Although I do not particularly admire the criticism of Harold Bloom, his Freudian theory that ambitious authors want to “kill” their strong literary predecessors is getting a lot of empirical support these days from British fantasy writers, first from Phillip Pullman, who wrote his trilogy His Dark Materials as an atheist antidote to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and now from China Miéville, who describes his looming father figure, J.R.R. Tolkien, as “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature.” In style and substance, this almost tells as much about Miéville’s writing as anything I will say in this review, but one might as well look at the rest of the quotation:
His [Tolkien’s] oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés—elves ’n’ dwarfs ’n’ magic rings—have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was “consolation,” thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
To see how Miéville has prosecuted this declaration of war, the best place to go are his “Bas-Lag” world books, Perdido Street Station, Scar, and Iron Council, because together, they have the most in common with The Lord of the Rings and constitute his best attempt at lancing the Tolkienian boil. Although not as well known to the public as Pullman, his fiction has received attention and acclaim: Perdido Street Station (2001) and Iron Council (2005) both won the Arthur C. Clarke award; Scar (2003) won the British Fantasy Award, and all of these books have been nominated for the Hugo Award. Miéville gets adulatory book reviews from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Times of London. He is all over the Internet.
I am not a fan. I dislike Miéville’s work. I don’t like the way he writes sentences, paragraphs, or collections of paragraphs. His first book, King Rat, was a badly written graphic novel without pictures. In his second book, Perdido, the writing improved dramatically, but not enough. His plots are thin and unoriginal, but Perdido and Scar run close to 600 pages each, which means they are stuffed with filler, usually of the atmospheric variety. His characters have no depth and neither does his fictional world, Bas-Lag, which he unreels like a vast expanse of post-modern wall paper. Over the length of his novels, certain verbal ticks become very annoying: the ubiquitous one-sentence paragraph (used, apparently, to ramp up the rhetoric by emphasizing sentences too tired to make an impression at the end of a paragraph), and repetition of words like “surreal” (in case you didn’t get the dream-like quality from the rest of the description) or the comic-bookish “puissant,” with which he truly falls in love in Scar. (I am reminded of the word “invulnerable,” which was drilled into my generation by Superman comics.) I have no idea whether Miéville is coming up with interesting ideas about quantum mechanics, urban life, or social engineering, as some blogs would indicate. He just can’t write compelling fiction.
Let’s start with setting, or more appropriately for fantasy, world-building. This is where Miéville gets his highest marks from his fans. In Miéville’s first book, King Rat, two tendencies occur that continue into his Bas-Lag series: fascination with part-human, part-animal characters and sewage. King Rat, which takes place mainly in the sewers of London, features two rat people, a birdman, and a spider man. Perdido, the first Bas-Lag book, gives us bug-people, cactus-people, more bird-people, a species something like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, and the Remade, people who are cobbled together with other animal parts or machine parts in punishment for various crimes. Bringing in the Remade allows Miéville to indulge his penchant without creating entire species; thus in Scar we get a one of a kind squid/amphibian/man by the name of Tanner Sack and a steam locomotive woman named Angevine, along with mosquito-people, crayfish-people, scab-people, and more traditional vampires and ghouls. Born in 1972, Miéville has a long career ahead of him, and there is no reason to believe he won’t get half the London Zoo into his oeuvre before he’s finished. There is nothing wrong with lots of aliens, but one would hope that the steady parade would have a point, that it would tell us something important, perhaps, about being human. It doesn’t.
Getting back to the sewage. Stephen King once said that as a horror writer he wasn’t proud. If he couldn’t make his reader’s skin crawl, he’d go for the gross-out. Fair enough—I’ve enjoyed some Stephen King. But the pervasive mise-en-scène in King Rat and Perdido make the pages of King or scenes from, say, Alien, look like a sterile operating theater. Take the following as an example from Perdido, think of it as a thin to thick film that covers the entire novel, and you’ll have the atmosphere of Miéville’s first two books:
Five feet below them, the trench was filled with a noisome gelatinous soup of [s**t] and pollutants and acid rain. The surface was broken with bubbles of fell gas and bloated animal corpses. Here and there bobbed rusting tins and knots of fleshy tissue like tumours or aborted foetuses. The liquid undulated rather than rippled, contained by a thick surface tension so oily and strong that it would not break . . .
