When we were children my little brother used to set me up to tell him a story by saying, “What’n if…..” (What’n being short for ‘what would happen if?’) China Miéville (The City & The City) is a ‘what’n if’ novelist in a class far beyond my childish, or my adult, reach. There are those who criticise him for being interested in theory and literary experiment at the expense of character, and certainly some of the stories in Three Minutes of An Explosion are far far too clever for me, but that hardly matters when his mind is so interesting, his confidence so arresting and his style so lithe. Take a look if you want to meet one of our most interesting young English writers.
I think of Miéville’s characters as Earthlings. He’s not at all interested in extraterrestrial beings, but he observes human beings with the same dispassionate intellectual curiosity as a clever Martian who notes not only the outward behaviour of earthlings but something of the subterranean currents of feeling and motivation that animate them. And his earthlings are under siege, from nature on the grand scale and the microscale, from the power of the subconscious mind, from the evils of history that persist even when time has moved on from the fact, and from the unknown their own technology leads them into. In Polynia icebergs hang over London and coral grows on the European Parliament; in The 9th Technique a caterpillar pupa grows remorselessly to swallow the whole world into itself; in The Bastard Prompt the simulation of illness for medical exams opens up a space in which hitherto unimagined and untreatable illnesses become real; in Covehithe oil-drilling platforms walk out of the sea to menace us; in Säcken the unquiet spirit of an executed woman reaches out to drag another woman down with her. This story is the most conventional, being a classic horror tale in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe; in the other 27 pieces in the book Miéville plays fast and lose with time, space and every other dimension, as well as a range of literary forms.
But, like all of us, he has characteristic habits of mind, and when you read so many of his stories at one hit there’s a certain element of predictability. In more than one case the promise falls short of the achievement, as in Estate, which depends entirely on the arresting imagery of a burning horse walking the streets and left me feeling that the image was too big for the story.
I loved The Dowager of Bees, about an alternative universe known only to a select group of card players, and Dreaded Outcome, about a psychotherapist whose treatment methods are unusual to say the least. But my favourite was Polynia, a wonderfully multilayered, spacious and evocative story, which opens like this:
When cold masses first started to congeal above London, they did not show up on radar. By the time they started to, perhaps two hours later, hundreds of thousands of people were already out in the streets and gaping skyward. They shielded their eyes – it was cloudy but very bright. They looked up at glowing things the size of cathedrals, looming above the skyline.
They’d started as wisps, anomalies noticed only by dedicated weather watchers. Slowly they’d grown, started to glint in the early winter afternoon. They solidified,their sides becoming more faceted, more opaquely white. They started to shed shadows.
China Miéville, Three Moments Of An Explosion (Macmillan 2015)