(Del Rey, 2010)
The novels of China Miéville are comparable to the iPhone pics which occasionally dot his blog, rejectamentalist manifesto; they are highly designed, made out of the most up-to-date stuff, but they are taken pointing downwards, at the innards of a trash-choked gutter. However, unlike many SF and non-SF (here read Cormac McCarthy), Miéville does not fetishize decay and destruction; rather, he fetishizes the strange beasties and the twisted streets that make up his fictive universe. In Kraken, his new novel, Miéville indulges himself and his readership, populating modern-day London with disparate cults, horrible gang-bosses who do not have, but are, tattoos, dissolute images with “knacks,” while, at the same time, attacking our culture’s recent obsession with apocalyptic joy-ride entertainment. Kraken concerns the theft of the titular giant squid from London’s Natural History Museum’s (real) Darwin Centre; one of the in-house scientists who helped preserve it, Billy Harrow, becomes caught up in the hunt and falls in with squid-worshippers, and those who merely wish to exploit the animal for its massive power (like a cult-squad of London cops or dodgier, supposedly neutral parties). It’s find-it-before-they-do, and it rolls along quite nicely, thank you. Which is mildly worrying.
Miéville has always had a tenuous relationship with narrative; his first (and least interesting) novel, King Rat, being his most traditional. Beginning with Perdido Street Station (which made him famous), and continuing with other novels set in the Bas-Lag world, Miéville has produced novels both equally aesthetically polished and narratively difficult, tending on the side of wearying and immersive. The City & The City, Miéville’s previous, was a tight little roadside bomb of a thing, frustrating and genre-scouring. Kraken, on the other hand, is loose, lazy, over-stuffed, less a return to form (whatever that means), than a highly entertaining detour. Miéville, who has stood for Parliament as a socialist, remains highly political, and Kraken includes a strike by familiars, a vicious and hilarious stab at escapist science-fiction (bequeathing a well-known and, hopefully, untrademarked weapon to Billy), and a central attack on the very nature of religion. However, what stays and sticks about Kraken is its stance on the end-times. In this London, there are many apocalypses, emerging from all angles, expected and unexpected; Miéville, who’s always had a sick sense of humor, plays them for laughs more than thrills (the opening sentences speak of “[a]n everyday doomsayer” who plods away from The Natural History Museum, the back of his sandwich-board reading “FORGET IT.”) Although mentioned tangentially, a single semi-cult stands out, “dustjunkies” who are “addicts of collapse and history, high on entropy.” This is, of course, us, taking in the last film or novel where everything gets bashed up and destroyed so that we can marvel at flooded cities or razed landscapes, but safely, while the real horror occurs safely off-screen; our city doesn’t burn. Miéville has always had a highly ambiguous position on escapism; he’s theoretically against it, yet his Bas-Lag novels are difficult not to get lost in: this is what has made his reputation. Kraken comes off as a bit of a compromise. It grafts Miéville’s strangeness onto London, belying the drifting of the reader’s self into the built-world, yet manages to hold attention on a base smash-’em-up level, while also interrogating current cultural obsessions.