Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Book review: "Looking for Jake" by China Mieville

It's been a few months since I read China Mieville's story collection "Looking for Jake". I thought I'd write this review without re-reading the stories. That way I'll write only about those aspects of the book that stuck in my mind, without being distracted by details.

Having found China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" fascinating, I must say I was a bit disappointed with his story collection "Looking For Jake". It still has Mieville's great writing, but the story plots left me wanting. Wanting for an original resolution -- or any kind of resolution, for that matter.

However, as I think back to what China Mieville said on some of last year's Readercon panels, I can see why resolutions in his stories are not forthcoming. I suspect that he considers a "satisfactory" ending to be a bourgeois thing. This must follow from the fact that Mieville dislikes the belief that lies at the core of most of the SF/F literature: a belief that a single person can change the world. Such thinking, according to Mieville, attributes much more power to an individual than any one person has in real life. By doing so, it downplays the power of adverse circumstances that many people (especially poor people) face in their lives. Worse, an illusion that a single person can change the world keeps people from organizing and attaining any real capacity to change the world.

(Personally, while I think it's a valid point, I don't think that world-changing individuals in fantasy serve only reactionary purposes. But this post isn't about my views, so I won't go into this.)

At least one of the stories in this book -- "The Go-Between" -- very clearly expresses resistance to the belief in a power of an individual. The protagonist of this story, an ordinary, insignificant person, is made to believe that he is playing a key part in some kind of shadowy, mysterious historical events. Perhaps it's not too much of a spoiler to say that it doesn't quite turn out that way. But the lack of a resolution in this story isn't disappointing; it is the whole point. This is perhaps the only story in the book that delivers what it promises, by way of not delivering. :-)}

This story is perhaps the only one I found truly satisfying -- probably because it is an excellent vehicle to convey the views Mieville expressed at the convention. Some of the other stories had much more original ideas, and thereby were more disappointing when those ideas didn't pan out as well as they could have.

But if a writer thinks that people need to organize to address their problems, this may put him or her in a quandary. You can hardly write short stories about organized masses. A short story allows you to have one, at most two, main characters. So, if one believes that showing those characters achieve their goals and solve their problems would be reactionary, then I'm afraid there's nothing left but to let your characters lose. Indeed, most characters in "Looking for Jake" lose or surrender. It wouldn't be bad in itself, since I'm not necessarily a fan of happy endings -- I accept a bad ending if that's the only possible outcome despite a character having put up a good fight. But the worst thing is, most protagonists of these stories don't put up any kind of fight. They are often passive observers of dark things that threaten their world.

That's sad, because many of these stories are based on interesting premises. But the passivity of the characters make the stories disappointing.

"Different Skies" is the clearest example of what I was talking about -- a story based on an interesting premise that goes nowhere. An old man's life starts to suck. Badly. An urgent need mounts to do something about it. Aaaaand?... Does he do anything? No, he mostly sits there and feels helpless.

"The Tain" is another example. It's built around a fascinating idea, that images of animate objects, such as people or animals, are sentient creatures inhabiting their own universe. It is "parallel" to ours, or coexisting with ours, but whenever someone in our universe looks at a reflective surface, one or more of those creatures in the "reflection universe" is forced to acquire the shape of the person or animal who is looking, and mimic their movements. This greatly deprives them of their freedom. They see it not just as a significant nuisance, but also as an offense, to be forced to imitate the lives of those who they deem unworthy of such imitation -- us. So, one day those creatures, the so-called imagos, break out of the reflection universe and attack the humans.

It's an amazing idea for a story, but it is executed poorly. Half the story focuses on a human protagonist who roams the city ravaged by war. The dread of the war is portrayed in much detail, and it wore me out before I even got to the fantasy part, the chapter about imagos and their philosophy. Then the protagonist sets his mind on confronting the leader of the imagos, but instead of achieving a resolution, the story starts to hover around the nuances of the protagonist's psyche, and kind of... hangs there. This story left me with a feeling I get when my computer freezes. At first its little lights are still blinking, and the hard drive is grinding, as if promising to come back to its senses any moment now, but every passing second brings closer a realisation that the computer has gone catatonic and won't recover short of reboot. Sadly, stories don't have reboot buttons. :-)

It's too bad that a story with so much potential did not deliver. But then, as I've noticed myself, turning ideas with potential into great science fiction is much, much harder than it seems. ;-)

Another example of what I'm talking about is "The Ball Room". It is a fine story about ghosts and haunting, and is given an especially realistic feel by the fact that it is set in a certain very familiar furniture megastore. :-) The store is never named, but various details make it easy to identify.

