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.
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.
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.