Monday, July 2, 2012

The Scar month: the end (of the book)

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: finished!

June is over, but I've got a few more things I'd like to say about The Scar. So I've put it to a vote, and The Scar month is being extended until I'm done. Today, I'd like to talk about the way the book ends. Because there are bits about it that I really like, bits I dislike, and bits that I find baffling. (Beware: lots of major plot spoilers in this post!)

First, the grindylow. China Mieville seems to enjoy subverting reader expectations, and I really loved the way the grindylow subplot played out. Throughout the novel they were hunting down Armada using prototypically monstrous methods: kidnap, torture, dark magic. Everything about them seemed supernaturally evil, and indeed that's how everyone in the book thought of them. So it seemed perfectly reasonable that they would go to all of that effort to find the floating city for primitive, idolatrous reasons.

That's why it was so great when it turned out that their motives were completely ordinary -- they were simply trying to protect their borders. The magical artefact that everyone assumed they were so desperately seeking was basically irrelevant. They were completely misunderstood, ascribed mystical motives, because the civilised people of Armada feared what they didn't understand.

That was one of the book's successes. The actual climax, in which the city made its final push towards The Scar, was... Well. I don't really know what it was. Reaching The Scar was the culmination of The Lovers' plan. Every action taken in the book was striving towards or against that goal. It was meticulously foreshadowed, the title of the whole novel, and I'm not convinced Mieville really knew what to do with it.

I think perhaps Mieville trapped himself. After all that effort, he had to take us to The Scar. But the thing that he conceived was so vast, so deadly, that there was no way that voyage could end in anything but total destruction.

So he cheated. He sent us a familiar character from some alternate dimension, some version of the world where Armada did reach The Scar, and was ruined. That way Mieville could fulfil his promise, and still save his characters. It all makes sense in the context of the novel. But it's not entirely satisfying.

In Perdido Street Station, the book that preceded The Scar, Mieville made a pretty impressive argument against the conventional, comfortable ending in epic fantasy. I wonder if he was again trying to write against reader expectations? The thing is, in The Scar my expectations were of disaster. Subverting the happily-ever-after was satisfying, whereas subverting the disaster feels more like failing to follow through.

Finally, we come to the question that I always have when I finish reading The Scar, and which I always forget before I pick it up again. In the epilogue, Bellis Coldwine discusses her perspective on what has happened. She has come to realise that she has been manipulated throughout by Uther Doul, but she can't decide whether he was following a grand plan, or acting opportunistically. 

This always leaves me wondering if the book is actually about her, or if it is actually about Doul. I'm not entirely sure why it matters; surely the book can be about both of them? Perhaps after following Bellis for so long, I finally end up identifying with her feelings of manipulation. She claims to willingly renounce any possibility of ever really understanding, but I'm not sure that I can.

I think that says something about how thoroughly The Scar captures my imagination, that I keep wondering about this after it's done. It's probably also part of the reason I keep re-reading it.


  1. I thought the chappy the fleet found and warning of going to the Scar was from the same dimension. My reading was:
    1. He disappears from the fleet.
    2. Days later 'another copy of him' appears floating on wreckage.
    3. The 'copy' warns the fleet.
    I always assumed he grabbed a dirigible, flew ahead of the fleet, waited to be picked up and warned the fleet. Just him doing anything to stop the progress to the Scar.

    I may be badly misremembering the book though.

  2. Nah, you're not misremembering, Adrian! That's a perfectly valid interpretation: that Hedrigall made the whole story of Armada's demise up in order to turn the city around. That's the Lover's interpretation, and Hedrigall is a master storyteller. He could have pulled it off.

    Now that I think on it, I think maybe I prefer that interpretation. It gives the characters more agency in the climax. But I think perhaps my criticism still stands. Mieville gives us the inevitable ending, and robs us of it (either by alternate dimension Hedrigall, or clever and desperate Hedrigall), and I think I find that equivocation a bit unsatisfying.

    Or just maybe it's a sign of a great ending, that I'm still trying to get my head around how I feel about it!

    Did you enjoy the book?

    1. I did enjoy the book, yes.

      I agree that either interpretation gives a bit on an unsatisfying ending, to that side of things anyway. If the book is really about Doul and the Grindylow, with the Scar expedition just setting, it feels a bit more satisfying to me. I can't say I'd really thought much about it though.