China Miéville's first collection of shorts is an uneven effort for his fans. The one comics-format entry is superfluous and many of the dark fantasies cover well-trodden horror ground. Miéville is revealed as principally a stylist, with the more impassioned stories being not so much his fantasies as his political satires. Still-fond memories of Perdido Street Station make me sad that there isn't one solid knock-your-socks-off offering here. Could those early triumphant novels have drained the well dry too soon? There are enough good yarns to please the fan club, but not much to win over the unconverted.
LOOKING FOR JAKE
Eerie and haunting mood piece in which the narrator searches for a missing friend in a mysteriously deserted London where an odd, entropic malaise seems to have settled over everything. Focuses more on atmosphere than story, true, but Miéville knows how to leave things unexplained in a way that enhances mystique rather than confusion. With this kind of dark fantasy, Miéville's approach — where other writers would strive to make "what happened and how do we fix it" the focus — is more about exploring the effects of strange phenomena on his characters and how they perceive the world. Can also be viewed as an allegory about the loneliness and isolation one can suffer even in the densest urban environments. In some ways, the story reminded me of the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, particularly Kaïro.
A veteran of 1991's Operation Desert Storm is haunted by the victims of an atrocity he helped commit. A grim tale about how some sins cannot be washed clean. Suitably dark if style-heavy, the atrocity in question is based on actual events. Which will not make this story a favorite of Sean Hannity's, to say the least.
THE BALL ROOM
Very creepy little creep-fest about something amiss in a children's playroom. Kind of Stephen Kingish, but with a much subtler ending. Co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer.
REPORTS OF CERTAIN EVENTS IN LONDON
Weird and witty little exercise in which Miéville appears as himself. Mistakenly receiving someone else's packet of mail, he becomes embroiled in a mystery involving some strange manifestations, and one bickering secret society's attempts to understand them. As with most of these stories, the focus is not on the events themselves (much less explaining them), but the effect of inexplicable events on people (here the author, in a moment of self-effacement), their sense of security and place. Still, the story's build-up led me to expect some kind of showstopper of an ending, which never came.
Poor, pointless effort that does little more than show off Miéville's skills at Bizarre Creature Construction. A modern-day, male witch, appalled by the familiar he has called up (a disgusting, amorphous blob of living matter) disposes of the creature, but it survives and grows by feeding off the environment. You keep expecting the story to build to something, and it doesn't.
ENTRY TAKEN FROM A MEDICAL ENCYCLOPAEDIA.
Exactly what it says it is. Traces the cryptohistory of a bizarre memetic disease that has a curious effect on the sufferer's brain. Imaginative, with the slightest hint of satire. In the tradition of such mock-lopedia pieces as Harlan Ellison's "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet" and Poul Anderson's "Uncleftish Beholding".
Grim, Lovecraftian (in fact it first appeared in the 2002 anthology The Children of Cthulhu) little campfire tale about a mad woman who has discovered a secret world lurking within the very cracks and crevices of our own. Nicely establishes its premise, but its obvious influences blunt some of its originality and thus its creep-factor. This is one in which choosing to be not quite so obscure about some of the strange doings (who's the violent drunk, besides a plot device?) would have helped. Predictable ending.
An ordinary man grows increasingly paranoid as he finds himself in the unwitting role of courier, ferrying packages from one place to another for the benefit of anonymous parties with a frightening and mystifying ability to predict his every move. As he watches alarming world events unfold, he begins to wonder if he is on the side of good or evil. One of the better, fresher stories in the book, again following Miéville's formula of not so much explaining causes (the packages are classic Hitchcockian McGuffins) as examining their effects on his characters. Unresolved ending might make some readers scream, but is consistent with the theme of the horror of not being in control of your life.
Fantasy-horror yarn with a nifty premise — a man purchases a decorative stained glass window for his house, only to find it looks out upon a different, and very dangerous, world — is given feeble execution, with too many unanswered questions and an anticlimactic non-ending.
AN END TO HUNGER
Nice, chilling little black comedy about an anarchist hacker who runs afoul of a charitable organization whose website he keeps goofing with in an effort to expose their hypocrisy. The politics of philanthropy and the supposed democracy of the internet are run through the wringer in this short piece.
'TIS THE SEASON
A real surprise, this. A very funny and prickly little satire set in a future where Christmas has gone beyond being commercialized and into governmentally regulated, prompting incongruously cheerful street riots from various yuletide political factions, each demanding the right to celebrate freely while laying their many claims upon the holiday as a whole. Were Miéville an American I'm sure he could have worked the Fox News Channel in somehow. Originally published in The Socialist Review; whoever said those folks have no sense of humor?
The one (expected) New Crobuzon story in the collection, a brief character study of Jack Half-a-Prayer (who figured in Iron Council), a Remade thief who attains the status of local legend amongst the downtrodden of that gothic-steampunk city-state. Frankly meaningless if you aren't a fan of the New Crobuzon novels. I appreciated it for the brief immersion back into the chaotic atmosphere of the city, to me still (despite my disappointment in Iron Council) one of the most vividly realized settings in modern SF and fantasy. Also serves as an examination of why people need heroes.
ON THE WAY TO THE FRONT (comics format)
Hopeless little tale about a modern-day war vet who has strange encounters with other soldiers in tube and bus stations. Are they ghosts? Only China knows. I suspect Miéville's intent here was to convey, via allegory, something about the difficulty veterans have in fitting back into society. But his narrative is far too vague and obfuscatory, and Liam Sharp's mediocre artwork far too sketchy, too make the story's point clear. It reads like an outline Miéville meant to flesh out but never did. Stick to prose, dude.
The biggest disappointment in the whole book, this 70-page novella is a clunker of epic proportions. Miéville starts from an unoriginal premise: mirrors actually conceal another hidden world. (He's even reworking his own "Details" here.) He spins it in a fairly fresh direction: the creatures inhabiting this reflected world — called imagos — hate us for imprisoning them there, have longed for the day when they can break out and wage war, and now that day has come. Then his handling of the material takes us back toward the banal and derivative: scenes of urban desolation reminiscent of everything from 28 Days Later all the way back to classic John Wyndham, monsters right out of Clive Barker's copybook, and a Lone Hero archetype for a protagonist whom Miéville never feels the need to develop into a real person. I'd have considered Miéville one writer who wouldn't have difficulty making a dark, monster-inhabited deserted subway creepy...and I'm sure it won't be the last mistake I ever make either. A real ho-hum letdown. On the plus side, some of the imagos are niftily described, but Miéville's talent for imagining creature oddities has never been in dispute.