Monday, March 12, 2012

One of China Mieville's tricks

I'm building up to trying to say something interesting about Embassytown [2011] and China Mieville. That's going to be difficult for me. The temptation is just to gush uncritically. While I'm working on that, I thought I'd allow myself a very little gush over a world-building trick that Mieville uses, which I just adore. 

Every now and again, Mieville mentions names for things -- pieces of technology, or types of magic, or places -- that have nothing to do directly with the story. They often don't ever appear again. They're rarely explained or clarified. They just exist, as far as I can tell, to hint at a world outside the story. Here's an example from Embassytown:
Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion -- of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech -- go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost.
That bit I've highlighted, that's what I'm talking about. Sentences like that make me kind of giddy. What are swallowdrives? How might they work? Who might use them? But -- deliciously -- we never hear about them again.

It's quite possible that everyone does this in their science fiction and fantasy, and I just don't notice. If that's the case, then it's probably because there's an art to the way Mieville does it. It's not just a random combination of words, but one carefully chosen to provoke exactly my response. 

Names matter. And China Mieville is very good at naming things.

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