Miéville is one of my favourite authors: acutely political, wildly imaginative and linguistically sparkling.
I discovered him through Perdido Street Station and adored the sprawling city of New Crobuzon: mercantile, rapacious, brutal but utterly compelling. It is a city populated by renegade scientists, scarab-headed khepri, eagle faced garuda, the amphibian vodyanoi, the cactacae and brutally Remade criminals. And badgers. This entire melting pot of a city – which reminds me of the bastard child of Ankh-Morpork and William Blake’s London – is in the shadow of the towering ossified ribs of some unfathomable creature.
Since I read Perdido Street Station, I have delved into Miéville’s more real-world novels, The Kraken, The City and The City as well as the sublimely gorgeous (allegedly) Young Adult Railsea. I had however skipped the other two books in Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy: The Scar and Iron Council.
The Scar is a sequel to Perdido Street Station only tangentially: the events take place in the same world and follow on chronologically but we have a completely different set of characters and setting. And races.
Save for a few interludes, we follow the novel through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine, a somewhat acerbic, chain smoking cynic, fleeing New Crobuzon for its distant colony Nova Esperia. That journey is interrupted, however, when Bellis and her fellow passengers and entire ship are taken by pirates and subsumed into the floating city of Armada.
Armada is a fabulous creation, nearly as puissant (a word you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read the book) in the imagination as New Crobuzon. A floating city. Composed of thousands of hijacked ships from a hundred cultures over hundreds of years. Lashed together. Re-configured. Broken apart and re-fitted. And despite its isolation in the oceans, it hums with life: factories, libraries, bars, farms and parklands all knitted into the carcasses of the stolen ships.
We encounter new races: scabmettlers whose blood congeals immediately on contact with the air to form impenetrable armours; vampires, known as vampir or haemophages – haemophage what a great word! – who don’t stalk the benighted streets but who rule one of the city’s ridings openly in the shape of the Brucolac; the bloodsucking mosquito people or anophilii trapped on an island; the part crustacean cray people; and the grindylow who shadow the narrative from the opening pages but who don’t make an appearance until the final chapters.
I loved the grindylow who seem to occupy a space between the monstrous and justice. This is Miéville’s description of them once he introduces them into the story:
They jutted prognathous jaws, their bulging teeth frozen in meaningless grimaces, massive eyes absolutely dark and unblinking. Their arms and chests were humanoid, tightly ridged with muscles and stretched skin, grey-green and black, shiny as if with mucus. And, narrowing at the waist, the grindylow bodies extended like enormous eels, into flat tails several times longer than their bodies.
The grindylow swam in the air. They flickered, sending quick S-curves down the lengths of their extended tails, rippling them liquidly.
As is typical with Miéville there are a number of stories working simultaneously. The novel is about Bellis’ refusal to be assimilated into the city of Armada and her eventual resignation; it is about The Lovers – the most powerful leaders in the city – and their plan to raise a monstrous sea creature, the avanc, harness its strength to tow the city and reach the titular Scar, a break in reality, in order to mine possibility from it; it is about the machinations of Simon Fench and his attempts to be rescued from Armada; it dwells on Tanner Sack, a Remade convict freed by Armada, who embraces his new life and second chance with both arms – and both grafted-on tentacles.
Ahhh the avanc! There is something deliciously Lovecraftian in this vast inter dimensional sea creature, summoned, harnessed and docilely and implacably towing the city. The descriptions of it in seismic and geological terms are astoundingly beautiful and powerful. Does this creature echo something Melvillian too? The desperate quests, first for this massive leviathan and then the Scar itself, had something of Ahab in them.
Scars in the novel are as significant as you’d expect from a novel with this name! The Lovers cut and scar each other over and again to prove and mark their love for each other, freggios intended to claim a lover and mar their beauty to ensure their fidelity. Tanner Sack remakes his own Remade body to become amphibian. Floggings leave scars. One of the most moving depictions of scars may be Shekel (a teenage New Crobuzoner who forms a relationship with a Remade woman
She was Remade she was Remade (Remade scum), he knew it, he saw it, and still he felt incessantly what was inside him, and he felt a great scab of habit and prejudice split from him, part from his skin where his homeland had inscribed him deep.
Heal me, he thought…. There was a caustic pain as he peeled off. Clot of old life and exposed himself open and u sure to her, to new air. Breathing fast again. His feelings welled out and bled together (their festering ceased) and they began to resolve, to heal in a new form, to scar.
Once Tanner had re-Remade his body, the doctor informs him that he will scar but that scars “are not injuries…. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”
I also found that the passages in which Bellis translated particularly resonant with the sense that language was passing through her without the associations of meanings. My next Miéville book is going to be Embassytown, his foray into science fiction, which (I believe) will again explore the idea of interpretation, translation and the power of and our relationship with language.
This is one of those novels which, when you finish it, leaves you with the sense that you have only scratched the surface. The same feeling, in fact, which Bellis is left with. Who actually was in control of the city? Who or what was Uther Doul? What was his actual relationship with the Lovers who appeared to be his superiors; the Brucolac who haled from the same culture, albeit the Brucolac was an ab-dead vampir and Doul a living human; and with Bellis? Did Bellis come to accept that Armada could become her home?
Having cast as eye over a handful of other reviews of this book, I think Miéville’s had a bit of a pounding on sites like Goodreads. People have complained that he overuses certain phrases such as puissance for magical power or thaumaturgy for a steampunk mixture of magical and scientific force. I think they’re missing the point: Miéville is consciously eschewing or subverting typical cliched fantasy tropes and creating his own. Oddly, I did feel that his descriptions of the cactacae relied overly on the phrase “fibrous vegetable muscles”. However, having just searched for the word vegetable in my e-version of the book, I find that it occurs only four times. In over 500 pages.
Perception can be a strange thing!