Archive for ‘China Miéville’

December 31, 2011

China Miéville, Embassytown

For the sake of completeness – I realise I never reposted this review (originally written for Global Comment) here. This version is slightly longer than the original.



When China Miéville’s The City and the City won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2010, there was some debate over whether or not the book was really science fiction. With his new book there can be no doubt. The City and the City was a crime novel set in a fictional part of Eastern Europe: Embassytown is set on another planet.

Arieka (the planet upon which the city of Embassytown is located) is home to a race of aliens known to Terran settlers as “the Hosts” or the Ariekei. What they look like is never very clear. Miéville’s previous books have often contained creatures that cannot be adequately described except through fleeting glimpses – notably the Slake Moths of Perdido Street Station and the Grindylows of The Scar. We do know that the Hosts have “fanwings” which aid in communication, and that they have two mouths.

This last is important because the language of the Ariekei is unique. Firstly, they cannot tell lies. In this language there is no real boundary between the signifier and signified; the word is the thing itself. It’s a clever inversion; two tongues but only one meaning rather the the other way around. This inability to lie makes the use of metaphor rather complicated — the thing to which the comparison is being made must already exist in the world. The Terran narrator of the book, Avice Benner Cho (her initials ABC) is a simile. She is “the girl who ate what was given to her”; a description vague enough to be of use in many contexts.

Secondly, this language relies not only on sounds but on the mind behind them. The two mouths must speak simultaneously, and they must mean what they say, but they must also be motivated by the same consciousness. Most Terrans cannot speak the language: two may speak simultaneously, but unless they share the same mind to the Ariekei it’s so much gibberish. Hence the importance of the Ambassadors, pairs of Terrans who are genetically identical, and raised solely for this purpose. The Ambassadors are seen not as two people but as a single entity; with names like CalEb and MagDa, their individual components only meriting half a name. The events of Embassytown are set off by the arrival of an Ambassador of an entirely different kind, whose voice affects the Hosts in unexpected ways.

This is a setting that allows Miéville to explore various ideas around language and consciousness. There is, for example, the strange place that lying assumes in Ariekei culture. The nature of Ariekei language (referred to throughout as capital L Language) renders it “incapable of formulating the uncertainties of monsters and gods”, and so the Hosts have no religion. However, they do have “festivals of lies” at which people compete in trying to use Language to tell falsehoods. Lying has taken on an almost religious significance here; something beyond Language, impossible and yet apparently conceivable. This raises the question of whether it is even possible for something to be “beyond words”, a notion contested early in the book by Avice’s partner Scile, a linguist. The possibility of a language in which word and thing are the same brings to mind the first sentence of the Bible. If the Ariekei think of lies in semi-religious terms, various Terrans regard Language as an almost pre-lapsarian means of communication, and one that must, by virtue of its unsulliedness be preserved.

Equally, there is the question of the mind (and since religion has become involved, the soul). Are Ambassadors made up of two separate people, or are they one? Does Avice’s friend Ehrsul, an “autom”, have a soul? Can the Ariekei recognise individual Terrans as sentient beings (and not strange, half-minded creatures)? And are even regular human minds ever really that unified?

The issue of colonialism is also raised in the relationship between the Hosts and the Bremen Empire to which most Embassytown residents belong. The Hosts have advanced biotechnology, while the Terrans have the ability to travel and trade, a relationship that seems egalitarian. Yet the Terrans are backed by the larger might of an empire. Later events bear out the existence of a power imbalance, with connections made between colonialism and drug addiction (it is easy here to make a connection with imperialism in Asia) and the Hosts confronting their status as postcolonial subjects.

