Sunday, 23 October 2011

Cephalopod fantasy

A bit of a gear-change this time. A not-uncommon refrain at Strange News is me railing against the ghettoisation of science fiction by the gods of mainstream fiction. Nonetheless, at the same time my default stance is to look hypocritically downwards over the broad fantasy genre that usually shares the bookshelves with SF. As Margaret Atwood recently discussed, where fantasy ends and science fiction begins is not entirely unambiguous (though the presence of dwarves/elves is usually a pretty definitive sign), so it's not as if I'm on solid ground in my prejudices. Anyhow, to step down from my soapbox and embrace (if only for one book) a personal bête noire, I turned to a UK author, China Miéville, and his recent apocalyptic novel Kraken.

(For full disclosure: this isn't as big a step/concession as I'm making out. The novel is centred around my favourite invertebrate group, and begins in the sumptuous setting of a former employer.)

Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum in London, is not having a good week. While conducting a public tour of the specimen collection he discovers that its prize entry, a 8.6 m Architeuthis that Billy himself curated, has completely vanished. Worse, a new "specimen" has appeared among the assembled preservation jars: a man folded neatly, if tightly, into a glass vessel. But Billy's troubles are only just beginning. The disappearance of one bottled animal, coupled with the appearance of another, attracts the attention of Baron and Collingwood, members of a specialist, and secretive, police unit that deals with less-than-natural occurrences. They reveal to Billy the existence of a Kraken cult that reveres the giant squid, a member of which, Dane Parnell, is also NHM staff. But Dane and his fellow worshippers aren't the only third parties interested in iconic giant molluscs, nor are they even remotely the most outlandish. Before long, Billy finds himself on a journey through a London that he barely recognises, where ancient spirits live in statues, where squirrels are unionised, and where the sea itself is a god.

Wow. While it would be fair to say that this novel hasn't won me over to fantasy, I was pretty entertained, and regularly astonished, by the imagination on display. It starts like a completely conventional, if somewhat bizarre, mystery story with a missing cephalopod for its McGuffin, but after only a few pages the more fantastical elements begin to creep in. By the end of the novel, it's wall-to-wall deviation-from-reality. What was most impressive was how consistently Miéville ups the ante on with his outlandish occurrences. At first, his Kraken cult alone seemed pretty off-the-wall, but this was trumped time and time again, with the late appearance of the Sea as an active force as a particular high point in outlandishness.

My favourite of Miéville's creations was probably Wati, an Egyptian spirit who was originally confined to a statue on a pharoh's whim, but is now free to roam all statues, including, enjoyably strangely, a Captain Kirk action figure. What made him even more appealing was that this otherworldliness was then combined with a more mundane role as a union leader, initially drawn into the action because of a strikebreaking squirrel. I also really liked the disrespectful, and slightly sultry, telepathic police officer, Collingwood, whose feigned disinterest and sharp, text-speak insults really brightened things up. Though I did think that, after giving her a great entrance, Miéville didn't really use her anywhere near enough in the latter two thirds of the book.

There's a "But" in all this, however. One that applies to all of the fantasy that I can remember reading, including classics like LotR. Namely that the underlying rules to which the novel is working are either flexible or completely absent. Characters die but can be brought back; inescapable situations suddenly have secret backdoors; mundane objects are revealed as powerful table-turners. Essentially, deus ex machina is the defining feature of the genre. After a certain point, the fun drains away when you realise that the corner into which the author has just painted his characters is probably something that can be (will be) got around with a few deft strokes of the pen. And, conversely, it can create situations where the reader might not unreasonably expect a reversal that never actually comes.

Here, Miéville gets passed this - in a way - by being so imaginative in his "cheating". I never really got anything like that sinking feeling I had in LotR when the Dead Men of Dunharrow were plucked out of thin air to turn the final battle in The Return of the King. While science fiction has its fair share of deus ex machina, it usually tries to play more fairly within its own rules, and often bends over backwards to retrospectively explain any "gods" that appear to have popped out from beneath the sofa cushions. Which, I guess, is why I prefer it as a fantastical genre: the real world conforms to rules, so I expect it of my fiction too. The wholesale abandonment of this in fantasy is what irks me, at least in part because I suspect that it's just lazy writing. A skilful author might very well construct an emotionally resonant scene in which the reader fears for characters they've come to love, but it seems slapdash when that's resolved by a cheap sleight of hand.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that, while I have my reservations, I really enjoyed Kraken. I don't know that I'll be visiting Miéville's fantasies again any time soon, but it's difficult not to recommend any novel so consistently innovative in its creations, especially one in which a cephalopod plays such a pivotal role.


Graham said...

Hmmm...thanks for the Christmas present. I've just finished it.

A cracking read, and as you say, some really inventive stuff going on here. I loved the idea of folding and the Londonmancers were great. And Goss & Subby - wow!

I didn't mind the sudden twists and turns. They were inventive and in sync with the rest of the wild ideas.

What I did have an initial problem with was the authors strange turn of phrase but I soon got used to it.I struggled throughout with the strange words though. I'm not sure if they were made-up or real, fantasy or scientific but they came too thick and fast for me to keep reaching for a thesaurus. Maybe the failing is mine..

Anyway, a great read and I think I'll sample some more..

Plumbago said...

Excellent! Glad to hear that you enjoyed it. I know I did ... but with obvious reservations. Most of which, as it happens, are more to do with my being curmudgeonly about fantasy as a genre than this particular book. As you say, the unanticipated reversals and changes in fortune here are really fine because they're done with so much imagination and flair. Which is how I remember the novel in general - a continual production line of outlandishly brilliant ideas.

Anyway, if you do check out any more of his books, keep me posted. I've not gotten back to him yet.

Graham said...

I've just downloaded Perdido Street Station to my Kindle. I'll let you know...

Plumbago said...

Let me know how you get on with it.

Are you mostly a Kindle man now? I never thought of that when I got you those dead-tree-carcass editions. Could have saved myself a spot of trouble if I'd sorted you out with electronic editions!