Two Things Worth Reading

1) A Hundredth Name, Chris Green (Abyss and Apex; Subscription Required to Access Archives)

Click the link, you know you want too. No? Okay, let me convince you then. You should go read Chris Green’s story at Abyss and Apex because the man is freakin’ talented and understands things like brevity and leaving empty spaces for the story to breathe. I’ve critted Chris a bunch of times and it’s a bloody hard thing to do, because he crams more story into two thousand words than there should actually be allowed and he fits the damn things together so tight that pulling one segment out causes the whole damn thing to unravel in your hands.

You should read his story because he’s one of the few people I know who manages to give the impression of being genuinely, fearlessly interested in everything and somehow manages to filter that down into his fiction, even though his bailiwick seems to be horror rather than any of the forms of SF where being fearlessly interested in everything would be a useful trait in an author (not a slight on horror authors, but you guys need to understand fear and I’m not sure Chris does). You should read it because he can usually nail one image that makes you cringe, or cry, or wince with pain, and yet there’s still something beautiful in the stories he writes. You should read him because he’s one of my favourite-writers-who-doesn’t-get-published-enough (a distinction he shares with Ben Francisco), primarily because he seems to spend too much time at his day job and not enough time producing fiction. And despite this, he seems to believe that every time he gets published it’s a fluke, despite the fact that it isn’t.

You should also read it because Chris owns cooler footwear than you ever will. Yes, you included, even though I’m sure your shoes are fairly damn cool. I’ve seen Chris step out in boots that’d make a gothic shoe fetishist cry with envy. Come to think of it, his beard is cooler than yours too. And he owns a t-shirt featuring my favourite Buffy quote ever.

2) The City and the City, China MievilleOur spokebear approves The City & The City

While I’d certainly recommend reading this as a blood good read, this isn’t meant to be a review (for that I’d send you over to MacLaren North’s fine write-up over on ASIF) and I’m not going to avoid spoilers. I’m not going to intentionally spoil the book either, but I’m primarily going to talk about the book based on the decisions that interested me as a writer and that’ll probably slip over into spoiler territory pretty quickly.

China Mieville’s always had a knack of creating interesting settings, but if you’re a writer then The City and The City is one of those books that’s worth pulling apart and figuring out because it takes that extra half-step beyond “interesting setting” and into the realm of “fuck, how’d he do that.” In fact, lets call it a case study is awesomeness on the setting front for its ability to make a theoretically impossible setting seem possible and logical.

The central conceit of novel’s setting is that there are two European cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, that overlap one another while remaining entirely separate in the minds of their inhabitants. Tensions between the two cities are strained, at best, and crossing from one to the other is handled via heavily patrolled borders. There’s nothing particularly mind-breaking in that set-up, at least when you start the book, but as the narrative progresses we realise that parts of the city occupy the physical space. Characters sitting in Beszel simply choose not to see residents of Ul Qoma, a fire taking place down the street is ignored because it belongs in the “wrong” city, and an upmarket Ul Qoma suburbs occupy the same physical locations as Beszel slums. In short, the separation is cultural rather than physical, ingrained by years of practice by the citizens of both cities, and various terms that are dropped early in the book –  crosshatched streets, or breaching – take on different shades of meaning as the setting comes into focus.

This is the kind of setting that fantasy fans probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid at if it was being explained away using magic (and would probably see me and Karen Miller on a panel having a brisk discussion about whether it’s fantasy, slipstream, or magic realism). This isn’t. There’s no hint of magic in The City and The City, because with the exception of the setting it plays it like a straight police procedural and the separation between the two cities is largely a matter of cultural conditioning and clever writing on Mieville’s part.

Which is why this book fascinates me as a reader – what starts as a patently absurd concept ends up slipping into the story as a natural, plausible setting. And because I’m a writer and a genre geek, my natural inclination when faced with a setting like this is to start pulling the novel apart and trying to figure out why it works (excluding, of course, the obvious explanation of “Mieville’s freakin’ smart and a very good writer”). At the moment I’ve got a rough bundle of thoughts floating around, so I figured I’d throw a few of them out there and see if anyone whose read the novel agrees

My first thought is that a lot of the effect has to do with with setting the book in an Eastern European city, irrespective of whether it’s made up or not. The opening chapter reads like a straight police procedural and has plenty of slang terms thrown around that aren’t related to the split-city conceit, so seeding concepts that are important later in the book slides in naturally alongside explanations of Fuluna (think Jane Doe) and Feld (a local drug). Combine the learning-curve expected when coming up to speed on the ‘exitic’ setting with the split-city conceit means we’re constantly giving Mieville narrative space, and by the time we realise what’s going on we’re too caught-up in the book to give a damn. In the earliest moments when our protagonist is caught in the interstitial space between the two cities, noticing a woman he shouldn’t have, it’s a slippage that’s treated like an embarrassing faux-pass that gets even less explanation than the drug of choice of the local teens.

What flummoxes me about the book is the way it borrows a trait from fantasy – moving between ‘worlds’ as a demarcation of important plot-points – and yet manages to avoid coming off like a fantastic setting or book. While you could probably make an argumentfor Slipstream in association with The City and The City it does a remarkably good job of playing it straight as a police procedural despite the quirks in its backdrop. While there are plenty of non-SF narratives that have used this kind of narrative relocation as a means of dividing up a story at similar points, it seems like an obvious tip-over given Mieville’s past novels (all fantasy) and the improbability of his setting. Especially since the solution to the novel’s murder revolves more and more around the split between the cities and what may lie between them.

Another possibility may come form Mieville’s decision to shine of light on its absurdities before they come important, bringing in the American parents of the murdered girl at the centre of the novel’s mystery to interact with the protagonist and comment on the conceit before the genre boundaries are stretched to breaking point. This choice, cleverly, allows for the reinforcement of the cultural aspect of the separation given the tendency towards parts of the English speaking world to be somewhat…clueless and insensitive…when it comes to other cultures. We are, in essence, shamed into accepting the conceit of the setting before we can reject it…

And I might leave it there, for the moment, because this is already getting out of control, but it’s probably the starting point I’ll use when I go back and re-read the book with an eye towards identifying how it bloody-well works.  I suspect there will be another post on this, sooner or later.

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