Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 21:26 on 05-03-2012, Axiomatic
I love Mieville's work unironically and once I manage to get my mitts on a copy of Embassytown, I will again be able to say I own everything he's done.

A lot about it has to do with reading fantasy that was basically either Tolkien or a reprocessed Tolkien imitation product, and then encountering Perdido Street Station in the library, and having my tiny teenage mind completely blown.

I was like, I didn't know you could DO that in fantasy! I didn't know it was even allowed!
at 21:16 on 05-03-2012, Dan H
A bit late to the party here but yeah, I've always thought Mieville was overrated (I promise I thought that before it was cool). I've only read Perdido Street Station and I found it *monumentally* underwhelming.

I observe, interestingly, that there seem to be exactly four responses to Mieville (this is of course an oversimplification, but it makes things fit together neatly). Basically you either love the worldbuilding and hate the story, or love the story and hate the worldbuilding, or love both or hate both. I've often heard people complain that PSS has a wonderful imaginative setting hampered by a week story. I've rather more rarely heard people complain that PSS has a promising adventure plot hampered by too much self-serving world-wanking. And I've heard people praise both the setting and the plot for their depth and complexity, while I personally don't rate either.

I found the end of PSS pathetic in about six different ways. No, they can't leave hunting the slake moths to the proper authorities, because that would involve trusting The Man and it was The Man who got them into this in the first place (I appreciate that the guy's a Marxist, but I was fairly sure that Marx had very little to say on the subject of making a better monster-hunting squad). And they've got to sacrifice a homeless guy to the machine because that shows that they can make Hard Choices (because letting poor people die so you can play hero is totally the tough decision). And Lin gets brainwiped because that's what women are for, and Yagraek turns out to be a rapist because ZOMG you thought he was a good guy but he isn't!

The Yagraek-is-a-rapist twist particularly bugs me in retrospect because if you squint and close one eye, it could almost be making a point about Isaac's fundamental hypocrisy. He doesn't care what Yagraek did until it reminds him of something that happened to somebody he knows (and he ignores the victim's request to treat the crime in terms of theft of choice), and he makes no effort to reconcile his disgust at the practice of Remaking condemned criminals (which punishes crimes by mutilation and loss of freedom) with his belief that Yagraek deserved to have his wings cut off (which punished a crime by mutilation and the loss of freedom).

So yeah, generally didn't like it.

On a tangential note, I also understand that he's a twat IRL as well. I've got a friend who goes to a lot of cons, and apparently he's started off at least one meet-the-author session by saying "but I don't want to talk about my work, because that would be boring."
at 20:30 on 05-03-2012, Arthur B
That's my reaction to it too. As far as an evocation of an interesting setting goes, it's pretty good, but again it really didn't need 800 pages to accomplish that, particularly since the setting, whilst aesthetically interesting, isn't nearly as bizarre as, say, Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris.

There's enough material there for a really tightly plotted short story, or maybe a short novel, but fluffing it up to 800 pages is an enormous exercise in puff and prevarication.
at 20:16 on 05-03-2012, James D
I don't know, I'd argue the plot actually is pretty bad. Not necessarily in another book, but in a long, ostensibly complex novel, it's way too simplistic to justify its 800-odd pages. I got so damn sick of hearing Mieville describe the stupid slake moths at length again and again. It sounds like he was trying to make them seem quasi-Lovecraftian, but he also manages to utterly miss the point of what makes Lovecraftian creatures horrifying. The slake moths may have otherworldly properties and may look really weird and scary, but they're just hungry animals trying to eat and survive and reproduce, not inscrutable beings of unfathomable motives.

And why does he build Lin into an interesting character, only to wisk her away and make everyone think she's dead, only to then bring her back right at the end, only to almost immediately have her turn into a helpless drooling idiot? And the resolution to the Yagharek thing was so lazy, too. It's just 'oh, he's a rapist? BYE! The End.'
at 19:13 on 05-03-2012, Andrew Currall
I've only read Perdido Street Station and about a third of Un Lun Dun. I very much liked the former (yes, the plot is the weakest part of it, but it isn't in any way actually bad, and everything else is excellent), and thought the latter abysmal in every way (dull, poorly written, preachy, predictable). I don't think I've ever had two such different reactions to two books by the same author.
at 18:32 on 05-03-2012, valse de la lune
I couldn't read Kraken and thought Un Lun Dun completely dull.
at 17:55 on 05-03-2012, Sister Magpie
I only read one of CM's books, and that was very recently. It was Kraken and I was really underwhelmed. I didn't even like the worldbuilding that much, tbh.

