Tag Archives: China Miéville

The Book Group and China Miéville’s October

China Miéville, October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso 2017)

October

Before the meeting: The Book Group was recently immersed in post-revolutionary China with Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Someone remembered that this year is the centenary of the October Revolution and that China Miéville (whose The City and the City we read a while back) has written a book about it. In a nice piece of symmetry, given that according to the Western calendar the October Revolution happened in November, October is our book for September.

The book is tough going in some ways. The story of Russia from February to October 1917 is bewilderingly complex. A ‘Glossary of Personal Names’ at the back gives brief notes on 55 people who played significant roles. Maps of Petrograd and European Russia offer minimal help with the logistics. The multiplicity of political parties, and factions and committees within those parties, and the ever-shifting relationships between them, have a dizzying effect. Not to mention the fluid allegiances and political positions of the lead players.

But once you realise you don’t have to be on top of every detail, it’s an exhilarating ride. Miéville describes his intention in an introduction:

Though carefully researched – no event or spoken word described here is not recorded in the histories – this book does not attempt to be exhaustive, scholarly or specialist. It is, rather, a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms, Because here it is precisely as a story that I have tried to tell it.

He goes on:

The year 1917 was an epic, a concatenation of adventures, hopes, betrayals, unlikely coincidences, war and intrigue; of bravery and cowardice and foolishness, farce, derring-do, tragedy; of epochal ambition and change, of glaring lights, steel, shadows; of tracks and trains.

It would be hard to find a better description of the book than that.

It tells the story in 10 chapters: ‘The Prehistory of 1917’, then a chapter for each month from February to October, and finally ‘Epilogue: After October’. Inevitably, given that structure, there’s a lot of One Damned Thing After Another. Miéville’s chapter titles help to keep one’s bearings. For example, the central theme in Chapter 3, ‘March: “In So Far As”‘, is the playing out of the decision in March that the Soviet (the organisation representing workers, soldiers and peasants set up after the February Revolution) would not take power itself or be part of the Provisional Government, but would support the Provisional Government ‘in so far as’ (postol’ku-postol’ku) its actions met with the Soviet’s approval. The title of Chapter 4, ‘April: The Prodigal’, signals that we are to keep an eye on Lenin, as this who returns from exile in that month.

Miéville has a good eye for the colourful, telling or absurd moment. My favourite occurs in the most intense moments of October, when a group of officials who support the Provisional Government demand that a member of the Red Guard to let them pass or kill them, making them anti-Bolshevik martyrs. He tells them to go home or he’ll spank them.

And though his language is mostly, appropriately, functional, every now and then there’s something to delight. Alexander Kerensky  addresses the troops in March, and is met with testeria. It took a moment, but I realised that a less gender-conscious writer might have said ‘hysteria’, and I had a new word in my vocabulary.

octobermovie.jpgThe book sent me back to Eisenstein’s 1928 film October (on YouTube here). What to a 2017 reader and film-viewer is history, was living memory to the film’s original audience. The book explicates some episodes. The episode of the Red Guard threatening to spank the officials is a good example: in the absence of dialogue (at least in the version I saw), repeated shots of the handsome young soldier calmly shaking his head ‘No’ would have reminded the 1928 audience of the famous line – for us, it does so only if you’re read it elsewhere. On the other hand, because many of the places that feature in the revolution were virtually unchanged in 1928 the film illustrates the book brilliantly. The role of women, which I suspected Miéville had retrieved for modern sensibilities, features prominently in the movie.

The main difference between the two is probably in the tone, especially in the endings. The movie ends with a sense of a triumphant beginning, the book with a lament for how terribly wrong it all went in the following years, and a muted hope that a just, unexploitative society might yet be possible, that the lessons of the Russian Revolution are yet to be learned.

The meeting: There were six of us, and though not everyone loved the book, it generated a terrific conversation.

