The problem with writing a book about trains is that it hands your critics a healthy arsenal of cheap metaphors to use in reviews (see also: Atlas Shrugged). Do we say that Railsea goes off the tracks a bit? That it doesn't really make it into station? Or indeed, that it never really gets up a good head of steam? Screw the puns. Let's just say it's not really up to par. This isn't to say that Railsea is bad, but it has a lot to live up to. Mieville has already written a better book about trains (Iron Council), a superior story about oceanfaring (The Scar), and a much more inventive YA novel (Un Lun Dun). Where does that leave Railsea? It's readable, even captivating at times, but ultimately a bit of a trifle.
Other readers have called this "Moby Dick with moles," but that's not quite true. Set on a planet where hunters, pirates, and scavengers roam an "ocean" of train tracks while avoiding dangerously-outsized ferrets, earwigs, and burrowing owls, Mieville does invoke Melville: train captains in this society each grow obsessed with a particular animal, including one who hunts a great white mole named Mocker-Jack. But these are just spice, thrown in as mood-setters. The vast majority of the book is actually about a moletrain doctor's assistant named Sham, who finds a memory card that leads to the end of the titular railsea, and kicks off a chase for the rumored riches located there.
Railsea is filled with clever authorial touches, like the use of the ampersand instead of "and" (there is a in-text reason) or an extended meditation on the ways that stories are themselves on rails, particularly in science fiction. Always respectful of genre, Mieville throws in passing references to Aubrey and Maturin, Robinson Crusoe, and Roadside Picnic (watch for the mention of a "Strugatski triskele"). These touches add interest to what is otherwise a pretty limp narrative: Sham spends most of his trip passively wandering up to more interesting stories, until the inevitable character growth moment. This is a book that's better as a critic than as a reader, but even there, it's not subtle: the layered, rich symbolism of Weavers and golems is missing, although I'll admit to enjoying the authorial asides that draw attention to the text's own lumpy pace.
Where Railsea redeems itself is in Mieville's writing, which is still (love it or hate it) an incredibly distinctive prose style, and its straight-faced embrace of the ridiculous. He gives only the slightest indication that his setting--with its savage naked mole rats, rail captains with mandatory artificial limbs, and carriages pulled by rhinocerii--is completely preposterous. Mieville has always written worlds that piled unlikelihood on improbability atop impossibility, but here he occassionally winks to us, such as this section on the theology of trees and railway ties:
Of all the philosophers' answers, three stand out as least unlikely.
— Wood & wood are, in fact, appearances notwithstanding, different things.
— Trees are creations of a devil that delights in confusing us.
— Trees are the ghosts of ties, their gnarled & twisted & dreamlike echoes born when parts of the railsea are damaged & destroyed. Transubstantiated matter.
All other suggestions are deeply eccentric. One of these three is most likely true. Which you believe is up to you.
All gripes about the book aside, I find that completely charming. This mischievious voice makes Railsea the kind of book that's almost begging to be read aloud. And if, in the end, the twists in this tall tale are a bit straighter than you might expect, I suspect it's still worth the price of the ticket.
...I dislike thinking in terms of allegory--quite a lot. I've disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.
The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading--a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.
It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about "what does the text mean?"--and I don't think text means like that. Texts do things.
I'm always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won't be deliberate.
But the point is, those riffs don't reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn't end the thing. That doesn't foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do--but neither, really, is the text itself.
China Mieville, talking to BLDGBLOG
Reading Embassytown, it is obvious that China Mieville has been thinking deeply about metaphors and control for a long time. His first really "science fiction" book, it's a complex meditation on language and colonialism, all filtered through Cronenberg-esque body horror. And while there are scattered threads of homage (I did a double-take at the mention of Karen Traviss' aggressively vegan aliens, the Wess'har), there's no doubt that this is Mieville still writing Weird Fiction in a way nobody else can manage.