I also recently read The Night Circus. I liked the descriptions of a lot of the things in it, but which much rather have visited the circus than read the book, because the plot and central idea was so completely handwavey and vague even I eventually got annoyed with it.
at 17:25 on 05-03-2012, James D
She did more than that, but generally only as she was being manipulated by characters with a better grasp of what was going on, and the ability to influence it.

An interesting bit came about I thought when another character confronts her as she's complaining yet again about not being in New Crobuzon, about how it's really incredibly selfish of her because a lot of the people (the mutants, whatever they're called) were actually treated as equals in Armada instead of slaves and it was a huge windfall compared to being shipped off to a colony to further slave away, much more significant to their lives than just 'not being home' was to hers. That could've been a catalyst to a change in her character, but she ends up being more or less cold and uncaring the whole time. I mean, it's not like every character has to change for the better, she could've had some sort of developmental arc where she starts to change but then tragically reverts to her original isolated and selfish ways; maybe the letter she was writing throughout the book could've been addressed to someone in the middle (or even more than one person, changing over the course of the book as her relationships shift), but then changed back to being addressed to no one by the end. But instead it's more like she never changes at all. See, I agree with valse de la lune that Bellis is a well-imagined character, it's just that after imagining her, Mieville doesn't *do* anything with her.

See, neither of us are published authors and we can both easily point out flaws in the book and propose changes that would improve it greatly; that's a big fucking problem.
at 17:08 on 05-03-2012, Arthur B
I was expecting Bellis or one of the other main characters to get into the boat too, but then...they didn't.

That particularly frustrated me because from what I can remember Bellis' entire character arc consists of the following:

- Get roped into coming on the floating city.
- Be rather unhappy about this and swan around observing things for the reader's benefit rather than doing anything proactive or constructive.
- Take the first boat home as soon as something becomes available.
- ...that's pretty much all I remember.

What I do remember quite firmly is putting the book down with the impression that Bellis hadn't really changed or grown as a person an awful lot during the book and on the whole the entire trip was a superwhale-sized waste of her time. And, since she seemed to exist solely to be a pair of eyes for the reader, the reader's time too.
at 16:52 on 05-03-2012, Jill Heather
Past the Bas-Lag books (and excluding Un Lun Dun, which I thought clever and fun though ultimately very light), I read The City & The City, which I loved for reasons that have little to do with the quality of the book (unsurprisingly, the book can be summed up as setting=great, plotting=terrible; as I am a sucker for a good setting -- this is why I enjoyed The Night Circus despite it lacking anything in the way of having a plot or characters -- and as the cities reminded me of mid-90s Montreal, I cannot really separate my response to the book from my relief at no longer being in the mid 90s minefield). I enjoyed Kraken when I read it, though I don't remember much about it except the origami person. There must have been squid in it, too. I tried to read his new one a few times but never got very far because it was so boring.
at 16:50 on 05-03-2012, James D
Oh, OK, I thought you meant it literally 'unhappened' rather than making a joke, since there was that probability drive thing. Yeah, I agree with your general assessment. I was expecting Bellis or one of the other main characters to get into the boat too, but then...they didn't.
at 16:07 on 05-03-2012, Arthur B
That's exactly what I meant by unhappening.
The entire novel builds up to people reaching the Scar. Reaching the Scar is the entire reason the floating city was put together in the first place. Spontaneously people decide not to go to the Scar, the city is dissolved - and since we had no clue of its existence before this novel, this returns the world to the state it was in on page 1 - and the characters who decide "fuck this, we're going to keep going and actually get some of the payoff these hundreds and hundreds of pages have been building up to" end up doing it offscreen.

It seemed transparently obvious to me that Mieville, having built up The Scar to this extent, realised he was completely incapable of coming up with anything interesting to happen which could possibly justify that buildup, and so deployed a mammoth load of cop-out, a heap of cop-out so dense that large boulders of cop-out got knocked off the pile and ended up falling on The Iron Council too.
at 16:05 on 05-03-2012, valse de la lune
The Lovers really creeped me out, btw. I've forgotten many details of The Scar, but those... cling.
at 16:00 on 05-03-2012, James D
she and a handful of loyal followers take the necessary equipment in a boat and keep going, while the city goes back. Bellis gets put on a boat and sent home for some reason (probably just to give the illusion of a satisfying conclusion).
at 15:52 on 05-03-2012, valse de la lune
Been a while for me, as well; the female half of the Lovers ends up going off on a sailboat on her own? I think?