One group member said that this is not a book to listen to as an audiobook: the stream of Russian names, the absence of the chapter-heading signposts, the impossibility of flicking back and forth in the text make it almost impossible to follow the story. A couple felt that the writing was pedestrian. We all engaged with the content: not so much ‘this is what a revolution looks like’ as ‘ this is how that one happened’. We lamented the fragmentation of society that makes mass actions like those in this book seem almost surreal, and the way technology has speeded up communication so that paradoxically there is less time for thought, for response, for organising.

Is violence necessary for major social change? Was Stalin inevitable? These questions were not answered, either by the book or by us.

China Miéville’s This Census Taker

China Miéville, This Census Taker (Picador 2016)

1509812148.jpgA friend who know I’d enjoyed China Miéville’s The City and The City  lent me this very short book. When I asked him if he was recommending it he half shrugged, ‘It’s got a child narrator.’ coming from him, that meant ‘No, but you might.’

What can I say? It’s beautifully written, it’s hard to put down, and even though you realise part way through the book that you’re unlikely ever to know what’s really going on you’re compelled to read to the end.

It begins with the boy – sometimes ‘I’, sometimes ‘he’ – running down from his home on the hillside to tell people in the nearby village that he has seen his mother killing his father. Then he believes on reflection that he has seen his father killing his mother, and persuades everyone else that this is what happened, even though no one can find any proof. And indeed his mother has disappeared leaving a handwritten farewell note, though no one is sure of her handwriting, so as with almost everything in the boy’s experience we don’t know if the note is what it seems. He is made to go back to their ramshackle, isolated house to live with his father,  a maker of keys that may or may not have magical properties, who is loving to his son but every now and then seems to enter a weird state and beat an animal – and possibly the occasional person – to a pulp.

I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to believe the boy is correct about his father, and that he is finally rescued by a heroic census-taker. I’m not so sure. All I’m sure of is that the boy understands very little of what is happening in the world, and we understand only a little more. There may be an underlying story that we can put together from what he tells us – like the hidden story in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life perhaps. Maybe it’s a puzzle that can be pieced together by someone cleverer than I am. There’s an acrostic towards the end, though what it signifies is completely ambiguous.

So this is a very readable, tantalising and grim story that doesn’t quite tell itself: something like The Trial meets What Maisie Knew. Did I mention it’s very short? If it had been much longer, this level of uncertainty would have been exasperating. As it is, I loved it.

End of Year Lists

The Art Student proposed that I post about my best five books, best five movies and worst three movies for 2010. And hers. Being an obliging fellow, and at the risk of exposing myself as a philistine, here they are. Do nominate your own favourites in the comments.

The five movies most enjoyed in 2010 (in no particular order):

By me:

Animal Kingdom, David Michôd’s first feature, so human and yet so vile. (When Jacqui Weaver was being made much of in the US for this performance, Michôd reportedly said to himself, ‘About time.’ To which I cry Amen!)

Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole, what some people would undoubtedly see as a fundamentalist left feminist feelgood movie – and what’s wrong with getting to feel good about a victory?

Peepli [Live], directed by Anusha Rizvi & Mahmood Farooqui, a wonderfully ebullient satire on the way the media in India just like here makes spectacle out of misery – a comic commentary on P Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought.

Temple Grandin, made for TV by Mick Jackson, starring Clare Danes as Temple Grandin, the woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who revolutionised the treatment of cattle in US slaughterhouses.

In the Loop, exuberantly enraged, foul mouthed satire directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Peter Capaldi, which I found cathartic.

By the Art Student:

City Island, a genial comedy directed by Raymond De Felitta, starring Andy Garcia, and Julianna Margulies playing a very different character from Alicia in The Good Wife on TV.

The Yes Men Fix the World, featuring culture jammers Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, and any number of corporation representatives being taken for a ride.

Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater.

Peepli [Live]. At last we agree on one.

Fair Game, the pic about Valerie Plame, directed by Doug Liman.

