New Old Friends

Books are old friends. Here is where I mention the new ones I've made.

The Scar by China Miéville

Regular readers (both of you) know how much I like China Miéville.  His Kraken was the first book I reviewed here, and my reading of the collection The New Weird was prompted by the presence of his story “Jack”.  The Scar was the first of his books that I ever read, even before the better-known Perdido Street Station, and having since read all of his other novels I thought it would be educational to revisit this one and see how my perspective on it has changed.

On first glance, it didn’t feel like much had changed at all, as I found myself being pulled back into the oceanic world of Armada and its inhabitants just as easily as the first time.  The Scar is Miéville’s take on the sea epic.  The setting: Bellis Coldwine, academic and linguist, has fled the militia of New Crobuzon in the wake of the events of Perdido Street Station, bound for the colony of Nova Esperium where a new life awaits here with no questions asked.  She obtains passage in return for her services as translator in the cray city of Sakrikaltor, but things don’t exactly go as planned, and she finds herself press-ganged into the mongrel pirate citizenry of Armada, a floating city composed of countless captured ships and precariously ruled by two scarred Lovers.

In Perdido Street Station, Miéville showed what can happen when he lets his imagination run wild in an urban setting; the sentient constructs, all-powerful Weavers, and the Ambassador of Hell are just a few of his memorable creations.  In The Scar he is unconstrained by location and it shows.  In rapid-fire, almost dizzying succession we’re introduced to all manner of amazing and bizarre creatures, such as the cray (half human, half giant lobster, think aquatic centaurs), the anophelii (terrifying mosquito people whose females can drain a pig – or human – of all their bodily fluids in under a minute), and the three-mile-long whale-like avanc.  Miéville also excels in creating interesting secondary characters such as the twice-Remade Tanner Sack, the vampire Brucolac who openly rules one of Armada’s neighborhoods, the secret agent Silas Fennec, and above all the master swordsman Uther Doul and his Possible Sword, which uses Probability Energy to inflict all of hundreds of possible wounds at once.  Even the little touches, things mentioned only in passing, are fascinating, such as the sentient whirlpools and the beach whose red sands are entirely made of tiny gears, cogs and other bits of machinery.

A recent review of Perdido Street Station that I read commented that Miéville seems to have trouble creating memorable well-developed protagonists, and after some consideration I have to give hesitant, qualified agreement, with emphasis on the protagonist part of that sentence.  As I indicated above (and the other reviewer agrees), Miéville’s secondary characters are imaginative, interesting, and as well-developed as one would expect a secondary character to be.  His protagonists, on the other hand, don’t seem to stick as much in the mind as one might expect they should.  Miéville is too obviously-skilled of a writer for this to be completely accidental, and some of his other works such as Un Lun Dun or Embassytown do feature interesting and fully-fleshed-out protagonists; it could simply be that Perdido’s main POV character Isaac de Grimnebulin is simply a locus around which things happen, rather than an active driving force behind the plot, and the novel doesn’t have a true protagonist as such.  My own opinion is that the real protagonists of his novels (at least the New Crobuzon novels, although you could make the case for Kraken as well) are the worlds and people he creates and the ideas that they embody, and the POV characters through which he relates these worlds are more meant to be vessels for the reader to vicariously experience them.  Whether or not this is a beneficial device is open to question, but I personally don’t mind.  I would note that this is less the case in The Scar than in Perdido; Bellis seems at first to be a similar passive observer that things happen to, but as the story unfolds she takes a more active hand in events and her motivations are made very clear.  (The third novel, Iron Council, is similar to Perdido).

In my review of Kraken I made the statement that Miéville doesn’t know how to end a story, and this statement was primarily driven by my first readings of Perdido and The Scar.  Upon re-reading The Scar I must retract that statement; I believe that on my first time through, I either blasted through the subtle lead-up to the ending (and therefore missed the important bits) or simply didn’t understand what had happened.  Probably both.  This time I found the ending entirely satisfying even though certain (intentional) ambiguities that I, again, missed the first time through raised more questions than they answered.  I loved this book the first time I read it, and it led me to immediately go find the rest of his work and give it a place of honor on my bookshelf.  The second time, I liked it even better.  The Scar is certainly the best of his early works and possibly the best of his works, period (I’ll have to re-read the rest of them, particularly Embassytown, before I can make that judgment).  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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The Ice Schooner by Michael Moorcock

ImageI don’t think Michael Moorcock has ever really written anything purely conventional, which is part of what makes The Ice Schooner ultimately so frustrating.  There’s so much promise there, as you get a sense of what he’s trying to do and the expectations he’s subverting, that when the whole thing sputters to a close it feels like such a waste.  

Konrad Arflane is a man out of time, but just how far out of time is not immediately clear.  Arflane is a captain without a ship, in a frozen world with no water.  Ships sail on runners over the frozen ground between the eight cities occupying the frozen plateau of the Mato Grosso (western Brazil), competing for commerce and hunting the land whales that roam freely.  Arflane is out alone, looking for a place to die, when he stumbles across a dying man on the ice and, despite his better judgment, rescues him and returns him to his city.  Arflane allows himself to be dragged into fulfilling the dying man’s quest: a journey to the fabled, far-off city of New York, whose fabled towers are said to still jut out from the global ice pack.  Think Waterworld plus The Day After Tomorrow, only not stupid.

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Moorcock is playing with Moby Dick here.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, Queequeg himself shows up early on (thinly disguised and renamed) with his harpoon and makes the comparison immediately obvious.  The subversion I mentioned is more subtle: there’s whales around, all right, but Arflane doesn’t care because he’s not a whaler.  He’s chasing something else: the Ice Mother, whose frozen court is supposed to be located in New York.  Arflane is a severely orthodox man: there is evidence, far away, that the ice is starting to melt and expose both soil and open water, but Arflane is positive that the Ice Mother would never allow such a thing.  The world is frozen, always as been, and always will be, forever amen, and if he has to find the Ice Mother himself to prove this, he will, to hell with such things as observation and deduction.  He doesn’t trust his senses, or anyone else’s, when they conflict with Holy Scripture, and he’s obnoxiously arrogant in his blind faith.  This, combined with his brooding introspection and hair-trigger temper, makes it very difficult to find him sympathetic, in much the same way as with Moorcock’s more famous Elric of Melnibone.

Moorcock also inserts a love interest, but where one might expect this to be a calming influence on Arflane, Moorcock intends just the opposite.  Everything seems to go wrong every time the two lovers are together, and indeed much of the friction between the major characters revolves around the doomed, forbidden relationship.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly, everything goes off the rails at the very end of the story.  I can’t describe exactly why without spoilers, but Moorcock is far too talented a writer to depend on a deus ex machina ending, and I have to wonder why he chose to resort to one here.  Ultimately, said ending takes what could have been an interesting counterpoint to Melville’s masterpiece and leaves it simply another bit of slightly-better-than-generic postapocalyptic storytelling, engaging in the moment, but ultimately forgettable in the end.