Strangeness draws me to science fiction. I like the sense of dislocation and, in the best of the genre, wonder, and trying to figure out how the fictional worlds that writers create are consistent, or interestingly inconsistent. I love the mystery of a world or a society that departs from our own, and encountering the surprises and grotesques that the author has prepared. Science fiction authors who I consider talented wrap this strangeness around a core of basically sound plots and characters and all the other things that a novel needs to be a novel—they may write about robots or wizards, but the robots or wizards have a reason to be there. Jack Vance does this better than anyone else, even in the pulpy adventure stories he was writing in the 1960s.
I recently read through a few novels from contemporary science fiction authors Jeff Vandermeer and China Miéville. Both of them call their work “weird fiction,” a term that supposedly dates back to Poe and Lovecraft but has always struck me as an attempt to escape a literary ghetto by taking refuge in another, slightly upscale ghetto. Why not just call it “fiction”?
Vandermeer and Miéville write bizarre, gloomy stories that try to do more than recount adventures (another lunge out of the sci-fi ghetto). These writers merit reading (even for people who don’t like science fiction), as both successfully craft engaging stories, and lack restraint. Miéville succumbs to over-complication in plot and setting. Vandermeer manages his complex setting much better than Miéville but gives in to a set of metafictional tics that obscure his ability to tell a story.
Miéville made a name for himself with Perdido Street Station, a grim novel that introduced the world of Bas-lag to readers. Bas-lag, the setting for three of Miéville’s novels, resembles Lord of the Rings brought forward into the Industrial Revolution. Perdido Street Station takes place in New Crobuzon, a sprawling city-state that echoes 19th century London. The New Crobuzon government exploits and oppresses its citizens.
In the series’ most interesting theme the government recycles its criminals into “Remade.” Using a mixture of magic and steam-powered industrial technology the state delivers supposedly symbolic punishments that transform the criminals’ bodies, often brutally. The marks of Remaking carry a terrible stigma—after the punishment, Remade can expect only menial or dangerous work. It echoes the gloomy social theory of Giorgio Agamben and Kafka’s In the Penal Colony.
The symbolism of these punishments often doesn’t make much sense to those who suffer them. The Scar, the second novel in the series, features a Remade named Tanner Sack who has had octopus tentacles grafted to his abdomen, but has basically no idea why. Miéville never reveals Sack’s crime. The metaphor works, showing us a government more nightmarish than anything in the real world but still comprehensible.
Miéville, who has a background in social theory, spends a great deal of time railing against his fictional government (which may or may not be a stand-in for “our” government), to the point that it gets to be rather boring and shrill. The third book in the series, Iron Council, spends most of the plot on government cruelty and a grimly tedious revolutionary movement.
But New Crobuzon’s despotic government is just part of Miéville’s world. Many races inhabit Bas-lag: cactacae (human-like cacti with wooden bones), Khepri (beetle-headed women), Vodyanoi (frog-people), Cray (lobster-men) and on and on. Miéville has given all of these races well thought out cultures, he pays attention to issues of language and cross-cultural communication, he’s invented complex religions for them, but at some points his writing starts to sound like a Dungeons and Dragons rulebook rather than a story. As I wrote above, the wonder and strangeness of setting draws me in to science fiction, but Miéville provides much too much. It gets a little numbing.
Miéville hangs this complicated setting on thin characters and muddy plots. Perdido Street Station follows Isaac Dan Der Grimnebulin, a generalist scientist living in New Crobuzon, as he attempts to figure out how to restore flight to Yagharek, a noble savage bird-man who sawed off his own wings to atone for a crime in his native desert. Grimnebulin is dating a Khepri woman (a taboo among both humans and Khepri), and divides his time between the scientific quarter and the artists’ circles in which Lin, his Khepri girlfriend, moves.
Miéville desperately wants New Crobuzon the city to take on life as a character in its own right, and he labors describing neighborhoods and how the characters feel about them (he does the same for London in his nigh-unreadable debut novel King Rat). This never worked for me—I began to feel like I should be taking notes.
Grimnebulin gets involved in wrangling over a narcotic called “dreamshit” that is secreted by disgusting monsters called “slake-moths.” The government has sold these monstrous insects to a crime boss after trying unsuccessfully to turn them into a weapon. Because of Grimnebulin the moths get loose and begin terrorizing the city, and Grimnebulin tries to stop them, enlisting the help of an artificial intelligence built from junked punch-card operated robots, an immortal transdimensional spider, and a group of adventurers straight from Dungeons and Dragons central casting. Things don’t end very well. And The Scar, which expands the fictional universe beyond the borders of New Crobuzon, makes this plot look straightforward.
A typical scene from Perdido Street Station, in which the mayor of the city meets the above-mentioned trans-dimensional spider:
He parted the scissors without a noise, held them up in the cloying air.
Rudgutter brought the razor edges together. The room reverberated with the unmistakable sound of blade sliding along sharpened blade, and snapping shut with inexorable division.
The echoes trembled like flies in a funnelweb. They slid into a dark dimension at the room’s heart.
A gust of cold sent gooseflesh dancing across the backs of those congregated.
The echoes of the scissors came back.
As they returned and crept up from below the threshold of hearing, they metamorphosed, becoming heard, a voice, melodious and melancholy, that first whispered and then grew more bold, spinning itself into existence out of the scissor echoes. It was not quite describable, heartbreaking and frightening, it tugged the listener close; and it sounded not in the rears but deeper inside, in the blood and bone, in the nerve-clusters.
