Review of Railsea by China Miéville

Title: Railsea
Author: China Miéville
Published: 24 May 2012 (first published 1 May)
Publisher: Macmillan
Genre: YA, action-adventure, science fiction
Source: review copy from Pan Macmillan SA
Rating: 8/10

Sham ap Soorap doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but for now he’s working as a doctor’s assistant on a moletrain called the Medes. The crew hunts the giant moles that burrow beneath the earth of the railsea – a land covered in endlessly lopping rails that can take you anywhere, but never in a straight line. Trains travel the railsea likes ships do the ocean.

Sham likes the travel but he doesn’t like the killing; what really excites him is salvage, the treasured junk of the railsea, left behind by previous generations and visitors from other worlds. When the Medes comes across a wrecked train,. Sham goes aboard, eager for treasure, and finds the catalyst for an epic adventure – footage of open land with only a single rail running through it. The very thought of such a place is dizzying. No one knows what lies beyond the railsea; it’s like travelling to the end of the earth.

Sham would immediately follow every clue from the footage to find the people pictured in it and learn more about that terrifyingly singular rail, but his captain isn’t remotely interested. Like many railsea captains, she’s chasing a ‘philosophy’ – a monstrously huge creature that, like a conventional philosophy, “embodies meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world” (85). In a homage to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Naphi’s philosophy is a giant ivory-coloured mole named Mocker-Jack (there was a real-life Moby-Dick named Mocha Dick). For Nahpi, the mole is a symbol, a “burrowing signifier”, and by chasing it she learns more about what it represents to her. She is literally on the hunt for knowledge.

Captain Naphi would never abandon her ivory philosophy, so Sham finds a way to make her obsession serve his. His actions spark a quest to travel beyond the boundaries of the known world, and captures the dangerous attention of pirates, salvors and anyone else who desires the treasures at the end of the world.

It could be said that this is China Miéville’s second YA novel (after Un Lun Dun), but I’d say it defies age. Sham and some of the other protagonists are teenagers, but don’t assume the ideal reader should be the same age. Instead, think of Railsea as a quintessential action-adventure novel about a daring journey of discovery and self-discovery. Out of the Mieville novels I’ve read, this is one of the most fun to read.

The plot is slow at first, but this is Miéville – his bizarre worlds deserve a proper introduction. Although it feels like fantasy, Railsea is a sci fi novel set on a far-future Earth. Our own time is described as “astoundingly long ago” (98) and the world has changed vastly. It has a steampunk feel thanks to the trains and odd tech, but I think of it more as junkpunk, because the world is defined by junk. This isn’t as bad as it sounds; junk is salvage, treasure, and there are explorers who spend their lives on the rails in search of it. The junk of our age is the ancient “arche-salvage”; more recent stuff is called “nu-salvage”. The most prized salvage, is “alt-salvage”, the weird, often incomprehensible objects left behind by aliens who used the planet as a dumping ground.

Their brief visits also changed the very structure of the world, its ecosystems, and its wildlife. Humans inhabit the railsea and the landmasses within it, but there are several other layers above and below. These are dominated by strange, mostly dangerous creatures. Some are gargantuan versions of our own animals and insects (there’s no full explanation for how this happened), while others are entirely alien. This might be a future world, but it has the sense of danger that characterises the old world, full of monstrous beasts normally found only in myth. People see the ground between the rails as poisonous, which comes across as silly superstition until Sham finds himself alone on the ground and is suddenly terrified of the creatures that could burrow up from beneath to eat him.

On the whole, Miéville’s worldbulding is simply lovely. In addition to the main narrative, there are lots of beautiful little infodump chapters in which he tells us about his world as if we were travellers, students and poets enraptured by the railsea. He also waxes lyrical about the story itself – the narrative, the point of view, the characters. This is very much a novel about storytelling and about myth. Early on, Miéville explains the structure of the world and mentions the littoral zone – the shore between the railsea and the land. To this he adds some local sentiment:

“Give me the inland or give me the open rails,” say both the railsailor and the landlubber, “only spare me the littoral-minded.” (29)

I love the wordplay here. The disdain for the “littoral-minded”, I think, is also an expression of disdain for the literal-minded, who I interpret to be those who cannot appreciate fantasy, sci fi, myth, or any other fiction that eagerly wanders beyond the factual. And perhaps it is also a warning against those who fail to appreciate metaphor and symbol, tools that make compelling, meaningful stories and which Miéville brings to life with his gargantuan philosophies.