But this is itself is a bit of a problem for me. Because once you begin to read Embassytown as a book (partly) about colonialism and religion (and if you don’t subscribe to this reading all this is irrelevant), we have a book in which aliens who have their wonderful, prelapsarian innocence destroyed stand in for the brown people and the humans who travel around the universe spreading their culture are the white people. I don’t know how this connotation could be avoided (by making the Terrans not Terran? By having the Ariekei have a more visible cultural impact on the various groups who visit their planet?) Miéville deals with a rather fraught set of questions better than most, but it’s there, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Miéville answers very few of the questions he poses, exploring ideas without coming down on any particular side. It can feel slightly scattershot – there are more questions and leaps of thought from one idea to another than there is deep engagement with any single idea. And yet there are times when this works. Science fiction is often praised for an ability to literalize metaphor, and this is very clearly more a novel of ideas than one where plot, setting and character are central. But here we have something different. So much of the structure of the universe of Embassytown is unknown even to the characters that inhabit it – we learn early on that this is not the first universe there has been, and about the “lighthouses” in the immer, created by unknown peoples. Some of the most fundamental questions about the universe remain unknown. Such a universe is one in which questions can be debated; not necessarily one in which they can be answered.

Miéville’s language has always been both elaborate and richly allusive, and in a book about language this is even more evident. He coins words like “shivabomb” and “pharotekton” without explaining them, and in working out their etymologies the reader is reminded of just how dependant on metaphor our own language is. A number of words are derived from German, since the “Bremen” empire is involved. The indescribable alternate space through which people travel vast distances through space is called the “immer”, German for “always”, while the space we habitually exist in is the “manchmal” or “sometimes”. But “immer” also allows for the word “immersion” to describe space travel.

It’s when the characters are talking about language that Miéville stumbles a little. I’m not sure the concept at the centre of the book (how Language works) holds up, but I was willing for the duration to suspend disbelief and treat it as an intellectual exercise rather than a matter crucial for the functioning of a plot. Avice’s circumstances make it seem natural that she should be able to speak knowledgeably about language (and I appreciate the author’s willingness to use critical terms). Yet some of her explanations seem rather unnecessary. “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.” Indeed, and it’s an apt analogy, but the reader who is familiar with such basic structuralist terms as “langue” and “parole” has probably figured this out. The linguist character, Scile, repeatedly explains things that the text is already making quite clear.

Yet Embassytown (mostly) works. It is unabashedly an intellectual exercise, and at times its characters seem rather lifeless. But it is bursting with ideas, language well used, and is occasionally a good story. These things make it easy to forgive much.


May 31, 2010

May Reading

My reading this month included a number of books I’d read before and quite a bit of fluff (these two mostly overlapped). In addition to the books mentioned here, I’m still dipping in and out of Helen Merrick’s wonderful book The Secret Feminist Cabal. I’ve also just gotten hold of Gwyneth Jones’ Imagination/Space, also published by Aqueduct (here’s a good review). And I’m in the middle of a reread of Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur. I’ll be reading City of Ruin when I’m done. Other books I’m hoping to finish in June include Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (I started it today and love it so far) and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, which I first heard of a few months ago when Batuman wrote this gorgeous piece for the Chronicle. Assuming that her writing is generally of this calibre, this looks like being a remarkable book.

And so on to the books (in no particular order).

G.V Desani – All About H. Hatterr: I started reading this in April. I loved it; it’s challenging and playful and generally wonderful. I wrote more about it here.

Jesse Bullington – The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart: I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing. It’s incredibly smart, frequently very funny (the brothers’ theological debates in particular), and I absolutely love the cover art. And yet somehow it just did not click for me. I may be missing something obvious, since most reviews I’ve read of it have been overwhelmingly positive. I can’t pinpoint anything that the book did wrong (except maybe the cod academic framework which felt wholly unnecessary) so clearly we were just not meant to be. I will say this for Bullington, his writing is effective. He managed to make me feel rather queasy on two occasions. There’s one particularly unpleasant rape scene, and another scene that I do not wish to spoil for anyone, but between this and Paul Jessup’s “It Tasted Like the Sea” I may never eat fish again.

O. Douglas – Olivia in India: Someone on a mailing list that I read mentioned O. Douglas and I looked her up. I was rather surprised to find that she was John Buchan’s sister. A couple of her books were available on project Gutenberg, and I picked this one to start with. I was a bit wary of a book written in 1912 about an Englishwoman’s travels in India, but found myself charmed anyway. The book is a series of letters from a young woman (who is travelling to India to meet her brother) to an unnamed young man. The colonialism is inevitable, but for the time surprisingly not offensive. Olivia actually engages with India, which is rather nice. Occasionally the attempt to be charming and quirky gets a bit much, but on the whole this was very likeable indeed.

