded by, say, the long form of a novel rather than Details’ meagre fifteen pages, the zaniness that comes with such a concentrated hodgepodge of genres is mitigated by a pleasingly restrained child narrator and a somewhat stylistically against-type adherence to the classic ‘three act structure’ of more traditional story-telling, both of which (narrator and structure) go some way to reining-in this potential for wackiness.

Although never medically defined as such, Details primary concern is an elderly recluse, Mrs Miller, who suffers from what can only be described as a severe case of pereidolia – the propensity to seek out recognisable shapes (notably faces) in randomly arranged inanimate stuff and visual noise (clouds, tree branches, folded clothes etc. c.f. The ‘face of mars’).  Mrs Miller encounters the same unknowably nightmarish figure reaching forward to claim her in everything she sees – even the lines of her own palms.  Rather than blind herself (“taking the cowards’ way out”), Miller seals herself inside an empty, white-washed room and shrouds her body in unbending ‘plastic clothing’.  It’s fantastic fodder for a horror story, even if Miéville does disappoint by directly name-dropping ‘the Devil is in the details’ – the aphorism that so obviously informs the story’s premise that it would have been better left unsaid.  The narrative is delivered simply and matter-of-factly by the child narrator, a boy who passes food to Mrs Miller through a gap in the door.  But this utility of prose is charmingly counter-pointed by the story’s direct speech – which is obtuse and stylistically arch but never grammatically difficult – and I admit this satisfied my hankering for Miéville’s usually more alienating style:

“You imagine if I saw a field of wheat. Doesn’t even bear thinking about! A million million little bloody edges, a million lines.  You could make pictures of damn anything out of them, couldn’t you?

I’m wary of veering too close to spoilers, so I’ll leave the blurb at that (with a note that the dénouement is extraordinary).  There’s always a proneness to comedy or unintended farce in this kind of presentation of a potentially mad old woman screaming at her visitors, perhaps exacerbated by the media’s frequently patronising comic treatment of the same; but so bleak and precise is Miéville’s choice of words that Details, while skirting the edges of this trap, always manages to avoid falling into it.

Fundamentally (and this paragraph may say more about my own proclivities as a reader than Details as a whole), the story works as a metaphor for the interpretive pluralism of literary texts – the idea that it’s possible to produce many different readings of the same text is clearly echoed in the notion of pereidolia: all the shapes are there, it’s down to the reader to find whatever meaning and order they want.  Mrs Miller rants and raves about the shapes and alterities she can detect in everything around her, and it’s no stretch at all to apply this notion to theories of language in a way that really pushes the limits of structuralism.  This is especially true of written language, where text becomes very much a visual thing (how often have you squinted at a page looking for some kind of shape or pattern in the gaps between words?).  In this regard, Details isn’t unlike China Miéville’s recent novel Embassytown; the celebration of language that also makes quasi-terrifying points about its ambiguity.  Likewise, Details’ heavy symbolism surrounding doorways and boundaries definitely feels like a proto-The City and The City, a sort of finger-weaved knuckle crack before the main event.

That Details is rampantly ambiguous adds further weight to this argument.  Is the man desperate to access Mrs Miller’s room just a harmless drunk, or a determined agent of the cosmic nightmare she believes haunts her?  Mieville fans (me included) are more likely to believe in the reality of Mrs Miller’s monster than in the more urbane, psychologically sober alternative of her madness; but both perspectives (and others) are entirely and equally validated by the text. Mrs Miller’s white room contains everything you could want; Details is an exuberant if intimidating celebration of literary ambiguity.  Read it. Then read it again. Then a third time.


I have Details in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird ed. Paula Guran;  and also The Weird ed. Ann & Jeff Vandermeer – but it’s probably most easily found China Miéville’s short story collection Looking for Jake.

