Possible Swords Essay, Research Paper
Possible swords The Scar China Miéville 604pp, Macmillan There is a certain unlovely pomposity about the use of one-line paragraphs. Look at me, the line says: I am so clever, or atmospheric, that it would be a waste to tack me on to the end of the previous sentence, where I might not get the reader’s full attention. I deserve a whole paragraph of my own. The opening of The Scar is riddled with such preening. All through the first 40 pages or so you can hear the grunts of a writer straining too hard for effect. Portentous short paragraphs mingle with clumsily archaic constructions, unconvincingly ramped-up emotions (is there such a thing as “contemptuous pity”?), and the slightly nauseating poetry of invented place names (”Gnurr Kett and Khadoh and Shankell”). Miéville might be aiming for constructive alienation, but the effect threatens instead to become one of plain, fatiguing confusion. If everything is novel, there is nothing to care about. China Miéville won high praise for his previous work, Perdido Street Station , a dark steampunk confection set in a city named New Crobuzon. The action of The Scar roams beyond New Crobuzon’s confines, but exists in the same imaginary world. Its heroine is Bellis Coldwine, a woman who is fleeing New Crobuzon aboard a ship bound for a distant colony. She never gets there. Her ship is attacked by pirates and subsumed into a vast flotilla, a floating city named Armada. It is governed by the Lovers, a couple who cut symmetrical patterns into each other’s faces to show their devotion. They have conceived a dangerous plan: to find a crack in the world, the Scar of the novel’s title, which is supposedly a source of unimaginable power. Wittgenstein said: “It is obvious that an imagined world, however different it may be from the real one, must have something – a form – in common with it.” Accordingly, Miéville’s world is a cunning synthesis of historical Earth periods and technologies with made-up twists. The ships of Armada are 18th- and 19th- century beasts that obey familiar ocean-going physics, although it is not explained until very late how such an enormous congregate of vessels lashed together, a mile square, would behave in a storm. Its engineers have rudimentary computing, in the form of steam-powered analytical engines of the sort invented by Charles Babbage; they also have magic, or “thaumaturgy”. The citizens are a mixture of humans, “Remades” (criminals punished by the surgical grafting-on of new appendages or engines), cactacae (like humans, only vegetable: walking cacti), and even vampires. Once the novel settles down after its ill-judged beginning, Miéville begins to construct an intriguing plot of espionage and deceit. He gives himself the leisure to elaborate the topography and politics of Armada, as well as the characters and activities of its citizens, to the extent that the reader is gradually won over in sheer astonishment. Every invention is lovingly exploited: from a horrific interlude on an island populated by mosquito-women, to the Scabmettlers, gladiators whose quick-congealing blood acts as armour, and the deadly capabilities of a Possible Sword, a weapon that makes all the cuts over a probability distribution at once. Bellis Coldwine is a usefully liminal protagonist who comments on the novelties around her while becoming ever more involved, in her capacity as city librarian and then interpreter. She is hard-edged and self-protective; but her initially diffident relations with other characters become complicated by sex and betrayal. Her unconsummated fascina tion with the Lovers’ mysterious bodyguard, Uther Doul, is handled with delicate, melancholy precision, while extracts from a letter she intends to send back to New Crobuzon furnish a finely pitched counterpoint of elegant reasoning to the careering violence of the physical action. By the middle of this riotous doorstop, it is clear that what makes Miéville special compared with other writers in the potentially malodorous genre of fantasy is that he doesn’t just populate his universe with freaks and trinkets, wind them up and and watch them dance across the table. For one thing, his ideas – about probability theory or distortions of spatial geometry – work seamlessly both as abstract intellectual stimulations and as engines for plot development. His prose, rapidly pared of its archaic excesses (apart from a possible overuse of the word “puissant”), becomes a lean and flexible instrument that can just as easily sketch the convincing outlines of oceanographic research as it can paint a remarkable, bloody sea-battle. And, as with every truly interesting fantastical writer from Mary Shelley to Asimov, there is an implicit recognition that whether it be flesh or cactus, alive or undead, every character must be recognisably human on the inside. The one “form”, in Wittgenstein’s sense, that a successful imaginary world in fiction must share with the real one is that of character and motivation. If the author has wronged us by the end, it is by skipping a climactic fight scene between his two most glamorous characters and showing us only the aftermath: a clever literary decision of the sort that, in retrospect, is not quite clever enough. Nonetheless, The Scar eventually demonstrates enough invention and brutal energy, firmly ruled by a calm architectonic intelligence, to show that Miéville is one of the most imaginative young writers around in any kind of fiction.