Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Scar month: an illustrative example

To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!
Currently at: chapter 43, page 676

Shortly after my previous post on the characters in The Scar I came across a paragraph that illustrates what I was getting at. It's on page 589 of my edition, just at the start of chapter 37. In the immediately aftermath of the war with the New Crobuzon fleet, Bellis is wandering the streets of Armada, trying to process what has happened:
It was quite unfair, Bellis thought nervously, that so few of her own haunts had been harmed. By what right was that? She, after all, did not even care.
Mieville is writing in the tight third person here, and no doubt Bellis thinks she doesn't care. But it's not true. She does care, and I know she cares, even though she hasn't figured it out yet. (Actually, I think she knows, but she's not ready to accept it.) If the characters didn't have depth, then I wouldn't be able to draw that conclusion from the words Mieville has written.

Honestly, I think that's missing a bit from some of Mieville's later novels. I don't feel like he spends enough time developing his characters' internal lives for me to be able to pick up on contradictions like that. His focus, I suppose, is elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Scar month: Bellis

To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!
Currently at: chapter 32

One of the more common criticisms of China Mieville's novels is that the characters are a bit weak. I think there's something to this. I can't, for example, remember the names of the main characters in Embassytown, Kraken, or The City & The City*, although I hasten to add that it didn't really affect my enjoyment of those novels. There's more than enough going on to keep me thoroughly engaged.

It is therefore interesting to me that I think one of the real strengths of The Scar is Bellis Coldwine, the lead character. I find her compelling, for a whole bunch of reasons. For a start, she's not your typical epic fantasy heroine**: she's a linguist, an adult (and, I suppose you could add, a woman). She's closed off and private, tightly controlled, independent and intelligent. And, frankly, not particularly likeable.

It's quite possible that choosing Bellis as the main point of view character contributes to the feeling of strangeness that I find so appealing about The Scar. It's also an excellent demonstration of the fact that you don't need to like a character to want to keep reading about her. The key there, I think, is that she is competent, clever and strong -- I may not like her, but I can certainly admire her. And understand her.

(This is the part where I point out that I've been trying to find time to write this post since about chapter ten, some three hundred pages ago. Since then, Bellis has become no less compelling, although I'm beginning to wonder at her interactions with the men in the novel. She's not a passive character, but it is beginning to seem like a lot of the doing is being done by the men around her. Tanner Sack delivering the message to the Dreer Samheri when Bellis couldn't find a way to do it herself, Silas Fennec preparing that message, Uther Doul feeding Bellis information for reasons that are so far unclear.

Perhaps it is relevant that Bellis is a translator. She's the conduit through which so much of the plot flows. In that sense, maybe it's appropriate that the people around her are the main actors. Being trapped by implacable forces is a bit of a theme not just for The Scar, but all of the Bas-Lag novels. Still, I'm beginning to be a little troubled by Bellis' lack of agency. Fortunately, I don't actually recall exactly how the book ends, so she may have her moment yet.)

I wonder if the reason that Mieville's earlier novels do better with characterisation is that they're so much longer. There's plenty of room for character development, whereas in his shorter subsequent novels the riot of ideas and plot pushes out the characters.

Or maybe -- and I'm really just guessing here -- it's that The Scar has a small ensemble of point of view characters: the Remade engineer Tanner Sack, and the young tough Shekel. I haven't mentioned them much because they play a smaller role than Bellis, but one of the things they do is illuminate Bellis' character through contrast. Shekel, so eager to learn to read, softens her. And Tanner Sack's love for the city that freed him throws Bellis' desperate need to be away from it into relief.

If you're reading along with me, I'm interested to hear what you think about Bellis and the other main characters in the book. Are you finding them as compelling as I am? 

* Although Sham ap Soorap in Mieville's newest, Railsea, is pretty memorable.

** I feel I should add here that I am not hugely well read in the epic fantasy (sub-)genre. I might be missing all sorts of great stuff, in which case I welcome recommendations!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hugos 2012: the short stories

I thought last year's Best Short Story Hugo ballot was pretty thin. I'm pleased to say that this year, three very good stories have been nominated. Here's the way I'm going to vote:
  1. "Movement" by Nancy Fulda
  2. "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu
  3. "Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu
  4. No Award
  5. "The Homecoming" by Mike Resnick
  6. "The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City" by John Scalzi
I've revised this list three times since I started writing this blog post. I'm having a genuinely difficult time separating the top three stories, and that's a good place to be. Let's get the ones I didn't enjoy out of the way, before moving on to the rest:

"The Homecoming" is a terribly predictable story about Alzheimer's. Honestly, I don't think I've ever met a Mike Resnick story I particularly liked, and this one is no different. His writing always seems so mechanical. The science fiction element here -- a xenobiologist son transformed into an alien -- seemed to serve no purpose beyond establishing that this story should be called science fiction.