Rick Riordan – The Percy Jackson series: I finally watched the Percy Jackson movie and while it was pretty good I felt that the pacing was off and it was a lot less clever than the books. This made me reread all five books in the series as well as Percy Jackson: The Demigod Files, a slimmer volume containing three short stories and some mock interviews of characters in the series. The series is fantastic; The Demigod Files is insubstantial.

Georgette Heyer – Frederica: I read Heyer when I’m tired, which is why some of her stuff seems to pop up here every month or so. Frederica is not her best, but it is quite good and has a hot air balloon and steam engines. Which makes it practically steampunk, right? Right?

Lisa Kleypas – Suddenly You: This was recommended by a friend who thought I would enjoy a Victorian publishing romance. It was nice and started off very well indeed. But I felt it threw out a number of lures for places that the story could possibly go, and then went nowhere. It’s a little unfair to judge a romance novel for not being more than a romance novel so I can’t really blame it for failing to take up the publishing angle, or the child abuse angle, or… (there were quite a few such angles). But I would have liked a better structured plot, at least.

China Miéville - Kraken: My review is here. My reaction was largely positive, but with a few caveats. Watching Miéville having fun and being a geek was nice.

Mark Mellon – Napoleon Concerto: I’m supposed to review this for someone so I won’t say much here. This is an alternate history steampunk novel set in Napoleonic France. I’ll be linking to my review when it is up.

Nick Mamatas – Under My Roof: I am a bit of a Mamatas fangirl, for various reasons. This probably means that I am biased, but I loved this book to pieces. It’s a hilarious, slim book about a telepathic 12 year old whose father has built his own nuclear weapon (it’s inside a garden gnome on the lawn) and declared independence from the United States. It’s very smart and very political and entirely lovable and I’m surprised more people have not read it.

Julia Quinn – The Bridgerton Series: I did not reread all of the Bridgerton books this month. I read four; The Viscount Who Loved Me, An Offer from a Gentleman, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton and To Sir Philip with Love. There’s not much to say about these – none of them was a particularly strenuous intellectual exercise. But I love Quinn and I’m really looking forward to Ten Things I Love About You (review here).

Jon Courtenay Grimwood – Pashazade: Another alternate-history novel. Ashraf Bey arrives in Al Iskandriya and is immediately embroiled in a murder mystery. Fast paced and clever and massively entertaining. I suspect I’d need a second read to attempt any sort of critique (and I think there are aspects of it that could do with some examining) but I found it extremely enjoyable.

John Gardner – Grendel: I recently confessed on twitter that I had not read this, though I’d meant to for a while. The recommendations of a couple of people who had read it convinced me not to put it off any longer. I’m glad, it’s stunning. There’s not enough space here for anything like a review – and since I finished it only a couple of days ago I think I’d like some time to think about it and possibly return to Beowulf - but it’s a glorious book.

Georgette Heyer – Lady of Quality and Black Sheep: These two books are the same book: discuss.

May 29, 2010

Squid pro quo

Today’s Indian Express has a short review I wrote of China Mieville’s Kraken. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but thought it was a bit flabby and relied too much on its references to pop and geek culture. I could not resist using the Express’ gloriously bad pun in the title. (The repetition in that last paragraph is all my fault).


The main attraction for visitors to London’s Darwin Centre is a perfectly preserved giant squid, Architheusis dux (Archie to those who work there). Then one day it disappears, tank and all, without a trace, and Billy Harrow, a museum curator, finds himself the target of a number of very strange people. With this, the reader and Billy are thrown into an alternative London, replete with squid-worshipping cults, rival gangs (one of them ruled by a terrifying sentient tattoo) and unionising animals; where a special branch of the police force exists to control supernatural happenings. It’s a London where one can literally read the entrails of the city to divine the future. And everyone seems to think that the world is about to end.

China Miéville was recently awarded an Arthur C. Clarke award for his 2009 novel The City & the City, making him the only author ever to have won the award three times. His latest book, Kraken, is a comic, allusive adventure story set in London. This is far removed from the dense, baroque language of Miéville’s earlier books. If anything, it is closest in style to his young adult novel Un Lun Dun. This does not, however, mean that it’s an easy read. Like any Mieville book, Kraken is brimming with ideas, about (among other things) groups and fandom and cities and religion and belief. It’s also Mieville’s least restrained work yet.