…fleshscape into the folding into the fleshscape to speak a greeting in this scissored realm I will receive and be received…
Here is typical Miéville virtuosity and excess—it is not enough that the mayor is summoning a monstrous spider by brandishing scissors in a darkened room—the spider must be more important than other spiders, somehow unnatural, and it must speak in an incredibly irritating babble that Miéville often likens to poetry despite its utter and obvious lack of aesthetic value. Put this scene in the middle of a 700+ page novel filled with other wonders and it loses some of its impact.
Characters don’t stand a chance against this backdrop. Grimnebulin never becomes much of a person—he’s fat, and he thinks he’s funny, and he calls the bird-man Yagharek “Yag old son” approximately 9000 times, but he never really breathes. We know he’s interested in science, and we know a great deal about his history, and we know that he loves Lin, but Miéville never really gives him life; he seems to be present to serve the functions of the plot and make comments of varying degrees of interest, but no more than that. The Scar’s narrator, Bellis Coldwine, is a little more finely sketched but is basically a withdrawn, unhappy loner. Judah Low, one of the leads in Iron Council and also an earnest science type, is a slimmed-down Grimnebulin with slightly different interests.
By this point you might imagine that I really don’t like Miéville. I do like his novels, very much in fact, but find it frustrating that his editors have not restrained him. His imagination is so boundless and inventive that his Bas-lag novels get by on setting alone (ironically, since the overloaded setting also kills them), but with judicious editing (and a few hundred fewer pages) he might be able to create something really extraordinary.
Next to China Miéville Jeff Vandermeer seems sober and restrained. Vandermeer also enjoys writing about cities, in his case a damp trading port called Ambergris (or, in his thoroughly nightmarish first novel Veniss Underground, Veniss). Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen tells a number of stories set in and around Ambergris. The most interesting of these turns out to be the history of Ambergris itself, told in an academic style by a narrator named Duncan Shriek in “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris.” Duncan almost gets his own novel in Shriek: An Afterword, Vandermeer’s follow up to the story of Ambergris—Shriek’s sister Janice narrates it in an irritatingly, intentionally muddled way.
Ambergris is smaller and less strange than New Crobuzon. A pirate/whaler named Manzikert founded the city, Duncan Shriek tells us, driving out the Gray Caps, a tribe of mushroom-like people who retreated to caves and who periodically re-emerge to butcher the human inhabitants. Vandermeer, here impersonating the Ambergrisian historian Shriek, describes a monk wandering through the Gray Cap city in Ambergris’ past:
Just as delightful were the huge, festive mosaics lining the walls, most of which depicted battles or mushroom harvesting, while a few consisted of abstract shiftings of red and black; these last gave Tonsure as much unease as the lack of corners had given him comfort, although again he could not say why. The mosaics were made from lichen and fungus skillfully placed and trained to achieve the desired effect. Sometimes fruits, vegetables or seeds were also used to form decorative patterns—cauliflower to depict a sheep-like creature called the “lunger,” for example—the gray caps replacing these weekly. If Tonsure can be believed, one mosaic used the eggs of a native thrush to depict the eyes of a gray cap; when the eggs hatched, the eyes appeared to be opening.
The Gray Caps form the central mystery of Vandermeer’s Ambergris novels, especially Shriek, and they are indeed tantalizing. Vandermeer can’t really decide whether he wants to give away the Gray Caps’ secrets and he ends up telling the reader a great deal and suggesting more, which some might find a little disappointing. I still haven’t decided.
Vandermeer’s stories are more intimate and less political than Miéville’s, even when he is recounting the political history of his fictional world. His characters are more compelling, and his prose is more flexible and literary. Ambergirs and its world gradually accumulate detail over the course of Saints and Madmen and Shriek, and by the end of the series I found myself thinking fondly of the city and its neighborhoods.
Vandermeer accomplishes this goal simply by limiting his scope. He gives us a few cities and neighborhoods within Ambergirs, where Miéville provides an entire almanac. The contrast is striking.
Vandermeer, unfortunately, succumbs to a different malady. Miéville drowns in detail but keeps his narrative relatively simple (there are multiple narrators, but everything is basically chronological and basically standard fiction). Vandermeer strives constantly to break genre barriers. Part of City of Saints and Madmen is a glossary, part is ostensibly a travel guide, part is a sinister pamphlet given to tourists at Ambergris’ depraved yearly Festival of the Freshwater Squid, part is faux-academic writing. One unpleasant chapter includes Vandermeer himself, in an insane asylum.
Mushrooms and subterranean adventures run throughout (and these Vandermeer handles beautifully, as he does the utterly terrifying retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice in Veniss Underground). Shriek includes fewer metatextual experiments, contenting itself with a main text and a commentary. Ultimately all of this messing around is distracting. Vandermeer writes beautifully and powerfully and he imagines genuinely original characters and scenes, and one begins to wonder why he hides this gift beneath so many layers of uninteresting MFA-style genre bending.
Ultimately I object to Miéville and Vandermeer for the same reason. Both writers are very talented, yet for whatever reason (Genre insecurity? Pretention? Lilly-livered editors?) they overreach and smother their considerable gifts beneath too many irrelevant words. Still, their novels are original and in many ways delightful, and their worlds (if not always their characters) hum with counterfeit life. I looked again through City of Saints and Madmen and found myself seduced by the charm of Vandermeer’s well-told history of Ambergris; I remembered Rudgutter’s audience with the spider, quoted above, with a thrill. The books are good and deserve reading, but I can only imagine how beautiful they would be with fewer words.