Kraken – China Miéville

Ah China Miéville, the Guardian reader’s acceptable face of Sci-fi; albeit shaven-headed and assortedly be-pierced.  Lots of readers, who would otherwise never touch Weird Fiction with the proverbial barge pole, devoured his 2009 existential detective thriller The City and The City on the back of a veritable slew of awards and unprecedented attention (for a book of its kind) from the mainstream literary media. Of course this is no bad thing, in fact it’s great – more people should read experimental fiction.  But unfortunately this lead to his 2010 follow-up Kraken receiving a somewhat lukewarm reception from the popular press, as Miéville abandoned the sci-fi-lite of The City and The City that had proven so popular, and returned instead to his characteristic out-and-out fantasy weirdness.  Perhaps this shows that all those new-found converts to Weird Fiction weren’t quite as ready to embrace the oeuvre as they’d attested, which is a shame, because Kraken is mesmerisingly brilliant; complex and surprisingly funny, it’s a frenetic gatling gun of ideas.

I guess it’s become kinda de rigueur of me to begin my reviews with a short discussion/description of the genre space in which any given book functions, but darn it Kraken has me stumped.  The most obvious moniker would be the utterly drab ‘Urban Fantasy’, but lest this conjure up images of earnestly non-applicable Twilight-equse teen fiction bullshit, I’m not going to use it.  On the other end of the spectrum, of course, we have the pigeon-holing obsessed theorists who like to throw-up the sort of compound genre label vomit that’s ironically all the more baffling for its specificity, you know, stuff like: “Postmodern-Cthulhu cult –New Wave-London Noir” Quite.  So where does this leave me?  I’m not sure what to call it: Kraken is just really weird, and the best focus I can give this review is to describe (with attempts at explanation) quite how unique it is – but don’t worry, I’ll try to think of some half-decent genre tag by the end of this review.  Promise.

Blurrrb: Billy Harrow is a curator for the Natural History Museum in London.  While giving the Museum’s much-feted tour, Billy discovers that a giant squid, complete with glass case and all such Damien Hirst-ish paraphernalia, has vanished from the Museum.  Billy is soon recruited by a cult of Kraken-worshipping religious nut-jobs who’re desperate to get the squid back, unharmed.  But, it turns out, large sections of a hidden London also want to know what happened to the squid: from bizarre magic users, to worshipers of the sea, to an army of rodent familiars, a living tattoo and a man who alters Star Trek memorabilia so that it actually works.  And trust me when I say that this is just the tip of a very weird iceberg.  Events escalate and get odder by the page, until an end of the world prophecy looks likely to come-true, unless the squid is found and a big vat of ink is bleached…

I know it sounds trite, but in Kraken London operates as much as protagonist as place.  The book espouses the same metropolitophilia that’s such a common idiosyncrasy of many(/all?) of China Miéville’s novels, but here the city-as-character cliché is taken to extremes in the ‘Londonmancers’, a sect of divining cultists who can, literally, talk to the city streets.  This ardent mythologising of London as magical hinterland may put off, if not alienate, readers disinclined to yet another London-centric Fantasy of the Neverwhere ilk (I admit, I was anxious at first), but all the same, I’d encourage you to give Kraken a go; it presents a very different fantasy London from others you might have encountered.

In fact, it’s a testament to Miéville’s skilled characterisation that in a novel so rampant with strange magics and utterly weird plot twists, it’s the characters themselves that most held my attention.  Understandably Billy is a blank-canvass of a protagonist, but he’s tolerably bland because he functions as sympathetic point-of-view character for readers who, likewise, find themselves in a baffling landscape that requires constant explanation.  But a neat side-effect of Billy’s dreariness is that the novel’s supporting cast (already pretty bonkers) stands out even more by comparison.  Kath Collingswood is a magically well-endowed yet profane police officer whose perfectly non-pc outbursts add a comic depth to what could otherwise have been an entirely plot-mechanising and lazy character piece; Marginalia is an under-used but charming artist who assumes the mantle of reluctant amateur detective with pleasingly emotive results; and Goss and Subby are an old-man-young-boy duo – supernatural henchmen-for-hire – who’ve haunted and terrified magical London for centuries and who, frankly, are the most terrifying baddies I’ve ever encountered: a fact augmented by their grammatically non-standard, dreamtype dialogue and propensity for acts of horrific violence that belies the youthful appearance of Subby and seemingly frail nature of Goss.