The book reads as a loving tribute to geekdom, a gleeful tour of all that growing up as a science fiction fan entails. The fascination with cephalopods and tentacles has been a big part of geek culture for a while now, and is traceable back to the pulp horror writer H.P Lovecraft. There are references in the text to other major writers who have influenced Miéville, including J.G Ballard and Michael Moorcock. There are a number of references to Star Trek: Wati, a disembodied revolutionary spirit, spends much of the novel communicating with the other characters by inhabiting an action figure of the original series’ Captain Kirk. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, another fantasy novel set in London, gets a nod in the form of Goss and Subby, two apparently immortal assassins who call to mind Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar. There’s even an element of The X-Files in the interaction between Vardy and Collingwood, members of the special police.

Last year, Booker judge John Mullan dismissed the entire Science fiction genre as being “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other”. Miéville has been critical of this extremely reductive (not to mention ignorant) view of the genre. Yet Mullan’s description seems a strangely apt description of the world Billy enters. It’s far too tempting to point to the parallels between the cult-filled underbelly of Kraken’s London and science fiction fantasy fandom itself. In part this is because the preoccupations of this world (giant squid! Atlantis!) are so fannish. Miéville makes the connection even stronger with the introduction of Simon Shaw, a character who is both a “Trekkie” and a part of the supernatural underground.

Far more than being a book about fans, though, this is a book for that “special kind of person”. If you grew up watching Star Trek, reading Moorcock, playing Dungeons and Dragons, Kraken is an utter delight.

But this may actually be the book’s biggest flaw. At times it appears more an act of redamancy towards the genre than an actual novel. Plot is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of a pun, or a clever allusion. The conclusion is clever but it is unnecessarily dragged out, to the point that we end up having multiple “final showdown” moments.

With a little more of the discipline and rigour that characterise some of Miéville’s other works, Kraken could have been brilliant. Yet a Mieville book is always worth reading. Kraken is the product of a fascinating mind at play, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

May 26, 2010

Some Book links

…a few things I’ve been meaning to link to:

Paul Charles Smith recently reread Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan trilogy. My love of Peake is well known to those who have been reading this blog for a while, but if I haven’t yet convinced you of his greatness I hope that Paul will.

Adam Roberts has been reading (for the first time, and I suspect it will be the last) Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. Fans of the series may not find these posts entirely enjoyable, but I think they’re excellent. A sample:

As Samuel Beckett’s career progressed, his writing became more and more pared down, less and less verbal, increasingly approaching the asymptote that was at the heart of Beckett’s bleak vision: silence. The great, productive paradox at the heart of Beckett was that one of his century’s greatest verbal artists mistrusted the ability of words ever to articulate truth—not just particular arrangements of words but verbal art itself. The Unnameable, in that near-sublime novel, says: ‘I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’ For him silence is ‘the only chance of saying something at last that is not false.

To step briskly ab sublimi ad ridiculus, Jordan’s career manifests something similar. Insofar as Heroic Fantasy is a fundamentally narrative artform, to which readers go in order to experience the pleasure of following the movement of characters through time, Jordan says: no. Wotix is the closest he has yet come to a book that disperses that force of narrative momentum—that great strength of the novel as a mode—into a great swarm of indistinguishable coexistent characters and non-progressions. If the traditional novel takes the shape of a quest, a linearly horizontal progression through narrative time, Wotix explodes that linearity in a bewildering near-dimensionless knot or tangle of non-progression.

The above, combined with their shared connection with Russia, makes me wonder if Roberts is distantly related to the Pandeys.

Larry Nolen has also been reading the Wheel of Time books, though in his case these are rereads. He’s generally worth a read, and though he’s kinder to the books than Roberts, these are still thoughtful, critical, and funny.

Casting actors for imaginary movie versions of books is generally great fun (and something I have spent far too much time on). A few months ago Gail Carriger discussed who she would like to see play her characters here. I love most of her choices, except that Paul Bettany would clearly make an ideal Professor Lyall.
Now Celine Kiernan has a competition up on her blog where you get to cast her three main characters for the chance to win the trilogy – which means getting hold of The Rebel Prince many months before the rest of us. And then I will be forced to hunt you down and commit violence upon your person. Go look.

