Playpen

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 22:15 on 05-03-2012, Arthur B
Mieville, to me, is at his best when he's just throwing crazy-cool ideas at the page (People with armor made from scabs! The Malarial Queendom! Nomad bird people with libraries strapped to their backs! Rocks that evaporate and condense together randomly! A magic order that works by sacrificing your own memories to feel your spells! Tiny dancing copper coin golems!) and not really caring too much about the plot.

Proposal for the ideal China Mieville publication format: a box of index cards, each card containing Mieville's writeup of a single idea from whichever fictional universe, world, or London he is playing with right now. Story and worldbuilding are for the reader to infer as they shuffle the cards.
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at 22:09 on 05-03-2012, James D
Usually I wouldn't either, but in this case the ideas are so many and the plot is so weak that I just have to.
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at 22:08 on 05-03-2012, Axiomatic
I just can't hold "having more ideas than he has plot for" against a writer.
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at 22:01 on 05-03-2012, James D
Er, my post was directed at Dan's. Took too long to type it out and other people snuck in there!
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at 21:59 on 05-03-2012, Andy G
I came to Mieville with my expectations lowered by Ferretbrain and absolutely loved him. Perhaps because of the lowered expectations! I've only read The City and the City of his novels but I really like his political stuff, including that article which sparked this whole discussion!
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at 21:53 on 05-03-2012, James D
Well, put me in the first camp. I agree with your criticisms of the story for the most part, it seems like he set up a few major events (the big reveal about Yagharek at the end, Lin getting kidnapped) and then just wrote the book as a series of 'and then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens'. No real flow or coherence to it, which made the 'big events' really lackluster when they happen because there was no appropriate build-up to them.

Like with Yagharek; within a few pages his victim just suddenly shows up out of nowhere, reveals to Isaac what happened, and then Isaac makes his decision after an incredibly short period of time after immediately believing her (I mean, dismissing a rape claim is a shitty thing to do, but can you honestly tell me the average person would unquestioningly believe the word of a total stranger that their friend has done something totally awful without even hearing what the friend has to say?). It turns what should've been an interesting moral question into something of a throwaway. I mean, what would you do if you found out one of your friends had once raped someone and been punished for it, assuming of course they felt genuine remorse and weren't about to go do it again? Can punishment and repentence ever truly absolve someone of that magnitude of guilt, or do all rapists deserve to be ostracized for the rest of their lives? Maybe they do, but it's a complex issue about the nature of crime and punishment that deserves real thought and could honestly have taken up the bulk of the book. But no, Isaac's just like 'later dude' and that's it.

I appreciate that Mieville can think up cool stuff, but it seems like he's just totally unable to leave any of it out. If he thought of something cool, he's damn well going to shoehorn it in there somehow. Like the scene where the mayor asks the demon for help, only for him to refuse; we didn't know about demons in Bas-Lag beforehand, and they're never mentioned again. It's utterly pointless, other than to be 'cool' (which it admittedly is) and to further imply that the Weaver is a really dangerous last resort. But they imply that anyway by being really scared of him and by trying other stuff first and then ACTUALLY SAYING he's a really dangerous last resort. OK, enough complaining about Mieville for now, I promise.
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at 21:52 on 05-03-2012, Axiomatic
Sure, but it's not the ONLY reason why I like him.

Mieville, to me, is at his best when he's just throwing crazy-cool ideas at the page (People with armor made from scabs! The Malarial Queendom! Nomad bird people with libraries strapped to their backs! Rocks that evaporate and condense together randomly! A magic order that works by sacrificing your own memories to feel your spells! Tiny dancing copper coin golems!) and not really caring too much about the plot.
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at 21:32 on 05-03-2012, Dan H

I was like, I didn't know you could DO that in fantasy! I didn't know it was even allowed!


I suspect that makes a lot of the difference. If you come to Mieville having encountered any even vaguely alternative fantasy settings then you just don't get your mind blown the way he clearly wants you to.
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at 21:27 on 05-03-2012, Ibmiller
Valse - I had much the same reaction to Kraken and Un Lun Dun as well :-) Though I actually finished Kraken, since I was using it for my "let's see if Mieville is worth reading without having arthropod squick all over the place." Un Lun Dun - Marxist (but the political message is confusing in the end) Narnia/Discworld. And not nearly as interesting or original as either of those.

Kraken, however, was much more interesting - but the ending was really ridiculous (and to me, rather insulting, though that's probably not a common reaction by most of his typical readers). I thought the worldbuilding had some good ideas, but was waaaaay too aware of how cool its ideas were - very self-satisfied. And rather slapdash - Star Trek magic alongside The City Horuspex (basically magic Batman) - and Squidianity. Just way too convinced that it was the best world ever. Made by 13-year-old dudes. Rather felt like subpar (as in less emotionally engaging but just as imaginative and lazy in follow-through) Gaiman.

And that one was supposed to be a more satisfying ending for Mieville. The reviews I've read (mostly Abigail Nussanbaum's) don't make me think that the tone of the worldbuilding or the quality of the story construction improve at all, really. While I love mysteries, The City and the City just seems to incredibly implausible and/or incredibly annoyingly symbolic for me to want to give it a try.

So, yes, I will jump on the "Mieville is not as good as he thinks he is" wagon. (Wait, am I a ferret or a lemming :-)
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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!
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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."
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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.
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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.'
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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.
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at 18:32 on 05-03-2012, valse de la lune
I couldn't read Kraken and thought Un Lun Dun completely dull.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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at 16:00 on 05-03-2012, James D
Yeah,
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).
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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.
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