Friday, February 22, 2019

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
by China Miéville, 2015

“Perhaps understanding’s overrated,” says William, a medical student assigned to study a cadaver whose bones, as he discovered, are inexplicably decorated with carvings. “Some of us are observers by nature, not philosophers.” He’ll never know where the designs came from, so he is content to work secretly in a rented room where he keeps the cadaver he stole, carefully stripping the man’s flesh from the bones.

The attitude, held by William in the story “The Design”, is also held by many other inhabitants of the stories that China Miéville wrote and collected in Three Moments of an Explosion. In “Polynia”, icebergs appear floating in the air above central London; in “Covehithe”, sunken oil rigs have come to life, laying their eggs on the coast like they've always been members of Earth’s ecosystem. This is not to say Miéville is writing solely ecological metaphors: more mind-bendingly strange than either of these is the behavior of the corpses described in “The Condition of New Death”, which have taken to behaving like dead bodies in video games.

By the time we catch up with them, the inhabitants of these stories are no longer asking about the whys and hows. The uncanny new situation is a fait accompli; the question is, what are we going to do now? How will we react and evolve now that consensus reality has become something that used to be unthinkable?

Not every story quite fits this pattern; a very few don’t use speculative-fiction tropes at all. “Dreaded Outcome”, about a therapist whose methods make use of her skills as a trained assassin, could make a good TV or film adaptation, though the dark humor would have to be calibrated exactly right.

These are the first Miéville short stories that I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed four of his novels in the past, and in these stories Miéville has struck me as a writer who prioritizes setting and situation over characters (not that he can’t write characters; he just doesn’t seem to prioritize it), and this suits the short story form perfectly.

Three of the shorter stories are actually blow-by-blow descriptions of movie trailers for imaginary movies. As a storytelling device, this impresses me a lot (Why didn’t I think of that!): Miéville is utilizing the well-known tropes of the movie trailer (“In a world where…”) to convey the outline of a story that he’ll never tell in detail.

There were a few stories that left me cold, generally because I felt I didn’t “get it”. For instance, “The Dusty Hat” will be better appreciated by someone with experience as a political activist. (I find politics fascinating, but if I were involved myself the frustration would drive me batty.) But that is a matter of personal taste more than anything.

In this post, I’ve used adjectives like “uncanny” and “mind-bendingly strange”; of course, what most people do with his fiction is call it “Weird”, often with a capital W because the weirdness defines a whole sub-genre. (His Wikipedia bio does this in the second sentence.) Miéville's situation-creating skills are second to none, and I ought to read more of his fiction. It’s been six years since I read Embassytown -- what should I pick up next?

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