Gav at the NextRead blog has been hosting a short story month. Plenty of excellent story recs there, but here I am talking about an Edith Nesbit story that I love.

You’ve probably already read Sridala Swami’s interview of China Mieville. If not, do so immediately. I admire both of them, and they seem like they’re both really enjoying this conversation.

And while on the subject of Mieville, Jonathan McCalmont wrote this epic review of The City and the City. I liked the book rather a lot when I read it last year. But it’s a good review – I’ve only recently discovered McCalmont and so far I’m a fan.

Also, Roswitha (like me) has been keeping a record of everything she reads this year. She’s also (unlike me) a wonderful writer, and her Book Munch posts are a joy to read.

Finally, and not particularly book related: Aadisht is now writing an opinion column for Yahoo India. The first two columns are here (I took that picture!). I may be biased, but I think they are hilarious. Sanjay Sipahimalani and Jai Arjun Singh are also writing for yahoo. Nothing but good can come of this.

March 8, 2010

Miéville in India links

As most of the people who read this blog already know, China Miéville was in India last week (I think he’s here for most of this as well) as part of the British Council’s LitSutra programme. I’ve been enjoying the Litsutra blog over the last couple of days – it turns out that the people organizing this thing are also pretty good writers. Krish Raghav has a piece up on the Mint books blog about the Delhi event with Samit Basu. There was also an event at JNU the next day – unfortunately the people at JNU seemed to think they’d be getting a reading from Kraken and an interactive session, while the author had been told he was supposed to be giving them an academic paper. It all resolved itself quite happily; the reading was excellent (though some of us had heard it the night before) and the discussion of SF that followed was reasonably academic – I may refer back to it soon when I read Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia.

For me, though, the highlights of the whole thing were discovering that Miéville had read this blog (he recognised said nice things, I stood and looked horrified and wondered if I’d ever written anything here that I’d be embarrassed to say to his face) and, possibly more significantly, confirming for myself that he really was a Samuel Beckett person. For various reasons this was very important.

Incidentally, judging by the chapter I heard read out twice, Kraken is going to be brilliant.

December 24, 2009

Not a best books of 2009 list

Right, books published in 2009 that I am most likely to remember/think about/return to. It’s probably obvious from this list that pretty much everything I read this year was YA and/or SFF. That is, when I wasn’t reading school stories for the thesis.

In no particular order:

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. When I talked about this book a few months ago, I was speaking more about the book’s reception than the work itself. In case it wasn’t clear though, Lanagan is an amazing writer. The book is intense and lyrical (and never overwritten) dark and absolutely gutted me, and it’s going to be a long time before I read it again. But I will read it again, and I’m very glad I read it the first time.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Young adult, steampunk, alternate history, flying whales. I was expecting this to be really good no matter what. And I absolutely loved it; I love Westerfeld’s protagonists (Deryn more than Alek), Keith Thompson’s illustrations are fantastic (my laptop wallpaper is currently his map of Europe), and this just all-round worked. The only thing I could have asked for is more politics. But Behemoth, the next book in the series is out next year and as far as I can tell focuses on a diplomatic mission to steampunk Constantinople*. So it looks like I’ll be getting what I wanted.
Incidentally, Leviathan‘s on sale at the Waterstones website here.

Soulless by Gail Carriger. Another alt-history novel, set in Victorian England. Alexia Tarrabotti deals with her Italian ancestry, her big nose and her growing attraction to (werewolf) Lord Maccon while solving a mystery and fending off rogue vampires with her trusty parasol. If this was a best books of 2009 list this book would not be on it, much as I enjoyed it. I can see plenty of things wrong with it, it’s not that original, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed my life in any way (except maybe as a stepping stone towards getting my boyfriend to read Austen). I think you’d have to be a romance novel fan to really get how hilarious Carriger’s book is. But in a year when I discovered Loretta Chase (thank you, Pradipta), rediscovered Sarah Caudwell, and turned frequently to Heyer and Wodehouse for solace, Soulless really held its own beside all this other clever, funny fluff. Which is actually a pretty huge compliment.

