Much Ado About Nothing? The Unseen Is Too Visible

04 Nov

There were quite a few mentions of the work of China Mieville at WorldCon 2010 and his position as one of the leading lights of fantasy or “new weird” or maybe even steampunk.

China Mieville, The City & The CityHis novel The City & The City won the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2010 Hugo Award, and 2010 World Fantasy Award, as well as being a Nebula Award nominee in the Best Novel category.

However, there are some rather worrying aspects about such popularity. Like, what happened to good editing and great sub-editing. A few examples can explain my reservations.

Suspension of Disbelief

Science Fiction and Fantasy with the capital letters are all about readers accepting one or two “what if” elements to a story, and then seeing how well the author can examine, express, develop and/or personalise that mutually-agreed deceit.

Mieville didn’t believe his central theme in The City & The City or maybe his editor didn’t understand that sf&f readers are comfortable with a pretence at the core of a story. There is no other way to explain the continual, repetitive and superfluous explanations about needing to “unsee” by just about every one of the characters and in just about every major scene in the book.

In fact, Mieville’s writing is often closer to a thesis than a novel, as if a third-year literature student is debating and trying to convince others about an aspect of form and function. Even if we treat the book as a police procedural in a crime genre rather than sf&f, the overstating of the “unseeing” would still be tedious.

Cardboard Characters

In much of American fiction, whether in books or tv shows, the girls get killed and the guys do a lot of shouting and running about shootin’ n’ fightin’ and, occasionally, thinkin’ a little bit. A good example is the recent, impoverished and repetitive works of James Patterson and his many “co-authors”.

In The City & The City the nosy and noisy female gets killed, the bureaucrats bumble, the detective keeps telling us he is a detective and how he operates as a detective, the innocent but attractive female friend of the dead female gets killed, and the story gets “solved” when the detective does all the obvious things, too late, and after getting everyone else to act out of character to get to the conclusion.

Some commercial entertainment is deliberately easy to access and understand and, when done well, can be a success as both art and business. Mieville is not close to this with The City & The City because the strings pulling the monster’s arms and legs are too obvious.

TV Script Repetition

Most TV shows now rely on repetition and restating the obvious, usually two or three times in any ten-minute span. This is now true, unfortunately, of everything from comedies, crime shows, documentaries and, of course, reality shows. Key facts, already obvious and accepted by viewers, are restated:

  • at the start of the show
  • before the ad break
  • after the ad break
  • before the next ad break
  • etcetera, etcetera

Mieville may have saved a team of TV script writers a lot of work. The repetitions are all there, every chapter laden with reminders. I can hear the voiceover now:

“You will remember we have been examining cross-hatching, where people in one city will ‘unsee’ people in the other city alongside them. Inspector Borlu has been trying to explain the concept to a visitor. The story continues when …”

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

The central “conceit of the book” as Mieville calls it is worth one star and the occasional flourish adds a second. Yet overall the book was disappointing, laboured and, in the end, slight. It stands as a potentially good short story or novella, all dressed up in fancy “best selling author” packaging as a novel.

I’m surprised that my views on this book are so different to many others. Perhaps the general dumbing down in media generally, especially populist newspapers, TV shows and movies, is now infecting sf&f.


Posted by on November 4, 2010 in Reviews, Writing


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2 responses to “Much Ado About Nothing? The Unseen Is Too Visible

  1. Redhead

    November 4, 2010 at 1:35 am

    I think a lot of people who have never read Mieville before think The City and The City is the best thing in the universe, because, to them, it’s strange and unusual and new and unique.

    don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but for strange and unsusual and new and unique and Steampunk and NewWeird, I’ll take Mieville’s Bas Lag novels anyday. They are MUCH better.

    • noumenon2

      November 4, 2010 at 3:27 am

      Hi Little Red and thanks for taking the time to comment. You make a good point about newcomers and perhaps that is one thing I find that grates about much sf&f (and/or steampunk, and/or speculative fiction). It seems many authors and readers and reviewers have little knowledge of the genres and so praise slight works to the heavens.

      However, the more the merrier, maybe, as new authors and readers and reviewers develop and publicise spec fic in all its guises 🙂

      And Little Red has a great blog that is worth checking:


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