Further to the book’s multifarious dramatis personae is Miéville’s predilection for drafting dorkishly detailed systems of magic and religion, each of the latter replete with a whole host of eschatological theories and expectations.  Many of Kraken’s detractors have criticised this world building, drawing explicit focus to the amount of neologism that dominates the narrative.  My counter-argument would be that the vast majority of these so-called ‘neologisms’ are merely compounds of pre-existing words (mostly nouns) and require relatively little decoding in order to fully understand: “unhabitants”, “eschatonaut”, “pistonpunk”, “heresiarch” etc. – a refusal to engage with such fun and unusual language is the hallmark of a lazy reader, I feel.

Kraken is linguistically exuberant, and long, snaking compound-complex sentences are very much the grammatic standard, but such is China Miéville’s aptitude for beautiful phrasing that convergence of new/scientific/jargon words with classical forms of expression are always a joy and never a chore to read:

Water gulped at the ChaosNazis; seawater freezing and London muddy sucked and pulled them down with eddies and undertows it imported from its wide ocean self.

Supplementing such oceanic imagery is a nice visual preoccupation with ink, which not only functions as call-back to the squiddy premise of the book, but also fetishises the book as artefact in the reader’s hands in a religiously eulogistic way (remember the squid is a God to many characters).  It’s not a novel obsessed with narrative form, but Kraken draws attention to the intersection of ink as both physical fact and metaphor for consciousness – ink as transmitting device is an idea Miéville grabs and really runs with, investigating the problems of articulating the chaos of London, magic and even consciousness with the apparent rigidity of the printed word.

There’s the occasional gaffe, for example a constant name-dropping of contemporary Hip-Hop artists that I found embarrassing in a white-and-middle-class-but-I-actually-quite-like-that-kind-of-music-anyway way.  I think Miéville did this to ground Kraken in a “realist” setting markedly different from the otherworld fantasy that has dominated his previous output: the real-life pop culture references seem to say ‘this really could be London’, but also hint at ‘look how much music I’ve heard of’, which is considerable more naff.  But as criticisms go, this is barely worth mentioning…

I was going to end this review with a “Kraken is kraken” type joke (‘kraken’ – ‘crackin’…geddit?), but test audiences did not respond well to such a terribly over-worked pun.  So you’ll have to settle for: Kraken is awesome.  It mightn’t be the straight-up genre piece with nods to Weird that fans of The City and The City were hoping for, but China Miéville is nothing if not diverse.  If you’ve read his Bas-Lag novels you should feel relatively comfortable (even if he does manage to last an enormous 200 pages before introducing his first union strike action).  I’ve still not decided how to categorise Kraken, so let’s just call it a great big London magic end of the world squid novel with phasers and living ink.  That’ll do.


The City and The City and The City and The Stars

Neither pure science fiction nor entirely naturalistic, China Miéville’s The City and The City functions in a strange hinterland between genre spaces.  Significantly influenced by hardboiled detective fiction (notably Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy) and taking cues from Kafka, the novel is strikingly difficult to pin-down; and although many reviewers have resorted to long compound chains of bullshitty genre labels (‘post-modern-sci-fi-detective-noir’ etc.), this  is probably more confusing than helpful.  So I think it’s best if we stick with Miéville’s own self-disclosed moniker ‘Weird Fiction’ [his capitals], which though concise and a tad self-satisfied, is nonetheless a pleasingly eloquent descriptive of what is a damn unusual book.

