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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

Currently reading

Ottessa Moshfegh
Knife Fight and Other Struggles
David Nickle
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon
The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (New Edition)
Derek Bok
Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem
Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s
Kim Newman
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
James Gleick
Complete Novels
Dashiell Hammett, Steven Marcus
The City and the City - China Miéville LEFTOVER--Only half-way through, but many thanks to Donald (re the author and this book in particular) and Brad--this is damn intriguing.

AND ON TO THE NOW--finished. (And cut all that personal malarkey.) I believe I've posted the occasional snotty aside about the fantasy genre here, making some sweeping dismissal that I'm only half-serious about. But I must admit: there are moments, when I've tried to make my way through some hotshot newbie that my friends are raving about, that I recall Steve Martin, talking about the French -- "It's like they have a different word for everything." So much energy gets expended in fantasy world-building that it tends to make me feel quite literally like a tourist, not really connecting in any intimate or meaningful way, but good golly seeing a lot of details, with lots of unfamiliar words and names.

I should note the rank hypocrisy here, for as a fan of science fiction I'm often drawn to the gorgeous ethnographic and biological extravagance possible (if not always plausible), the dizzy what-if so exciting, like coming upon a new language, with an unfamiliar grammar, and finding your head re-wired...

...so why does one work, the other not? Surely I've read a lot of crap sci-fi, and not read nearly enough good fantasy. (Stipulated, for the record.) I think it has to do with the work of world-building. On an aesthetic level, what stinks up a bad fantasy novel is equally odorous in science fiction. On one end of the continuum, the lazy neologist with an utterly conventional sense of the world, but lots of stupid jibber-jabber posing as speculative creation. Stale plots, cardboard characters, and fizzle-sticks weaving gorm-spells (or hyperengines allowing FTL travel). Bleah. On other other end of the curriculum, the tedious encyclopedist, so fully invested in the world that every dollop of oatmeal has a backstory, every bit of vegetation its own ecological digression. I say again: bleah.

What often works for me is a world which is built in ways that maintain some strange consistency, but more interestingly keep evolving as I read -- it's not just laying out a set of conditions (be they magical or genetic, middle-earthen or outer-spatial), but relying upon that new world order as a complex, constantly-unfolding dynamic system which keeps upending the reader, keeping us alive to the strangeness of what is there.

Mieville's work here is at least that good. Set in a city that is two cities, he imagines this problem: what if a vast cultural, political divergence emerged in a coincident geographic area? What if one city was bicultural, and what if those inhabitants--to maintain the peace--learned to unsee one another? What if great political machinery built up around such unseeing, around the prohibition of breaches physical and visual?

I spent maybe 100 pages just getting my head around this problem--'cause we're not talking alternate realities here. In one physical world, two cities interwoven, each carefully detached from the other, 'though manifestly (grosstopically, in one of Mieville's precise neologisms) present with one another.

And then--in a book plotted, with genuine skill, like a police procedural, a murder mystery at the juncture of the Cities, suggesting vast hidden conspiracies (more kinds of unseeing--and power itself a problem of seeing and unseeing...)--then keep letting the cultural, physical, narrative complexities of such a world reverberate, amplify, build...

The book is wonderfully strange, and strangely plausible, and (until a somewhat psychologically disappointing if conceputally wonderful conclusion) a real ripping read. It is also a dazzling not-an-allegory which, every time I looked head-on at what Mieville was narrating, suggested at the periphery of my perceptions so many difficult real-world echoes, but--thank god--never (when I turned my head to get a better bead on that "point" behind the figure of the Cities) reduced to referent for the strangeness of these Cities.

I'm tempted to suggest that, in its deepest roots, Mieville's Cities resemble the grosstopical interweaving of fiction and reality, but... that's some other essay, some other day.

Many, many thanks to Donald and Brad for steering me this way. Can't wait to read more of this guy.