The characters also have to face the problem of taking their own myths literally. This altered world comes with fresh creation myths, gods and religions. Who created the railsea? A common belief is that it was put in place by gods and is protected and maintained by fearsome angels. Another theory is that a fight between the gods are the start of the world caused the railsea to rise out of the earth. But can they really take this at face value? In the voyage to a realm beyond the railsea, the characters also find themselves exploring these myths and their origins.

And now, it must be said, that this quest makes for an absolutely fantastic story. The journey/quest/voyage is one of my favourite plots, and after a slow start, Railsea moves with the exhilarating speed of a runaway train. The novel also has some wonderful characters. My favourites were the unbelievably bold and determined Shroake siblings who head out into the unknown before anyone else and are never put off by what they might find or the many people who will try to kill them. The most adorable character is undoubtedly Sham’s pet daybat, Daybe, who is described at one point as a “brave and determined mouse-sized bodyguard”. You come to love and admire these characters, and then the novel throws them into thrilling, life-threatening, life-changing adventure. Miéville frequently writes the most enjoyably cerebral stories, but in Railsea he also delivers sheer unbridled entertainment. I think it’s definitely one of Miéville’s most fun, charming novels, and it’s an excellent introduction to the rest of his work.

Of course, it has the signature features that are the reason I love this author – the weird world, the metafictional musing, and an inventive way with words. Miéville, as always, makes up his own words to fit his world, and reading his wonderful writing always makes me think about language and meaning. One particular quirk in Railsea is the use of the ampersand – & – instead of the word ‘and’. It is used throughout, even at the beginning of sentences. It’s a little jarring, even annoying at first, but there’s a little chapter that explains exactly why it’s used, and you can’t help but like it after that.

If you know anything about my tastes, my enthusiasm will come as no surprise. Miéville is my hero and I will read anything he writes. I will admit that he’s not for everybody, but if I can take a stab at being objective, I’d say that Railsea is a more accessible, utterly gorgeous, exciting book and you should read it.

Buy a copy of Railsea at The Book Depository

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Cover Art Teasers: new books by Miéville & Pratchett

Today I found two exciting cover art reveals for upcoming releases. The first was for Railsea, China Miéville’s weird (obviously) take on Moby Dick. The second was Dodger by Terry Pratchett – a book I hadn’t heard about until now. They’re both children’s/YA novels, and although I don’t read much in that category, I’ll read pretty much anything that these two write, so I can’t wait to get a hold of their latest works.

For now, I’ll just have to gaze at the covers and try to be patient. Here is the Macmillan cover for Railsea:

Synopsis from Goodreads:

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

From China Miéville comes a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping and brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick that confirms his status as “the most original and talented voice to appear in several years.” (Science Fiction Chronicle)

Personally, I prefer the Random House cover, which has been out for a while:

Nevertheless I’d like copies of both if I can get them. Railsea is due for publication on 15 May 2012 by Random House, and on 24 May 2012 by Macmillan.

 

Here’s the cover for Dodger:

Synopsis from Goodreads:

A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage, in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he’s …Dodger.

Short and… a bit vague, but who cares? It’s Pratchett 🙂 I like the somewhat arrogant tagline. This is not a Discworld novel, but is set in Victorian London. Dodger is due for publication on 25 September 2012 by HarperCollins.

Giveaway! Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown is an amazing book. I don’t expect you to be convinced by that one sentence alone, so please read my review so you know what I mean. Because I think Embassytown is so awesome, I’ve decided to give a copy away. And because this is a new book and the paperback isn’t available yet, I’ll be springing for the hardcover edition. 

Yes, that’s right, one hardcover edition of Embassytown by China Miéville is up for grabs.

To enter:
1. Follow Violin in a Void via WordPress, email (sign-up in the sidebar) or Twitter (@Violin_InA_Void).
2. Leave a comment on this post.