As the name suggests, The City and The City is a novel rampant with doubling: it’s set in two fictional cities in Eastern Europe: Besźel and Ul Qoma, which although being different administrative, legal and cultural entities, nonetheless share the same physical space, topographically speaking; so one street may be in Besźel, whereas the street immediately adjacent might belong to Ul Qoma.  The citizens of each city must ignore the existence of the other entirely (‘unsee’ it – strikingly Orwellian neologism?); if they don’t, then they are said to have committed a crime called ‘Breach’, and weird things happen to them.  Principally the novel concerns a by-the-numbers ‘extreme crime’ detective called Borlú, who’s tasked with investigating the murder of a Besźel woman by a citizen from Ul Qoma; all the while Borlú becomes more and more obsessed with pseudo-academic theories that a third city called ‘Orciny’ exists – functioning entirely unseen between the other two.

Borlú narrates in the first-person past tense, and in essence he acts as the mouth-piece of the reader by expressing confusion at the book’s bizarre goings-on on the reader’s behalf.  Large chunks of the narrative can be baffling, and the book only really comes-together at its shocking dénouement.  Compounding this tonal confusion is China Miéville’s very slow reveal of made up, idiosyncratic terminology, which has to be gradually decoded by the reader as no gloss or moments of explication are provided – but rather than being frustrating, this refusal to elucidate contributes to a sense of immersion and authenticity that’s so often lacking in other, less delicate sci-fi – where heavy-handed exposition is often  problematic.

The cast is drawn competently, though occasionally it does veer into clichés of genre-type (feisty side-kick, cantankerous police chief, unidentified telephone informant etc.) and this is a shallowness of character that can’t always be hidden by complex plotting and non-stop action, but I’m willing to let this pass because the real shining stars of the novel (the most developed ‘protagonists’, if you want to be poncy about it) are the cityscapes of Besźel and Ul Qoma.  Miéville takes his (admittedly brilliant) idea of the inter-meshed cities and really runs with it, augmenting the characteristic cityphilia that he’s shown in earlier novels with a fetishistic attention to the physical description of skylines, road layouts, architecture and city administration.  Not only does this contribute to a unique and highly original sense of place, but also instils an unnerving feeling of the uncanny, as the cities in The City and The City function more like characters than mere settings.  As Borlú moves between the two cities, the very nature of the streets, like arteries of the cities, pulses, flows and shifts – the streets tell lies and trick reader and narrator alike.  Simultaneously belonging to two very different cities, the streets are alarmingly schizophrenic and threatening: they display a shifty inconsistency that creates an unsettling cognitive dissonance, an effect created by Miéville’s unashamedly intricate, complicated prose. The permanent danger is that Borlú will slip-up and commit Breach, and I was torn between simultaneously wanting to see this happen, while also wanting the best for our narrator (who, remember, really functions as the mouth and eyes of the reader – a point of view character in this strange but familiar (hence ‘ uncanny’) world).

So, The City and The City is a dark, violent and complicated hybrid of genre types that functions as a celebration of the idea of ‘city’ rather than of the detective as moral paradigm or of the crime as grotesque indulgence (a trap so many hardboiled novels fall into).  It’s grounded by a rigorous attention to police procedure and a penchant for unexpectedly naturalistic dialogue (you’ll read lots of ‘ums’ and repetitions of colloquialisms/idioms: ‘you know’ etc.) that weights the novel into a quasi real-world context when it could so easily have floated into the realms of the purely fantastical.  This teasing of the fantastic can, however, be a source of frustration.  The more outré, sci-fi aspects are dangled like the proverbial carrot in front of both reader and protagonist alike: the hidden ‘third city’, the possibility of advanced technology, the strange crime that is ‘Breach’ – these are all narrative threads that are im-rather than ex-plicit, and it’s demonstrable of Miéville’s skill that, even when he’s writing minor fantasy, he can suggest the most head-spinning weirdnesses.  But readers looking for the out-and-out bizarro creations of his earlier novels might find The City and The City lacking.

