Well look at that, I’ve just completed my second and third China Miéville books for the year. I seem to be attempting to read his life’s work. I didn’t set out to—though that is a thing that I do, am currently doing with Lauren Beukes, Simon Ings, PK Dick (only 11 books left!), and Kurt Vonnegut—I wasn’t sure I needed to read every word that had slid from Miéville’s pen.
Embassytown and Railsea have both been on my to-read shelf for over a year without sparking enough interest to pick them up. But when a recent trip to Otherland Books in Berlin put Iron Council and King Rat onto my shelf, and the next day I found UnLunDon and a collection of Miéville’s short stories in a used book store, I found myself inspired to turn to his work again.
After reading Iron Council I did not want to stop. With a new book of short stories (The Three Moments of an Explosion) coming out later this year, and a novel called This Census Taker scheduled for 2016, I feel spurred on to chase the completist dragon. I am fairly sure that Miéville will be my most-read author of 2015.
The City and the City
I wasn’t a fan of the writing style in The City and the City (2009, Pan), and I found myself missing the oft obscure and repetitive vocabulary choices of Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Normally, I make fun of all those repeating words, but guess what, turns out they actually do some important work for the atmosphere.
But it is the concept behind The City and the City that is truly interesting: that two cities could exist in the same place and that people learn to see only the part of a city that is theirs. For all its focus on these two cities, however, the novel lacks the “city as character” element that I love in Miéville’s Bas-Lag books. I never felt like I could truly see either city, and while that could have been intentional, it felt more like a missed opportunity. If he had been able to successfully bring the reader visually into both of these strange places, his message would have been all the stronger.
The City and the City remains a highly enjoyable read, particularly intellectually, and increasingly so during the second half of the book, because of the drive of the mystery the protagonist is attempting to solve. Still, I remain in shock that not everything Miéville has written is as strange, dark, grimy, grim, and as startlingly inventive as Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Final assessment: Eighty out of ninety breaches.
All hail the fathers of GRIMMdark, or rather Brothers GRIMMdark, for King Rat (1998, Pan) is a dark and dirty retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Or perhaps it is more sequel: The Rats Strike Back. It is full of despicable, unsympathetic characters who the protagonist Saul has to navigate around. It has a wonderful ending. There is a lot of well-done music writing, though I must admit to zero personal interest in drum and bass. The premise is interesting, grimier than The City and the City, often disgusting. It is about rats, sewers, alleys, pigeons, and spiders, after all. Final assessment: Seven point seven out of ten sewer rats.
Still, reading King Rat, I never would have guessed that a few years later the same author would drop the bomb on fantasy that is Perdido Street Station. The more Miéville I read, the more obvious it becomes how truly special the Bas-Lag books are. It just goes to show you, you can never judge an author by his first book.
When I go through a beloved author’s back catalogue, I think about trajectories of style and theme, look for hints of the style and thematic obsession that will appear in later work. From his very first novel Miéville shows an obvious interest in the spaces between and behind normal life. The alleys and the sewers, the subcultures and the outcasts, the things that people simply don’t see if it doesn’t belong to their world or their vision of what the world should be.
This explains why so many of Miéville’s books are reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a book I was strongly reminded of throughout King Rat. When I suggested them as a good reading pair on twitter, Noble Nerd Boy told me that Kraken was a lot like Neverwhere too. The following day Admiral.Ironbombs said, well, and so was UnLunDon. China Miéville: Re-writing Neverwhere tri-annually since 1998. But The City and the City is Miéville’s most original take on the theme so far. King Rat gets points for taking place in sewer and subway tunnels and showcasing a good old-fashioned ghost station and for being a fine re-telling of the Pied Piper.
On Miéville (Not) Writing Women in The City and the City and King Rat
“This absence of SFCs (that’s strong female characters, folks) seems less a circumstance of neglect and more an attempt at a personal journey. Miéville saying, “Look, I’ve done a few books. I’ve been diverse. Imma talk about myself now.” And the common nickname “sister” replacing “brother” being an apology of sorts.”
But neither can really be excused. In King Rat there are exactly three female characters. One—Main Character’s Mom—died during childbirth, so we never meet her. One is a mentally handicapped homeless woman who Main Character blatantly admits to using, but continues using anyway. Because of this she is violently murdered, with no consequences for Main Character and little more than an after thought’s worth of remorse. The third is a DJ and Main Character’s friend. She is snarky and interesting, but after about a chapter ends up the hypnotized pawn of a baddie. That’s it. I would have loved to see Anasi or the King of the Birds, who are both powerful figures in the novel, as women. Or fuck, the Pied Piper could have been a woman. That would have been fucking awesome.
Almost ten years later, Miéville published The City and the City, with similar issues. This time there are more women in the background, but beside the very secondary archeology professor, few who are present or adequately developed or not prostitutes. The mystery focuses on the death of a women who, Laura-Palmer-style, drives the entire plot without ever being present. Another woman gets a lot of discussion time when she disappears, but predictably bad things happen to her once we finally meet her. Both detectives on the case have significant others—Borlú’s two non-monogamous female lovers, and an Ul Qoman police officer’s wife; the former only heresy, the latter met in a short dinner scene—and the only female character with potential for action—Corwi, Borlú’s partner/underling on the case—felt robotic and two-dimensional, on top of being left in another city for half of the book/case. Then you have the prostitutes in the background who the detectives ultimately have to talk to, and a few female sort-of-revolutionaries in an interrogation scene or two, none of which are memorable or ultimately important.
While I agree with Megan/Couch to Moon that this was less problematic in Iron Council—particularly because it included two characters who we assume are men who turn out to be women, sheBAM—neither of these novels feel justified in their depiction of ladies.
Since writing this, I have begun Un Lun Don, a Miéville book with two female protagonists. Though neither is particularly well developed (yet—I’m only on page 100), I am glad he writes women and am tempted to see the lack of women, when it occurs in his work, as conscious choice rather than unthinking blunder. Is this fair? Not really. It is rare that I go after an entire life’s bibliography, and other books or authors won’t often get the same chance. What is acceptable in Iron Council is less so in King Rat, but is tempered by the women in The Scar and Un Lun Don. Perspective can do wonders, but it isn’t easy to come by.