It's been a very long while.
at 15:40 on 05-03-2012, James D
Hm, it's been a while since I read The Scar, but I'm not sure I remember it the way you do...
I definitely don't remember anything 'unhappening', the city just ended up revolting against the Lovers and their single-minded quest for the Scar, (thanks to the machinations of what's-his-name). That was kind of a cop-out, though. The whole book is hinging on this quest, and we don't even get to see what happens when it's completed. I guess the status quo was kind of upset in that the entire power structure of the city shifted, but that's probably not the kind of "delicious chaos" you're envisioning. If the city had started exploding (or whatever) as it reached the end of the world, Bellis might've finally had some action to take and there would've been a satisfying conclusion.
at 15:16 on 05-03-2012, Arthur B
I got very annoyed at the end of The Scar when it seemed like something big and important would happen which would actually shake up the status quo of Mieville's lovingly constructed fantasy world, but then
someone pulled out an infinite improbability drive to make it all unhappen

Imagine my annoyance at The Iron Council when, rather than having his revolution pull off an unlikely success or suffer a realistic defeat, Mieville has a character
pull out a time hole so that Mieville is saved from actually having to resolve anything.

The whole thing revealed a distasteful fondness for deus ex machina and an equally distasteful tendency to set up situations which look like they are about to degenerate into delicious chaos and then not allowing chaos to happen.
at 15:00 on 05-03-2012, James D
Well, I liked The Scar overall, and I thought Bellis was a good character too. The problem was, she just didn't have a whole lot to do. She had very very little control over her situation and, as such, few interesting choices to make and not much of a *story* to her. She's essentially an observer of a story that has very little to do with her (beyond using her as a tool). Aside from finally getting to go home (the reason for which seems rather strained, given the importance of the city's secrecy), the plot's outcome affects her not at all. She didn't really change a whole lot over the course of the book, either. Now, I thought the setting was amazing and I've always liked Mieville's style. I certainly wouldn't have picked up The Scar after reading PSS if I didn't enjoy reading him. I just have some big problems with him as well.
at 14:49 on 05-03-2012, valse de la lune
Mmm, I don't prioritize plotting in quite the way you do and thought The Scar was fantastic (grimdark rapeyness off-screen aside, and some issues with Bellis--though even so, she's a gorgeously-drawn character).
at 14:46 on 05-03-2012, James D
He has... issues, but generally he's quite a smart man.

But do those books have better plotting? Or are they just more mediocre stories with awesome costumes and amazing sets?
at 14:42 on 05-03-2012, valse de la lune
I dunno, I'd say he's tried out a lot of different things--The City & The City and Embassytown say are very different from his Bas-Lag books. He has... issues (women in some of the books, and in Embassytown there's iffy colonialism baggage), but generally he's quite a smart man.

Let's agree never to speak of the unspeakable things we did in the time bubble. Even though it means I have to forgive Dan for shooting me in that timeline.

I feel like I'm in a Marvel superhero comic. R-r-reboot.
at 14:32 on 05-03-2012, James D
I've read a little about his more recent books and apparently some of them are even worse in that department, I really get the feeling he got way too much success way too fast and never had any incentive to improve as a writer. Which is a shame, because I think he's really really good in some respects. PSS would've been so good if he'd just ditched the monster plot altogether (or made it extremely minor) and just focused on a character-driven story. I genuinely liked the main characters, Mieville did a quite decent job of giving them a little depth, and reading about their trials and tribulations in that bizarre city would've made for a much better book.
at 14:23 on 05-03-2012, Arthur B
I haven't read any of his more recent stuff but PSS/The Scar/Iron Council are obscenely overrated, for the reasons you point out.
at 14:13 on 05-03-2012, James D
Is it just me or is China Mieville kinda...overrated? I've read Perdido Street Station and The Scar and while both were good, they both had large flaws going hand-in-hand with his undeniably awesome worldbuilding and excellent style. His main problem, as I see it, is his woefully poor plotting. Perdido Street Station was, at its core, a monster movie with a tremendously dull central conflict, and The Scar's central conflict didn't even personally involve any of the main characters. Mieville is great at thinking up cool stuff but not good at all at thinking of a good story to put them in, at least in those two books.