Sunday, June 06, 2010

China Miéville's Kraken

Kraken by China Miéville
Pan Macmillan, UK.
Price: £17.99. pp: 481.

The review appeared today in the Sunday edition of The New Indian Express.

Billy Harrow, curator at the Natural History Museum in London, takes a group of people on a routine tour, only to find the Museum’s star attraction, a perfectly preserved giant squid (Architeuthis dux) – all eight-and-a-half metres of it in its tank –missing. More intriguing than the question of how such a large creature could have been stolen unknown, is why anyone would want to spirit away a giant squid.

Kraken reads like the whodunit it also is: Harrow is plunged into a London he does not know – one peopled by end-of-the-world cults, magicians and squid-worshippers. A mysterious arm of the Metropolitan Police, the FSRC (Fundamentalist and Sect-related Crimes), comprising of Inspector Baron and WPC Kath Collingswood, try to co-opt Harrow into a hunt for the squidnappers; as do the people of the Church of God Kraken, whose most devout member, Dane – a guard at the Museum – is Harrow’s guide and companion on his mad journey through this other London. Along the way, Harrow and Dane try to recover the disappeared squid while side-stepping the villainous Goss and Subby – surely a nod to Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar? – and their boss, the crime lord Tattoo (who is exactly what the word says). All this, while trying to save the world from ending.

Miéville’s eighth work of fiction could so easily have been a run-of-the-mill environmental Armageddon that draws neat lines between human action and their consequences. Instead, it chooses to tell a tale about a creature from the deepest depths of the ocean and a world that will shortly end for no comprehensible reason.

It’s a departure from Miéville’s usual style. Reading a Miéville book is often a performance of patience: his difficult, baroque style both tries and rewards it in the reader. With Kraken, the writing is more casual and accessible, but no less packed with ideas. If anything, Miéville is prodigal with them, as if to say that the imagination, unlike other natural resources, can be mined in perpetuity and still be productive.

Running through the book is an argument that Miéville seems to be having with himself and his readers about metaphor and literality in science fiction and fantasy. Miéville has long held that in his writing the weird elements of the story are not just metaphoric but also literal, and that the realness of his creatures in the narrative should be accorded the respect they deserve. It’s an argument that forms the backbone of Kraken: does the squid-as-god represent something other than what it is? And what does metaphor have to do with faith – that other abstraction found in abundance in Kraken?

This semiotic tension between what something is and what it means is about the act of writing itself, and the world it conjures temporarily. At one point in the book, Harrow says as much, though about something completely different: “This has always been about writing,” he says, and it is something Miéville could be saying directly to the reader.

Perhaps no other kind of writing in recent times – barring only poetry – has had to bear the burden of what it really means more than science fiction and fantasy. Possibly as an antidote against this expectation of weighty meaningfulness, Kraken is often very funny and playful. Miéville’s register spans throwaway puns and offhand characterisations that are hilarious and sharp. There is a constant, mordant wit at play that suits the apocalyptic events in the book.

In exchange, Miéville sacrifices variety in his dialogues, so that everybody sounds alike when they speak (with the possible exception of the assassin Goss). One could argue that he more than makes up for it with the inventiveness of his plot and the ideas and characters that populate the book– one of the most memorable being the spirit of a radicalised Egyptian servant, Wati, who has escaped through the millennia into present-day London and who has unionised all the magical assistants and is leading them in a strike.

Kraken is also full of affectionate literary and pop cultural references that anybody – but most especially those born in the seventies and eighties – should thoroughly enjoy.


Like Aishwarya, I thought that though the book was very enjoyable, it is probably not Miéville's very best work*.

My main dissatisfaction (apart from thinking that everyone spoke the way Miéville might have written a fun-to-read take down of seasteading, or the film version of The Road) is with Dane: I thought he was a wonderful, wonderful character (whom Aishwarya thought reminded her of looked like Miéville himself - ha!) but one who was owed too much by too many people with too little explanation.

How does he know his way around the other London so well? Why are so many people willing to do him favours? When Wati can get an entire chapter to himself, why can't we get a couple of paragraphs in explanation? Dane was a soldier, we're told. That explains precisely nothing.

Anyway. Flawed though it is, it is still a fun book with plenty to remember and think about.

*Expectations certainly have a lot to do with disappointment; one wants a good author to at least match his best work without replicating its style or strategies. On the other hand, one also wants to see an author try new things even if they fail somewhat.

My interview with China last month here.


Aishwarya said...

Ahem. I said that in my head Dane *looked* like Miéville. Totally different!

I love this review.

Space Bar said...

oops! you're right. sorry! (will correct).