The Cloud Rank: CHINA MIÉVILLE

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of our readers had not heard of the novelist China Miéville before.  I myself only stumbled upon a story of his in a collection a few years back, and had to read backwards from there to catch up with his writing.  Below, I’d like to share some thoughts about his newest novel, Embassytown and then list “The Cloud Rank” of all of his works that I have read, but before I do, here are just a few brief thoughts by way of introduction…

  • Miéville is primarily known as an author of science fiction/fantasy-esque novels, but they are eruditely creative, densely multilayered (political/spiritual/culturally reflective), and deeply engaging examples of those genres, that is, versus the kind that have implausibly-bosomed alien/elfin women in space/fairy bikinis.  Supposedly, there is a “school” of writing to which Miéville belongs called the “New Weird.”  I don’t know about weird, I just think it’s devastatingly clever. Except when it’s not (see Cloud Rank below for works that fall in the AVOID category).
  • He’s British and male, though his name seemed French and feminine when I first encountered it (he made himself the central character in the first story of his I read, mentioned above).  He is a avowed Marxist (I think? Maybe just a hyper-socialist?) with a PhD in International Something (Law? Economics? Can’t be bothered to fact-check anything floating about in my memory).  He has a shaved head, a plethora of earrings in one ear, and he’s far from either of the polar extremes one normally associates with the sci-fi/fantasy crowd (i.e. skinny nerd or fatty schlub). This last sentence is rendered wholly unnecessary by inserting…

    Portrait of the artist as a person you would hand over your wallet to

    His newest novel, Embassytown, was released in May of 2011, to mostly quite positive reviews.  It is set in the future on the most distant planet of the known universe, when human existence on earth is only a vague memory (or something like that).  I won’t go into the details of plot, character, etc.  All those things can be found in reviews elsewhere with considerable ease.  Instead, I’d simply like to tell you a few of my own impressions…

  • I initially found myself simultaneously intrigued and baffled by the world he created (aliens, technology, politics, etc.), yet I was willing to patiently uncover the meaning of words like “miab” or “immer” by their use in context.  However, I later became a bit bored with this lexical snipe-hunt, being that some words’ meaning seemed almost indeterminable.  Still, the wordsmithery of this writer cannot be denied.
  • The central character and narrator, a human woman called Avice, held my attention and affection throughout, though there was a disquieting passivity to her–intentionally, I’m sure, as Avice describes herself as a “floaker,” which is a neologism the author uses to define someone who is an underachiever/layabout/slacker combination mixed with a dose of elitist and a hint of mischievous social agitator.  I personally would hope to live up to such a description on my finest days…
  • In terms of literary pedigree, I found myself sensing the influence of two works quite strongly in his novel (though he may have read neither):  Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (if you’re ever in a used bookshop, look for this & buy a pulpy copy…it’s so worth reading) with its androgynous sexuality and ambassadorial politics, and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra (I’m pretty sure that Miéville would not be a fan of Lewis, given his harsh words regarding Tolkien) with its re-imagined Edenic narrative and grand human themes.  If you liked either of those books, I think you would enjoy their offspring in Embassytown.
  • The book had the potential to be a microcosmic epic, an unveiling of life in a particular place that seemed to speak to the totality of universal existence.  But ultimately, it lost steam on this quest and became a story that was crushed by its own inability to live up to the grand vision it had promised.  And yet, this book is so much better than most of whatever else that is published every year, so it comes highly recommended nevertheless.

So where does Embassytown fall on the Cloud Rank of China Miéville’s literary output?  About the middle…

  1. The Scar (2002):  This is the second novel in the Bas-Lag trilogy.  It is a sci-fi sea novel (Miéville is also known for experimenting with hybrids of various genres) and one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ (Note: this book can be read as a stand-alone novel, but why not start with…
  2. Perdido Street Station (2000):  The first of the trilogy, sometimes a bit bogged down by detail, but absolutely brilliant in its world creation, vivid descriptions (it can actually be a somewhat intense read with the violent accounts of the horrific “slake moth” monsters and what not), and deeply compelling storyline.  I was gripped by this book.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ
  3. The City & The City (2009):  This is a crime/noir novel set in an Eastern European-esque location which actually houses two distinct cities, existing in the same geographic space but divided by an ingrained, mutual disregard established in a elaborate set of rules that keeps one city from acknowledging the other.  Brilliant conceit, but the story lost the central suspense narrative (to my mind) at some point. Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  4. Embassytown (2011):  See above comments.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  5. Railsea (2012):  Sometimes, a bit hit & miss, this is a postmodern re-imagining of Moby-Dick with trains replacing boats in a futuristic world.  If you can stick to the end, I think you’ll find it is ultimately a satisfying read.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  6. Looking for Jake (collection, 2005):  A mixed bag of stories and other pieces, notable mainly for the post-apocalyptic vampire novella, The Tain, and a story in the Bas-Lag universe called “Jack.”  Cloud Rank = MOSTLY FOR FANS
  7. Iron Council (2004):  The third book in the Bas-Lag trilogy, half of it written in the manner of a classic western novel, other parts a narrative of class struggle, and yet other parts creepy sci-fi.  I was so deeply disappointed in this conclusion to the trilogy, I finished it only out of a sense of obsessive completism.  Cloud Rank = AVOID, UNLESS YOU HAVE THE SAME NEED TO COMPLETE THE SERIES
  8. Kraken (2010):  I could barely bring myself to keep reading a few chapters in–there was not much that I liked at all.  It felt like a D-grade rehash of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  And just to be spiteful, I will spoil the end here:  the whole thing with the kraken is just a red herring and the real villain is a former fundamentalist Christian who wants to erase the evidence for Darwinism. This is inexcusably bad.  Cloud Rank = AVOID AT ALL COST
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