CHINA Miéville’s stories often start off with a false sense of safety or familiarity. You think you know what’s coming, you have a sense of perhaps what to expect within the genre you’re reading, but with Miéville, you’re always wrong. A situation that seems perfectly clear even within the bounds of speculative fiction turns out to be more bizarre than you could possibly imagine. The uncanny comes easily to Miéville, but he is in no way limited to that. Lovecraftian horror, science-fictional pastiche, speculative narratives set in familiar urban landscapes — he’s at ease with them all in his latest collection of short stories, Three Moments of an Explosion.
Miéville’s work can often be a challenge. His last novel Embassytown was an erudite alien story about language and a species that has never known how to lie. His ideas are sometimes obtuse, always highly intelligent and complex, and he has never, ever, been known to spoon-feed his reader. Even his short-lived comic series, Dial H, was high-concept, sharp and brilliant. The stories in Three Moments of an Explosion are that too, with a bit of dark humour thrown in here and there, though there is a great deal of sadness and grief in most of them. The title piece itself is barely a story by the classic definition of the word — it is, quite literally, describing three moments of an explosion. Is there a beginning, middle and end? Is there a plot? Does it matter? It’s stunning, in so many ways.
There are 28 stories in total, with many different genres and subgenres merging and remerging from each other, amorphous and difficult to label. But that’s Miéville all over — never easy to pin down, never easy to fully, deeply understand but incredibly challenging, rewarding and with a masterful command over the way language works. Miéville’s political and environmental concerns are clear throughout the book, with a number of stories drawing on his Socialist background and others questioning the state of the world post-environmental collapse. In, ‘Polynia’, floating icebergs show up in the skies above London. “They’d started as wisps, anomalies noticed only by dedicated weather watchers. Slowly they’d grown, started to glint in the early-winter afternoon. They solidified, their sides becoming more faceted, more opaquely white. They started to shed shadows.” The icebergs that had once floated in the Antarctic appear to have come back in the skies over cities. Meanwhile, factories in Japan are filled with rainforests. Brussels has a barrier reef of its own. Nature brings back what we destroyed, taking back power, befuddling humankind all over again. In ‘Covehithe’ this environmental concern continues when defunct oil rigs climb out of the sea to the shore, suck more oil from the earth and return to the depths of the ocean to reproduce.
In equally frightening but more obtuse stories, modern urban fears show up in different ways. In ‘The Bastard Prompt’, a woman performer paid to act out symptoms for trainee doctors starts to make up strange diseases and later professes to have no recollection of this, even when the diseases start showing up in unrelated patients all over the world. “Things are moving below here,” she explains once, “I think I have eggs inside me, moving around in my blood. They were tiny, like flaxseeds, at first, and it was painful but I knew it wouldn’t kill me. But then they grew and changed shape, and now I have a cluster in my thigh, and a cluster in my left hand and some right here in my belly. I’m worried because I’ve been dreaming in languages I can’t speak.”
“I still couldn’t get those accidents out of my head. I flicked again through a list of them on my flowing phone. At last I found what I knew the man’s words had put me in mind of: the Boston slick, a century ago, the bomb-like explosion of a silo and millions of gallons of molasses rushing in a tide to reconfigure North End into a sump of ooze, a brown swamp broken by a few tough dripping verticals like the front, in the recently halted war, the city stinking sweet as a pitcher plant and the alleys made troughs of syrupy slop that rose in moments of upheaval, the engulfed thrashings of drowning, the dead in a sugar trap, to be found glazed days later, dogs, stiff-limbed horses, rats, twisted women and men, sticky, terrible candies.” — Excerpt from the story ‘The Dusty Hat’
It’s this sort of weird situation that Miéville so flawlessly creates and wraps his reader effortlessly up in. In ‘The Condition of New Death’, dead bodies appear to point their feet at whoever is looking at them, no matter what the case; bodies appear to be “swivelling like a needle on a compass”, feet always facing the viewer. In ‘Keep’, a strange condition causes a trench to appear in the ground around those affected by it. No one knows why, no one knows how but there’s a deep circular trench created every time the affected person stays in one place for over a certain period of time. Where has the missing earth gone? No one seems to know. ‘After The Festival’ is a darkly humorous story in which certain participants of a festival wear the heads of animal carcasses, only to find that they have, at times, merged with the animal in question. It’s a grotesque, carnivalesque story of bizarre body horror. We aren’t told why these things are happening, which may frustrate some readers, but there isn’t a single story here that won’t linger for a long while.
‘Säcken’, for example, is frightening. It’s a straight up horror story with echoes of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. A couple rent a holiday cabin by a lake; one woman works while the other explores the area, certain that something terrible lurks under the lake’s calm surface, when the “night was a cold mouth”. A disappearance, an investigation, a story about a woman murdered years ago, drowned in a weighted-down sack containing wild animals, and the reader is left feeling submerged in fear. Miéville never lacks as a stylist, creating a cold dread slowly and effectively, with great rhythm in his prose: “The dog means loyalty maybe. The serpent may be a killer of its parents, the ape uncanny. But in the water all that would dissolve. Everything in the sack would mean itself. A thing that drowns and bites, that drowns and claws, that drowns and bites, that drowns and screams.”
These stories themselves could be the objects Miéville writes about in ‘The Ninth Technique’, in which a single small object contains massive raw fear and power. He writes of a collector who hunts down a chrysalis that has absorbed the fear and pain of a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay (none other than Abu Zubaydah, a man known to have been waterboarded over 80 times in a month, placed with an insect he was told was lethal in a confinement box, and starved).
There exists a black market for these objects, the ones that have taken on the suffering of others, creating a power that can be summoned by someone else — one of the most powerful being a piece of cloth from the very first waterboarding to ever have been conducted. The title of the story refers to one of the 10 methods of ‘interrogation’ authorised by the CIA to be used on prisoners, only a few of which barely fall short of terrible torture. Once again, Miéville isn’t afraid to bring politics into his writing. Though as he himself once explained, if you wanted to read his work as being about “really cool monsters”, you very well could.
His writing style, while always nothing short of brilliant, changes for each story. Some are written as faux reportage almost, some as introspective personal narratives of someone caught in a weird, unexplainable situation, some almost as if they are potential novels about to spring forth and three stories are written as scripts for film trailers, albeit strange, frightening films that one can only hope Miéville may at some point be involved in, though they probably wouldn’t be palatable for mainstream Hollywood.
Some of the stories do feel as if they are fragments or summaries of possible novels, massive worlds squished into a dozen or more pages, each page being able to withstand deep analysis and exploration. But what if some of the stories feel like briefs for a novel? This isn’t necessarily a negative criticism. This just means that Miéville has never been stingy with concepts or neologisms — Three Moments of an Explosion is filled with fantastic, strange, complex, arcane and sometimes just plain frightening ideas, each with the promise of giving much more than a single short story’s worth.
Miéville is known for being the master of a genre created recently to encompass speculative fiction that subverted traditional fantasy and used urban, contemporary settings (sometimes in secondary worlds) to comment on the world we live in, our environment, our politics and human nature. The use of the uncanny, of fear, of body horror, of straight-up monsters and madness and the bizarre all feature heavily in the new weird, the genre for which Miéville is known and has received many awards and accolades. Entire conferences have been devoted to analysing his work — mostly for his novels though, with his last short story collection being Looking for Jake, in 2005. With this new collection of short stories (a number of which have been previously published in various places, including ‘literary’ publications like Granta and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), Miéville proves that he can deftly create impressive worlds in the span of a few pages, just as well as he can in his novels.
The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.
Three Moments of an Explosion
By China Miéville