The film that most cried out for a thumbs down from both of us

Rob Marshall’s Nine. At least they had the good taste to wait until Fellini was dead before defiling his work in this way. The fault lines in our unanimity of taste showed when the Art Student had trouble choosing between this, Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, both of which I enjoyed.

Five favourite books read in 2010

By me:

I listed 121 books in my Reading and Watching blog during 2010. I didn’t finish all of them, but picking five favourites is necessarily pretty arbitrary because so many of them delighted and enlightened me. However, here goes.

China Miéville, The City and the City. Science fictional policier, marvellously taut and convincing us to believe in an impossible world.

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda. Written by an Australian, this tells the story of a Japanese man who fought against and killed Australians in the jungles of New Guinea, and his resolve to honour his comrades who died there.

Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season. I read this in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Haiti. It is a very rich introduction to the culture and recent history of the nation created by the first successful black slave revolt of modern times.

Jennifer Maiden, Pirate Rain. This may not be the best book of poetry published this year. Many people would probably give precedence to Les Murray’s Taller When Prone or Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain. But Jennifer Maiden gets my gong.

Marilynne Robinson, Home. If I ever convert to stern Presbyterian Protestantism, it will be because of this book and its predecessor, Gilead. I love the characters’ unrelenting quest to love with integrity.

By the Art Student, in her own words:
While I have read quite a bit of fiction that I enjoyed, the books that stand out are all non fiction.

Reza Aslan, How to win a cosmic war. I heard him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. The book is a clear and compelling account of the past and current drivers of religious fundamentalism – Islamic, Jewish and Christian. It shows the common threads in religious fundamentalism while focusing on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. What is interesting is Aslan’s description of the difference between Islamic nationalist groups (which the West should learn to love) and internationalist jihadism. By fighting the former, Aslan argues, we are pushing alienated young western-born Middle Eastern  Muslims into joining the latter and terrorism.

Carol Duncan,  Civilizing Rituals, Inside Public Art Museums. This includes a fascinating account of the development of public art museums after the French Revolution liberated the Louvre. It mainly focuses on the development of public galleries in the USA and England, but links these developments to a popular movement to have art galleries in all major western cities (including Sydney). But most interesting are the struggles about what galleries were and are for, how they should be funded and what they should show. In the USA, private philanthropists were the driving force in establishing galleries, allowing them to build spacious monuments to benefactors. The down side was that those benefactors wanted control beyond death, so that many galleries are filled with replicas of ballrooms and indifferent art that are never to be changed. Duncan’s final chapters critique current public galleries’ approaches to their art and audiences, making it clear why many people find the experience of visiting galleries unsatisfying and alienating.

John Hirst, Sentimental Nation, the Making of the Australian Commonwealth. Federation? Surely the dullest topic in Australian history. But to my surprise this book was a wonderful read of the decades-long fight for federation. Depressingly familiar in some respects (the Murray–Darling debate, immigration, taxes, mining, Commonwealth–state power sharing) it was also a wonderfully inspiring account of democratic processes that gave Australia a constitution. There were three Constitutional Conventions, with 60 men voted from  the colonies to draft, debate and redraft the constitution over 12 weeks each time. Once agreed on, the constitution was subject to two referenda before being passed. Town hall meetings were held in every suburb and town in the country, each meeting often taking four hours while every section of the draft was read aloud,  explained and debated. Hirst makes the back and forth of politics come alive with a contemporary feel.

Richard in the Era of the Corporation

Patricia Hill, Alice Neel. Alice Neel (1900 to 1984) was a US artist who painted mainly portraits of ordinary working people over from the 1920’s until her death. She was a socialist and worked as part of the Federal Art Project (a New Deal initiative) during the Depression. She only received recognition of her work in the 1970s, partly because portraiture was out of fashion in Modernist American art circles,  partly because of her left wing views and partly because of her gender. I love her work. Her portraits are often distorted yet capture absolutely a sense of the person and their context. She saw herself as painting ‘definitive pictures with the feel of the era’, pointing to her portrait of her son in a business suit, ‘Richard in the Era of the Corporation’ as a good example.The book is largely Neel’s own words taken from interviews conducted by Hill. An inspiring read for someone at the very beginning of an art career as she approaches 60.