This “crapuscular” thread in Miéville’s writing is continuous, and he cooks along when he is writing about this subject. While looking at the ugliness of the world is part of the writer’s duty, I have a sense that the sheer repetitious volume of it in Miéville’s books is a fetish. Beauty, while not excluded as an idea, is never evoked by fine writing and is seldom mentioned. Bas-Lag’s relentless orientation toward ugliness makes it a cliché, as if the ugly were always more real, more sophisticated, than the beautiful. Miéville’s world is utterly thin. Probably no one will ever duplicate the depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but later writers like Ursula LeGuin and Robert Holdstock have created very deep and convincing worlds. The back-story of Bas-Lag is perfunctory. For example, in Scar, Tanner Sack is telling a story to his young friend Shekel. Compare this to the scene in Lord of the Rings when Frodo hears Aragorn singing about Beren and Luthien, which we know is “real” and important, even though we only get a snatch of it:
All right then.” [Tanner Sack continued] “So Darioch calls Crawfoot to him and shows him the Batskins on their way, and he says to him, ‘This is your [f**k]-up, Crawfoot. You took their stuff. And it happens that Salter’s away at the edge of the world, so you’re going to have to do the fighting.’ And Crawfoot’s bitching and moaning and giving it all this . . .
The reader is blessedly saved from more of this baloney when Tanner Sack’s story is interrupted—and Miéville is blessedly saved from having to work too hard to create an illusion of historical depth. That there is no story of Crawfoot and the Batskins is painfully obvious. Miéville’s “creativity” does not go deeper than this. It is as if he has a bottomless and disorganized desk drawer out of which he dumps new material into Bas-Lag, but little of it is developed or connected. How do all of these semi-human species come to exist in the same world? How is it that a culture that knows about petroleum is limited to steam engines? Why has no political structure larger than the city-state ever developed? A world with genuine historical depth, rather than off-the-cuff references to by-gone ages, would suggest answers to these questions. Tolkien’s masterpiece suggested answers because Tolkien had the answers—Bas-Lag fails because it hasn’t been imagined. All its depth is on the surface.
Plot? Rebels versus Authoritarians, although you can’t care for the rebels much. Arguably the most admirable character in all the novels is renegade scientist Isaac Grimnebulin, who at the end of Perdido uses his utilitarian calculus to justify killing an innocent old man, using him as bait to lure in monsters that must be destroyed to save his city, New Crobuzon. (Well, the guy was old and not much use anyway.) Perdido is a “bug-hunt,” Aliens in a new locale. It throws in that sci-fi cliché, the computer that becomes sentient and dangerous. (This one, in a feat of Darwinian “punctuated equilibrium,” assembles itself from the contents of a junkyard—well, given enough time, anything can happen, right?) Scar presents pirate/mad scientist/totalitarians versus the even worse New Crobuzon totalitarians. The Iron Council presents socialist train-riding totalitarian rebels against moreNew Crobuzon totalitarians.
Characters? There are none, only markers that move on the page. One of the great pleasures of reading is encountering people we care about. They don’t have to be good people. James M. Cain produced some of worst monsters in American fiction, but you can’t fail to care about the homicidal pairs of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity because we understand their longings and fears and regrets. The alchemy that makes this happen is not the result of conveying mere information about characters, but of using words to evoke an emotional response in readers that is synchronized with what the characters feel. Empathy is the fuel of great writing. Most novels, even bad ones, have some shred of this effect. I do not see this in Miéville. Never once am I led to care about the fate of one of his people. I am told in Perdido Street Station that Isaac loves his “xenian” mate Lin; I am even given some details in corroboration. But I’m never led to feel it—I’m told to take it as a premise.
The implied author? People love to read because they get interested in that shadowy character behind the narration, the mind telling the story. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are as much about Samuel Clemens’s voice as they are about the title characters. This is even true of modernist novels in which the storyteller works hard to remain anonymous—we get to know a version of Virginia Woolf when we read To the Lighthouse, and of Ernest Hemingway when we read even his most telegraphic short stories. Miéville’s authorial presence is as thin and machine-like as any character in his books.
This brings us back to Tolkien, who is far more complex than Miéville on any level, and at the same time, much clearer. The fundamental difference between these writers is moral, as Miéville clearly understands when he attacks Tolkien’s “absolute morality,” which “blurs moral and political complexity.” I believe it is more accurate to say that Miéville’s confusion about morality leads not to complexity but to triviality and muddle. Tolkien does believe in an absolute morality but his analysis of how people go wrong is anything but simplistic. We believe in Frodo and Sam and Galadriel, largely, because we believe in their shortcomings and see their potential for tragedy. We also have a moral scale, based on ultimate ends, on which their actions can be understood and evaluated. In contrast, it is hard to say that Miéville believes in much of anything, except frenetic and pointless creation, and so his characters remain psychological homunculi.
Unlike Tolkien, Miéville has no sense that human beings have an ultimate purpose, and, therefore, he cannot create characters who have an interesting trajectory. We just don’t care about them. They don’t care much about themselves. They fill up their time in “thaumaturgic” or scientific inquiry, or spewing out art, and so what? Like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, they are engaged in pastimes that have no meaning. The phenomenon of Miéville is finally more interesting than his writing. Do so many people read him with pleasure, not despite the lack of humanity in his books, but because of it? It’s a little like asking how so much tuneless elevator music has gotten into church hymnals. I’d like to know the answer to both questions.
Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno.