Review: China Mieville’s The Scar, by Lee Battersby

Review: China Mieville’s The Scar, by Lee Battersby

I‘ll admit it: when the package finally arrived and the editor handed this book over to me, I approached it with a more than dubious eye. I have a problem with golden-eyed wunderkind boys-of-the-moment. They so rarely turn out to be what was promised. Hey, I’m still hurt that The Knack didn’t turn out to be the new Beatles. I’d heard a lot of raving about Miéville (there are hermit monks living on the sides of undiscovered mountains in the heart of Africa that have heard a lot of raving about Miéville) but this was my first taste of his product. Thankfully, it tasted good.

Miéville’s writing flows. His prose is liquid and beautifully paced, and his talent for scene setting and naming reminds me of Gene Wolfe or even Poul Anderson. For the most part, the tradition of naming characters so that their name reflects the greater portion of their personality is a dead one, as obvious and annoying as comic book characters who have the same first and last initial. But Miéville’s lyricism enables him to pull it off: characters like Bellis Coldwine, Uther Doul, Tintinabullum, Tanner Sack, the Brucolac; all have characters that are extensions of both the meaning and tone of their names, and all leave the page as fully realised people.

And Miéville writes characters, not mouthpieces, perhaps better than any new writer I’ve come across in a long time. There is not a character in this book, no matter how minor, who lacks dreams and ambitions. Most of them run both true and contrary to the plot they are helping to advance. They are complex beings, and Miéville takes the time to paint them in realistic hues.

Thus, when a character who is so loyal to Armada (the floating city, made from pirated and scavenged ships, that lies at the heart of the novel) that he has himself surgically altered in order to perform his duties better performs an action that is a betrayal of everything the City stands for, we believe his reasons for doing so. What would be an obvious plot point in the hands of a lesser writer fails to stick in our craw: we understand the character’s needs and beliefs, and the contrariness of his act is justifiable to our understanding of him. When a character who spends the greater part of the novel attempting to remain in perfect control of her emotions allows herself to be suckered in again and again by people she finds sympathy with we aren’t annoyed, we’re understanding. Real people inhabit this incredible made-up world, and they are the weight by which the reader anchors himself to the leaps of fantasy that Miéville engages in.

And it’s a good job his characters are real, because Miéville obviously delights in pouring the fantastic upon the amazing when it comes to the creation of the world they live in. A city made from the hulls of pirated ships (and even a whale carcass); an island inhabited by a race of mosquito-people; an inter-dimensional beast so large it can be tethered to the base of an island city and used to pull it across oceans; a break in the surface of the world where an alien race crashed and broke open the fabric of reality (The Scar of the title): written in black and white they sound like the tropes of the worst 50’s Monsterama you’ve ever watched. Yet Miéville binds them together so strongly and so well that you never once doubt their veracity. This is a world where the miraculous can not only be achievable, it can achieve mundanity.

Too often in Fantasy novels the characters seem amazed at the facts of their own world. Miéville knows that we live in a world where something as amazing as re-usable spaceships are so boring as to be un-newsworthy, and he invests his characters with that same sense of mental adaptability. The world of The Scar is a world where surgically grafting alien and mechanical parts onto living flesh is so common it is used as a form of punishment: once you’ve seen one half-woman half-tractor, you’ve seen ’em all.

I realise that if you’ve read either of Mievelle’s two previous books (King Rat and Perdido Street Station) then I’m in all likelihood preaching to the converted. And probably preaching with the zeal of the reformed smoker to boot. But in a field where the object of the game is to provide glimpses of the Fantastic, of the Other, there are few writers that I’ve read who can create such a genuinely mystifying and incredibly different world and then make it seem a homogeneous whole, rather than ‘Earth Plus One New Thing’.

And Miéville works ostensibly in Fantasy, a field littered with pale Tolkien clones and more cartoon dragons, witches, and blokes with big swords than any sensible bookshelf needs, which makes his work all the more exciting and original. Hell, he even has a dragon (of sorts), and witches (of sorts), and a bloke with a bloody big sword, and they’re all still exciting, original, and more importantly, real. And while the book has weaknesses (there are a few too many said-bookisms for my taste, too many people retorting and opining and speaking in adjectives) it is nowhere near enough to create a pause in the obsessive page turning. The need to find out what happens next when reading this book is not just inherent, it’s compulsive. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

Post Hugo Footnote: Okay, so those of you who know the Hugo results should realise two things now: a) how strong my predictive powers are and b) how much weight MY word has in that halls of power. So congratulations to Michael Swanwick, and you can make that 100 denarii you owe me now!

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