Do tell us your bests of 2010 in the comments

The Book Group and The City and the City

China Miéville, The City and the City (Macmillan 2009)

Before the Book Group meets:
We decided to read some science fiction. Rather than opting for someone’s idea of a classic (Asimov, Heinlein, early Gibson or Stephenson) we decided to pick something current. I’d loved China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and heard interesting things about The City and the City – among other things it had been nominated for a Hugo [and now has tied with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for Best Novel]. I suggested we take it on, and the suggestion carried the day.

So I was suffering a mild case suggester’s anxiety when I started reading. What response would the book get from Groupers who’ve read even less science fiction than I have? Would the meticulous world-building strike them as so much tedious scenery-painting? Would they see the elegant police procedural plot as something from a by-the-numbers TV show, the characters as two-dimensional, the tantalising central conceit the equivalent of a one-joke comedy? I’m pleased to report that after a while I stopped caring and was absorbed in the book’s world and its story.

The City and the City is hard to write about because it really is an extended exploration of a single conceit. I would infinitely prefer to have had it revealed  to me by the narrative itself, and don’t want to have a hand in spoiling it for anyone else. In a Book Show interview, Miéville went as far as saying that the story is set in two cities that share an unusual relationship to each other, which is true but doesn’t give anything away. Not until the end of the first chapter is there any hint that the world, or at least the cities, of the book are in some sense science fictional/fantastic. I would love to know how a reader who wasn’t forewarned would understand that first jarring moment, and how long it would take to grasp the full situation. Of course, in one sense, the full situation isn’t clear until the very last pages: as in Kafka and Raymond Chandler, to whom Miéville acknowledges indebtedness, the narrative at one level concerns itself with solving a single crime, but it also unfolds the deeper political realities of the world of the novel.

Pushing the spoiler envelope just a little, I had an insight into the book when out walking recently with the Art-Student. As we approached a small group boys riding their scooters in the street, one of the boys momentarily lost control and wheeled directly into our path. He pulled up short and called over his shoulder to his friends, ‘I’ll try that again.’ He had carefully avoided hitting us, but otherwise acted as if we dog-walking old people weren’t even there. He had ‘unseen’ us. Then I remembered noticing on my last visit to Cairns that though there were plenty of Aboriginal people in the streets, the non-Aboriginal people generally behaved as if they weren’t there, and vice versa – another case of mutual unseeing. The City and the City takes this common phenomenon to impossible extremes, and much of the joy of the book lies in how consistently and thoroughly he has imagined it. Miéville succeeds to the extent that every now and then a reference to the world as we know it – to Coke, or Madonna, or a Google search – brings one up short: oh, this is all happening in the world as I know it! The climactic point of the story consists of four people walking briskly down a street in close physical proximity – and it’s totally thrilling, not just because one of them is carrying a gun. That’s all I’m saying.

After the meeting:
It was a small meeting, but all of us had enjoyed the book. The group meeting had been postponed for six weeks or so, so quite a bit of time had passed since most of us had read the book. And even though in the intervening weeks one had reread it and another had read Perdido Street Station, our memories weren’t generally fresh enough to generate much detailed discussion. I needn’t have worried about the appeal of the world building: everyone enjoyed it. And my curiosity about how the setup was revealed to the unspoiled reader was gratified: the consensus seemed to be that the odd word (‘crosshatched’) created a sense of unease, enough to alert rather than alarm, and there was pleasure as more of the workings of the cities was revealed, until one felt (several times over), ‘Ah, now I get it!’

