If you’re at all acquainted with the science fiction genre then I don’t doubt you’ve heard of China Miéville, the Socialist Londoner whose second novel – Perdido Street Station (2000) – burst open the floodgates of the “New Weird”. That novel, a desperately and wickedly moral tale set in the teeming city of New Crobuzon - the hub of Bas-Lag and a place inhabited by a seemingly endless variety of sentient humanoids - only hit my radar in the summer of 2005. Reading The Scar in March 2006 is yet another example of me being late to the very best of bibliophilic parties.
To digress: “New weird” isn’t really a sub-genre of speculative fiction per se, rather it’s the term used (very loosely) to describe fiction that hybridises literary tropes and in doing so, transcends them; it dips its toe into horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery etc and gives it a good swish around. [Note: I’m not entirely happy with that definition…for example, I’m unsure what I mean when I say something “transcends” a genre that is, in itself, indistinct and trangressive. But that way lies madness.] I think its probably fair to say that its origins are in the 1940s with the pulp writer Howard Phillip Lovecraft and that its best contemporary exponents, aside from Mieville, are Jeff Vandermeer, Lucius Shephard and Jeffrey Ford. Michael Cisco reckons its part of a movement towards a “more literally sophisticated fantasy”, which is certainly No Bad Thing in the world of me (and since I mostly agree with him I’ll direct you his article here). For my own part I love the "New Weird" because it constitutes revelation of the unknowable; indefinable by nature, it cosies up to your uncanny self. Simply, it has no manifesto (although Mieville, in particular, has his political agenda) but revels in pure delicious spontaneity and idiosyncrasy. It refuses to accept any constraints upon itself; it is fecund in all its flexibility. It is brimming with possibility (and quite literally in The Scar’s case.)
The Scar (2002), Mieville’s third novel, is a colossal project (my trade paperback copy weighs a good kilogram) that returns us to a Bas-Lag of infinitely wider horizons. Bellis Coldwine, an old girlfriend of renegade scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, flees New Crobuzon in the aftermath of the strange plague that formed the central conceit of Perdido Street Station. Fearing that her one time connection with Grimnebulin, the man responsible said plague, will lead the city’s militia straight to her she takes drastic action and embarks on the Terpsichordia, a ship headed across the world to the newly established colonies of Nova Esperium. (And yes, if you like you can read Nova Esperium as “America” and New Crobuzon as “London”, but I’d guard against it…) A linguist by trade - and also by nature - she has the good fortune of being the ship’s translator, and is thus free to roam the decks with her fellow passengers including the enthusiastic naturalist Johannes Tearfly and the mysterious Silas Fennec. But down below decks in the dank dark is a living slave cargo of Remade, physically reconstituted convicts from New Crobuzon’s punishment factories. Amongst them: Tanner Sack, a man struggling to cope with the dead, stinking tentacles that have been thaumertagically appended to his chest and destined, like his fellow cargo, for a life of hard-labour in the colonies. (The analogue between Remaking and the enslavement of black Africans is an interesting one. I intend to ponder.)
However, when their ship is taken by pirates and brought to the great city of Armada, a centuries old flotilla constituted of hundreds of ships and populated by the pressganged, all the Terpsichordia’s passengers are required to adapt to a new life afloat. For Tanner Sack it means freedom in a place where the Remade are respected as citizens, but for Bellis and Silas it means permanent and painful exile from their beloved New Crobuzon. Johannes Tearfly, meanwhile, is drawn into an extraordinary project to raise a mythical sea monster, the avanc, capable of pulling Armada to the edge of the known world, all the way to a rent in space: a Possibility channel where all realities are engendered and none discarded. Masterminded by the Lovers, a couple scarred by their sadomasochistic sex games and protected by their champion Uther Doul, the project emerges as a threat, not only to the future of Armada but to the whole of Bas-Lag…
Undoubtedly Mieville is *the* man when it comes to world-building. In Perdido Street Station he envisioned the massive grubbiness of New Crobuson almost street by street and introduced us to a wealth of humanoids: the bug-headed Khepri, the spiny Hotchi, the sap-blooded Cactacae and the fresh water frog-people, the Vodyanoi. The Scar only adds to Bas-Lag’s astonishing array of sentient life with the sea dwelling Cray and fish-men, the mosquitic Anophelli and the Deadmen of High Cromlech (vampires to you and me), each race with its own intimately mapped culture. Armada, a city as multifarious as New Crobuzon, is exquisitely well imagined, even in too much detail perhaps (undoubtedly Mieville had the whole place mapped out, each constitutive ship named, illustrated and oriented to its neighbours). He has this great gift for the diversity of things, an eye for microscopic detail that benefits slow and visualised reading. Take our first glimpse of the boat city through Bellis’s eyes:
“A flotilla of dwellings. A city built on old boat bones. Bellis looked from her window across the vista of reconfigured masts and bowsprits, a cityscape of beakheads and forecastles. Across many hundreds of ships lashed together, spread over almost a square mile of sea, and the city built on them.
