The Short Version: Rogue streets that fight each other, creatures from the edge of consciousness, apocalypses of various forms, and a socialist Christmas are just some of the strange delights in China Miéville’s first collection.
The Review: Pound for pound, there are few authors more inventive than China Miéville. I could (and have, many times) go on about the ways in which he’s impressed me previously… but seeing as short stories are often a great way to get introduced to a writer, let’s talk about what’s here that’s impressive and what might give you an easy entry into the Weird and wonderful worlds Miéville has created.
I picked up this collection shortly after receiving the second in an ongoing series of letters from my friend Jake, who recently joined the Jesuit novitiate, and so I was caught a little breathless by the title story (which also happens to open the collection) – which is a letter from the narrator to an associate/friend called Jake, in the midst of what I wrote down in my notes as a “soft apocalypse”. Miéville never goes into too much detail about what the hell has happened to London, just gives us some glimpses that feel like they’re about as much as an ordinary human brain could handle. Our narrator’s ‘quest’ and the whole setup of the story simultaneously honor and subvert the typical apocalypse narrative and it’s a haunting little treat.
Interestingly, the collection ends with another London apocalypse in the novella The Tain. Curiously, this was not the story I wanted to be longer – in fact, I thought that it somewhat overstayed its welcome, although the concept behind it (our reflections are, in fact, sentient creatures) and the great twist it delivers on vampires were wonderful. Some of the other stories in this collection left me wanting more, whereas The Tain could’ve certainly been a little shorter and a little tighter in its depiction of the war-wracked London beset by imagos.
The stories in between these two ends see Miéville working in nearly all the possible registers: humor, horror, holiday, spy, fantasy, even an entry in a medical dictionary (The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases – edited by those fabulous banner-wavers of the Weird, the VanderMeers). Each time, he establishes a strange and inventive scenario and explains it quickly but clearly, retaining mystery while also making the reader feel like they can get a handle on something that’s totally strange and un-real. Sometimes it can be tough to get a handle on the Weird, because it can reach so far beyond the standard realm of comprehension and that can be destabilizing for a lot of people.
But you’ve heard of paper streets (or, as they’re known in the UK apparently [thanks, Doctor Who], “trap streets”), right? So okay: now how about living streets, that disappear and reappear and seem to interact with one another? Another example might be that you’re used to stories of spies in the le Carré style – but how about a spy who doesn’t know who he’s working for, whose handlers are so adept at reading him that they can accurately predict which candy bar he’s going to pick up at a kiosk and when?
It’s the micro version, really, of what Miéville does in his novels: he establishes an idea that at first might seem far-fetched, but he introduces it as though it’s just a leveling-up from something you already understand. Part of his success comes his use of genre (the reader understands the general constraints of a _____ story and so is prepared for the subversion of it) but another part of it is just the dude’s sheer brilliance: he’s so smart that you are pulled along into understanding in his wake.
Me, I had a few particular favorites in this collection – for entirely personal reasons. If you’ve already made up your mind about the book/Miéville, feel free to move along – but I just want to call out a couple more stories from this collection that I found particularly wonderful.
- “The Ball Room”, written with Emma Bircham & Max Schaefer, is a super-creepy old-school ghost story. I read this one on Halloween and, well, it gave me the willies. I’m not sure I’ll be able to look at a ball pit the same way ever again.
- “Reports of Certain Events in London”, the aforementioned story involving the living streets. It also uses that trope I recently discussed regarding Iterating Grace, where the author is in fact a part of the story in that they’ve received a collection of papers/ephemera detailing a sub-story. It’s also a cool freakin’ idea.
- “‘Tis the Season” is a terrific holiday tale and one of the funniest stories I’ve read by anybody in a long while. Essentially, Christmas has been trademarked and privatized and there are off-brand slogans and celebrations for those who can’t afford the real thing. It’s also, when you think about it, really sad (but the humor does win out).
- “Jack”, which sees Miéville return (for the first and only time since finishing the trilogy) to Bas-Lag and recounts a moment immediately following the capture of the infamous Jack Half-a-Prayer. For fans of that trilogy, it’s like a cherry on the sundae.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Miéville is at his best in the longer form, I think its safe to say – not because he can’t pull off the short form (he does, and with panache) but because, more often than not, his ideas are so vivid and rich that you can’t help but want more of them. Confections like his entry on Bascard’s Murrain are a wonderful one-gulp treat, but I would go to great lengths to know more about the soft apocalypse of the title story or the sinister(?) cabal behind the packages in “Go Between”. And that middle ground of a novella like The Tain leaves the reader a little dissatisfied because it does feel unfinished AND a little too big all at the same time. But I think, if you’re unwilling to commit entirely to one of Miéville’s novels, this is the spot to learn just why he’s so tremendous – and to whet your appetite for the larger feasts.