SEPTEMBER 6, 2015
IN All That Is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman suggests that modernity promises “adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world,” while also threatening “to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” This diagnosis still has force today, only now the balance has tipped firmly in favour of the threat. Critical commentators join in tandem lament over the collapse of the future into an endless capitalist present, exemplified by spectacular advertising that guts science fiction’s sense of wonder and wears it like a cheap bauble. Financial speculation and futures markets domesticate what is to come, while austerity drains the blood of society in the name of the social good. Precarity in work, housing, and cash flow is the growing norm, and keeping calm and carrying on entrenches many into accepting increasingly desperate conditions as not only necessary but somehow proper. And this without even touching on the ecological threat that will put a full stop at the end of humanity’s story — a threat that the world’s authorities consistently fail to respond to adequately. Into the soft belly of the present, China Miéville’s new short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion tears like a swift shiv:
I’m full of hate, brimming with it. But think, and you have to hate, because if you couldn’t hate you couldn’t love, and you couldn’t hope, and you couldn’t despair correctly. Not because of some fetish for symmetry, but because what matters above all is the utter. What’s hate but utterness, the unwordable with a bad inflection? (215)
So says the narrator of “The Dusty Hat,” a short story that reveals the political-aesthetic kernel of the book as a whole. Each story plays out an intervention that riles against banal complacency, and offers up the wonders — and horrors — that lie in wait for those with eyes to see and courage to look. This collection is a challenge as well as an invitation, and I would urge everyone to accept both.
Miéville produces literature that strives to be adequate to our insecure moment. Against a false sense of ontological security (a trust in the rightness of our identities, ways of life, and understandings of the world) he draws on and cultivates a style of ontological insecurity that is a defining effect of the Weird tradition — a tradition inhabited most famously by H. P. Lovecraft. Precisely the literature of anxiety and cosmic dread, the Weird communicates the shattering of routine and habit, the undermining of the expected, and the breaking of confidence in accepted reality. The force of the older Lovecraftian Weird was premised on the full intrusion of sublime horror into the mundane, in the shape of monstrous and unspeakable beings from elsewhere and elsewhen. It was, in truth, a hysterical literature that feared the Weird world and craved stability. Writing during the first half of the 20th century, Lovecraft was responding to the seismic shifts of modernity; the absurd grandeur of his vision offered an appropriate scale for the immensity of the forces and changes newly unleashed upon the world. Miéville, in contrast, writes for a new time — one grown more desensitized to the global nature of things, if only because of the reductive filter of social media. Miéville seeks to estrange us once again, to reawaken the Weird (now a weirdness intimately entangled with everyday life) and to seduce us into recognition. The occasional Cthulhu-like monsters in his stories appear primarily as suggestions — a trace glimpsed from an unusual angle, or an imprint cast in resin. In Miéville’s eyes, reality is always already Weird (Speculative Realism is in full bloom here), and his stories show us what he sees.
If his past novel-length work allowed his extraordinary imagination to have free rein — producing sublime flights of exuberance as well as, on occasion, marring the narrative with unwieldy tumours of over-invention — this tendency of Miéville’s is clipped by the short-story form of Three Moments. His anarchic joy in ignoring generic and formal boundaries and exploring the ramifications of singular ideas and metaphorical figures remains, but here it is necessarily more tightly controlled; the collection excels as a result. An entire sequence of SF novels is condensed into “The Rope is the World,” a brief future vision of the science-fictional sublime decaying under the historical logic of capital, breeding unknowns in the rubble. A few of the stories are centered in one way or another around this double-struggle: capital overwriting the deep code of human life, and resistances and oddities cropping up in its wake. Others, like “The Condition of the New Death,” posit some fundamental change to the workings of reality and play out the (often banal) response of humanity. In stories like “The Dowager of Bees,” playing cards are re-injected with all the forgotten enchantment of their long symbolic history, while “The Design” will have you tempted to peel the muscle back off your arm for a glimpse of bone, just to be sure. There’s also some straight horror — in “Säcken” an ancient punishment re-emerges monstrous, and the story captures that rising submarine terror from The Tale of Jeremy Fisher that reportedly so disturbed a young Miéville.
