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A Marxist’s Amazing Fantasy

Review: China Miéville, 'Three Moments of an Explosion'

China Miéville
China Miéville / Wikimedia Commons
• October 10, 2015 5:00 am

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China Miéville is the densest, smartest, and weirdest writer of fantasy working today. His prose, lyric and flexible, will send even the most educated readers to the Oxford English Dictionary, because Webster’s is often insufficient. He made his reputation with the World Fantasy Award-winning New Crobuzon trilogy, three novels that use the machinations of a fantastic industrial-capitalist city-state as the axis for their plots. Miéville’s latest is Three Moments of an Explosion, a brilliant and unnerving collection of short stories.

Fantasy has long had an uneasy relationship with shorter forms. Developing a secondary world in the space allotted is often a challenge, even for writers of thousand-page sagas. Miéville overcomes this difficulty through unusual originality. Any given tale in the collection may draw on three or four different subgenres and traditions: the New Weird, Steampunk, urban fantasy, and horror feature prominently, but are by no means the extent of Miéville’s far-reaching expertise.

Politics, or the way human beings (as well as not-human beings) organize themselves, is a central preoccupation of Miéville’s work, and a major theme is the cruelties people inflict on one another within systems of power. But even in a story like "The Dusty Hat," where Miéville is reimagining ideological battles within the hard Left as an elemental contest between dust, ash, lava, water, and sundry other geological components, the writer’s orientation—Miéville happens to be a committed Marxist—is never visible. There is story and a perspective through which the narrative unfolds, but none of the preachy, cloying messages that in recent years have weakened a branch of fiction that is supposed to be entertainment first.

For a writer as committed to shattering genre stereotypes as Miéville, it’s a small irony of the collection that its strongest stories tend to be more conventional in execution. Some of the highlights of the collection occur when the author plays it straight. "Sacken," a standard horror exercise, uses the texture and sound of the wet cloth that features in a barbaric medieval punishment to exceptional effect. "The Dowager of Bees" is a fresh take on a long line of fantasy that explores the occult possibilities of games of chance. Many of the other stories are so disquieting the reader is often obliged to take a minute just to absorb what is going on. Three Moments is not a relaxing beach read.

Writers often have favorite keys—characters and milieus they return to repeatedly. Miéville does too, but they’re sufficiently varied so as to disguise their similarities. Characters who live in their minds—artists, academics, and the like—are his favorite subjects. A typical protagonist is an educated person, a member of the mental clerisy forced by the contortions of the fantastic reality to grapple with something brutal and unexpected. A therapist protagonist spouts postmodern jibber-jabber unmoored from meaning until she crouches above a "trauma vector’s" (someone who is psychologically unhealthy for her patients) window, sniper rifle at the ready.

Amongst the short stories are little pieces of flash fiction, syllabi, movie trailer scripts, and vignettes. In these, Miéville is too clever by about a third. His prose in a full short story is accreted with massive ideas, but the extra space gives the reader something to hang on to. Without more explanation, the short-shorts are sometimes incomprehensible. A class reading schedule dealing with the cultural deformation that comes with an insect invasion is thought-provoking, but there are limits to the intellectual work a reader can perform before magical game instructions interposed between musings on the nature of a hyper-strange cosmos become mere self-indulgence. Even so, Three Moments of an Explosion dazzles.

Published under: Book reviews