Much of what makes Mieville’s work so appealing to readers not normally enamoured with fantasy literature is classic literary technique. His settings are very well mapped out, his characters are complex and, strong and very real, even when they are insect, cactus or crayfish folk and his themes are powerful. There is also a lot of underlying suspense, a strong plot, lots of dramatic tension and above all, a powerful visual imagery and even at its silliest, an all too familiar nightmarish texture that takes the reader into ugly places he or she will recognise.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by China Mieville
Macmillan, July 2002
Aside from The Lord of the Rings which I last read around age 12, I have read almost no literature which belongs in the fantasy genre. I’ve also read no speculative or science fiction writing, except for the tenuously linked “magic-realism”. Along with pure romance and “chick-lit”, fantasy novels are one of the few genres I actually send back to publishers, so strong is my aversion to the genre en masse. Prejudice? Possibly. Have I been missing something important? I doubt it, but Mieville is nor ordinary fantasy writer. His work is indeed set in a fantastic, implausible (at least in terms of our day to day reality) world, but it is so well through out, so richly endowed with vivid detail, that Mieville’s worlds take on their own form of reality, a reality hard to shake when the books are finished.
Much of what makes Mieville’s work so appealing to readers not normally enamoured with fantasy literature is classic literary technique. His settings are very well mapped out, his characters are complex and, strong and very real, even when they are insect, cactus or crayfish folk and his themes are powerful. There is also a lot of underlying suspense, a strong plot, lots of dramatic tension and above all, a powerful visual imagery and even at its silliest, an all too familiar nightmarish texture that takes the reader into ugly places he or she will recognise: “the logic of its forms derives from nightmares.” It is also great fun. Although at times a little heavy handed and overly descriptive, the very original language of The Scar is reminiscent of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange with its mixture of cockney and other dialects: “godspit” and “by jabber,” and even in its themes of personal responsibility versus danger, evil and thuggary, or “perversion versus subversion.”
In The Scar the story follows the adventures of linguist Bellis Coldwine, as she is “press-ganged” or kidnapped along with the rest of the passengers on her ship The Terpsichoria by socialist/new age pirates while escaping bureaucratic persecution at the hands of the New Crobizoner authorities for association with a scientist thought to be involved in a serious health incident. Those familiar with Mieville’s previous work Perdido St Station will be familiar with the background to the story that opens this one, although it is isn’t necessary to enjoy this tale. Taken to her new home, or prison, Bellis and her fellow Terpsichorians are given jobs and allowed to become “citizens” of the Armada, a floating and slowly moving city with a mission. The story unfolds as Bellis uncovers the mission and gets to know her fellow Armadans, and her own role in the larger scheme.
Through Bellis we are exposed to a wide range of “cultures” and languages including Ragamoll, Salkirkaltor, Salt, Sunglari and High Kettai. We also learn about a number of different “species”, including the Anophelli (mosquito people), Cacticae (Cactus people), Salkirkaltor Cray (Crayfish people), vampires and thanati (living dead?), and the monsterously comical Grindylow, as well as a range of High Crobizoners (the closest equivalent to Londoners) include some remade into amphibians, fitted with tentacles, grafted onto boilers or caterpillar treads, with 3 foot necks or “skeins of spasming arms”, in a kind of official punishment.
There are a number of strong themes working through this book, and one of the more evocative is that of the “scar”. A scar in its literal sense is a place where damage has occurred, and healed over, and many of the characters are scarred. Bellis and Uther are emotionally scarred, unable to give themselves freely or to risk vulnerability or engagement in a direct sense. Bellis, as cold as her name, is nauseated by the violent moaning passion of the Lovers and holds herself, unfulfilled, unhappy and barren. We don’t know and never find out exactly what Uther wants, and despite his power, he refuses to take leadership, holds himself back from Bellis, and remains in his shadow world: “For all his deadly skills, his brilliance in braches of obscure techology and science, she thought she saw in him someone more lost and confused than she, someone removed from all societies, uncertain of norms and interaction, retreated behind cold control.”