Told from the point of view of "immerser" Avice Benner Cho, Embassytown initially jumps back and forward across time, but eventually settles down into a straightforward narrative. Cho comes from a backwater colony planet that's home to aliens named the Hosts, whose Language (capitalization in the original) has some odd characteristics: it's a double-voiced vocalization (requiring specially-raised pairs of humans to speak it), and it's a direct expression of their mental state. The Hosts can't lie, because that would require them to think something impossible, but they can create new linguistic expressions via simile. Before she leaves the planet to travel across space, Cho becomes a Simile ("the girl who sat in darkness and ate what was given to her"). Years later, Cho returns with her linguist husband to visit the colony, just in time for disaster to strike in the form of the new Ambassador to the Hosts from the human empire, and a Host who is learning how to lie.
There are elements here of Dune, Snow Crash, Videodrome, and Adam Troy-Castro's Emissaries from the Dead, although they've been combined into something very different. Mieville manages to create a kind of recursive narrative--both about and functioning as metaphor. It's got something to say about colonialism, about propaganda, and about the relationship between language and policy--although, as Mieville would no doubt point out, it's not a book solely about those things. It's not a polemic.
One of Mieville's great talents is his understanding of trope and genre, which lets him quickly sketch out a scenario, such as the political relationship between Cho's home colony and the wider human civilization, while saving room for what he does best: throwing his characters across stretches of jarring, endlessly inventive territory. In this case, the Hosts' talent for biological manipulation provides a landscape that's both familiar and yet deeply alien, from living houses that grow their own furniture to transit tubes built from peristaltic flesh. Beyond the shock value, the connection between the Hosts and their technology makes the decline of their society graphically manifest, as buildings and tools bleed and weep in desparation.
For all of its immense thoughtfulness, and despite its achingly-rendered arc of destruction, I wish Embassytown were better in a few key areas. Cho is a passive observer for much of its length, and the fractured timeline during the first half of the story seems more like a gratuitous method of disorienting the reader than a useful narrative device. I also wish, for a story that resonates so strongly around the legacy of colonialism, that the ending felt a little less like What These People Need Is a Honky.
For the Mieville fan, what stands out the most is the lack of pulp. In the last three books, he's changed his writing styles and tone significantly for each book, but there's always been a lurid quality to them, as though channeling the fevered grotesqueries of an Amazing Stories cover painting. While the body-horror elements persist, along with his obvious love of language, it's only in a short sequence describing a warp-travel accident that Mieville lets his pulp roots free--otherwise, it's a relatively restrained performance, which may be better for this particular story, but I do miss the sheer excess of previous novels.
"You think any of the foreigners don't breach?" Buidze said, and leaned in towards us, spreading his fingers. "All we can get from them's a bit of politeness, right? And when you get a bunch of young people together, they're going to push it. Maybe it's not just looks. Did you always do what you're told? But these are smart kids."China Mieville seems to have a soft spot for cities. He wrote three brilliant books about the bizarre city-state of New Crobuzon. Then he took a break to do a kid's book about a hidden version of London. He released a collection of short stories that included such topics as feral streets and monsters hidden in the noise of urban life. His new book, The City and the City, continues the pattern--but it does so in a way that Mieville fans probably won't expect.
He sketched maps on the table with his fingertips. "Bol Ye'an crosshatches here, here, and in the park it's in here and here. And yeah, over at the edges in this direction, it even creeps into Beszel total. So when this lot get drunk or whatever, don't they egg each other on to go stand in a crosshatch bit of the park? And then, who knows if they don't, maybe standing still there, without a single world, without even moving, cross over into Beszel, then back again? You don't have to take a step to do that, not if you're in a crosshatch. All here." Tapped his forehead. "No one can prove shit. Then maybe next time when they're doing that they reach down, grab a souvenir, straighten back up into Ul Qoma with a rock from Beszel or something. If that's where they were when they picked it up, that's where it's from, right? Who knows? Who could prove it?"
The City and the City is set in Beszel and Ul Qoma, two Eastern European cities which are, in fact, one city. They're located physically in the same space, but separated by cultural and psychological adaptations that force citizens of one city to "unsee" the other. They are, as Mieville calls them, "topolgangers" of each other, cross-hatched and intermixed but never actually mixing. Contact between the cities is forbidden, except at specified borders, and anyone violating that rule is punished by a nebulous authority known only as Breach.