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett. It still amazes me that Pratchett manages to come out with a book a year, usually good and usually on or around my birthday. Unseen Academicals isn’t the best he’s ever written, particularly coming after last year’s amazing Nation. But it’s a good book, and I treasure each one of these now more than ever.

The City and The City by China Miéville. This is my book of the year. I love the genres it’s playing off, I love the concept, and I love Borlu’s voice. There’s a regular-size review of it that I wrote floating around the internet somewhere, so I’m not going to say much more. But it is amazing and if you have somehow managed not to read Miéville yet you must rectify the situation at once. Apparently next year we get Miéville + tentacles, which sounds about perfect.

Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton. I discovered Newton this year and spoke a couple of months ago about The Reef, his first novel. NoV appears at first a more conventional fantasy than The Reef. It’s a dying earth story and it is rather good. I still feel like Newton’s prose occasionally drops into clunkiness and some of the book’s subplots were a lot less original than others (*cough* Randur) – but I like how his head works and he has some serious world building skills. And so I’m pretty excited about City of Ruin, which comes out next year (and I love that cover more each time I look at it). 2010 looks like it’s going to be a pretty great year, bookswise.

The Ask and The Answer by Patrick Ness. Technically I read both of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking books this year, but only TA&TA was published in 2009. I’ve talked about it a little here, and I’m not going to add much to that except to urge people once again to read these books. They’re authentic and thoughtful and painful, and just incredibly good.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This is the only book on this list that I actually disliked. But I never said these were my favourite books of the year, and The Magicians really is a fascinating read. Because it’s about reading fantasy – right at the beginning of the book Quentin thinks about how the Fillory (Grossman’s version of the Narnia series) books function as literature, and Grossman plays around with that idea throughout. Which is great, and the sort of thing I was likely to enjoy even when the book made it a little too obvious. What ruined it for me were the characters. I don’t ask that my characters be flawless, and I suspect I’d be bored to death if they were. But I felt such a strong, irrational repulsion for Grossman’s characters that however much I liked the idea of what the author was trying to do it simply didn’t work for me. But The Magicians is here because it’s interesting, because it came very close to being something I could really enjoy, and it’s certainly worth reading.

2009 books that I still haven’t got hold of and really, really want to:

Finch, Jeff Vandermeer
Liar, Justine Larbalestier
Ash, Malinda Lo
You Might Sleep, Nick Mamatas


June 16, 2009

Unnecessarily long and disjointed thoughts on Tolkien (part 1)

(I cannot guarantee that I will subscribe entirely to this post tomorrow)

China Mieville on Omnivoracious provides us with some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien:

For some of us, there’s always been something about this tradition–and it’s hard to put your finger on–vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were ‘as cold as their marble’.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies–Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

(Unrelated: Mieville is a Garner fan. *squee*)

A few months ago, Richard Morgan wrote this post about Tolkien’s work (well. Lord of the Rings) and said some interesting things. And he’s right up to a point – that line from Gorbag opens up a whole new set of possibilities. I want that story, I want to know what life is like in inner city Mordor, I want to know what it means to be an orc, and ugly, and evil (but not with free will, or presumably some orcs would choose not to be evil – and if you don’t have free will can you be evil?). Tolkien chooses not to tell it.

There are other stories he chooses not to tell. The blue wizards, Alatar and Pallando – I could have done with a bit more about them. The East in general. What was happening to the less-Caucasian men while the Numenoreans were busy enacting the Atlantis myth. Haleth (who is kickass). Maybe some more actual soldiers in the war – that dead guy from Harad who Sam feels sorry for for a few minutes. He did actually start writing one story I wanted to read – “Tal-elmar”, set in Middle-earth when the Numenoreans begin to return. It is quite possible that if he’d gone on with it he’d have screwed it up and been hopelessly racist (more than the story already is, I mean) and I’d be very annoyed. It’s unfinished, though, and so certain possibilities are left open.

I actually subscribe to most criticisms of Tolkien. Including this one, also by Mieville. And bits of this one by Moorcock. And of course I did not know the man personally, have no real access to his mind, and cannot know what he was aiming for when he wrote what he wrote.