There’s plenty of formal experimentation in the collection. Three of the stories —“The Crawl,” “Escapee,” and “Listen the Birds”— are second-by-second scripts for movie trailers, an ekphrasis that allows Miéville to pattern flashes of images in a grammar familiar to us all, but alien to literature. These again range from horror to thriller to darkly absurd. There is a gem of a story written as an art manifesto, which manages to be darkly compelling as a narrative, a decent idea for an art movement, and a critical-theoretical insight all at the same time. Another story takes the shape of a university module syllabus. It is impossible to tell whether it is from a world different to ours or simply future to it, and such questions are not the point. Through the course description, it outlines a syllabus that in turn outlines a world, an argument about that world, and where it is headed. In turn, “The Rules” posits a simple new way of bookending an era that manages to communicate the enormous scope of history and humanity’s place in it, along with the subtle interactions of technology, creativity, and bodily habitus. This is Miéville’s forte, and why he gets compared to Borges: a story is an idea is a theory is a visceral image is a form is a machine for producing certain effects, and Miéville is becoming a consummate engineer. His dexterity of style produces a rich economy of effect, pliable to the needs of the individual story. Gone are the tumbling Lovecraftian adjectives — those sledgehammers taken to rationality and comprehension. Instead, some stories read like piles of bones not-quite-set, clicking, grinding, and protruding at unnatural angles; while others sweep the reader along in awe, or provoke laughter, or build the tension so gradually that you only notice the yawning horror halfway through a sentence, and by then it’s too late to throw up any defences.
Even the worst of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion are tight, clever, and sharp; “worst” only by lacking that touch of the numinous that Miéville aims for and so often communicates. The greatest of his stories are marked by moments of slippage, when the heart falls to the stomach and the world opens vertiginously, like a literary version of the smash zoom, so that the world never quite arranges itself back the way it was, containing more after than it did before. At their best, Miéville’s stories emulate the squid and octopi with which he is so enamoured — active agents in the struggle against the “everyday, anthropocentric gaze [that] banalises the world, interprets remorselessly, makes everything at which we look diagnostic of us” (China Miéville, “Alien Evasion,” Arc Vol.1). Against this blinkered view, the stories, like cephalopods, “struggle for their own opacity. The lone survivor means nothing but itself. The squid is a predatory evasion, no matter what of it we learn […] ruining our solipsism, schmutz on the Rorschach test” (China Miéville, “Alien Evasion,” Arc Vol.1). They disrupt the way we look, the way we measure and judge, the way we interpret and assume — narrative as death-head, as squid-smudge, anamorphic undermining, forcing us, if not to occupy a new perspective, then at least to doubt the comfort and completeness of the old.
And this brings us back to where we began, with hate. Not a comfortable word. Not a comfortable thing to admit to. We get it drummed into us that tolerance is worthy, love is worthy — but not hate. Hate is for the bad guys, the terrorists, the unenlightened. We deal in justice, not hate. Or we say we “hate” things all the time, but what we mean is that we find them frustrating — hate diluted to letting off steam about something we feel powerless to change or do not really care that much about anyway. It is a commonplace that while love and hate are opposites, in terms of felt intensity both sit at the same pole opposing apathy or a weary cynicism, which is only the thinking-person’s version of getting through the day, not causing a fuss, coping. Not thinking. Because to really think is to hate.
Miéville has in the past spoken of his writing as “Post-Seattle fiction,” and we can certainly see links between it and the growth of the New Left since the WTO protests in 1999. Both are a reaction to the “Capitalist Realism” which Mark Fisher (among others) suggests has gripped both Left and Right. The New Left and multiple social justice movements continue to refuse the limits placed by the neoliberal status quo on political possibility, and they disdain received modes of radical organising in favour of grass-roots experimentation; Miéville’s fiction similarly insists on the flexibility of a sense of possibility, and it rejects genre distinctions in favour of an approach that takes what it needs from wherever to tell the new stories it needs to tell. Three Moments of an Explosion is not a manifesto, and it is in no way overtly politically didactic. That is not Miéville’s game. It is a collection of sharp, intriguing, unsettling, enlightening, awe-making stories that give the reader enormous pleasure. Yet I also think it is aiming to do something more: It is attempting to be a literature adequate to our times, and it is attempting to create readers who are adequate as well.
Readers who are capable of shifting perspectives, of seeing beyond the veil, of facing the horror of the slow economic, social, and ecological violences that surround us. Readers who are radical, who re-enchant the world they see, who recognize agency everywhere, who want more than the thin tranche of life in the moderate middle, acquiescent to the point of cutting off their own noses. Readers who want the utter — voiced with a bad inflection sometimes, sure, but only as a harmony to the ecstatic, the joyful, the more than this of love. More is possible, these stories suggest, more is already out there — but only if we acknowledge that what we have, and what we are, is neither necessary nor proper.
Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity Verso, London. 2010
Miéville, China. “Alien Evasion,” Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins 2012