The story is told by Inspector Tyador Borlu, a policeman in Beszel. Unraveling the murder of an American archaeology student who had been living in Ul Qoma, Borlu follows leads to the other city and back when Breach refuses to get involved, eventually being pulled into an international conflict--as well as the struggle between his native "blind spots" and his investigative eye. As with all Mieville's work, this is Weird Fiction at its best: working both as an examination of urban consciousness and as an enjoyable mystery novel.
In tone, however, The City and the City is something unexpected. Unlike the richly-textured, gothic landscape of the Bas Lag books, Borlu's narration is spare and relatively chilly. If anything, it reads to me as greatly influenced by Peake's Gormenghast books, for which Mieville has great admiration. Like those stories, the setting is exotic without involving any actual supernatural or magical elements--not quite realism, but not quite fantasy, and nothing so fuzzy as "magical" realism. There are also elements of Calvino, particularly in the way Mieville playfully imagines the intersections of his grosstopically-merged cities, and the conspiracy theories that emerge from them.
Ultimately, I enjoyed The City and the City, but I didn't have the strong reaction to it that I've had to Mieville's other writing. I felt like Borlu came across as distant, and not particularly interesting, and the plot had a tendency to drift a bit. For the newcomer to Mieville, this is certainly one of his more accessible works: along with Un Lun Dun, it might be a good starting place for readers who are not quite prepared for the grotesqueries of his earlier books (those who were unprepared for the man-on-scarab sex that opens Perdido Street Station, for example). Myself, I enjoyed the more outlandish aspects of the Bas Lag trilogy, and as a reader I hope more is forthcoming. But I also respect the desire for a writer to strike out in new directions instead of retreading old ground. It's a fine line to walk, and I can't wait to see where Mieville will travel next.
There must be a certain point in time when good SF and fantasy authors decide that they want to write children's fiction. Neil Gaiman, although not setting adult fiction aside completely, seemed to revive the trend in recent memory when he penned Coraline. Now one of my favorite authors, China Mieville, has written his own story for younger minds, Un Lun Dun. It's an interesting read, and I think I would recommend it to the target audience, but adult readers might want to pick it up at the library instead.
Mieville's previous books were mostly set in the bizarre world of Bas-Lag, specifically the city of New Crobuzon. Bas-Lag is a fantasy setting undergoing its industrial ages, instead of the gentle feudalism of most genre fiction, and it's influenced heavily by Mieville's Marxism. The books are also known for being grotesque and a little sadistic, or at the very least, grimy. For these reasons, it's hard to imagine him producing stereotypically saccharine children's literature. So while Un Lun Dun (pronounced so that each syllable rhymes with "run") does not reach the freakshow proportions of Perdido Street Station's man-on-insect-woman sex scenes or The Scar's self-mutilating Lovers, it's still not tame and lifeless. I thought it most resembled Alice in Wonderland, which is far more disturbing than those who have only seen the Disney sanitization think. And if he has reined in his more destructive impulses, Mieville has at least tried to redirect them toward an ever-escalating tour of oddities.
Un Lun Dun is about two girls, Zanna and Deeba, who find their way from London to an alternate reality, where Zanna is regarded as a chosen one who will banish the evil Smog by undertaking a quest across its surrealistic landscape. If this sounds cliched, don't be surprised. Mieville has consciously aimed this book at the Harry Potter-esque subgenre of wish-fulfillment fiction. He's aware that for most fantasy (adult or child), the main character basically serves as a Mary Sue, Potter included. Un Lun Dun explicitly takes aim at this hackneyed genre staple, as well as the helpful animal sidekick (replaced here with a milk carton named Curdle), the unhealthy reliance on tradition or authority, and reliance on story "tokens" to get characters out of a pinch.
In fact, Mieville actually has his sights set higher than just the genre. There are clear references, sometimes without even an attempt at disguise, to real-world events in the book. Without spoiling it, I can say that he's making a point about the Orwellian language that's been used by both governments and corporations to disguise their real actions. All I can say is that I warned you: the guy's a full-fledged Marxist and he doesn't care if you know it. I felt like it was a little unsubtle at the time, but looking back toward the end of the book, I can appreciate what Mieville's done in more context. Children's fiction is rarely subtle or subversive. By going against the grain, the end result is not a bad book, and depending on the audience, might even be a very good one.