Sunday, June 12, 2011

Miéville's novels are complex narratives, rich with ideas

Book 62: The City and The City by China Miéville
Book 65: Embassytown by China Miéville

Complex, challenging novels that are occasionally infuriating and always entertaining is how I would characterize the novels of British writer China Miéville.

These are not the pared-down, movie-script-as-a-novel books that Michael Critchton cranked out in his last few years. Rather, these are complex novels that reward the patient reader with a rich story that strikes the rare balance between ideas and action.

The City & The City -- co-winner of the 2010 Hugo Award with Paolo Bacigalupi for the delicious The Windup Girl --  is a noir-ish detective story in a science fiction setting. Yet because Miéville is faithful to both genres the novel never feels like a gimmick.

The novel begins as a conventional police procedural. A body is found, dumped near the ramps of a skateboard park. "Nothing is still as the death are still," observes Police Inspector Tyador Borlú́́, who is called in to investigate the murder.

Those opening pages -- a body unceremoniously dumped by a skateboard park, the police soberly looking on -- is the last time, the only time, that this novel is on familiar ground. Now it gets strange.

Borlú́́ is an inspector in the city of Besź́́̀́́el, which shares the same physical space, the same geography, as the city of Ul Qoman. 

Miéville never explains why these two cities overlap, we're only told they do.  It first appears as if there's been some quirky dimensional overlay from out of the pages of Marvel Comics.  But that's not what's happening here.

Instead, it appear that the residents of Besź́́̀́́el and Ul Qoman have intentionally decided that one city is now really two.  It's as if all the residents of a New York borough woke up one morning and decided that based on style of dress, the make of car, the architecture of a house, or the presence of certain colors, that their neighbor doesn't fully exist.

You can see them, but you try real hard not to. You can even visit this other city, but to do so, to visit a neighbor who literally lives across the street, requires that you pass through a checkpoint and a wear badge that identifies you as a visitor.  And once you've done that you can't simply walk back across the street to your own home -- you have to pass through the checkpoint again to do that.

To complicate matters, part of the landscape seems to belong only to Besź́́̀́́el, part to Ul Qoman. Some overlaps and other areas aren't a part of either city.

And to complicate matters even more, all of this, this separation, is enforced by a shadowy presence known as the Breach.

This separation between the two cities is important to Borlú́́ because it appears the young woman was killed in one city, her body dumped in another. In the course of his investigation, Borlú́́ learns that the woman may have been murdered because she uncovered evidence of a second shadowy group of people living in the interstice of the two cities, a shadowy group that may be a threat to the Breach.

Miéville challenges the reader by not explaining everything -- either the words he's coined (both novels cry out for a glossary) or the reason that the two cities exist as they do. 

Embassytown is just as challenging, just as potentially confusing.  In this novel, we find ourselves on a far distant world where humans have established a small outpost, an embassy. The world's sentient life form, the Ariekei, have two mouths. 

As a result, the Ariekei hear human speech, but are unable to perceive it as language. Nor are they capable of perceiving a normal human as an intelligent creature.

To communicate with the Ariekei, or the Hosts as they are known to the human residents of Embassytown, humans rely on the "Ambassadors," human twins, doppels, that share an empathetic connection and who separately represent each of the Hosts' two mouths. The Ambassadors are bred in Embassytown.

A crisis erupts when an Ambassador arrives from off world.  This Ambassador is not a twin, but two distinct humans, and his/his speech is instantly addictive to the Ariekei.

Both races embark on efforts to free the Ariekei from this addiction. The solution found by the Hosts involves a severe form of self-mutilation that leaves them free of addiction, but unable to speak. The solution found by the human involves teaching the Ariekei to lie.

Further explanations elude me.  It's all tied up with the idea that for the Ariekei language is literal. And it has to do with a small number of humans who literally become part of the Ariekei language. As a little girl our narrator becomes a simile in the Hosts language.

Describing Embassytown is as a challenging as reading it. It is a complex novel that demands multiple readings to reach a full understanding of what Miéville is trying to achieve -- if that's even possible.

One reading, or many, Miéville's books are among the most provocative to appear in years.  His novels, and the ideas within them, defy the casual read. Yet despite the complexity -- or perhaps because of it -- Miéville also produces a gripping narrative of unparalleled richness.

No comments:

Post a Comment