The Scar, by China MiÃ©ville
Cactus men, mosquito people and a disdain for heroic quests
Monday 03 June 2002
Though The Scar is China Miéville's third novel, it seems like a second book. King Rat, his debut, was set in a contemporary London shot through with fantastical elements. Perdido Street Station, his second novel, moved into a world which seemed entirely different, though its teeming city of New Crobuzon is a growth of King Rat's London into a fantasy setting.
The Scar returns to Bas-Lag, Miéville's fantastical alternate Earth. It voyages away from the cityscape of Perdido Street towards the eponymous feature: a rift, ostensibly left behind by alien or extra-dimensional conquerors, which boils with possibilities and potentialities.
Bellis Coldwine, a linguist forced into exile as a side-effect of the vast plot of Perdido Street Station, is aboard a ship sailing for the equivalent of early-colonial America or Australia when the vessel is seized by pirates. They incorporate it, and everyone aboard, into Armada – a great floating township. A huge engineering project is being worked, and one of Bellis's fellow travellers is needed to provide expertise. Everyone else is press-ganged and found work in Armada.
The story advances in great, mind-stretching gallops. Concepts which would fuel a lesser trilogy (like the harnessing of a submarine being of Moby-Dick proportions) are stepping-stones to still larger concerns. The point is not the overarching skeleton of story, but the crowded flesh of imagined lives and societies that cling to it.
We meet cactus-men and vampires, spies and scholars, fish demons and mosquito people, but there is besides the sense of wonder a feeling for tangled, moving complexities. They would seem irritants for the standard find-the-ruby-and-kill-the-dragon fantasy tome, but are the pulsing life of a real book.
This audacious approach sets Miéville's project apart from the vast majority of fantasies. The generic post-Tolkien fantasist sets out a purpose by drawing a map, then fills in the gaps: the pleasures on offer are the domestication of wildwoods, with every level of human or non-human society set in stone and rules laid down for the workings of magic and science.
Miéville's Bas-Lag doesn't work like that. At the heart of Perdido Street Station was a city that at once was and was not London; at the end of The Scar, narrative itself must fray. The central characters question the underlying structure of most fantasy – the heroic quest – and set forth the point of view of all who had to be duped or forced to go along with the great voyage. The novel has a hero and a villain, but they are deliberately vague, secondary characters.
Like Miéville's first two novels, The Scar is a feat of the imagination, a rich reclamation of the pleasures of every genre. It's also a caution against imagination, a sobering look at the chaos left in the wake of every mad visionary.
Fantasy tends to work by furnishing worlds to which readers wish to return, as to a nursery or a garden. Miéville's Bas-Lag is the world we already live in – where stories can never be easily finished – but looked at in a way that we have never seen before.
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Howard Jacobson: Let's see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is
- 2 Gingers face extinction due to climate change, scientists warn
- 3 Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014: In defence of Mesut Ozil - the Arsenal midfielder works magic in the shadows
- 4 BBC’s new Game of Thrones slayer 'The Last Kingdom' relies on Saxon appeal, creators say
- 5 PornHub begs users to stop uploading video clips of Brazil getting beaten 7-1
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
British jihadist calls for 'flag of Islam' over Downing Street and Buckingham Palace
Australia facing international condemnation after turning around Sri Lankans at sea
7/7 memorial defaced on anniversary of 2005 attacks with ‘Blair lied thousands died’ graffiti
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
There’s a nasty smell in the political air – and it’s coming from the Tories