Monday, January 24, 2011

The Squids Are Alright, Pt 1. China Mieville - Kraken (book review)

When I heard fantasy weird fiction author China Mieville speak back in 2009, he was talking 'bout a tentacular revolution. Culture, he said, had appropriated the octopus and the squid as uniquely plastic metaphors for Otherness.

So, recall the B-movie staple of the giant squid, implacable atom-warped force of revenging nature. His predecessors in gothic literature, like Lovecraft's octopus-demon Cthulhu, as well as his descendents – any alien or mutant worth their salt wouldn't be seen dead on a rampage without their many appendages. And that's even before we get to the queasy sexualisation of the tentacle in Japanese hentai.

However, CM was mainly interested in the use of the celephapod to represent social and political threat. In his talk, he drew on warnings in the early twentieth century of the tentacles of imperialism, fascism, communism; all wrapping themselves around their nation-prey.

This curious tradition was revived in recent years with the endearing description of the investment bank Goldman Sachs as 'a vampire squid with its tentacles around the face of humanity.'

So, fluid in form, defiantly inhuman, they give us the heebie-jeebies in so many ways. Octopi, that is, not investment bankers (for the purposes of this review, at least).

Even the creeping banalisation of traditional horror hasn't quite diminished their impact. The Disneyification of the Lovecraft mythos – hello, My Little Cthulhu – has yet to erode the WTF-ery, the squick of the squid, that the original evokes.

We are still suckers for suckers.

And if anyone could get back to the richness, strangeness and political content of the metaphor, you'd think it would be China Mieville. Card carrying socialist. King of the steampunk mutants. Master of intelligent biohorror. One of the few vital signs in fantasy literature in the last decade.

Kraken, Mieville's contribution to our body of squid-terature, does its bit to prove this true. The kraken cult at the heart of the book Is a lovely bit of counterfactual theology, with some sharp questions about why anyone would bother worshipping an uncaring god (answer – because humanity is nothing if not perverse).

One of the chief delights of any of his books is exactly this sort of window-dressing – what Adam Roberts has referred to as worldbling. So, Mieville creates an alternate London the reader can revel in – a dense underworld of occult cops and robbers, secretive cults and wannabe demiurges.

This elaboration of a new world is not exactly uncommon in fantasy literature – after all Tolkien spent years working on the backdrop for Lord of the Rings. Unlike most of his peers, however, Mieville isn't just recycling cliches from a Dungeons & Dragons (or more aptly in this case, World of Darkness) campaign. He brings a playfulness, a delight in unlikely combinations, and a love of ideas.

Who else would come up with the idea of a general strike by wizard's familiars in the face of exploitation? Or deftly satirise the cliches of police procedural TV shows when summoning the spirits of law and order by burning old videos of The Sweeney?

Alright, maybe Terry Pratchett or Tim Powers would. But the point is that this kind of talent and originality is rare in a genre which often feels like a downhill ski run through as many cliché gates as possible.

A special mention also to Mieville's gift with emotional heft. The subplot about a grieving girlfriend investigating occult London for the first time has real tug and resonance and a reminder that what we have here is a proper writer and everything.

The plot – in as far as I can talk about it without too many spoilers – concerns the theft of a giant squid specimen from the Natural History Museum and what happens to his curator, innocent abroad Billy Harrow. The squid mostly gets relegated to McGuffin status – it's what most of the cast are chasing and each sees it differently. I'm still trying to decide if this is cleverness on Mieville's part (look – it can represent anything!) or a missed opportunity for more tentacular action.

Billy's adventures are sufficiently circuitious and fast-paced that at very few points in Kraken is it entirely clear what is going on. This is broadly a good thing – the book is nothing if not exciting. However, in the same way that Raymond Chandler used to advance the plot by introducing another man with a gun to menace his protagonist, Mieville's default is to introduce a new gang of zanies. So, if it's Chapter 9, it must be the Londonamancers/Chaos Nazis/Gunfarmers/delete as appropriate.

And regular readers will find much that is familiar in Kraken: the obsession with transforming people into something else, preferably something icky; the renactment of scenes and motifs from left-wing history, the recasting of London in fantastic form. Mieville has his tropes, to be sure, and it's good that they are distinctly his. But he's too good an author to have to repeatedly indulge his literary fetishes.

Before you ask – no, I didn't like his previous book, The City and The City, which did stage something of a breakout from core Mievilliana. But I applaud his intention in writing it.

My favourite Mieville books are those where the plot is relatively straightforward – the more direct the approach, the more it can accommodate the weight of all that baroque world creation and intellectual playfulness. So, Perdido Street Station, still his best, is at core just the best bug hunt ever.

Kraken, on the other hand, has the motor of a gangland thriller cum detective novel under the occult bonnet. One of our squids is missing – whodunnit? This is too complex to bear Mieville's usual digressions and flourishes and as a result the book felt to me as a reader like an exercise in increasingly complicated plate-spinning.

A lesser author could have got 4 or 5 bad books out of Kraken. A better author, which I hope Mieville is on his way to becoming, could have got 4 or 5 more focussed, intellectually richer ones.

If this seems unduly harsh, let me reiterate that this book remains a fertile piece of work, a bold reimagining of London and a good yarn. Any book which compares religions with criminal gangs and runs with it for all its worth, pausing to stage a faked apocalypse, has a lot going for it.

And even if it's not one of his very best, Kraken's still helping to drag fantasy kicking and screaming out of the Tolkien trap. Which is a Very Good and Necessary thing indeed. Long may Mieville continue to write like the bastard offspring of Roald Dahl and M John Harrison.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Right. This post is now a comment free zone.

    If you want to write about Mieville the man, please use your own platform rather than leaving anonymous comments on book reviews.