The ocean terrifies me. It's silly, I know, but there it is. I don't have a problem going to the beach or anything, or even being out on a boat. But to be under the sea, in those miles and miles of blackness, descending ever deeper into mind-bending abysses teeming with life as monstrous as anything imagined? It all just makes me want to curl up somewhere with a kitten. Is it any wonder Lovecraft conscripted the ocean for the hideaway of Cthulhu and his nameless elder things? Is it all that hard to imagine the briny deeps as the home of great and terrible gods?
China Miéville knows his Lovecraft, having edited a recent reprint of At the Mountains of Madness. But Kraken is no Lovecraftian pastiche. If anything, it's a complete distillation of Miéville's career-wide creative ethos into a single dose of concentrated New Weird insanity. This is simply the most untamed, thoroughly barking story he's ever unleashed. And it's easy to see he enjoyed himself writing it every bit as much as Un Lun Dun, to which it seems an older, black-squid-of-the-family cousin. I'm not sure if it needs a review or just plenty of Ritalin. Whatever the case, this epic exercise in cephalopunk eschatology and fundamentalist gang warfare offers the reader a truly delirious ride. Irreverent, funny, full of frenzied action, and unclassifiable except as pure Miéville, Kraken is a feast for its wily creator's fans while giving his detractors a whole new catalog of reasons to clutch their pearls.
There is both satire and parody here, the former dissecting both apocalyptic religious mania and the inability of conventional authority to protect us in any meaningful way from unknown threats in a post-post-terrorist age, and the latter gently ribbing SF/fantasy nerd culture, with Harry Potter, X-Files and especially Star Trek good-naturedly taking the piss. Here is a world where a realm of magic lurks just beyond a threshold, invisible to us muggles, where unionized familiars picket like British Rail, disembodied ancient spirits flit from statue to statue, and the Metropolitan Police have a special special branch to deal with paranormal threats. And at the center of it all, as in almost every Miéville story, is a city, the city, the phantasmagoric London of history and myth. Here it literally lives and breathes. London has its own sympathetic magicians, the Londonmancers, who can reshape its very substance. There's a scene where one of them cracks open the asphalt and reads the bloody entrails beneath the street. The portents are not good.
Everything starts when Billy Harrow, humble curator for the Darwin Centre, leads a routine museum tour only to discover to his horror that their star attraction, a tremendous squid, the Architeuthis dux, has impossibly gone missing. As in, the complete 8-meter squid, and the giant tank of Formalin preserving it — utterly vanished.
Billy's quest to solve the mystery will have him cross paths with the strangest of all rogue's galleries, and propel him into an increasingly convoluted series of events all pointing towards only one outcome: the theft of the squid has, somehow, inexorably set the world on the path to utter destruction. But who could have taken it, for what reason, and most importantly, how? The story thus plunges into a netherworld of strange cults and their "dissident gods," who go about their business like rival gangs, fighting in the streets to ensure their chosen apocalypse is the one to get here first.
If Kraken has any weakness it's that for much of the narrative, Billy's relative normalcy is overshadowed by the larger-than-life supporting cast. We meet the officers of the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit, only one of whom, the unapologetically snarky Kath Collingswood, seems to appreciate how far out of their league they are in this situation. One of Billy's co-workers, Dane, turns out to belong to a Krakenist cult, who are not taking the theft of their god well at all. But then why does it seem Dane is the only one of them willing to do something about it, to the extent of becoming apostate? Dane and Billy team up with Wati, a strike leader from the spirit world who inhabits everything from huge bronze monuments to a Captain Kirk action figure, in a desperate attempt to both recover the Kraken and discover exactly why and how its theft spells the fiery end of everything. All the while they are pursued by the Tattoo, a crimelord who's exactly what he sounds like, and his terrifying enforcers, the eerily neither-alive-nor-dead Goss and Subby. And the last thing Billy can understand is why everyone seems to think he is a pivotal figure in the unfolding chaos, when for all Billy knows he was but a humble museum curator.
I have a little hypothesis that China Miéville's hypothalamus regularly pumps the right side of his brain with something akin to neurochemical Red Bull. It's true that among people I've spoken to who don't like his work, it's the tsunami of outré ideas, some seemingly slotted into his stories so fast it's as if Miéville were trying to get them all down before he forgot them, that they find off-putting. Along, I suppose, with his language, which is like literary Perrier — you either love that fizz or hate it. (Kraken is so thoroughly immersed in London that you'll find its every word unspooling in your head in a thick Cockney accent.)
I admit that when Miéville's not on his game, the sort of thing can get self-indulgent and tiresome, as it did for me in Iron Council and the novella "The Tain". In Kraken, Miéville's brought his A-game. As excessive and frought as the plot seems to be, he actually always has it firmly in hand. Attentive readers should never find themselves flailing in confusion, even if, at 500 pages, the book flirts with overlength. Next to Un Lun Dun, this is the closest the New Weird has ever come to producing pure blockbuster popcorn entertainment. Provided you like your popcorn with plenty of calamari.