Three Moments of an Explosion

chinaexplosion

Ever since his debut novel in 1998, King Rat, award-winning UK fabulist China Miéville has been in the admirably workmanlike habit of gracing the planet with a new book at regular two-year intervals. Given the magnificent, unduplicated, astonishing artistry of each volume, and their often sizable page count, this prodigious rate of production testified to a nigh superhuman creative capacity and drive. And in fact, three recent and excellent books actually arrived at one-year intervals.

But readers, myself included, began to fidget and worry a little when those three years since the appearance of Railsea in 2012 passed with no new Miéville. Imagine our relief and excitement, then, when the current book containing a munificent twenty-eight short stories dropped. Given that half the table of contents reflects never-before-published items, we could well imagine what had been keeping the author busy — if not quite so busy as usual.

But then came the happy shock of two further announcements: early in 2016 we would see a 200-page “novella” titled This Census Taker. And then, later the same year, would come a full-scale novel, The Last Days of New Paris. Suddenly, the literary cosmos seemed to be not only spinning properly again, but ramped up to new and higher dimensions.

Until those two longer works emerge into the marketplace, however, we Miéville-ites will have to content ourselves with this array of wonderful short tales, Three Moments of an Explosion.

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The first and titular story immediately intimates that Miéville intends this volume to be a smorgasbord of styles and forms. And indeed, we discover that a couple of entries even flirt with movie script format. We know there will be variety, because in the nature of its abbreviated experimentalism, “Three Moments of an Explosion” cannot possibly be the template for the rest of the volume — unless we are to have a twenty-first-century instantiation of J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, a catalogue of “condensed novels.” That’s not the case here, but still, a veil of Ballardian influence does hang over the volume, without overwhelming it.

The opening bit of surreal flash fiction concerns the demolition of a building via a new commodified technology, and the overclocked urban explorers who seek to inhabit the deconstructing space even as it fragments. The tale’s potent compactness speaks to the way we mediate our own culture these days, sniffing out meaning and experience even as everything dissolves and re-forms around us.

It shan’t be possible to examine all the remaining stories at this depth, in this space, so let’s have a look at some highlights from the more consequential and substantial entries, each of which strikes a radically different pose from all the others, united only by the Miéville-ian consciousness. But of course this policy should not be construed as a slight on the “lesser” jeux d’esprit, such as “The Rope Is the World,” a vivid evocation of life on an abandoned space elevator. All of these smaller pieces are incredibly fun and sophisticated puzzles, riffs, and thought experiments that would please both John W. Campbell and André Breton — no mean feat, but still just the usual modus operandi for Miéville.

“Polynia” depicts a world so out of whack that floating icebergs manifest in the skies, and living coral begins to encrust the infrastructure. But people learn to coexist with Gaia’s revenge, finding beauty and hope: “[If the icebergs have] gone low during the night they leave a snail-trail of thin ice and snow across London in the shape of their route. It might be warm summer but you’ll open the curtains onto iced windows. You’ll come out of your house and there’ll be a line of frost bisecting your street.”

Like one of Tim Powers’s urban fantasies about magical Las Vegas or Michael Moorcock’s Second Aether cycle, “The Dowager of Bees” charts the life of a professional gambler who, like his circle of select peers, is privy to all the Hidden Suits of playing cards, such as the pasteboard named in the title. But when he gets cocky — “I didn’t fear that the dealer, or anyone else, would notice the fleeting fingertip motion by which I extracted the Four of Chimneys from my hand and slipped it into my cuff” — dangerous wrongness results.

“In the Slopes” offers Lovecraftian/Hammer Films vibes, as archaeologists unearth the Collaborationist remains on a Mediterranean island, artifacts and castings that show aliens and humans once coexisted. Toss in academic rivalries and various romantic entanglements, and you have a hot mix of cognitive estrangement and emotional familiarity.

The cloistered and isolated community on a peninsula in “Watching God” takes their daily oracles from the distant ships that steam past but never pull into their port. A young fellow gets curious about the nature of the ships, builds a raft, and sets out to sea with a pal. But the strictures of his universe are not to be tampered with lightly. The overall affect of the tale is that of an Earthsea parable by Le Guin.

“Säcken” proves that Miéville can leave behind the hybrid forms of the New Weird genre he practically invented and work in the pure horror vein. The tale starts out like a whimsical excursion by Carol Emshwiller but is soon hanging out with the gory likes of Laird Barron, Clive Barker, or Nathan Ballingrud. Two women, Jo and Mel, are on a working holiday in Germany at a lake. But then Mel begins to have visions of something awful. “A nightmare calf born without limbs or head or eyes but full of tumors. A mound of leather in pooling water. It was a bag, a sack full of bad presents, of coal or earth or blood clots or ruined roots.” Miéville’s incorporation of actual historical precedents into his bad dream makes the terror all the more effective.

A contemporary setting just slightly askew informs “After the Festival.” Poor Charlie, drafted into the ceremonial role of wearer of the bloody head of a slain pig atop his own, finds himself gradually usurped by alien infestations. His good friend Tova is appalled and begins her long, noble quest to save him. Think The Golden Bough meets Lord of the Flies.

There is a great song by Walter Becker (half of Steely Dan) called “Hat Too Flat,” concerning an alien whose headgear gives him away. I suspect Miéville of modeling his own “The Dusty Hat” along those lines. He takes the background of socialist politics and infighting that he knows well from personal experience (he once ran for office on a socialist card), then injects an oddball fellow into the tragicomic milieu. “He was in his late seventies, it looked like, thin and bony, his face crumbled with lines. Gray hair boiled out from under that dusty hat.” The narrator’s disregard at first for the loquacious old agitator is undone by events. This is probably a good juncture to mention how much flair Miéville invests in his different first-person narrators, who range the gamut from untrustworthy to naïve, from repellent to endearing.

Reaffirming the Ballardian vibe with which the collection opens, “Estate” finds pure weirdness in a mundane housing plat. During one eerie evening, our narrator witnesses the incursion of a strange stag with antlers aflame. One incident is bothersome enough. But when such events begin to spread . . .

Lastly, “Covehithe” combines the allure of kaiju films with the best Dadaist imperatives. A certain class of humanity’s industrial hardware becomes animated and begins tromping through the countryside. “It shook the coast with its steps. It walked through buildings, swatted trucks then tanks out of its way with ripped cables and pipes that flailed in inefficient deadly motion, like ill-trained snakes, like too-heavy feeding tentacles. It reached with corroded chains, wrenched obstacles from the earth. It dripped seawater, chemicals of industrial ruin and long-hoarded oil.” Now that’s the postmodern Mad Max poetry of destruction right there.

Miéville’s themes range from the macroscopic to the microscopic, from the cosmic to the quotidian. These stories chart the destruction-cum-transmogrification of nature, as well as the dark avenues of human desire and misunderstanding. And their enormous range of styles, voices, and subgenres betokens an author who is never content to take the easy path by performing only the thing he allegedly does best, but is always seeking new fields in which to play and stretch his literary muscles. Miéville’s bold conceits, his startling imagery, his razored prose all are put in the service of pushing back the limits of genre fiction, both in his own canon and for the field at large.

This collection offers twenty-eights star charts of twenty-eight universes — and implies even more realms beyond the edges. I look forward to the expanded atlas to come.