Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Recommended Reading?

Over at Crooked Timber, they've hosted an interesting discussion (a "mini-seminar") of China Mieville's novels, including a thoughtful response from Mieville himself.

Mieville's works are hard to describe. Are they horror novels? Science fiction? Steam punk? Fantasy? All and none of the above. For example, it's fantasy definitely, but think Peake not Tolkien (whom Mieville has rather famously denounced). (However, John Holbo's essay interestingly complicates the relationship between Mieville and Tolkien.) Or, monsters and grime abound, yet simply slapping on the horror genre label doesn't seem to do justice to the books at all. (I may be betraying my own genre snobbery, here, though; while I bristle at pat dismissals of my genres of choice, I'm probably guilty of a bit of the same with genres I don't normally think of myself as reading much of.)

Their uniqueness and Mieville's genre-busting comprise a large part of the books' appeal. However, what makes these books so intriguing and controversial is not just that they're different or weird (Mieville being the posterboy of the so-called New Weird movement in SF): Mieville's gritty worldbuilding, inventive language play, or political engagement-- each, on their own, would be enough to merit excitement about his work. The books at times frustrate me; the density and neologisms, for example, are often wonderful but at other times just bog things down (for me, anyway). And I'm sometimes hesitant to recommend him, knowing that his style will not be to everyone's liking. Yet, Perdido Street Station (his second book, but the first I read) propelled Mieville onto my "buy and read new books by this author immediately" list, and he has yet to fall from that position.

His newest novel, Iron Council, pulls off a difficult task in managing to be explicitly political, to be about politics (among other things), but in a non-pedantic way. It manages to be satisfying-- or at least engaging, I'm not sure that I can quite call this reading experience satisfactory--on both the political and narrative fronts; too often auathors sacrifice one to the other. (On the political front, Mieville's own background-- he's a socialist (who even ran for Parliament recently) and a recent PhD from the London School of Economics, whose dissertation apparently focuses on Marxism and International Relations-- seems relevant here. But his obvious love of ripping tales and genre classics (and should-be-classics) also seems relevant.)

The books themselves are certainly worth taking a look at, as is the discussion at Crooked Timber. (And continuing in the theme of the week, as a prod to myself to get around to that podcasting blog entry, I'll mention that I also recently listened to an MP3 interview with Mieville, that touches on many of the issues discussed above.)

Incidentally, CT has also had interesting blogging in recent times on the topic of other, themselves quite singular, speculative fiction texts of the past year.

The first is Susannah Clarke's delightful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I know, "delightful" sounds so affected; yet I think it really is the perfect word for that book. Reading this quirky, witty book was truly enjoyable. If you do read it, be sure not to skip the footnotes, which may be the very best part. Again, it's a book that's hard to describe-- my attempt recently was, "Think Jane Austen meets Gormenghast." This description (which I I stole from someone whom I've forgotten) doesn't quite capture the book's charm, but maybe it will give you some idea. (Oh, and don't let the fact that I've referenced Peake in relation to both Mieville's books and Clarke's or that I'm discussing both in this one post mislead you into thinking that these two authors have much in common. In tone, style, and content, they really couldn't be more different. While I know I'm not the only one who likes both, I imagine that they tend to appeal to rather distinct audiences.)

The second is Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, (comprised by Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.) The series (really one, enormous book broken into three still themselves insanely large parts) never reaches the heights of his earlier Cryptonomicon, my very favorite of his book-- indeed one of my very favorite books, period--and for which these newest books serve as a prequel of sorts. Indeed, the infodumps, digressions, and minutiae-- which were maybe the most wonderful parts of Cryptonomicon--were downright tedious at times in these 3 books. Despite finding the reading to be a chore at some moments-- delightful would not be the perfect word here-- I remain happy that I made it through the series. The description and review of the books that I most appreciate comes from Cory Doctorow:

The historicity of these books is borderline alarming. Stephenson has researched so many goddamned interesting factoids about pirates, the birth off the monetary system, natural philosophy, alchemy, the court of the Sun King, the functioning of London's ancient prisons, the nature of sewage disposal in early metropolises, and many other diverse subjects that you can practically open the books to any page and find five cool trivia questions to baffle your friends with on e.g. long plane trips.

The storylines are convoluted in the extreme: they twist and turn on themselves, surprising and delighting.

The characters are Stephenson's best: funny, likable, roguish, brilliant, and insightful, and they serve to illuminate his research, and almost never seem like an artifice for this purpose.

The books' strengths, however, are also their failings. They are slow in many places, bogged down in detail (especially the intrigues among the many royals), as though Stephenson was bent on conveying the sheer tedium of life in the 16th and 17th centuries. The convolutions in the plotlines veer back and forth between intriguing and confusing.

For all that, these books are like a good curry. They're mild and interesting when you first taste them, but after you've swallowed, they grow on you, spreading a warm fire throughout your digestive system, making beads of sweat appear on your forehead. Since finishing the first two books, I've been practically haunted by them. Ever time I spend money, or walk through London, or see a ship, or think about math and science, some snippet of those books springs to mind, a lens through which to reexamine my thinking and assumptions.

I quoted a longer portion of that review than I had initially intended because in rereading it, I was struck even more by how much it mirrored my own response to the books. I'm not sure that I would go quite so far as to call the books "haunting," nor have they necessarily made me reexamine any my deep-seated. Yet, as with Cory, I continue to think of little bits of them here and there and everywhere (ost recently, while reading Bill Bryson's absurdly- yet not necessarily entirely inappropriately-titled, A Short History of Nearly Everything) and y appreciation of the books has increased with time apart from them (they're more satisfying in retrospect than in the process of reading). This might not sound like much of a recommendation, but it's a good thing, I think.

These 3 sets of texts-- Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, Clarke's Jonathan Strange, and Stephenson's Baroque Series-- are incredibly different from one another and I'm not sure how often they find common audiences. But I suppose these three works of speculative fiction do all share (in addition to the much-coveted endorsement of Molly) a similarity simply in that they are each in their own ways such provocative pastiches and reworkings of disparate literary traditions. But that sounds like the subject for another post.

Anyway, I started this post simply to point to the CT discussion of Mieville, but it seems to have evolved into a recommended-reading-riff (thus I changed the title of the entry, above.) Any of these 3 quite hefty (and I do mean hefty; none of these are light or easily transportable) texts might serve well, ifyou're looking for a diversion (if watching Lost, writing a dissertation, or actually, you know, going out and doing something aren't already taking all of your time). Then again these odd books will certainly not appeal to all, hence the question mark at the end of this post's title.

Link: Debating Iron Council


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