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Kraken by China Mieville

If in doubt, it’s always better to start off by mangling someone else’s words. It makes a statement about your own standards both as an editor and as someone not at all bothered by the notion of borrowing another’s ideas. So, in my best Churchillian tones, I offer the notion that, “Never in the field of human communication have so many words been offered to so many in service to so few credible narrative purposes.” Or if you prefer Shakespeare, “It is a tale, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” or “It is a tale, full of a raging and discombobulated torrent of images and dreams, signifying nothing.” (page 251, US edition)

As another delaying tactic, let me offer an anecdote from my youth when I was a member of a modestly successful theatre group. On several occasions, one of its bigger egos was heard to boast that he could act through a blackout and still have the audience in the palm of his hand. On a slow night during one scene set around a dinner table with real candles (this was in the days before fire regulations made such recklessness illegal), the lighting crew slowly dimmed across the board until only the natural flickering light remained. As true professionals, the actors kept going and, remarkably, none of the lighting crew were fired. Ego enhanced, the targeted actor dined out on his performance for months thereafter.

Words are functional things, employed by authors to get their meaning across. In writing fiction, the aim may variously be to beguile, delight or, if all else fails, merely entertain. To that end, we writers gird whatever it is we gird when putting fingers to keyboards — does anyone still use pen and paper? — presumably as a protection against repetitive strain injury for those of us who hunt and peck using only the same two fingers.

What’s that? There’s a restless shuffling of feet out there. You’re waiting for the review of Kraken by China Miéville, thinking I should be getting on with it. But this is how I felt as I was reading Kraken. I kept waiting for the book to start and it never did.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s prose covering some 500 pages and some of it is quite witty and thought-provoking. But words on a page are not enough on their own. The words must be in service to believable characters in a viable plot. What we actually have is a change of style from our author of previously unblemished reputation. This is not the roccoco New Weird, nor the subversive YA Un Lun Dun, nor the noir genre-blurring The City & the City, all of which have been more than merely enjoyable. This is intended as a light froth, a knowing wink to those of us who like H. P. Lovecraft and others who either walk in the same cosmic footsteps or more generally write (old) weird or horror. We are expected to welcome the tropes uncritically (including some geeky Trek stuff), ticking them off as they parade through the pages, and not care that it’s as exciting as reading a laundry list (and not in the Charles Stross sense).

The core problem is that none of the primary characters are in the slightest interesting. We have the naive innocent who has the “power” or “access to hidden knowledge” but does not know what he got, the soldier or loyal sidekick, the not-so-competent witch in thrall to a “special” police unit, a scary couple of killers, a disembodied ancient Egyptian union organiser, the spunky girl who proves determined to get involved and, because it’s Miéville, we’ve got the city what knows more than it’s letting on. Sadly, none of this crew shows any real development as what passes for the plot staggers from one episode to the next. Instead, everyone reacts to circumstances and, as the pages turn, we are sequentially introduced to new cultish groups, none of whom have stolen the damned tentacled-thingy, but wish they had or are generally pissed off that someone else has. Well, there just comes a point when I just throw up my hands and pray fervently to Cthulhu that someone finds the bloody thing so we can all go on to read another book. Then comes the big irony. We do find out who took the pesky mollusk, and we get it back, except that still leaves us having to save the world or London at least.

When we finally get to the end, we make an exciting discovery. Forget your taxonomies, my son. This whole thing’s about the epistemology, init? You may think you know your Darwinism and your Creationism. There’s this whole accumulation of what we know about the history of the world and the species that have lived within it. But suppose we could edit not just our memories of what we know, but also change the knowledge itself. Now that would really be something, wouldn’t it? Almost horrifying, you might say. So let’s all sit down and talk it through, argue the toss or write ourselves a note. You never know who might be watching or listening in.

If this had been held to around 250 or so pages, it would be an excellent read. As it stands, it’s bloated in the real sense of the word, namely swollen with gas so that, like a dead fish, it floats up to the surface. If netted, our fish could then be preserved in a glass case and become the hero of a weird novel. Indeed, thinking back to my youth, it reminds me of an interminable story an actor used to tell of how he acted through a blackout. It reinforced his ego and bored the pants off all who heard it.

This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.


For all the reviews of books by China Miéville, see: The City & the City, Embassytown, Kraken and Railsea.

  1. November 24, 2010 at 4:44 am

    I really loved Mieville’s Bas-Lag books (Perdido, The Scar, Iron Council), and ever his attempt at YA, Un Lun Dun, was adorable. why can’t his contemporary scifi/fantasy stuff be as good?

  2. November 24, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I would go further and say Iron Council is one of the best fantasy (New Weird) books of the last ten years. We can agree to disagree about The City & the City which I also rate very highly in my all-time lists. The shorter fiction in Looking For Jake is a bit hit-and-miss. But Kraken is like a shaggy dog story that goes on too long. It all comes down to the quality of the basic idea and how well it’s captured in the plot. The New Crobuzon novels and The City & the City are beautifully put together. Un Lun Dun is almost too long. It’s running out of steam as we get towards the end, but still enjoyable. Kraken is rambling, repetitive and heavy handed. That bits of it are amusing and show Mieville’s “attitude” cannot save the whole structure from collapsing under its own weight.

    • November 25, 2010 at 1:13 am

      ” Iron Council is one of the best fantasy (New Weird) books of the last ten years.”


      City and The City seems to be rather polarizing for Mieville fans, and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it alot, just didn’t think it was his best work.

      Kraken . . .collapses under it’s own weight? a little like Perdido street Station then? I do have a soft spot in my heart for Perdido, but at parts it reads like a bad drug trip.

      • November 25, 2010 at 2:02 am

        With Perdido Street Station. . . I suppose it’s possible I was so surprised to find a “new” writer who could be impressive, I chose to see only good in it. Perhaps if I went back to it. . . Well, I’m not going to do that. Too many other books to read and not enough time. I’ll carry on the good memories unchallenged.

        As to City, so many people are upset it could win the Arthur C. Clarke Award and not be science fiction — or perhaps it is science fiction. Personally I don’t care. I like the ideas and, despite his tendency to self-indulgent rambling, the quality of those ideas sustains the whole.

        And that’s the problem with Kraken. The key ideas are not sufficiently interesting so all his ramblings are just that.

        Having now had three books following Iron Council, I’m beginning to think he’s never going to get his act together again quite as well. If Embassytown is as bad as Kraken. I’ll probably give up on him. Not that I want to be unduly pessimistic but the blurb does not sound too good: http://thewertzone.blogspot.com/2010/11/more-about-china-mievilles-embassytown.html

  3. November 24, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Good to see a real kraken in action!

  1. November 24, 2010 at 10:25 am

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