Comments on Sören Heim's These moths really weren't necessary

Trying to get a hold of the "New Weird" Movement, Sören Heim started with a modern classic.

Comments (go to latest)
James D at 21:46 on 2016-04-04
Agreed on basically all points. The "rape revelation" could have worked if it had appeared around halfway through the Kuenstlerroman version - in the actual book Isaac goes from denial to acceptance to "fuck it, I'm outta here" in the span of about a page.

In reality, how many people would immediately, unquestioningly believe a stranger's claim that their friend raped her, without evidence other than her say-so? Besides which, Isaac is financially obligated to Yagharek, who has invested lots of his own money (gained by fighting in dangerous gladiatorial bouts) in the cure. That money was spent, Isaac can't give him a refund, and besides that it's money that maintains Isaac's standard of living - would he just immediately give that up without question? And is permanent maiming even a just punishment for rape? These are legitimate questions that Isaac could easily have spent half of a much better novel considering, and probably would have, given that we see Isaac is the type of guy loathe to give up his status and comfortable life to go against the grain, i.e. his unwillingness to "go public" with his relationship with Lin for fear of jeopardizing his cushy academic position. There are SO MANY FACTORS that are set up which would cause Isaac to be highly skeptical of the victim's (totally legitimate) claims, and instead he just immediately believes her based on...well, I guess she seems trustworthy.

Instead rape, which Mieville apparently considers a serious crime, is just an offhand afterthought in the coda to the main plot.

Oh and I forgot if you mentioned the fridging of Lin but that was super lame too. I think most people agree on these criticisms, it just depends on how much they drag down your overall reading experience. In mine (and apparently yours), the answer is quite a bit.
Ichneumon at 04:50 on 2016-04-05
I've been meaning to read this for a while, but from previous discussions and reading about the book, I thought part of the point of obscuring the wording was a way of framing just how differently the Garuda view their society from humans in that world. Everything is framed as a matter of choice, and to deprive another person of that freedom in an especially disrespectful manner is an abomination to them; thus, sexual violence is described in terms of denying a person their freedom to choose and refusing to honour a choice made by another. While not *entirely* alien, it's certainly unusual. It also comes up in at least one of his other Bas-Lag novels.

I wonder if one notices more hints in that direction on a second read. Having read some of Miéville's other work, particularly short fiction, it wouldn't surprise me if he dropped subtle hints that reward a second or third look. None of this changes that it might be a poorly structured book or unpleasantly rushed at the end, but it's worth considering.
Arthur B at 07:22 on 2016-04-05
@JamesD:
There are SO MANY FACTORS that are set up which would cause Isaac to be highly skeptical of the victim's (totally legitimate) claims, and instead he just immediately believes her based on...well, I guess she seems trustworthy.

It's been a good long time since I read the book, but I seem to remember that Isaac's life is comprehensively wrecked by the end. Which I guess makes it easy to walk away from Yagharek, because none of the factors which could potentially have prompted him to disbelieve and stick around apply any more.

@Ichneumon:
I wonder if one notices more hints in that direction on a second read. Having read some of Miéville's other work, particularly short fiction, it wouldn't surprise me if he dropped subtle hints that reward a second or third look. None of this changes that it might be a poorly structured book or unpleasantly rushed at the end, but it's worth considering.

From what I remember of the book, a reread would be more an issue of noticing all the bits which Mieville spills a bunch of ink on but which don't appreciably increase our understanding of the world or characters or advance the plot.

For instance, I seem to remember a bit where the mayor summons a demon to try to deal with the moth problem and they have this long conversation which amounts to absolutely nothing which wouldn't have been accomplished by a one-sentence aside that the mayor had sought infernal help which was refused. Likewise, the one other bit I remember strongly (there's great swathes of eminently forgettable stuff in there) is the Dungeons & Dragons parody when he mentions the parties of wandering adventurers who try to take down the moth, which also outstays its welcome.

To that extent I disagree that Mieville isn't into "show, don't tell" - the real problem is that he just tells us stuff that could have been more interesting if he showed it and shows us stuff which he should perhaps just told us about and moved on.
James D at 10:13 on 2016-04-05
It's been a good long time since I read the book, but I seem to remember that Isaac's life is comprehensively wrecked by the end. Which I guess makes it easy to walk away from Yagharek, because none of the factors which could potentially have prompted him to disbelieve and stick around apply any more.

