Monday, August 2, 2010

The City And The City And The Kraken

At first glance I would make an unlikely China Mieville fan. Mieville is a quintessential author of the urban fantasy genre; a man obsessed with the magic, mystery, and human beauty of imaginary cities. (Or, perhaps, the highly imaginary magic, mystery, and beauty of a single, actual city: London). I reject the artistic and spiritual validity of the urban experience as corrupt and corrupting. Mieville is a serious Marxist of the Trotskyist variety; so serious, in fact, that he’s run for public office as a Marxist. I’m a capitalist of the Nockian variety (meaning that I will never, ever run for public office). Mieville is all about the victimization of the urban proletariat worker. I’m a post-modern, petty Junker who would rather not leave the confines of his tiny 55-acre domain. Mieville glorifies trade unions, transforming their organizers into supernatural heroes in his work. Having been on the receiving end of wildcat union violence, it’s unlikely that a union agitator will ever become the hero of one of my tales.

But there we are: I’m a China Mieville fan. Great art transcends human differences.

I can’t but think that Mieville’s popular and well known Bas-Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council) were really just a warm up for his real work; his first million words, as it were. His two most recent books – The City And The City and Kraken: An Anatomy – are superior works (not that the others were bad), with The City And The City sticking out in particular as a high water mark. Mieville has a curious, attractive style - powerful, particular, and peculiar – that illuminates his writing like a backlight and makes me frankly forgive the heavy dollop of Trotsky that he plops on top of his work like heavy cream.

I can’t tell you much about The City And The City without, well, telling you too much about The City And The City. On one level it’s a meditation on the way city dwellers are forced to ignore one another simply to survive. On another it’s a (very good) hard-boiled police procedural. Finally, it’s an exercise in Fantasy realism world building; for all their inherent absurdity, the two cities that give the book its title are extremely well developed and even believable, with unique histories, populations, cultures, and languages.

It also achieves that most difficult of tasks in the sub-sub genre that is Fantasy Realism; the setting is “magical” without actually having any magic in it. It is also stylistically Mieville at his best, as he largely abandons the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world “release” that is at the core of most of his novels (and, not incidentally, Trotsky’s teachings). The main character is a police detective trying to solve a murder that has taken place in his city, but the city itself is not (somewhat uniquely for Mieville) in danger of total destruction because of that investigation. That, combined with Mieville’s desire to write more like Dashiell Hammett for the duration of the book, reels in his more fantastic flights of prose fancy, making the book more generally readable.

Kraken: An Anatomy is a more traditional Mieville novel. There are heroic labor organizing statues, proletarian shape-shifters, and daring squid cultists. There’s a magical nemesis that threatens to wipe out reality: or, even worse in the mind of the author, alter it fundamentally. But Kraken exists on many layers. On one hand it’s very like a Jim Butcher novel, with London taking the place of Chicago. On the other, it’s an extremely original re-imagining of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. (Why would one worship a giant squid, really? He gives you sound-ish theological answers.) At its core, however, Kraken is a fascinating meditation on faith, and not only religious faith. I have a feeling that as the author has aged, he’s lost some of the absolute faith in Marxist thought he had as a young man, and it shows in his work. I’m sympathetic: I’ve lost some of the absolute faith I one had in Rand’s thought. It probably comes with the mellowing of age.

Oh, and then there’s Goss and Subby: probably the two best (or maybe worst) villains to ever populate an urban fantasy novel. All I will tell you about them is a) they actually creeped me out (not easy for a fictional character to do), and b) They are obviously based on the characters of Big Chris and Little Chris from Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels.

In conclusion, The City And The City and Kraken are the products of one of the great talents of modern fantasy (Or post-modern fantasy. Or urban fantasy. Or whatever.) at the height of his creative powers. While they are somewhat reminiscent of his earlier works, they’re completely un-reminiscent of anyone else’s. And, in a world of fantasy authors who seem determined to retell Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings over and over (and over and over) again, that is a very fine thing.

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