China Miéville at Kinokuniya

There are wordy conflagrations in Melbourne around about now that are sending occasional sparks up Sydney way. The Melbourne Writers Festival is letting Val McDermid do an evening at Gleebooks, and last night China Miéville, in Australia for AussieCon 4, made an appearance at Kinokuniya. There was a bit of a Neil Gaiman rockstar feel to the event, with a pec hugging white T shirt in place of Neil’s trademark black jacket.

The Miévillians

After a brief introduction, China M stood on the tiny stage by himself for an hour, reading and fielding questions.

He read a chapter from his latest book, Kraken, pretty much a self-contained short story that was very funny, though more to be savoured than guffawed at. I loved the term retro eschatonaut: if you can figure out what it means you’ve got the bulk of the story.

An earlier plan to have a fishbowl Q&A session having been ditched, CM chaired the question time deftly. You could tell we weren’t at a Writers Festival because all the questioners had clearly read at least some of his books, and he didn’t have to do any obvious mental gymnastics to come up with interesting answers to dim questions. I noted down a couple of gems.

On atheism: After stopping the questioner in mid-sentence to prevent spoilers, he said, ‘I don’t think you choose whether you believe or not,’ and talked about CS Lewis’s account of his own conversion to Christianity: he had convinced himself that he had to believe, and knelt and prayed, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. ‘I like the idea of an atheistic character who resents his lack of belief.’

On film adaptations: Any book involving a secondary world invites the collaboration of readers. A film destroys all the readers’ mental worlds – and the author’s – and replaces them with the director’s.

Advice to young writers: Start from an assumption that nothing you write will be worth publishing. Then falsify that assumption.

On writing a book set in an already established universe: Every book you write in someone else’s world is one less you can write in a world you make up yourself. He won’t ever be writing a Star Trek or Star Wars tie-in, but if he gets a phone call asking him to do a Doctor Who script, he’ll drop everything. (That last was delivered with a pinch of salt.) He wondered aloud what would happen if a publisher approached a distinguished author, J M Coetzee for example, asked them to write a Star Trek novel, and kept putting more money on the table until they said yes. (‘Star Wars by Coetzee?’ I muttered to the man standing next to me. ‘Better than Lucas,’ he muttered back. Someone should write it.) It would be a win-win: the Nobel laureate expands his readership, the publishing house cashes in on the controversy, the literati get to read some science fiction and/or enjoy their outrage, etc.

The role of politics in his work: He’s a socialist, and if his fiction introduces people to political ideas he’s thrilled, but a 500 page fantasy novel is a hugely inefficient vehicle for propaganda. ‘If you’re a Red, the Paris Commune is a very inspiring story. If you’re not a Red, it’s still a very exciting story.’ The revolutionary politics is there in his books because it gives their worlds texture, makes them more realistic.

I left, a happy camper,  as the audience was transmogrifying into a huge queue for the book signing. My Book Group is currently reading The City and the City (the book of his that he would most like to see made into a movie), so I’ll be posting about China Miéville again in a couple of weeks.

Perdido Street Station

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station (Pan Macmillan 2000)

perdidoKim Stanley Robinson (you know who he is, right?) is quoted in a recent Guardian, in the context of a spray about the insularity of the Booker Prize judges, that ‘the best British literature of our time’ is science fiction. I can’t say I share his disparagement of historical novels, still enjoying the afterglow of Wolf Hall as I am, but he has a point. Certainly I feel more nourished by Perdido Street Station, a full-on chaotic, phantasmagorical, dystopian, steampunk boy’s-own-adventure-with-interspecies-sex-and-reanimated-cadavers than by any number of sensitive and self-important explorations of guilt, memory and adultery.

It’s very long, and there was a bit towards the end where I wished he would just get on with it, but it sustained me very well through a very long plane trip and subsequent jet lag. I do feel when I read a genre work like this that I’m something of an outsider and can’t tell what’s original to it and what is a common trope. (I recognise echoes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, for instance, but have no idea whether they are actual references or simply drawing on the same meme pool.) But when it’s done as well as this, that becomes an academic question.

If you’re looking for a long, light, engaging read, I doubt you could find better.