There are obvious parallels to be made between the book’s notion of ‘unseeing’, and the real tendency we all have to ignore truths about the world around us.  Equally, it’s become a touch-stone of lazy internet journalism to draw comparatives between the novel’s twin cities and various real world locations (Islamic/Jewish Jerusalem, or pre-unification Berlin, for e.g.) – but such comparisons, as well as being dumb and inaccurate, are also utter dead-ends, and I’m yet to read any review that offers more depth of analysis than ‘it’s a bit like cities x and y, isn’t it?’  So… for my own compare and contrast exercise, I’ve decided to look briefly at the more obvious source of inspiration: sci-fi’s other famous bi-metropolitan genre mash-up: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.

Not only is Miéville riffing off the title of Clarke’s early sci-fi masterwork, he also borrows many narrative through-lines and set-pieces.  Briefly: ‘Diaspar’ has existed unchanged for a billion years as the last city on Earth.  Alvin (our protagonist) manages to escape only to discover a second city thousands of miles away, ‘Lys’.

The tensions and divisions between the peoples of once twined, now cleaved cities is the predominant theme of both novels.  Like in Miéville’s Europe, the inhabitants of Clarke’s two cities display a prejudgemental intolerance and xenophobia towards each other which acts as a microcosm for larger, real-world instances of division and fear.  The forced convergence of two cities via the mechanisations of an individual outlier is the event that drives the narrative action of both novels.  Similarly, on a structural level, these two books both sport first halves that explore their protagonists’ home city, whereas the second offers an exploration of the ‘other’ cityscape.  Thus Clarke’s Alvin and Miéville’s Borlú both function as the stranger-in-a-foreign-land archetype: at once tour guide, trespasser, pioneer and detective.

Clarke’s The City and the Stars, however, is a purer, more unadulterated work of science fiction than Miéville’s book, and the scale of new/weird ideas intrinsic to this necessitates a large amount of expositional dialogue that Miéville manages to avoid with the quasi-real nature of his own work.  Thus while the books are thematic and structural twins, they’re not entirely identical: Clarke’s prose being significantly more stilted and heavy than Miéville’s, impelled by the demands of his adherence to a purer genre, that of ‘hard’ sci-fi.

But where they differ in style, these novels meet in the patchiness of their characterisation – I’ve already noted that Miéville’s characters often devolve into clichéd genre types (forgivable given the semi-homage nature of the work) – but Clarke’s characters aren’t even separable by extremes of personality or novelistic genre roles – rather, they read kinda like robots each with a designated function – either to mechanise the plot or explain the finer points of Clarke’s ideas.  Too many characters are perfectly situated to make long expositional speeches just when the reader most needs it, after which they are abandoned and the plot moves forwards.  This brings a level of artifice to the dialogue which is apparently the price you pay for wanting to write Big, Clever sci-fi crammed with the kind of ideas and theories which need explaining.  It’s a frustration which unfortunately takes away from Clarke’s otherwise brilliant novel: his imagination is massive, he just articulates himself in the most stilted, boring and text-book ways.

I am glad I read them together – they make worthy twins for study: ultimately their similarities are more convincing than their differences.  Where The City and the City challenges its readers with an abject refusal to explain itself, The City and the Stars suffers from an over-abundance of delineation and detail: differing approaches each with attendant frustrations and successes which, when read together, provide a kind of holistic insight into the ways the respective leading sc-fi writers of their generations deal with the same themes.  If you want an unashamedly complex detective story, read China Miéville; if you want high-concept sci-fi with brain-hurty sentences like “A million years later…” read Arthur C. Clarke.  And if you want to read one writer riffing off another, and the twin-like ways in which two writers have violently portrayed (in their own ways), the convergence of two very different city-spaces and the fallout that results, then read both.