But more and more I find myself seeing him as a man who was really into structure. The Silmarillion is an obvious example of this. It’s not the history of a race, it’s a mythology. It is told in exactly the way such a mythology would be told. The minute you come to that conclusion, you’re asking who the “teller” of the Silmarillion is. And it’s no longer how Tolkien envisioned the history of the elves, it’s how Tolkien thinks the elves would tell their own history. This is probably obvious to many of you, but it took me about 10 years to figure out.

The Lord of the Rings is, as Morgan says, about “the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins)” (and at the risk of being attracting his contempt I’m willing to admit that I find that stirring and often moving) because that’s the sort of text it is. That’s the structure it’s modelling itself upon. Very rarely do I feel any deep interest in all these noble people, because it’s not really about them. And things like realworld racial issues, realworld gender issues, realworld class issues; those things that affect so many actual people may have no place in this grand Good vs Evil narrative, and black and white as colours for your characters can be Archetypes if you’re willing to not think about their implications for actual people of colour. So when he leaves out the stuff that’s actually happening in the world he’s living in, I’m not sure if it’s because he’s “in full, panic-stricken flight from it”. You could criticise Tolkien’s choice of this form - it’s probably easier to choose a literary form that allows you to ignore this stuff if you’re a white dude in Britain. But having chosen it, you would hardly expect the books to offer any deep insight into the human condition.

What interests me is actually how much he allows to slip through the cracks.

Take the battle in The Two Towers, between the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings. Saruman has fired up the Dunlendings by reminding them that the Rohirrim took their land centuries ago (The movie version shows this bit rather well, incidentally). Tolkien never addresses this or tries to prove that the Rohirrim were justified, or that Gondor had a perfect right to take land from one group of people and give it to another. Now you could assume that this is because it’s self-evident within the text that Gondor and Rohan have a right to do whatever they like (also the Dunlendings are kind of swarthy). But it’s open; an accusation has been made and not disproved, the Rohirrim are no longer unstained, and the Dunlendings might actually have a point.* That’s pretty big.

And there’s that bit Morgan points to, where the Orcs turn human, just for a moment. And (however much he may fail at women in general) Gandalf explaining to Eomer that Eowyn’s life was actually not that much fun. And the deliberate use of Merry and Pippin who, when they’re not being the comic relief, are the most human things about the text. It’s not enough, but that it’s there at all frequently fascinates me.

Which would probably be a good reason for me (an adult) to read “something like that” even if it didn’t move me as much as it so often does.

(Part 2 will follow, containing my own list of things to love Tolkien for and insightful insights into the trouble with literary criticism about the man! Eventually.)

* I’m not going to talk about Tolkien and colonialism here. Mainly because I recently wrote a 7000 word paper on it, and anything less than 7000 words would seem simplistic and not really what I want to say. But I do recommend that you read (if you can) Elizabeth Massa Hoiem’s “World Creation as Colonization: British Imperialism in “Aldarion and Erendis”” in Tolkien Studies Vol.2. It’s rather excellent.

March 20, 2009


Amazon appears to be selling China Miéville’s The City and the City (along with quite a lot of their other SFF) at a discounted rate. I have already ordered my copy and I’m entirely convinced that it is going to be an incredible book. I thought the internet might want to know.

(I am not paid to randomly gush about Miéville on the internet. I do it entirely for personal satisfaction)

November 2, 2007

I come bearing Links

Five from Feminism

1. Via feministing , this article by Michael Smerconish. Feminists want to keep our vaginas to ourselves! gasp! Priceless stuff:

The feminists, it seems, have a proprietary interest in female

Um. Yes, I do in fact feel a sense of proprietorship over my own genitalia.

Unlike the starkly clinical vagina, I see a vajayjay as a happy and
inviting place, with a warm and fuzzy connotation. Vajayjay says “hello . . . welcome” and “open for business.”

…I’m not even going to go there.

2. Via anonymouse (favoured commentor and geek extraordinaire) this marvellous post and its equally marvellous comments thread by Zuska.

When I was little, even when I was starting out as an engineer in college, I never thought to myself “gee, I hope I grow up someday to spend exorbitant amounts of time thinking about how crappy things are for women in science! Because that will sure be a great way to spend my days!”

