I picked this book up on a wander through Barnes and Noble. I wasn’t aware it was coming out, and I haven’t read a ton of China Mieville’s work, but I really enjoyed Perdido Street Station, so I thought I’d give his latest collection of short stories a shot. At the end of the day, I have to say it was a little hit or miss for me. I found some of the stories to be incredibly memorable or haunting, while I had a hard time engaging with others because I felt they were either too opaque in their meaning (at least to me) or had a very specialized subject matter or an off-putting writing style that made them difficult to follow.
As a specific example, Mieville has many first person stories featuring academic types, and so the tone of the story can take on a very academic feel. For me this worked in some stories more than others. The story “Dreaded Outcome” was one of my favorites in the collection and is about a therapist whose practicing theory involves her killing off people who prove to be impediments for her patients. It’s written in an analytical voice, the way you might imagine a therapist would write a journal, but the disjointed nature of a doctor seeking to cure people by being an assassin is very humorous and made the story very enjoyable for me.
By contrast, the story “The Dusty Hat” is about a world in which the elements or aspects of nature start taking sides in a fracturing political movement. While that premise is pretty cool, I couldn’t get into the story. The jargon was very heavily into the academic poli-sci world, and while I like that Mieville was creating a voice that was authentic to the character, I found the story hard to read as it felt very dry. The world of political theory, especially involving British politics, is not one that I’m very familiar with, and so I found it difficult to relate to what was going on or to find the micro-conflicts between the different people involved compelling. Perhaps if I was more well-read in that arena of study, I’d have a different view on the story.
There were also several stories that had conclusions I felt were too opened ended. I’m not the type of reader who enjoys everything being wrapped up in a “happy-ever-after”, coming together very obviously, or being in any way didactic, but some of these stories ended before I had a real grasp of what was going on. As such I didn’t feel informed enough to infer what was supposed to happen “off screen” when the story ended.
I think the strongest example of this was “After the Festival” wherein there is some sort of British ceremony in which people wear the heads of animals and are sort of taken over by the spirit of the animal. Usually they snap out of it after the festival, but this story is about a woman whose friend never recovers. He goes missing, and I felt that the story ended before the action really resolved, and I wasn’t sure what was supposed to follow.
But I feel like I’m making it sound as though I didn’t like this collection, which isn’t true. There are some really great tales in here. “Sacken” is a great horror story about the ghost of someone who was drowned in a sack that I found to be truly scary and very memorable. “In the Slopes” is about a small town where archaeologists have started uncovering proof of alien life on Earth long ago, a concept that I thought was really cool and the drama between rival archaeologists brought it to life for me.
“The Dowager of Bees” is a fascinating story about how there are secret suits that will sometimes appear in card games. When people win with these cards, they can make demands of the losers. It follows one man through the world of underground card playing, which becomes even more sinister and mystical with the addition of this supernatural element. Then there’s also “Polynia”, which is a very strange story about icebergs floating over London, but I thought it was really artfully put together and was a great fantasy story tackling our destruction of the environment.
One thing I did take away from this collection — which I already had a good sense of from interviews and speeches I’ve seen him give — is that Mieville is incredibly smart and has some solid academic knowledge across multiple subjects. I really like that he took some chances, both in terms of content and writing style, because I think that’s what short stories are all about. Even when reading some of the stories that didn’t engage me as much, his skill as a writer and his subject knowledge was very apparent.
This collection is a little different from other sci-fi and fantasy you might normally read. I think it is more literary and, at points, more academic than most other work, but Mieville brings together some really creative ideas, and I like that he has interesting things to say. I’m not sure that this is something I could recommend for everyone. It’s certainly not something I would attempt if you’re looking for “escapist” literature. But if you want something a little different, then I’d check this out.