Terms and Conditions

This competition is open internationally, to any region as long as Book Depository delivers there. The giveaway will last for 1 week, and entries close on Thursday 15 September at 12pm GMT+3. I will announce the winner shortly thereafter, after being selected using random.org.
Following by any means other than the three listed above doesn’t count, and I check all entries.
I use Book Depository to acquire and deliver prizes, and the availability of the hardcover edition depends entirely on them. Should it be out of stock when this giveaway ends, I will pursue other means of getting one, depending on your region, but if that doesn’t work out I will have to pre-order the paperback for you instead. But let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Good luck everyone!

Embassytown by China Miéville

Title: Embassytown
Author: China Miéville
Published: 2011 by Pan Macmillan
Genre:  science fiction, space opera
Source: Copy received from publisher for review
My Rating: 9/10

China Miéville said that he wanted to write a book in every genre. Embassytown (2011) is his experiment in science fiction, and more specifically, in space opera. And oh, what a beautiful piece of science fiction it is – elegant, cerebral, audacious. Sf might be the genre of ideas, but many of those once outlandish things have become tropes of the genre, as common and clichéd as love triangles or dark and stormy nights. It’s wonderful then, to read a novel like Embassytown, proving that sf can still push the limits. Not that Miéville ever disappoints in that department.

His space opera is less about exploring the universe than about using the possibilities of an infinite universe to explore ideas about language and communication. In the novel, Embassytown is a relatively small, parochial town on the planet Arieka, at the very edge of the known universe. There’s only one Embassy in town, and its function is communication with the Ariekei, the large insectoid aliens of the planet. The Ariekei (also known as ‘Hosts’) speak Language – yes, that’s language with a capital ‘L’, because it’s unlike any other in the universe. The only humans capable of speaking with them are the Ambassadors, who are specially bred and trained from birth for this purpose.

But then an “impossible” new Ambassador arrives from off-world, and the Ariekei react to his speech as though it were a powerful drug. Addiction spreads through both the Ariekei population and their biotechnology (‘biorigging’), dismantling the entire social and political system. It threatens not only the existence of the Ariekei, but also the humans of Embassytown who depend on Ariekene biorigging to survive on the planet.

Recording this momentous time in Ariekei and Embassytown history is Avice Benner Cho. Possessing an innate talent for immersion (space navigation), Avice left the backwater that is Embassytown for more exciting prospects. She returned only at the request of her husband Scile, a scholar fascinated by Language. Avice’s off-world experience gives her some influence within the Embassy, but she’s also important to the Ariekei, because when she was a child they made her a part of Language.

Miéville’s world-building  in this novel is superb because he’s created something very alien. It’s hard to grasp at first, but that strangeness is part of what makes the novel so fascinating. You feel like you’re literally exploring the unknown:

Had I ship-hopped in other directions, I could have gone to regions of immer and everyday where Bremen was the fable. People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace. Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion—of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech—go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost. It’s been this way for megahours, since women and men found the immer and we became Homo diaspora. (p.50)

‘Knownspace’, ‘exot’, ‘bansheetech’, ‘Homo diaspora’ – once again Miéville plays around with language, inventing and repurposing words for his world (he also has a tendency to use words described as ‘literary’ or ‘formal’ so keep a good dictionary handy). Some are easy to figure out; others escape understanding. I’m still not sure what the ‘immer’ is (hyperspace?) except as a vague idea that it’s some dimension of space and ships travel in it. But not being able to understand it is the point. According to Avice, only the few people capable of immersing know what the immer is. It’s impossible to describe:

The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on. (p.31)

It makes sense for this to be beyond understanding as well – having never travelled through space, encountered aliens, or lived on other planets, why should we be able to ease into this world with comfortable familiarity?

Not only is space conceived differently, but time, social structures and religion as well. Avice has the bad habit of giving her age in years, when she should be using subjective kilohours. But the years she uses aren’t Earth years anyway (at 11 she’s into her fourth marriage). Children are raised in communal nurseries by ‘shiftparents’. Avice has had two husbands and a wife, and her marriage to her fourth husband, Scile is registered as a “nonconnubial love-match” (p.40) because the couple soon found that they didn’t enjoy having sex with each other and would rather have it with other people. Christianity has survived in the worship of Christ Pharotekton.