The Lovers are literally scarred, and although their leadership and intense engagement with one another is the opposite of Bellis’ and Uther’s frigidity and servitude, they are equally damaged, nameless and unable to experience their own commitment without pain. Tanner Sack is scarred by his remaking in the New Crobuzon punishment factory, his painfully grafted tentacles, and his sense of self-worth from years of oppression. The world too is scarred, hurt into some kind of mystical change, perhaps the whole basis for this “world”, a place of unlimited possibilities, of change, but then these cuts or damage points are also opening, an opportunity for change, for possibilities, for new beginnings. Tanner has himself remade again. The Armada simultaneously hurts and helps those it press-gangs. Even Bellis begins to become involved, and to open as a result of her work on The Armada. The Scar in the world opens the door to everything and anything.
Another important backdrop is the tension between egalitarianism and bigotry, as the prisoners aboard the Terpsichoria learn about freedom and develop their strengths in their new home, even as they come to terms with their lifetime imprisonment and the varied cultures in which they all now live. A third important theme is hunger, in all its forms. There is the literal blood hunger of both the Anophelli (mosquito) women, and the Vampirs – especially The Brucolac, and the love/lust hunger of The Lovers. There is also the unfulfilled hunger of Bellis and Uther – the one hungering for home, and some sense of companionship, and the other hungering for something – we never find out what, but we feel the hunger. It might be power. It might be a sense of meaning – a kind of god, or perhaps it is just strong leadership. There is also Silas Fennec’s hunger for power, and the statue he hold’s own hunger, off which he feeds his need for power and invisibility. Finally, there is the hunger of the female Lover (and possibly Uther) for The Scar, and the powers and meaning it holds. This may or may not be hunger for power – it seems more likely that it is a kind of hunger for knowledge.
There are poignant moments too. Shekel’s struggling attempts to better himself by learning to read, which is also a kind of hunger, albeit a healthy and reasonable one, and his real love for Angevine, as he overcomes the prejudices’ we saw when he was on Terpsichoria. All of the characters in this book, including the many monsters and “bad guys” are multifaceted. One of the more powerful moments in the book is when one of the Anophelli women is killed while trying desperately to talk to one of the visiting men:
She was full. They’re…they’re intelligent. It’s not that they’re mindless. It’s the hunger, he told me. It takes a long, long time for them to starve. They can spend a year without feeding. screaming ravenous for all those weeks. Its all they can think about. But when they’re fed, when they’re full – really sated – there’s a day or two, maybe a week, when the hunger abates. And that’s the time they try to talk.<.blockquote>
We enter the minds of other monsters too. Even the horrific Grindylaw, with their “jutted prognathous jaws, their bulging teeth frozen in meaningless grimaces, massive eyes dark and unblinking”, are able to laugh, and even to show a kind of mild mercy. We are inside their heads as they follow and ultimately find the Armada too, and understand their sense of violation at having their secrets stolen. The Brucolac is a horrible vampire character, but he is also a kind of man, and his humiliation is powerful as he hangs above the crowd, hungry and hurt by the sun. Nothing is entirely simple – and everyone, “good” or “bad” uses each other in one way or another. The setting may be fantastic, but the themes and emotions are very real and human and well drawn.
On the negative side, there are times when The Scar does become just a bit silly. Pirate swashbucking, boys-own posturing, cartoonish monsters, “vampirs” and “chymicals”, grotesque spy antics, and language which is just a bit too self-conscious:
The air above the battle seems as thick as the sea. It is viscous and sluggish with teh discharge from guns and fire-throwers and catapults, with sinking dirigibles bleeding dry of gas; with hunting golems and blood-mist and gouts of soot.
If you aren’t already familiar with the term “thaumaturgy” or “puissance”, you most certainly will be by the end of the book, as they are well used, especially thaumaturgy, which means the working of miracles, including such things as “remaking” people or raising spirits or monsters from the deep sea.
Of course if you are already a fan of this kind of fantasy or science fiction, and The Scar sits somewhere between the two, this book will challenge and stimulate you – both in terms of its highly imaginative and fun world, and in terms of the quality of its writing – a cut way above any formulaic genre. If, like me, you never read literary fantasy, you might find that the extraordinary and rather bleak but evocative world that Mieville creates is worth a look, evoking some of the best of futuristic literature such as 1984, A Clockwork Orange, , HG Wells and Vonnegut. Occasionally silliness aside, the wild wordplay, fast paced adventure and very visual and complex monsters will have you mesmerised, while the all too real themes will provoke a much deeper response.
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