Apocalypse, Book review., Books, China Miéville, Dreaming, Edgar Allan Poe, Horror, Literary criticism, New Weird, Romantic Irony, Socialism, Socialist Workers' Party, Three Moments of an Explosion, Weird Fiction
After my rare expeditions out of the Edwardian period and into modern “weird” fiction, I have usually returned disappointed. Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron, authors who many modern readers cling to as the best hopes for prolonging the genre, have received unhappy reviews on Tychy. These authors ultimately come across as rather too devout students of the weird, as acolytes and epigones who are being bundled along in a kind of processional blur. But following a perusal of China Miéville’s Three Moments of an Explosion, a collection of twenty-eight short stories which was published earlier in the year, I can return to my Edwardian rectories in an upbeat mood. Three Moments of an Explosion is recognisably “weird,” but it is also lively, unpredictable, and a work of significant originality.
Let me interrogate my previous, now troubling, neglect of Miéville’s fiction. I had associated him with steampunk, a hipster literary genre if there ever was one. I had interpreted his erstwhile membership of the Socialist Workers Party (UK) as an ominous sign, assuming that no sophisticated mind could be ever affiliated with such an outfit. I do not know whether he is an instinctively off-putting figure or whether I am basically a snob.
To account for this book’s originality, I wish to take several steps back, to acquire the distance which is necessary to place it within the weird canon.
From its inception, weird fiction has been either sincere or insincere. Perhaps these are not so much clubs as poles, with any given writer being nearer to one than to the other.
Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and HP Lovecraft were all sincere in their beliefs about the inadequacy of materialism, occasionally to the point of hysteria. For them, the short story, as a model, had the appeal of straightforwardness. A short story could convincingly resemble unembellished testimony, the rantings of the visionary or a dispatch from the frontiers of consciousness. Writers such as Ambrose Bierce, MR James, and EF Benson, on the other hand, were fundamentally insincere practitioners of the weird. For them, the short story, as a model, had the appeal of frivolity. A short story was a quirky literary toy, something which could be devised by any amateur with sufficient parlour-game ingenuity.
One cannot, of course, sum up an entire genre in a hundred words, just like that. Blackwood sometimes wrote jokey tales, into which his mystical sincerity never intrudes. Bierce was clearly obsessed with certain themes, such as cowardice, in a way which was not insincere. Still, I am trying to sum up an entire genre in a hundred words, and so I will have to be brusque when it comes to nuances.
So is Miéville sincere or insincere? Three Moments of an Explosion is a very jolly collection of stories. In its extravaganza of ideas, in its utter exuberance, in its dazzling bazaar of different styles and settings, it is epicurean at heart.
It is joking from the very beginning. The title story, in which urban explorers take “tachyon-buggered MDMA” to slow down time within an exploding building, pinches this idea from an unlikely source. Over to you, Noel Edmonds:
What is cake? … It stimulates the part of the brain called “Shatner’s bassoon”, and that’s the bit of the brain that deals with time perception. So a second feels like a month. Well, it almost sounds like fun, unless you’re the Prague schoolboy who walked out into the street, straight in front of a tram. He thought he’d got a month to cross the street…
Edmonds had been conned into reading out fake public information on the spoof current affairs TV programme Brass Eye.
As the fantasy writer Ursula K Le Guin has observed, “You can’t talk about Miéville without using the word “brilliant”.” None of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion are completely innocent of humour, or at least of a sort of keynote intellectual brilliance. Even “Säcken,” which reviewers have agreed is the iciest of this book’s stories, takes an obvious enjoyment in its brilliant choice of a method of execution, whilst the anguish of the victim’s lover is seldom conveyed with an equivalent sharpness.
I think, however, that a lot of Miéville’s brilliance is all rather easy and just for show. A reading of his 2014 essay “The Limits of Utopia” allows us to scrape away some of this brilliance. I am not doing this to disparage what might seem like Miéville’s quintessential asset, but to get at what is underneath.
In “The Limits of Utopia,” Miéville relegates utopia to a realm of subjective dreaming about phenomena such as “photosynthesizing cars bred from biospliced bone-marrow.” He favours “hate” for its political usefulness, though there remains, in his analysis, the width of an ocean between bare hate and specific geopolitical change. The most revealing section of the essay concerns Miéville’s dismissal of “geoengineering,” which he scoffingly equates with “the return of human agency.” This is, for Miéville, intrinsically bound up with the desire of Capital to preserve its otherwise apocalyptic system. Yet what if some future, more democratic system ever decided to exploit geoengineering rather than to cut back on the people’s surpluses? For our can-do futuristic writer, this is suddenly an impossibility. It is, he complains, “utterly speculative.” There is no logic here – there is none of the streetfighter’s common sense beneath the intellectual flair.