Any one of these ideas could generate enough content for a whole novel, but Miéville uses them as the detailed backdrop for a more unusual story about language. Unlike every other known language, the Ariekei’s Language is not an arbitrary system of signs: in Language, “Words don’t signify: they are their referents” (p.80). I’ll explain – if I say or write the word ‘red’, it’s the sequence of sounds or letters that communicate the idea of the colour to you. But the sounds and letters have nothing to do with the colour itself. It’s only because we both use a traditional system of signs (English) that those sounds and letters are linked to the concept. The sounds and letters are interchangeable, as long as they’re part of a system, which is why we can have many different languages and alphabets.

In Language however, the word for red is synonymous with the colour itself. In Language, “each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for the word can be seen” (p.55).

These ideas about language are the basis of the linguistic theory I studied in literary theory classes at varsity. The novel certainly isn’t reserved for those who’ve studied linguistics, but going over the basics (I  re-read a few chapters of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916)) really helped me appreciate these ideas more. The Hosts’ Language differs fundamentally from everything we understand about language, and Miéville explores the implications of that.

The Hosts can’t lie. Because their words are linked to reality, they can’t say anything that contradicts reality. Because they can’t lie, they can’t use metaphors, as metaphors are essentially lies, saying that one thing is another. They can use similes, but they have to ‘create’ them first. In order to say “We are like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her” they must first hurt a girl in the dark and give her something which she then eats. As a child Avice performed this particular simile for them and so become part of Language. The Hosts ‘speak’ her, and by becoming a simile she makes it possible for them to say and think things that were inaccessible to them before.

Clearly, Language both enables and impedes thought and communication. With no metaphors and only limited similes, the Hosts can’t think about things in non-literal ways. Because their words aren’t arbitrary, aren’t interchangeable, they cannot learn any other languages, cannot even imagine other languages. For them, thought is impossible without Language, and they can’t conceive of those who don’t speak it as being sentient. Another quirk is that they speak using two voices that utter different words simultaneously. To be able to speak Language, the Ambassadors, therefore, are pairs of clones (doppels) who have been trained from birth to speak as if they are one person. They have names like CalVin (ie. Cal and Vin), MaBel, MagDa. The novel twists grammar a little to accommodate them – CalVin is not a ‘he’ but a ‘they’.

Then EzRa comes – the “impossible” Ambassador (I won’t say why). Technically, EzRa should be unable to speak to the Ariekei, but somehow they can. This impossibility enthrals the Ariekei, and that’s why his speech is like a drug – the Ariekei’s minds and bodies are overcome by an experience that they should not be able to experience at all. EzRa becomes a “god-drug”, a literal opiate of the masses as the Ariekei seek out his voice in desperate droves, abandoning all other activities.

It’s a pretty damning concept of religion. There are lots of other religious ideas and references in the novel. Some humans see Language as a pure, prelapsarian language, because words and meanings are indivisible, and the Ariekei are unable to lie. A few do try to lie, with great difficulty, and some humans are appalled by this – they think that if the Ariekei actually learnt to lie, they would parallel the Fall of Man by introducing deception to their race.

One idea I really liked is how this god-figure is a manifestation of the impossible – is that perhaps why gods are so alluring, why people are always looking for one? At any rate, impossibility is certainly part of the allure of sci fi and Embassytown is full of impossibilities; it’s part of what makes it such an amazing novel. The Ariekei’s biorigging, the Ambassador EzRa, his ability to speak Language, even Language itself – all these things are described as impossible at some point, yet they defy such limitations by their very existence. Even the resolution of the novel’s greatest conflict depends on defying the limits of possibility. And this is what sci fi, as a genre, should ideally strive for – to push beyond what we think we know, what we think we can do. That’s when it’s most exciting.