The John Scalzi was a joke story, taking aim (as I'm sure you can guess from the title) at a particular type of epic fantasy. I didn't seem much going on here beyond the joke, which was itself only mildly amusing.

I think I first heard "The Paper Menagerie" on the fantasy podcast Podcastle, and I really loved it then. It was aided by an excellent reading from Rajan Khanna. On re-reading it for this ballot, I felt it was a bit blatantly emotionally manipulative, hence it's third place. Still well worth a read, though.

I'm very, very tempted to put "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" at the top of my list. I really loved this story, in which a nest of sophisticated wasps conquer a nest of provincial bees, and in doing so grant them the keys to revolution. It's about the clash of societies, and the power of education, and it's lovely.

In the end, I think Nancy Fulda's "Movement" is my favourite. It's the story of a girl with an invented condition called temporal autism. She feels the flow of time differently to everyone else -- the second batter her as they roar past, and yet to the people around her she seems to move and to think so slowly.

I have no direct experience with autism, and the condition here is somewhat fictional, but I thought Fulda explored it beautifully. I also got a thrill at seeing a story on the often-conservative Hugo ballot that admits we, grown-up readers, might just misunderstand youth. Like "The Paper Menagerie", it's a sentimental story, but I felt it was less overtly manipulative.

Really, though, I'd be quite content if any of the top three in my list won the award. If I had to guess at the winner, I'd probably pick "The Paper Menagerie", but I wouldn't feel particularly confident about it.

(If you have access to the Hugo voters packet, take a look at the PDF of E. Lily Yu's Campbell works. The cover, drawn specifically for the Campbell ballot, is adorable.)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Scar month: swept up

To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!
Currently at: chapter 8

Alright, I confess: The Scar's tenth birthday is just an excuse. I'm actually re-reading it because I love it. And I'm re-reading it now because I'm trying to think critically about the books and authors that I love. What are they doing that makes me love them so much?

I was a little worried that re-reading The Scar with this sort of thing in mind might damage my enjoyment of it. But I can see now that isn't going to be the problem. The problem is that I'm not sure I can read it critically at all. I was barely a tenth of the way in when I first noticed that I'd stopped thinking about what I was reading, and I was just -- happily, enthusiastically -- enjoying it.

There's probably an observation to be made about how I only fully engaged when Mieville stopped chopping and changing his tenses and narrative modes. I also suspect that my engagement has a lot to do with the way he handles mysteries and puzzles. They come at a faster pace than I'm used to in epic fantasy, and their pattern of resolution seems unusual. Apparently large mysteries are solved quickly, whereas smaller ones tantalisingly linger.

Whatever it is, I've been thoroughly swept up. There's every chance that all I'll be able to do for the rest of the novel is gush uncritically. I think I'm okay with that, but you have been warned!

Are you reading along too? Has it grabbed you already?

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Scar month: setting out

To celebrate the 10th birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers! 
Currently at: chapter 2.

The Scar month started a little slowly for me. Partly that's because life got in the way, but it's also because I forgot about the effort I need to put in to getting started on door-stop fantasy novels. The Scar starts with the traditional descriptions of scenery and setting, and I've never found that hugely engaging. Early on, those details tend to slide straight out of my memory, and my focus wanders.

It's also a somewhat disorienting beginning, with a prelude in third-person present tense, then a third-person past tense opening chapter introducing the main character, broken up with a letter she's writing, and concluding with a first-person present tense narrative from a different, unnamed character. It feels a little rough, and the prose perhaps a bit forced.

Having said all that, I'm already seeing the thing that hooked me the first time around. The tone that Mieville sets in the opening chapters is dirty and industrial and chaotic. The structure may remind me of epic fantasies, but the mood is different, more like a horror novel. I think that's what grabbed me: the sense that something familiar had suddenly been made strange.

I also think it was a good choice to begin with a voyage away from New Crobuzon. That city was at the heart of the previous book in the series, Perdido Street Station, and by breaking with it so explicitly Mieville makes it very clear that The Scar is something completely new.

If you're reading along too, or have read it in the past, what are (or were) your opening impressions?