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3.5 stars. China Mieville is an author that can be hit or miss with me in novel form, though I enjoy his baroque, surrealist imagination and his dedication to rethinking how fantasy is supposed to work.
The stories here are mostly more in the line of Borges or Kafka than what people usually think of when they think of fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, though there are touches of those genres (in their mainstream incarnation) here. The tone tends towards quietly unsettling, with some surreal element dropped into an otherwise recognizable world. A few go in a more obviously metaphorical or philosophical direction.
Mieville likes to create intricate realities and can be somewhat oblique, so many of the pieces took a second listen before their rewards revealed themselves to me. If you're a reader that's easily frustrated by stories that are ambiguous or not strongly plot-driven, this collection might not be for you. For the most part, it's all more in the vein of the City & The City than Perdido Street Station.
Polynia: One day, icebergs materialize in the skies above London and float there, observed by a middle-school boy and his friends. Mysteriously unaffected by gravity or weather, the bergs remain for years, attracting explorers. They seem to be the reincarnations of melted icebergs lost to climate change. Quite haunting.
In the Slopes: On a small Mediterranean island, archeologists are digging out the remains of ancient villagers entombed in volcanic ash, a la Pompeii. But among them are the remains of otherworldly beings. Strange things happen when a local shopkeeper, the protagonist, gets involved in a petty squabble between two rival researchers. Lovecraftian without emulating Lovecraft.
Watching God: A Borges-esque piece about ships that pass by an isolated spit of land, but never visit the inhabitants, who are left to wonder if the occasional shipwrecks and reefings are meant to be some sort of a message. Heavily metaphorical.
The Buzzard's Egg: An old man imprisoned in a tower is responsible for caring for the idols that the surrounding empire has taken hostage from enemy lands. He has an amusing "conversation" with one god, but we gradually learn about this man and his history. Enjoyed the timeless feel of this one.
The Junket: A Quentin Tarantino-esque filmmaker who's a non-religious Jew makes a horror movie that plays off of anti-Jewish caricatures, but is murdered before he can explain his intentions. Critics and audiences can't agree on what to make of it.
The Design: A medical student in the 1930s discovers that intricate scrimshaw art is carved into the bones of a cadaver, but only confides in an associate who's a bit more than a friend. A very effective story about the weight of secrets and the unwanted attention they might bring you.
The less successful stories were still listen-worthy, but had slightly underwhelming Twilight Zone-like twists or were a bit too fuzzy in their magic realism for me. An obvious example is one about a therapist whose approach to separating her patients from their more toxic friends and lovers isn't quite as clever of a fictional twist as it wants to be. There are also several short "movie trailers" that are impressively imaginative, but have no apparent point besides that. Perhaps Mieville was floating some novel ideas, to gauge the response.
But, overall, it's a fairly good collection, highlighting the more literary side of this author. If you want straight-up weird fantasy, go with Perdido Street Station.
4 of 5 people found this review helpful
Maybe even 4.5 stars. I really liked this collection. Some of the stories I loved. Adored even. Some were too light. Some extremely dense. But none were uninteresting.
Many SF/horror/noir writers get funky by bending the plot. Miéville does it by bending his words. He alters reality by converting language, both known and familiar, into something alien and the strange. Those thin threads he weaves between the normal and the exotic are done often (not always) with a slight of hand with language; a flick of his prose tongue. He is also getting better and better at the polished, palitable otherworldiness of his worlds. There is a glaze in his stories that makes reading Miéville both delicious AND disturbing at the same time.
Part of Miéville's genius [and NO, I don't use genius lightly] is his ability to find the strange in our world and escalate it. Use it as a mental catalyst to unlock some deeper key. Space elevators? He will take that to the next level. Marxist materialism? Just wait to read what he does with the Ash Heap of History. Scrimshaw? Therapy? Card tricks? Enhanced Interrogation? He will outsmart your expectations with each one. He will extract the magic from old bones or a discarded rag. He will find the horror in the shadows that haven't been cast yet.
Anyway, here is the list of his stories:
"Three Moments of an Explosion"
"The Condition of New Death"
"The Dowager of Bees"
"In the Slopes"
"The 9th Technique"
"The Rope Is the World"
"The Buzzard’s Egg"
"After the Festival"
"The Dusty Hat"
"The Bstard Prompt"
"A Second Slice Manifesto"
"Four Final Orpheuses"
"Listen the Birds"
Some of these stories, individually, at length. Some stories just hang there defying gravity in my mind. Other stories sit hard in my stomach, neither digesting or moving, just sitting and waiting for the right moment to hatch.
19 of 27 people found this review helpful