Although Embassytown is mostly slow-moving, requires patience and attention, and feels fairly academic at times, it’s a fascinating and rewarding read. Avice is a strong character and a well-placed narrator who also reflects on the way in which she is telling the story. She eventually beings this mostly quiet, contemplative narrative to an epic climax that, to my surprise, actually had me on edge. What I got in Embassytown then, was almost everything I value in a novel – interesting ideas, a good story, riveting tension. Perhaps it’s only flaw is that the story isn’t quite as strong and impressive as some of Miéville’s earlier work, specifically Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002). Not that that really matters – it’s still a top class novel that any fan of science fiction or literary fiction should pick up.

Buy Embassytown
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Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

Title: Un Lun Dun
Author: China Miéville
Published: 2007; pictured edition published 2011
Genre: YA, urban fantasy
Source: I have two copies actually, one received from the publisher, one received as a gift
Rating: 7/10

Zanna is the Schwazzy – the chosen one. Animals stare and bow at her. Strangers approach her in awe. But Zanna and her friends have no idea what’s going on. Then one night Zanna and her best friend Deeba see an umbrella crawling along the ground. They follow it and find their way in UnLonden, a bizarre otherworldly version of London where buses fly, the trash is alive, creatures like carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and the rubbish of London is transformed into strange new things (like living ‘unbrellas’). Deeba and Zanna encounter characters like Hemi the half-ghost boy and Obaday Fing, a clothing designer who makes “the hautest of couture” (39) from the pages of books and uses his own head as a pin cushion. They get followed by a cute little milk carton  who Deeba names Curdle and adopts as a pet.

But Deeba and Zanna have been drawn to UnLondon for a purpose. The city is at war with the Smog, a living, malevolent cloud of pollution that threatens to consume the city. According to an ancient prophecy, the Schwazzy will come to save UnLondon, but Zanna and Deeba aren’t too keen on this quest. UnLondon is very weird and dangerous, and they want very badly to get home as soon as possible. However, the citizens of UnLondon desperately want the heroine they’ve been waiting for, and Zanna starts to enjoy being treated with awe, while Deeba finds that she can be more than just the Schwazzy’s companion.

I really enjoyed Un Lun Dun. I don’t often read YA, but the ones that I do enjoy tell great stories without feeling dumbed down or childish. For that, Un Lun Dun is perfect. It’s adventurous and funny, but also creepy at times, and deadly serious when it needs to be. It’s a really clever novel with loads of cool ideas that never weigh the story down. On the downside, it is a tad long and can drag at parts, but overall it’s well worth a read. Miéville fans will instantly recognise his trademarks – a bizarre city, a plethora of weird characters, creatures and concepts, and a tendency towards the fascinatingly grotesque (downplayed here, as it’s YA). You’ll also find some of the themes he’s explored in other novels – the idea of a hidden city, accessible only by unconventional means (King Rat, The Scar, The City and the City), language and meaning (Embassytown), and some subtle comments on religion and scripture (Kraken). And, as with all Miéville novels I’ve read thus far, Un Lun Dun is incredibly rebellious, going against authority, corruption, and even language itself.

The latter is the most fun. The UnLondon ‘propheseers’ tells Zanna that “it’s been written, for centuries, that […] you will come and save us” (p.108). Because it’s written, no one questions the prophecy, least of all the book in which it’s written. The book itself is alive, can speak and is one of the most entertaining characters in the novel. Terribly self-important, it speaks grandly of its contents and patronisingly assures others of its truth:

‘And we know this because…?’ the book said expectantly.
‘Because it’s in the book?’ Zanna said.
The book said, ‘Bing!’ (p.113)

But then, at a critical moment in the prophecy, when Zanna is supposed to “prevail in her first encounter” with the enemy, one smack on the back of the head knocks her unconscious, and all sense of destiny and genre cliche collapse with her. The book is devastated, “This isn’t what’s written” (128) it despairs, and gets depressed “What’s the point? […] What is the point?” (130).

