The end of the year creeps inexorably toward us and time is running out for my 2013 Reading List. Fortunately, the last couple of months have seen a strong push to the finish line, with book after book falling to my indomitable will. The Scar is the latest of the insanely heavy tomes on the list to come under The Officially Licensed Two Dudes Magnifying Glass (yours for just three easy installments of $19.99), as today we take a pleasant autumn journey to Bas Lag.
And by “pleasant,” I mean “full of face sucking monsters and reality warping phenomena.” While The Scar is technically a stand alone, I would be surprised if more than a handful of people who pick it up haven’t already read Perdido Street Station. None of the main characters overlap and the setting within Bas Lag is different, but the second book positions itself as a story set in motion on the fringes of the action in the first. Perdido is not necessary to understand The Scar, but it does make things a bit more interesting.
Mieville is one of those giant reasons why I don’t try to write fiction. While I am struggling to cook up even the basics of a plot, he is off creating a floating pirate metropolis, an island where all the women are mosquito hybrids, sentient and mobile cacti, and one of the stranger and more disturbing romances I have ever seen. I can’t imagine what else is galloping through Mieville’s head or what horrifying dreams he might have at night. If there is another author out there with his combination of bizarre creatures, intricate plotting, and baroque command of language, I haven’t found him or her.
The plot this time is linear, but complicated. Everything flows logically from point A through point J or so, though few would predict the situation at J when looking ahead from A. Mieville’s story moves forward with a certain inexorable momentum, as though things are bigger than any individual; all the while, the characters’ agency and influence are clear. Mieville walks a fine line between historical inevitability and Great Men. I may just be a credulous reader, but I fell for all of the head fakes and misdirections. Mieville sends things in one direction, then another, then finally unveils the underlying drivers after leading everyone on a merry chase. In my defense, most of the characters were equally baffled.
Things that I liked about the book: Armada is one of the great fantasy cities. An ancient, floating contraption make of thousands of lashed together boats, Armada is a hive of varying governments, races, and classes that is endlessly fascinating. If nothing else of worth happens in The Scar, people should still read it for the chance to visit Armada. The library alone makes it for me, supplied by marauding book pirates that bring the world’s literature to their base. The city reminds me, physically at least, of the communities in Karl Schroeder’s Virga series, though little else in the books relates.
The characters are also memorable, if not likable. Top of the list is Uther Doul. He is a guardian of the city, an invincible warrior, and possesses a sword of great power. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But Mieville turns this particular cliché inside out, to great effect. The erstwhile protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, is anything but typical. She is not as likable as Tanner Sack, with his surgically attached tentacles and predilection for salt water, or as memorable as The Lovers, with their hair-raising romance, but fills in nicely as the aloof, refugee librarian. The supporting cast collectively holds its own as well, varied appendages and quirks notwithstanding.
Finally, I enjoy the way Mieville writes simultaneously on multiple levels. He is an avowed and educated socialist, which colors his work distinctively. It is most noticeable in the guided tour of the many governments of Bas Lag. I realize that not everyone is as entertained by the minutia of economic policy as I am, but Armada is full of juicy goodness. There is also the questions of metaphor, as Mieville explores the meaning of scars (surprise!), freedom, loyalty, and other heavy bits. Of course, one could skip this entirely and just read the book for the rollicking adventure, which the author tastefully provides for those of us that want some fun with our Marxism. The book is whatever the reader makes of it.
Oh, and I also really like the floating oil rigs. Those are pretty cool.
There are a few things that may not be for everyone. Mieville holds back nothing when he writes and has no qualms about showing us the ugly side of his world as well as the good. His imagination is quite grotesque, as veterans of Perdido Street Station will know, in ways both compelling and sickening. If there is violence, we see it and all of its consequences. If there are tentacles, we know the pluses and minuses. (Not many of the latter, as far as tentacles are concerned.) If there are rich, successful, and beautiful people in the world, there are also poor, slovenly, and low; Bas Lag is not for the faint of heart, though the rewards are there for those who don’t mind occasional blood and squalor.
I feel like there is much more to engage with here, but it’s hard to compress the whole of a Mieville novel into a single, 1000 word review. I could say much more about the language, about the ins and outs of Armada, about the blood sucking mosquito women, or all of those scars on people. Um, maybe we’ll skip the last one, especially where The Lovers are concerned. I just ate. But all the other stuff is great! Mieville is one of those authors that will probably be talked about decades from now, so I feel fortunate to watch him in action. Maybe the next time around I will manage to dig in further.