The eleventh book from China Miéville, his second collection of short fiction, opens with the promised Three Moments of an Explosion, the prelude, the moment, the aftermath, a story in three paragraphs of rolling prose which speak of a future where decay is a corporate product and demolition is sponsored and the latest thrill for those with nothing else is to play with lit fireworks, dancing in the ruins even as they come crashing down.
Beyond that opening, the incomprehensible is made real to the eyes of an eleven year old child, played out over the skies of London in a cold wind-blown ballet in Polynia. Fear and anticipation mingle with the mundane as the first military/scientific expedition attempts to land on the surface of one of the mountains of glass as it floats above Battersea before another fundamental is undermined, the mundane suddenly twisted to sinister as a hand of cards just dealt throws up an unfamiliar but undeniable face card, The Dowager of Bees.
Academic rivalry comes to the fore In the Slopes as two teams of archaeologists vie for the best sites and discoveries, Quatermass and the Pit as conceived by Lovecraft rather than Kneale, and the legacy of Howard Philip is also strong in Covehithe, one of the most compelling pieces in the collection, as mutated organisms thought long dead and decayed rise from the depths and drag themselves across the shore to feed and spawn. Watery graves and tides which may bring change also feature in Watching God, where a cargo cult observe their unreachable iron gods, sacrificing themselves on the reefs, seeking messages in the rusting wreckage.
A cynicism over the Hollywood movie machine first appears in The Crawl, a break from the prose format, staccato images of a new evolution in the zombie movie, and similarly structured is Escapee, a hybrid of man and metal the likes of whom Miéville has not described since his experiments in New Crobuzon, then slipping further into left field is Listen the Birds, an obscure indie flick rather than budget-busting blockbuster.
This trio pales beside The Junket, a scathing round of interviews and press events following the launch a new film where the reporter is more interested in uncovering the truth behind the murder of the screenwriter, the cold corpse with the hottest ticket in town which everybody wanted to punch following the opening night of Anne Frank: Vampire. Is it tasteless exploitation or is it defiant reclamation? In tarnished tinseltown, everyone has an opinion which can be quoted if the money is right.
In The 9th Technique a spell changes not only the contents of a bottle but the world outside while in The Rope is the World a great technology to change the world becomes tainted, the techniques refined during its construction allowing it to be superseded and rendered obsolete even before it is completed, and in the oddity of The Buzzard’s Egg, slaves and idols and war and worship are witnessed vicariously.
A quartet of modern nightmares, in Säcken a working holiday in Germany awakens a horror, either in the lake or the mind of the visitor, Dreaded Outcome sees a therapist goes to extreme lengths to help a struggling patient while a primitive ritual of tribal belonging goes wrong with grisly results After the Festival, and political wrangling and internal divisions open doors which should have remained firmly shut as a campaigner follows the stranger wearing The Dusty Hat.
Miéville has examined strange pathologies in patients before in Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopaedia (“Buscard’s Murrain“) in Looking for Jake, but here there is an epidemic of incomprehensible symptoms such as those of the patient, held in the Keep while he is examined by doctors increasingly afraid of what he represents, the prose channeling a desperation, a clawing need to understand that which cannot be understood.
Shifting across the Atlantic with a corresponding change in phrasing and language, The Bastard Prompt may be the story of a psychosomatic illness or it may be a disease finding form in the performance of an actress hired to perform symptoms for trainee doctors. Beyond these is the oddity of The New Death, affecting everyone it touches, and sooner or later it will touch everyone, a shift in perception, now inexplicably fixed, which requires other beliefs to shift in response.
To show something in a new light is a repeated theme with Miéville and here there are Rules of games indecipherable, the three week Syllabus of a course on the ethics of chronotourism, pass or fail to be judged by impersonal and unimpeachable artificial intelligence, and paintings as cadavers, dissected and laid open revealing previously undisclosed detail, the movement described by The Second Slice Manifesto, each of them demanding a reappraisal of the reader’s understanding of the perceived mundane, and Four Final Orpheuses.
The burning antlers which give the collection its cover are one of the strange nocturnal happenings on a London Estate which call for the services of a huntsman, recalled to the blocks where he once lived as a child, but like many of the stories it is fractured, a part of a narrative which asks for more. A Mount is a brief moment of Twilight Zone oddness, while the similarly skewed perspective of The Rabbet recall Miéville’s own Different Skies though more driven than that abstract 1999 piece.
With twenty eight stories over four hundred pages it’s a full third longer than the eleven stories of 2005’s Looking for Jake and it can become wearing, the constant shifts of mindset. Rather than frontloading the collection, instead some of the best stories are hidden at the back including the closer, the gothic grotesquerie of The Design, macabre and mysterious as the flesh is peeled back to expose secrets kept from even the closest of friends, yet the manner is gentle and tender, an incongruity wrapped in a riddle which cannot be explained explored sensitively through the love which dare not speak its name.
Miéville may serve as an agent of the unknown, but he acts solely as an introducer, never a tour guide, and he steadfastly refuses to divulge the secrets of his dark associates. Revelling in the challenge of what he has created, Three Moments of an Explosion is not a book which will be to the taste of every reader and is unlikely to win him new fans among casual readers but for those already in the know is time well spent with a reliable, if sometimes contrary, friend.
Three Moments of an Explosion is available now from Macmillan