It’s especially interesting if you read it in conjunction with Megha’s post and comments here. I find some of this stuff fascinating, because in the humanities approaches to gender are rather different.

3. Via Feministe again, it turns out female genital mutilation is perfectly acceptable if it’s to stop your 13 year old daughter from having sex. What I find incredibly creepy about this (you know, apart from the fact that the mother and the jury thought FGM was an acceptable solution) is that one of the indicators of the child being “completely out of control” was that she had sex with her mother’s 30 year old boyfriend. 30 year old man has sex with 13 year old girl. And this is the girl’s fault? He couldn’t stop this from happening (doesn’t this mean he’d committed statutory rape?) and the solution to this was to pierce the child’s genitals?

4. Also via Feministe, this story about a 15 year old boy who was gangraped in Dubai.

The authorities not only discouraged Alex from pressing charges, he, his family and French diplomats say; they raised the possibility of charging him with criminal homosexual activity, and neglected for weeks to inform him or his parents that one of his attackers had tested H.I.V. positive while in prison four years earlier.

5. And from a number of sources, an incident of rape telecast on Big Brother in South Africa.

This is okay, according to the man who did it, since “Well, this is Africa”. Wtf.

…and five from Elsewhere

6. Some of you have seen this before, but this brilliant Beckett for Babies post made me ridiculously happy when I was linked to it a month or so ago.

I revisited the CrookedHouse blog today and read some of the recent posts, and have decided that this is one of the funniest, most likeable blogs I have read in ages. So. Yay. Go there.

7. From CrookedHouse to CrookedTimber (groan). An amusing discussion o

n China Miéville’s article for In These Times. I begin to suspect I need an Evil Sexy China Miéville tag. (Elizabeth Bear’s frequent references to EvilSexyLeonardCohen are to be blamed for this)

8. In the unlikely event that you are an Indian science fiction and fantasy writer and you read my blog but not Samit’s (you are very strange, I must say), go here.

9. Here is an Alan Garner essay. Because Alan Garner is such a wonderful writer.

10. And since most the first set of links are so incredibly depressing, here are some pandas kissing. (Thanks Agata!) Certain Readers may now mock my adoration of things cute and fuzzy. In fact, I will go further. Here are some otters holding hands! (defiant glare)

January 23, 2007

Miéville love.

I managed to completely embarras a friend today when I squealed to see the new China Miéville book (Un Lun Dun) in a bookshop today, before buying it and caressing it all the way home (while making little gurgling noises). When I got home, someone on LiveJournal had linked to this interview with him. It’s a good interview, covers a lot of his work and is generally fun.
Some of the good bits…though I’d recommend the whole thing:

Just because I’m curious: Who is the grandfather of Yagharek – Vishnu or Borges?

The Monster Manual in Dungeons and Dragons.

IC seems to be written by a disillusioned Berthold Brecht on LSD.

This may be my favourite description ever!

The political and metaphorical layer seems to create some kind of distance to the characters which reminds on Brechts “Verfremdungseffekt” in which the spectator should get in distance to the characters on stage to see their mistakes and to get the chance to make it better.How conscious did you develop and use this effect?

I didn’t want to distance to the extent of making the world unbelievable. But I was interested in the Brechtian technique, which was why the Flexible Puppet Theatre use Brechtian techniques. So I guess I’d say it was less Brechtian than meta-Brechtian.

Especially as a gay man I am always thrilled about gay protagonists in a phantastic novel but in IRON COUNCIL I didn’t understand the relevance of cutters homosexuality because it had no meaning to the storyline itself. Could you please tell us what your motivation was to make a gay person to one of the main characters?

I think it a shame that the homosexuality of characters always has to be what a book is ‘about’. I wanted Iron Council to be a love story, but the two characters were emerging in my head as both male, which meant that to have them in love, they were going to be gay. That’s the order of the events, not starting by deciding I wanted a gay character. Of course having realised that they’d be gay, I wasnt’ going to pretend that that wouldn’t have ramifications in that world, but it was never supposed to be *about* homosexuality. Just to feature two gay characters. Or to be more exact, one gay character, and one sort of abstractly polysexual character.

And now I must go and work on a paper (which, incidentally, also features Mieville). I am overworked and consider myself most ill used.