Although apocalyptic imagery figures a great deal in Three Moments of an Explosion, one at first assumes that a socialist such as Miéville is only ever being insincere about this. But in depicting character after character being confounded by supernatural weirdness, this book is essentially unmoored in the vicinity of an apocalyptic current. In “The Limits of Utopia,” Miéville notes that Western consumers’ infatuation with apocalypse “can dovetail with something brutal and malefic, an eliminationist disgust.” He insists that, “We need to tilt at a different tipping point, into irrevocable social change, and that requires a different pessimism, an unflinching look at how bad things are.” Nonetheless, from disgust and pessimism, we are a slippery foothold away from defeatism, and from there to apocalypse, the final defeat of civilisation by nature.
This pessimism is symbolised by the insurgent dust in “The Dusty Hat,” a story which otherwise alludes to the rift in the SWP which had led to Miéville’s departure in 2013 (with “the History Man” as most likely a prancing caricature of the SWP’s Alex Callinicos). Socialism in “The Dusty Hat” remains unstoppable, though it is now battling on in the startlingly undignified form of “dust.” The trouble is that once you take the ironic note of supernatural wish-fulfilment out of this story, it is all genuinely, wretchedly, apocalyptic. We are being lured away from Capital’s feast with the refrain, let them eat dust. Elaborating upon the wistful words in “The Limits of Utopia,” the narrator reveals that, “I’ve been learning to hate like dust hates… Of course I envy things.” The inevitability of dust seems like a horribly wretched victory for the far Left, a rictus-grinned, knowing-eyed revelling in humiliation.
So a shriek is the most piercing note within the laughter. There is a lot of clowning about in Poe’s fiction, ranging from the complicated ironies of “The Gold Bug” to the tiresome chortling of “Bon-Bon,” but Poe was still a sincere writer. There is a lot of brilliance in Poe’s fiction, but his worldview was still apocalyptic. Beneath the rather strained falsetto humour of the gun-toting psychotherapists in Miéville’s “Dreaded Outcome,” or the frolicsome anthropomorphised oil rigs in “Covehithe,” there is always a solemn bassline, a rich and sincere aesthetic.
Still, we are in danger of being swallowed up in depths which are actually too shallow to contain us. In “Polynia,” for example, Miéville’s apocalyptic imagery malfunctions. You might assume that the icebergs which are roaming over London in this tale are supposed to symbolise the ghosts of structures which have not survived the planet’s industrial wear and tear. But, if so, these ghostly bergs end up becoming just as ignored as their original counterparts, even when they are flying directly over Londoners’ heads. They “don’t get in the way of business.” The retrieval of some ice from one of the bergs only inspires two schoolboys to pettiness and greed. We are left to uneasily wonder whether these haunting bergs are really meant to make the humans below feel ashamed or humble. Are the bergs an indication of humanity’s destructiveness or of nature’s dispensability?
Poe provides the best point of comparison when considering Three Moments of an Explosion. Miéville’s book shares the distinctive breath of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), the same jumble of horror and humour in which one can glance off the House of Usher to the Duc de L’Omlette. The tales often share the same slimness and disinterest in exploring character. In both books, the farce is always obvious whilst apparently satirical stories, such as Miéville’s “Polynia,” are in fact depoliticised through an adept deployment of irony.
Even veteran close-readers of Poe’s fiction are unable to tell what he really thought about such preeminent issues of his day as slavery. Three Moments of an Explosion is so mysterious and unforthcoming that after a while it would not be a surprise to learn that it is actually an authentic dream diary, tidied up into literature. Like dreams, a lot of these stories feature the haunting device of an impossible scenario which the world-within-the-dream accepts as normal. The bizarre flaming animals which are senselessly released on to urban streets in “Estate,” the senselessly coming-and-going ships in “Watching God,” the senselessly collapsing floors in “Keep,” all of which might sharply evoke dim memories of scenarios from your own dreams. Like dreams, these stories feature passive characters who are usually little more than observers. Like dreams, these stories are fragmentary, typically petering out without a climax or explanation.
The dream structure of these stories might be not so much a device as a formula. The Kirkus reviewer describes Miéville’s “habit of building his narratives by taking a metaphor, often about a political or social issue, and asking what would happen if it were literally true.” To me, this is not incorrect but it still sounds somewhat too tactical. Indeed, “The Condition of New Death” is spoiled by the explicit admission that it is a comic number, that it is cracking an obscure joke about early computer games. The tale might resemble itself a bit better if the reader was left without this clue, or left suspecting that such an explanation might be out there somewhere. “The Buzzard’s Egg” is more successful, in this respect, because whatever it is exactly recounting remains unspecified. Every dream has a latent meaning behind it, but it is often simply sufficient to enjoy the dream.
The dream instinct in Three Moments of an Explosion, the recurrence of what are essentially the plots of superbly counterfeited dreams, is what makes Miéville sincere, rather than his apocalyptic drift. Any very talented writer can pastiche the shop talk of poker players (“The Dowager of Bees”) or psychotherapists (“Dreaded Outcome”) or natives from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain (“The Buzzard’s Egg”) or young men from an earnest Edwardian medical mystery (“The Design,” which considerably outdoes Susan Hill’s own pastiche-Stevenson-weird, Printer’s Devil Court). Miéville, though, is imitating the dream-work, that eternal archetype of the author who resides within every sleeping human brain.