I’ve said it before, but my favorite thing about China Miéville’s writing is how he comes up with ideas that are so off the wall, so completely out of nowhere, and then builds a whole story around them. And they become such a matter-of-fact part of the world you accept the idea completely, as if it wasn’t the most bizarre thing that couldn’t possibly exist in reality.
He did that with oceans made up of crisscrossing train tracks in Railsea. He did it again when two metropolises exist in the same place simultaneously in The City & The City. And he does it again dozens of times in his latest book of short stories Three Moments of an Explosion.
I loved most of the stories, was completely confused by several, and disliked a couple. But not a single one was boring, you can definitely say that.
As a quick warning, there’re some minor spoilers in this review. Part of the fun of reading a Miéville book is when you first come across the random, weird thing he’s created for the story, so if you’d rather find that out on your own, you should definitely go read the book first.
In “Polynia” icebergs have appeared over the city; no explanation, they just float overhead. A lot of the story is how people come to take such mind-bogglingly weird things for granted if they stick around long enough; how they name the different bergs, and wear warmer clothes when one’s slowly passing by, and try not to pay too much attention to them. But there’s also something wrong with the insides of them, and they may be a sign of something else going on, a reaction from nature on a very large scale.
“The Dowager of Bees” is one of my favorite kind of stories, the kind that takes a slightly mysterious thing (in this case the underground world of very, very experienced card players) and makes it even more mysterious, with cards showing up in normal decks that are absolutely not normal, and what rules are assigned to them. The details Miéville spins up in this story were particularly cool.
In several of the stories Miéville likes to drop you in the middle of a situation, where every single character knows what’s going on, but you as the reader are like a newcomer who doesn’t want to admit how clueless you are, and you just have to listen very carefully to what everyone’s saying for a while before you figure it out. In “In the Slopes” you have to wait to see what’s gotten everyone so excited at an archeological dig. (“Seeing” it for the first time is well worth the wait.)
In “Junket” the thing they’re talking about is a movie. You know it was a controversial movie, equally loved and hated by a surprising amount of people, and possibly the cause of one man’s death, but it takes you a very long while to understand what the movie is. Again, the reveal makes you want to go back and read the story again, now that you know what the big deal is.
In “Keep” you know that people are dying by a communicable disease, but the disease is hinted at pretty broadly for a while. It’s a disease that keeps people out of buildings, off of planes, or anywhere that a sudden, catastrophic removal of the surrounding area would kill everyone. The whole concept is like something that would come to you in a nightmare, and it’s wonderful to see Miéville weave it into one more thing people just accept.
“The Dusty Hat,” “Estate,” “After the Festival” and “A Mount” were all stories that came across as strange and disturbing, but somehow I didn’t enjoy them as much as the others. I think in “Dusty Hat” it was because the bizarre syntax that the dust makes people speak, and the backstory of the political factions the characters belong to, bogged down the flow of the story a bit.
In “After the Festival” I thought the ending still needed a little more to be satisfying. I don’t mind a story that leaves you wondering, but this felt more like someone came up behind me and yanked the book out of my hand, and I was left going “Hey, wait, I wasn’t done reading that one yet!”
I’m going to go ahead and put a trigger warning for animal cruelty on “Sacken.” I’m not usually a fan of trigger warnings, but I guess that’s because I don’t usually run across something that disturbs me like this one. Never mind the fact that the main part of the story was about torture and rotting bodies, it was the one instance of animal cruelty that really bothered me. The ending was also a little abrupt, but this definitely seems like a story where Miéville was out to make the reader uncomfortable in a lot of ways, and an abrupt, slightly unsatisfying ending does that too.
But those were the only stories that I didn’t like as much, and I didn’t hate any of them (well, “Sacken” really did bother me) I just liked the rest much better.
“The Rabbet” is more horror than science fiction, but not gory or violent; it has a great, slow buildup of tension. I could see this being made into a movie. For some reason it reminded me a little of Stephen King’s story “The Road Virus Heads North” except that there’s no traveling involved in this one, and while weird things are happening to artwork, it’s not really the artwork’s fault.
Miéville is also a master at creating trailers for movies that don’t exist. (Yet. I’d love to see some of these filmed.) My favorite was one that appeared on Miéville’s website some time ago: “The Crawl.” The idea is that there’s more than one kind of zombie, and there’s a war between them, and humanity’s stuck in the middle. Miéville does such a good job of describing the visuals, you really can see what’s going on. If you saw this trailer in the theaters, you’d sit in stunned silence when it was done, and then turn to your friend and whisper “Okay we are GOING to SEE THAT.”
But I think the fantasy and sci-fi elements outweighed the horror in most of the stories, even if they were still very dark. “Dreaded Outcome” had two twists in it that I absolutely didn’t see coming. It’s almost comical, in a very dark way, what he’s done to the world of professional therapy. It’s very much a tongue-in-cheek story, giving a wink at the relationship between a therapist and their patient, and maybe what some patients wish therapists actually did for a living.
“A Second Slice Manifesto” is a very short story that also feels like something you’d do in a dream; if you looked at a painting, and could cut into it, to see what’s standing behind the people in the front, what’s underneath their coats, what’s hiding in the clouds…what would you find?
“Covehithe” is kind of a monster story, but almost a wildlife documentary. I think Miéville must look at every huge man-made object and wonder what it’s thinking.
“Four Final Orpheuses” is about the moment Orpheus looked back at Eurydice and lost her forever. What was he thinking? Miéville offers four ideas. I wasn’t expecting the last one.
In the end, my two favorite stories were “The Condition of New Death” and “The Design,” and they’re probably as different from each other as any two stories in the book.
“New Death” is a very short story, barely five pages, and the delicious creepiness of the central idea is just fantastic. There’s no explanation for why bodies are doing such a bizarre thing, but it’s happening to everybody, and you’d better accept it, or just go insane.
“The Design” is the last story in the book, and fairly long, and beautiful. It has to do with surgical training in the early 1900’s, and the desecration of bodies (for the best reasons. Really.) and with friendships and relationships, and whether we’re the final product of some great plan, or just a rough draft for something else. It is, seriously, a gorgeous story, and the fact that it ends the book is just perfect.