Deeba, however, was sceptical from the start and isn’t swayed by prophecies being proven false. Having made friends in UnLondon, she feels compelled to try and help them. So what if “[t]he destiny didn’t work out with the Chosen One” she says, “I’ll do it instead” (272). The book might have been wrong about some things, but it still knows how the Smog can be defeated, so Deeba renews the quest to defeat the Smog and win the war for UnLondon. The prophecy details the typical quest structure, requiring the hero(ine) to go on a journey to collect various artefacts from strange, dangerous places, eventually acquiring the ultimate weapon with which to defeat the enemy. At first Deeba follows the instructions to the letter, but as soon as the prophecy becomes impractical she doesn’t hesitate to deviate from the course, proving again that what’s written doesn’t have to be what happens. She doesn’t have the power of destiny to keep her safe and assure her victory – she has to get by with her own talents and courage and her quest (which makes up most of the book) has a sense of real danger and tragedy.

The whole thing with the book and its prophecies completely dismantles the authority of the written word, not to mention cliches of the fantasy genre (the chosen on coming to save the world). In addition, the novel is constantly playing around with language, showing how fluid and adaptable it can be. Some of its word games are phonetic. ‘Schwazzy’ is the phonetic spelling of ‘choisi’, the French word for ‘chosen’. ‘Un Lun Dun’ is the phonetic rendering of UnLondon, but it’s also the city’s war cry. The book’s title then – just a prefix and two nonsense words – has a double meaning that encapsulates the two major features of the story – the city and the war being fought within it.

Cover featuring one of the 'binja'

Other word games play with meaning. The bus conductor, for example, doesn’t just clip tickets but can use his body to conduct electricity. Miéville has also invented multiple words for his novel, using known words as building blocks. The ghosts of Wraithtown are also known as ‘wispers’ (wisp and whisper), referring both to their incorporeal states and the inaudible whispers they speak in. The ‘binja’ are dustbin ninjas (you’ll see them on the covers of some editions); ‘smombies’ are smog zombies; ‘abcities’ are cities like UnLondon, Parisn’t and Sans Francisco, all of which are both opposite and parallel to the cities we know.

Playing with these words, Miéville bends them to his purpose, but at the same time there’s still that awareness that words and language aren’t completely under your control. You see that most clearly when Deeba and her friends encounter Mr Speaker, ruler of the Talklands, where all speech must be authorised by him. Mr Speaker has a gargantuan mouth, and every word he utters is manifested as a small creature – an ‘utterling’ – that falls from his mouth. He promises to allow Deeba to continue on her journey if she pays him in words, but then breaks his promise. “I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT,” he booms, “A PROMISE IS WORDS. I’M MR SPEAKER! WORDS MEAN WHATEVER I WANT. WORDS DO WHAT I TELL THEM!” (296)

This is literally true for Mr Speaker – his every word becomes an utterling and he commands an army of them. But Deeba calmly points out the flaw in his reasoning: “Words don’t always mean what we want them to […] None of us. Not even you” (297). Words can be misinterpreted. Meanings can change over time. Words can have multiple connotations and listeners or readers might pick up on the unintended ones. As any author should know, once words are written or spoken you lose control over them and they’re open to interpretation. When the utterlings latch on to this idea, they rebel against the Speaker who uttered them.

Besides linguistic rebellion, Un Lun Dun has rebellion of the more conventional sort as a small group of bold individuals go up against a seemingly unstoppable force. The Smog threatens to take over UnLondon, and the image of this vast, poisonous cloud hanging over the city is an apt metaphor for hegemonic power. It’s evil, but it still has allies in the city because “there’s nothing so terrible that someone won’t support it” (111). And there are indeed some people who can benefit from an alliance with the Smog. Among the Smog’s allies are a group called the Concern. Their businesses use factories that create more emissions for the Smog to feed on, so they want to work with it. They have a slogan: E=A. Effluence equals affluence.

There’s an obvious capitalist critique here, coupled with strong environmental concerns (Miéville is an outspoken socialist, and his political perspective naturally influences his novels). The Smog was created during the Industrial Revolution, when the roiling mix of chemicals from the factories of London turned a cloud of pollution into a toxic “cloud-brain” (110). The pollution from modern (ie. capitalist) societies continued feeding it and now it has the power to consume a city.