This store likes to project a super-wholesome image, so isn't it deliciously ironic that this image in the story gets tarnished by the death of a child (which is never spoken of, just implied. The above-mentioned ghost belongs to a child.) This corporation also proudly advertises the fact that it mass-produces its goods in enormous quantities, so I wouldn't be surprised if Mieville saw it as a symbol of global capitalism. Taking an jab at this megastore would then be akin to poking a needle at the voodoo doll of capitalism. I don't know, maybe that was the whole point of this story. Because otherwise it's a rather passive story. For a while, tension builds up nicely, and then... we are suddenly told that it's been resolved. We are not told how it happened, except that there was little bit of witchcraft involved. That's it. The protagonist isn't sure how it happened, because again he was just a passive observer of things -- he did not even attempt to solve the problem. It was rather disappointing. I was hoping for something clever to happen in the end, but... no.

"Jack" is hardly a story at all, in the sense that it doesn't have much of a plot. It's a set of anecdotes about a certain minor character, Jack Half-A-Prayer, from Perdido Street Station. If you were very fond of or intrigued by this one-hit-wonder from PSS (he appears in just one scene, but he saves the day... kind of like a little deus-ex-machina), you may love learning some of his background. Since I wasn't, I could hardly care less.

And now, let's speak of the stories I more or less liked, or at least thought their strong points outweigh their weak points. (By the way, this review covers only about half of the works in the collection -- the rest did not stick in my mind long enough to form an opinion about them. :-()

The premise of the story "Details" is a distant relative of "The Tain". However, revealing it would in itself be a spoiler, because once you know the premise, you can pretty much predict how it ends -- in the most obvious way. ;-( But the idea in itself is pretty cool. Even though it lacks plot twists or "aha!" moments, this story is worth reading.

"Familiar" harkens back to "Perdido Street Station". Not because it's based in Bas-Lag universe -- it's not; not because it has the same characters -- it does not; but because it depicts clever, fascinating grossness, with which "Perdido Street Station" is brimming. A certain plot line from "Perdido Street Station" is re-explored in this story, but with twice as much detail, horror, and grossness. Unfortunately, like almost all the works in this collection, it ends unresolved. An odd little creature is accidentally let loose in the world, and bootstraps itself into an ingenious, twisted, and very alien menace. You really get the chills as you read about the process of its transformation and realize its potential. However, very little, if anything, is done by anybody to confront it.

"Report of Certain Events in London" is built around one of the most unusual fantasy ideas I've ever seen. The idea is very whimsical, offbeat... and a little chilling. It's pretty cool. But I can't reveal the idea, because you have to work through the story in order to "get" what's going on. And Mieville doesn't make it easy: the story is written in a form of a series of letters, mysterious half-legible little notes, old newspaper clippings, scraps of paper torn from old faded notebooks, and such. This heap of disjoint material adds up to something interesting and completely incredulous. When you finally piece it together, you go "hmmm... I haven't seen this done before". :-)

Overall, I realize that my criticism reflects nothing but my taste. "Looking for Jake" has garnered quite a few good reviews on, so there must be many readers who don't mind passive characters or lack of problem solving in their science fiction or fantasy. (I, on the other hand, do mind -- as if it wasn't obvious from my review. :-) To me, problem-solving is an essential ingredient of good science fiction.) Some people find the ideas alone to be satisfying -- and there are certainly some original ideas in the book. Some people are fascinated by China Mieville's prose, which indeed is very good. However, the review I personally agree the most with is the one by Fantasygod with subject line "No stories". (I don't think there is a way to link to a single review on Amazon, but here is a link to all customer reviews. He said pretty much what I wanted to say, only much more succinctly. :-)

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