Thursday, January 12, 2006

Speculative Fiction

The family went to Florida for a week over Christmas break. I however, had to stay home and work. It wasn't too bad. The house was quiet. I wasn't constantly tripping over toys strewn about the house, and I got several nights of uninterrupted sleep (no children coming in at 2 AM claiming they just had a really bad dream and "can I sleep with you and mom?").

I also had time to do some reading. I mainly read science fiction, horror and fantasy with some mainstream novels, historical novels and a smattering of nonfiction thrown in. Lately its been British science fiction and there's some really interesting stuff out there.

First up: China Mieville

I hadn't heard of him before but I saw "Iron Council" in the book store, thought it looked interesting and bought it. What a wonderful book. I immediately went out and bought his other Bas-Lag novels "Perdido Street Station"and "The Scar". All three novels take place in the same world and if you're going to read them I'd recommend going in order starting with "Perdido Street Station". This is "literary" science fiction (or fantasy actually) at it's best. Mieville has created a world which has drawn comparisons to Mervyn Peak's "Ghormenghast" with good reason.

New Crobuzon is a once great city which over the centuries has fallen into decay. At one time the civilization must have been extremely advanced but much of the technology and knowledge has been lost. Some primitive steam driven machines and crude punch card computers are about all thats left. Magic or "Thaumaturgy" has developed in it's place. While reading these books I was also reminded of the world in Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series. Those books take place in a future world which has "moved on". Most technology has been lost and the people have reverted to an existence out of the American Old West.

Mieville's prose is beautiful and elegant but with a hard edge. His descriptions of places and events seem very real. One can feel the filth and decay; can sense the misery of the masses struggling to merely exist. The human and nonhuman species which populate New Crobuzon are mostly the downtrodden, the miserable, the lost. They're struggling against a corrupt and oppressive government only interested in maintaining power and a way of life for the priveledged few. Themes of racism, slavery and revolution are prevalent throughout the stories. New Crobuzon could be London 1000 years from now with all of societies ills and problems over the last 300 years alive and well.

The nonhuman species in the books are very well imagined. We don't actually know where these species come from. One or two may be actually alien. Some appear to be demons or beings that reside at least partially in another plane of existance. Many of the species seem to be mutated from insects or plants. There is an implication that there may have been some great disaster in the distant past (nuclear? thaumtaurgical?) that created these beings. This is never clearly stated. Then there are the "remade". These are humans who have for the most part been convicted of crimes and been punished by having their bodies surgically altered. Additional body parts and even machines have been grafted onto them and then they are made into slaves. The relationships between the human and nonhuman species are interesting and at times very moving. There is one cross species relationship in "Perdido Street Station" that is intimate and quite heartwrenching.

These three books taken together create an epic fantasy that ranks in the class of Peak or Tolkein. I hope Mieville's next work continues an exploration of this facinating world

Mieville's first book "King Rat" is something altogether different and yet it shares some common elements with the Bas-Lag novels. It's a take off on the "Pied Piper" tale. The setting is quite similar to Neil Gaiman's London in "Neverwhere". There are people living underground. There is dirt and decay. There is magic. Some of the main characters are insect or animal "gods", similar to characters in Gaiman's "Anansi Boys". I suspect "Neverwhere" influenced Mieville when he wrote "King Rat" and Gaiman was in turn influenced by King Rat in writing Anansi Boys. All three books seem to fit together.

Mieville also has a book of short fiction called "Looking For Jake" which I haven't yet read but plan to soon. He has also written a nonfiction book entitled "Between Equal Rights- A Marxist Theory of International Law" from Brill Academic Publishers. At $80.00 it's quite an expensive book so it may be some time before I try and tackle that one. Based on the title I think I know where Mieville's political leanings lie. Theme's of socialism are quite prevalent in the Bas-Lag books.

If you're looking for some interesting and beautifully written speculative fiction that will not only enthrall you but make you think as well then Mieville is for you. In future posts I'll talk about some other authors I'm currently reading.

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