Countless naval architectures. Stripped longships; scorpion galleys; luggers and brigantines; massive steamers hundreds of feet long down to canoes no larger than a man. There were alien vessels; ur-ketches, a barge carved from the ossified body of a whale. Tangled in ropes and moving wooden walkways, hundreds of vessels facing all directions rode the swells… Armada moved constantly, its bridges swinging side to side, its towers heeling…And beyond all that, beyond the city sky that thronged with birds and other shapes, beyond all the vessels was the sea.
The open sea. Waves like insects in incessant motion.
Stunning and empty.”
You can feel prose like Mieville’s on your skin, electric with innovative use of language and revelling in the animation of the inanimate. Certainly, The Scar is a world-immersion novel of unflagging inventiveness. In Perdido Street Station I thought this propensity for lengthy, often repetitive, scene setting could be somewhat repressive and that it even stood to constrain an otherwise strong narrative. Fortunately, Mieville either acquired a judicious editor or learnt to control his verbosity in more recent years and what remains is a richness that only occasionally waxes gluttonous.
Indeed, the marvellous prose stylings help to buttress what is essentially a weak plot, full of big ideas – Armada, raising the avanc, the Scar and the Possibility channel, the Gengris grindylow - that fail to deliver, or falter out, in the final act. Perhaps I’d been lead to expect too much, given the explosive catharsis that played out Perdido Street Station, and I wouldn’t want to disparage too vigorously; Mieville is no narrative coward. His ending, incredibly brave in its own way, has its purposes. Emphasis might be better placed on the narrative thematics that nip in and out of focus, playful in their multiplicity, offering a different kind of fulfilment. Surely there is Mieville’s own Socialist agenda, made flesh in the egalitarianism of Armada, and also the leitmotifs of exile, belonging and return that threaded through Perdido Street Station. Questions of assimilation and identity are also interrogated, played out macrocosmically in Armada’s hybridised body and citizenry, and microcosmically, in Tanner Sack’s changed, mutilated flesh. The endgame – sadly I can’t fully elaborate without spoiling - allows for a piece of narrative ingenuity that might well disappoint readers looking for climax but which discharges its thematic potential.
The Remade are, for me at least, the most wonderful and terrible of Bas-Lag’s people constituting a deeply political statement about justice, punishment and the construction of the physical and psychic self. And so I don’t hesitate to say that Tanner Sack is the best character in The Scar. I know this can’t but lead to protest amongst Mieville fans: But what about Uther Doul? And I can’t dispute that Doul, the Lovers bodyguard, is a fascinating creation what with his Possibility sword, his cold manipulations and his tragic mystery. But he is *what he is* throughout and there is no journey for him; he is The Scar’s deus ex machina. Now Tanner Sack... there’s a character with true development. From his first interiorised soliloquy, through his time in Armada unto his role in the denouement, I cared about Tanner Sack. I wanted things for him; I hurt with him. Similarly, Bellis Coldwine, the novel’s steely protagonist, possesses a well-invoked psychology and, more generally, Mieville has a strong grasp of the humanity and distinctiveness of the individual. Characterisation may not be his strongest point but it certainly isn’t the weakness that some reviewers have thought it. Perhaps it is just too subtle in company with such vivid, jaw-dropping word-play/world-building.
Finally, accepting The Scar’s faults and stumbles is relatively easy: its just too damn good to complain overmuch. Mieville’s writing here is almost faultlessly superior, his world envisioning quite brilliant and his delivery always energetic. To be honest I could probably forgive him almost anything. He may not be writing at his absolute best (I hope not) and he certainly isn’t peerless, but The Scar is awesome (in the old sense of the word that is), even sporadically sublime. And it’s undeniably, and triumphantly, Weird. ;-)