China Miéville seems to be going down the list. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, police procedural, Kafkaesque urban surrealism…each novel works some new twist on established forms to produce, if not a definitive work, at least an iconic representation of type.
Of course, he’s not just trying to recapitulate what’s been done. He’s not just re-presenting particular types. With each work, he seems to be stretching the boundaries—the limits—of the form until they break, and presumably Something New emerges.
(And in some instances, he’s turning forms inside out and demonstrating both their deepest flaws and the possibilities of new attributes. For instance, Perdido Street Station would seem to be an urban fantasy adventure. It is set in some Other City, that could be London if certain mythic veins had emerged as dominant in our history as opposed to what did establish itself as the Known. But fantasy requires at its heart an Organizing Principle around which clashes of good and evil make sense in archetypal fashion. Miéville excised that heart and we’re left with a fantasy world with no such central thema. The result is chaos, which I think is a point he was trying to make. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
In a sense, he’s revisited some of that in Kraken, which seems to fit—uncomfortably, perhaps—in the recent spate of X-File type stories about a secret realm of supernatural action requiring special police. Charles Stross
has been doing a fun series concerning the so-called Laundry, a subdepartment of MI-5. Recently, the debut novel by Daniel O’Malley, The Rook, kicks it up a notch. Again, Miéville is mining familiar ground.
But even the name of his special police unit is a give-away that he’s fishing deeper waters: the FSRC, or Fundamentalist and Sect Related Crime.
The main team consists of a “normal” policeman, Baron, a young “witch”, Collingswood, and former Believer and theological academic, Vardy. Certainly an odd combination, and they do not get along. As the story proceeds it becomes clear that they don’t get along because they hold essentially incompatible world views. Nevertheless, they have to work together for a common purpose.
Which is one of the threads Miéville follows, basically that it doesn’t matter what you believe, how you see the world, why you disagree with that fellow over there, at the end of the day we all have to coexist. Somehow.
Because the London Miéville gives us is a polytheistic stew of essentially incompatible perceptions that nevertheless congeal into a community wherein people—and many, many gods—have to get along.
(Baron, Collingswood, and Vardy are a microcosm of the larger problem. A “mundane”, a “paganistic supernaturalist”, and an “anti-supernaturalist theologian” all thrust together and forced to cooperate.)
In typical Miéville-ean excess, the plethora of gods are not limited to what we have come to recognize as old pantheons. Gods are everything, everywhere. The very brick and mud possess a certain deity-geist. The Sea itself is sentient. Nor is this a congeries of paganistic polytheism in which people worship many gods, but rather a congress of many faiths that are essentially monotheistic, each sect ardently holding to their god and no other, even as they all seem to acknowledge that all the others are, indeed, gods. Where in Perdido Street Station he presents a milieu that has no gods of any kind, only the effects of participatory deism shorn of guiding principles, in Kraken he gives us a world so filled with gods, both past and present, that some organizing principle is required to keep them all in their places and not tear the world apart with their jealousies—or the jealousies of their congregants.
Into this he thrusts Billy Harrow, a curator at the London Natural History Museum. His specialty is molluscae and in particular the prize specimen, a giant squid, Architeuthis, an intact corpse Billy himself worked on to preserve. Then one day he comes in to lead a tour, enters the room where the proto-kraken is supposed to be, floating in its tank of preservatives, only to find it gone. Tank and all. Vanished.
Which brings in the FSRC and thrusts Billy into the midst of what turns out to be an underground religious turf war revolving around a potential apocalypse. Because, you see, the Architeuthis is a god, with worshipers, and they seize Billy as a prophet in the cause of getting their god back.
Billy’s descent into this previously unguessed religious underworld allies him to an apostate theological enforcer and between two of the most powerful adversaries in London theomantic circles, one of whom is supposed to be dead but seems to be making a comeback.
The basic rôles are all in play. Dane, the apostate enforcer, is a Peter-figure trying to make up for lapses in faith by rescuing his god; Marge (Marginalia) is a Magdalen figure trying to save the human man at the center of events she initially rejects but comes to understand in ways none of the adherents can; Fitch, a Pauline messenger who in spite of his belief in neutrality involves himself to the undoing of his own ethic; and Vardy, a former believer who wants so ardently to believe again that he would burn the world down to remake it as a place where fact never overwrote faith.
But Billy is key. Admirably, Miéville does not indulge the pitiful cliché that so ruined things like The X-Files, that of the scientist who cannot observe, deduce, conclude, and adopt a new paradigm in the face of overwhelming evidence. Billy, initially dismayed, angry, defiant, displays intelligence and adaptibility and before the novel is halfway through becomes a Player. As he must. Why? Doesn’t the name give it away?
Among all the other meanings of the word “harrow” there are two that are relevant. The first, the most obvious, is the religious connotation, reference to the “harrowing of hell” wherein Jesus went to hell to free those who had been wrongly condemned. (And, consistently, but not in any way predictably, Billy fulfills the implications of his inadvertent status—he dies to save the world and then returns, but not the way one might expect.) The second, lesser, is as a verb, namely to Vex.
Because Billy is named a prophet, not only by the followers of the squid god but by the fabric of London itself. Why? Because of a story he told about himself, that he was the first test tube baby. In a very clever bit of fictive legerdemain, Miéville gives us an immaculately conceived savior. At least, that’s the story, because, you see, it’s not true. Billy made it up. It’s a story.
Which matters not at all to those who would use his perceived prophethood to their own ends.
Which, in turn, is Miéville’s point:
“It’s all a matter of persuasion, as perhaps you now know. It’s all a matter of making an argument.”
So states the last aching want-to-be fundamentalist as he sets about trying to overwrite history and unmake a century-and-a-half of scientific fact that successfully displaced his faith.
…He was not a creationist, not any longer, not for years. And that was unbearable to him. He could only wish that his erstwhile wrongness had been right…he did not want to eradicate the idea of evolution: he wanted to rewind the fact of it. And with evolution—that key, that wedge, that wellspring—-would all those other things follow, the drably vulgar contingent weak godlessness that had absolutely nothing going for it at all except, infuriatingly, its truth…
Which brings what up till then had been a thoroughly entertaining supernatural adventure up into the realm of metafiction. For Miéville, at least in this formulation, there is only persuasion. Words. Argument. The codification of ideas underlies all potential belief, all justification, all reification.
And when persuasion fails, when a given argument proves insupportable in the face of a better one, then the fanatic turns to obliteration. Apocalypse. End it All, and start again on a clean slate. Make a new argument where now none exist.
Interestingly, Miéville seems to suggest that the most ardent fundamentalists are those who have lost their faith—and want it back. They’re willing to destroy everyone else’s reality to have it. The ongoing, continual dialogue that constitutes positive coexistence would be anathema to someone who sees nothing but surrender in compromise and salvation in nihilism. The London of co-extant doctrines, faiths, cults, sects, and divergent and curious theological constructions, uneasily but successfully managing to get along with itself, would be the ultimate blasphemy to someone who wants—needs—only One Truth, without competition. Or the need to persuade.