You're right, Isaac had lost his girlfriend and was on the run, which would've made it easier. It's not that it's completely unbelievable that Isaac would do what he did, it's that Mieville chose the least interesting, least dramatic way to handle what could've been a really interesting character dilemma - and a much, much more interesting conflict than "we gotta kill some monsters."

And yeah there are all sorts of throwaway parts of the book which are neat for worldbuilding I guess but completely without plot significance - there was also the part where the Handlers fight the slake-moths and get their asses beat with no results. I suppose he's trying to show how the establishment of Bas-Lag is trying their best to beat the moths and failing, but these are long, drawn-out sequences that don't involve main characters, have no real stakes, and don't move the plot forward.

I think a while back we were discussing this (with valse de la lune IIRC?) and you said Mieville should just take these cool worldbuilding ideas that clutter up his novels and sell them as flashcards.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 10:57 on 2016-04-05
Mieville has always felt weird in that he's half literati and half pulp, and seems to really enjoy both parts.

RE: Believing victim, IIRC Yagharek was pretty insistent that yes, he had committed a crime (though not disclosing was it was) and yes, it was a bad one. It's just that until he was directly confronted with the possibility of *what* that crime was, Isaac could feign ignorance about what it might imply to have committed a crime.
Arthur B at 11:28 on 2016-04-05
RE: Believing victim, IIRC Yagharek was pretty insistent that yes, he had committed a crime (though not disclosing was it was) and yes, it was a bad one. It's just that until he was directly confronted with the possibility of *what* that crime was, Isaac could feign ignorance about what it might imply to have committed a crime.

That's it.

To give Mieville his due, one thing I did quite like about that arc - or at least, the way I remember it - was how Isaac basically tossed aside any consideration of what Yagharek's crime might have been (and now that you remind me, I do vaguely remember Yagharek regularly being like "No, seriously, I did a really bad thing"), partly because of precisely the sort of issues James outlines with it not really being in Isaac's interests to question the point too deeply, partly down to Isaac blithely assuming "Oh, it's some cultural thing, Garuda are so ~exotic~ and ~inscrutable~ so I probably wouldn't understand it anyway."

So perhaps the handling of it is a bit more nuanced than we're giving China credit for, since it does involve Isaac assuming a stance of self-serving ignorance until he is confronted with the cold, hard, undeniable facts.

Doesn't change the fact that it feels like a cheap shot from out of left field when you read it though - or the fact that it comes slightly too late for the moment to really have the resonance it deserves.
Sören Heim at 12:35 on 2016-04-05
To that extent I disagree that Mieville isn't into "show, don't tell" - the real problem is that he just tells us stuff that could have been more interesting if he showed it and shows us stuff which he should perhaps just told us about and moved on.


Yes, that's a more accurate way of putting it. I seem to have completely repressed the Mayor & Demon part of the book.
Arthur B at 12:42 on 2016-04-05
On the point about Mieville apparently not liking Isaac at all - I think the rape revelation kind of lends a bit of credence to that. Think about it: not only has Isaac's life been thoroughly, absolutely, comprehensively trashed, but right at the end he finds out that all this trouble happened because he decided to help someone who, now that he knows exactly what they have done, he doesn't even want to know anymore.

Not only has Isaac destroyed himself, but he's destroyed himself for no reason. The dude never gets a break; had the book gone on for five more pages I wouldn't have been surprised if Mieville had himself manifest in front of Isaac, kick him square in the balls, and take a piss on him as he lay twitching in agony on the floor.
Sören Heim at 15:05 on 2016-04-05
Since I haven't read any of his others I can only judge from this book, but does it have to be about liking Isaac, or couldn't it just be that Mieville wants to paint a rather bleak picture of life in general (or life under capitalism at least, which would fit with his political persuasion). None of the more idealistic characters seem to have a lot turning out well for them.
Arthur B at 16:23 on 2016-04-05
He does have a tendency towards downer endings and plot arcs that tend to project characters into dustbins. Though some of the downer endings show a bit more... kindness? compassion?... for the protagonists in question. (I'm thinking in particular of the end of The Iron Council.)
James D at 21:42 on 2016-04-05
The funny thing is, of the novels I've read, I like Isaac by far the most out of any of Mieville's protagonists. He's clearly not perfect, but his failings are understandable and he's generally likeable. I mean his greatest problem is that he has trouble doing the right thing when it means great personal inconvenience and possibly hardship - something everyone struggles with.
Ichneumon at 17:02 on 2016-04-07
I think this is part of why I stick with short fiction when it comes to writers like Miéville: The brevity forces a greater degree of focus, the ideas are mostly self-contained, and even the most frustrating characters don't overstay their welcome.