At this point I’ve made it sound like the novel gets very heavy-handed, but I didn’t feel that it was. While these themes give it depth and class, the story comes first, making it a good read all round. Some readers have complained about the force of the environmental theme though, in which case I’d say that if you don’t like books with any kind of social commentary then it will most likely annoy you here. On the other hand, if you can appreciate books with a social conscience then go right ahead. It’s much lighter and more playful than Miéville’s other fiction and I think it’s a great choice for adults who read YA. I particularly recommend it for readers with an interest in language. Oh yes, and for young adults too 🙂

Buy Un Lun Dun
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Mieville’s new edition additions

Pan Macmillan has rejacketed China Mieville’s novels, coinciding with his latest release, Embassytown. As part of an outreach to South African bloggers, Pan sent me two copies of the new editions – Un Lun Dun (2007) and King Rat (1998) which I’ve reviewed. I’m feeling more than chuffed to have Violin get noticed by a major publisher, and I can’t thank them enough for my awesome new books 🙂

Check them out:

I love how striking they look, matched by contrasting textures: they have a matte finish, with glossy images and glossy embossed text. As a collection, the whole set would look impressive on a shelf thanks to the colourful spines:

But how do they compare to the previous covers? I actually already had copies of both of these books – I found a second-hand copy of King Rat at Rick’s in Pretoria, and I received Un Lun Dun as a going-away gift from my friend Barbara. Bibliophile that I am, these aren’t the first lot of double copies I own, because I like having different editions. And it means I could take photos to compare the new and the old:

With King Rat, I prefer the new cover. The old one is great conceptually, but it does nothing for me, and I’m a sucker for the matte finish and striking contrasts of the new cover. I prefer the old Un Lun Dun cover though. That dustbin with legs is so weird and intriguing, and I think the cover is much more stylish and creative than the new one which has a blockbuster-ish feel thanks to Mieville’s name in big glossy white letters. I think it’s wonderful that he’s become such a big name figuratively, but in terms of font size it can be just a little bit tacky.

Nevertheless, I think the new covers are still pretty cool, and the thought of seeing all those boldly coloured spines lined up on my shelf might just seduce me into getting the rest of them. I tried (not particularly hard, I’ll admit) to find good pictures of the other covers, but I just found this article on the rejacketing. No doubt more will be revealed soon.

Now to continue waiting not-so-patiently for my copy of Embassytown

King Rat by China Mieville

King Rat My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strong first novel from China Mieville, and a brutal, pacey thriller for fans of weird fiction and city-based fantasy (I avoid the term ‘urban fantasy’ because of its association with oversexed vampires). Saul Garamond is about to be conveniently accused of murdering his father when King Rat springs him from jail, using the surreal abilities of a rat. King Rat isn’t a literal rat – he appears as a tall, skinny human in a dark coat, reeking with the stench of the sewers. But he can scale walls and squeeze through impossibly narrow spaces; he’s fast, strong and can avoid being seen if he wants to. These are all skills Saul develops because, as King Rat reveals, he’s half rat and half human, as well as the Prince of rats. King Rat needs Saul to help him defeat the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the legendary hero who here becomes a horror-story villain with the power to charm humans and creatures with his flute. The King lost the trust of his subjects 700 years ago when the Piper led the rats to a mass suicide, and by killing the Piper he hopes to win back their respect and reclaim his kingdom.

He and Saul retreat to the relative safety of the London sewers, while in the city above the murder of Saul’s father is followed by far more horrific slaughters. Mieville complements his plot with a focus on Jungle music – its heavy, entrancing drum and bass makes the ideal soundtrack for a London underground and the threat of an uncatchable killer, but also the music in which the Piper can embed his captivating tunes.

In this novel you can spot quite easily the roots of The City and the City (2009) – the idea of one city hidden within another, existing in the exact same space, but visible only to those with the right perspective. It also plays with the idea of invisibility achieved not so much through the inability to be seen as the reflexive refusal of others to see you. While Saul can hide himself in the shadows if he likes, he can also walk the streets and be ignored – a consequence of his dirty, bedraggled appearance and his stench.

King Rat isn’t as impressive in ideas or scope as Mieville’s later works, Perdido Street Station (2000) or The Scar (2002), but the simpler story is able to move at a rapid pace, perfectly balancing the violent thriller plot with the dark world Saul finds himself in, and the uneasy relationship with the manipulative King Rat.