Which is ironic, given that I actually *do* enjoy self-indulgent digressions and "pointless" events should they be appropriately interesting or amusing in their own right. But the problem is, length increases time, and time increases the potential for impatience, particularly in novels; and because of this, novels tend to have an expected progression and degree of efficiency which undercuts the novelist's ability to spread their scope beyond a certain point.

Incidentally, I wouldn't be surprised if the turn-of-the-century "social novel" is one of Miéville's inspirations in how he structures his work. Zola and his kin certainly aligned with his political views, and the idea that every angle of a broader conflict should be explored in depth regardless of whether the individual stories really cohere beyond thematic continuity or just "fitting the whole world in a book" seems appealing to his personality and aesthetics. Likewise, the cadence of his prose has a definite hard realist feel despite the subject matter being moderately to exceedingly fantastical more often than not.

That said, the thrill of the panopticon is in seeing *everything,* and while I do think that eliding certain events is key to giving an impression of how much is going on, your comments give me the impression that more time could have been given to underexplored ideas to balance out the satirical and tangential asides.

But I dunno. I'm not very keen on whaling on books for seemingly deliberate structural choices when I can understand why they're there, even if I don't agree with them. Maybe this just reflects my impatience with how people look at novels. I get that it's somewhat of a necessity to consider them through the lens of narrative efficiency based on the time investment involved, and I do love a gripping, tightly focused read—The Shadow of the Torturer had me hurtling along at lightning speed, and I do rather enjoy a good potboiler or breezy vacation book now and then—but as I said, I also like when stuff gets convoluted and digressive and messy, and if the only point of a scene is to expound upon a theme or show a cool idea or make the world feel richer, then so be it.

However, those scenes are best when they come back to bite you in the end, especially if they seem completely meaningless at first. Incidentally, the work of fiction that immediately comes to mind in this arena is not a book (exactly), but the webcomic Homestuck, which, say what you will about it otherwise, is basically a master class on how to make the average reader think you're just throwing random shit at them and then bring it back with a grisly vengeance when they least expect it. Hussie really goes all the way down the Pynchonian self-reference rabbit hole in ways that are almost sui generis, for better or worse, and assuming that anything is simply fluff is often a mortal mistake.
Ichneumon at 17:33 on 2016-04-07
P.S. To be quite honest, I don't especially care if he had to shoehorn in the slake-moths or the Weaver, because they are both really fun concepts if nothing else, and stuffing in fun concepts because fuck you, I'm China Miéville seems like a better rationale than, for instance, the publisher-mandated sex scene meme.
James D at 02:00 on 2016-04-08
The thing is, that's exactly the central problem of the novel - if he wanted to write a "social novel" (something I'd probably really really enjoy if it were set in a crazy fantasy world), then the central "monster hunt" plot was terribly ill-fitting and simplistic and distracting from the genuinely interesting stuff (I found the strike-breaking scene much more interesting than the moth crap). If he wanted to write a "monster hunt" story then all the extraneous social novel stuff only served to slow down what needed to be a fast-paced thrill ride full of derring-do and whatnot. It's just a bad marriage from the ground up.
Sören Heim at 13:55 on 2016-04-08
It's just a bad marriage from the ground up.
- Yes. I'd have loved to read some kind of Perdido-Street-Ulysses (if well executed) and I might have liked a faced paced mothhunt ( it wouldn't have to be moths, though). It's not that I want the book to be something it just isn't, but to be at least one of the things it could be instead of trying for a bunch of them and failing at every one. Although the more I read the less I felt that Mievilles worldbuilding would allow for deeper exploration. It is opulent, but it often seems like he just took social problems he wanted to make a point about and constructed a fantastic equivalent, without worrying too much if it fits all together.
Ichneumon at 06:47 on 2018-08-08
Hmmm.

Looking back on my prior comments after having read The Scar and loved it (while acknowledging that it does have its faults and weird aspects), I really do wonder how I’d feel about Perdido Street Station. To be frank, I can see many of the issues you have with this novel reflected in that one, and... wasn’t bothered by them at all? Your description does suggest a rougher work, maybe Miéville feeling out the tack he wanted to take with these novels, but there’s a lot there I’m sure you’d take umbrage with that I actually adored. It’s certainly an acquired taste, however, and not exactly subtle thematically speaking.
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