After Railsea, his eighth novel this century, all of them taxing, it may have been fair to expect that China Miéville, who has not published a novel for almost four years, had hit the buffers, the TikTok Magus Within calling a halt; but this did not happen. Miéville's external silence seems to have marked a beat, that edge-of-the-utterable-world held-breath pause that gives room for the Ansatzpunkt, for the prehensile leap or volta into the ecstasy of a new comprehension: Three Moments of an Explosion, forget the merciless postmodernismish title, may be the most radical assembly of new work to be published in its field—which I take to be fantastika in its most all-absorbing sense—this century. Of its 28 stories, some of them long, only two seem to have been published before the release of Railsea in 2012; the bulk of the remainder—certainly by page count, several short-shorts having been in print for a bit—is new to this volume, and must be presumed recent. The feel they give is of a grasping of the new only possible if the author has been able to take a breath. Some of the shorties were I thought disposable; not one of the longer tales should ever be forgotten.
If I knew better than I do the chronology of the moments of Miéville's life, I might be inclined to take that title as autobiography code; as it is, maybe it can be glossed as something like a shout-out to Richard Sander's famous 1913 photograph, "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance," a title which seems to command us to freeze-frame a last instant or beat before the explosion of World War One (which the farmers are about to encounter), but also in retrospect to catch that same instant as a kind of proleptic aftermath vision of the suicide of the species; or maybe something else. Maybe this is claimjumping. But I do read the title as representing a moment where creative impulse and recognition of the world unite, and as a warning that a man in the terrifying prime of early middle age has written the tales we are about to encounter in order to calibrate us for the long haul. Most of the longer tales in Explosion seem therefore to have been accomplished through a pretty intense scrutiny and exposure of the possibilities of story in the twenty-first century: a taking of aim upon what may be functionally sayable in a world where the long campfire of Story has turned to cinder and aubade, the long farewell that shapes Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2006).
In a review of David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden's 21st Century Science Fiction to be published in the New York Review of Science Fiction, I use the term "Homo-sapiens-compliant" to describe SF narratives that fail to convey an awareness that the stories that make us feel most human are no longer the stories that tell us the truth; enough here, perhaps, to suggest that the tales assembled in Explosion are exactly not, in this specific sense, compliant. Even the most troped and homely tales told here have been internally fortified into a stark autonomous refusal to close on paraphrasable outcomes. They exemplify the intransitive magic of pure story, story stripped of clothing: the fully visible story being a black hole indistinguishable from magic.
So there is a paucity of courteously artisanal outcome here, a lack of paraphrasable closure, though a few of these tales are permitted to pass into conventional formularies of climax, perhaps because Miéville—being less thesis-bound than this review—wanted after all to write a tale or two that wrapped. Certainly the conventional terminal surge of revelation of a tale like "In the Slopes" (new here) does neatly confirm the deliberate extremity of others that do not, as it were, add up: an internal/external exile on a seemingly Mediterranean volcanic island witnesses archaeological excavations which uncover relics only explicable in terms of first contact. But to end a tale with first contact is pure slingshot.
"The Design" (new here), which closes the collection, is an even more telling example; every word intensifies classic topoi without abstracting them into blinding visibility. The main action of the tale takes place before World War Two, when stories still befitted the world, and is narrated in strict accordance to the recollection-in-tranquility topos often used to make tellable some intolerable event, as in L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953), making it possible for the staid narrator of "The Design" to come almost intolerably close to exposing the doppelgänger-intense intimacy of his involvement with and love for the internal mover of the tale; but without raising his voice. Partly because of the play on doubles characteristic of his late work, and because much of it is set in Scotland, and involves doctors, I felt throughout the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson in his last great years; but it is obviously a different RLS we encounter here, maybe an RLS who lives another thirty years and writes a better novel of World War One than even Ford Madox Ford could.
Thirty years ago, two protagonists are working for their medical degrees, one day. The central figure, with whom the narrator identifies profoundly and lives with in later decades, bares the bones of a cadaver during a routine dissection, and discovers that the armbone he has exposed from its flesh is covered with tiny, interwoven, immensely intricate designs: there before Eden, there before Dadd. He steals the cadaver, boils the flesh off in a cauldron, finds that the entire skeleton is illuminated with scenes, scrolls, geometries, maps. He polishes some of the bones into what resembles scrimshaw. He is caught, but as it's assumed he carved the illuminations himself he is not sent down or arrested. The central mystery is never explained. With imperturbable dignity the narrator enfolds this tale of illimitable long-ago darkness into the darkness of old age; the intimate remoteness of his telling evoked RLS's telling of the second half of the remarkable The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette (1894), which he had taken over completely from his stepson Lloyd Osbourne (the obscurity of the novel is almost certainly because the weakly Osbourne was listed as collaborator). Near the end of "The Design," the narrator/Miéville lifts his eyes above the element of the tale, and speaks to his lover/partner:
"I don't detain myself with theology most of the time. But beliefs are not only in the brainpan: they're in the body. We're all issued beliefs and instructions by our backgrounds. Some implicit, some explicit." I gave him a glance. "We're all given orders."
It is, unsurprisingly, the only story in Explosion whose telling is sufficiently framed to allow a message to escape: that our lives are ordered. Other stories in Explosion, stripped of the anthropocentric patriotism of the flesh, naked down to the bone, give no order extractable from raw shape: pure order being indistinguishable from magic.
The main function of the ten or so Calvino-like short-shorts and condensed film-scripts felt a bit to me like hypertrophied beats: gaps to give breathing space, perhaps useful when the longer stories of the book are so centripetally intense that the reader may welcome oxygen. Even the numerous shout-outs to other authors that seem to cast light upon the longer stories, and the intricate semblances of storyable threads through the labyrinth, fail to normalize the main body of work in Explosion. M. John Harrison provides a few ghost whiffs of burning cold-ice impersonality that by now Miéville needs no model to achieve in his own voice. Deadpan Ballard icebergs appear in the sky over the London of "Polynia" (2014), never to be "explained"; "Watching God" (new) is set on an island whose inhabitants gain meaning through language generated by the interweaving movements of ships that never land; "The 9th Technique" (2013), set in an America linguistically choked to death by security protocols, describes a sought-after pupa that cannot be described but only grown: the slingshot this time is, in a sense, nameless. "The Buzzard's Egg" (2015) comprises the monologue of a guard (himself a prisoner) addressed to the prisoner godling whose retention weakens the land of its aborted reign; all of which sounds like a world until the last short sentences, which lift in a multivalent dazzle almost anywhere at all. "Säcken" (2014), though it limns with surgical nicety a passionate relationship between the two women at its heart, fails to redeem some horror cliches that close it (Miéville does horror superbly, but it sticks to the fingers). "After the Festival" (new), though horror tropes weave through the tale of a quasi-ancient rite gone sour in near-future London, strips itself bare in a slingshot that "points" to some "real" story somewhere waiting to be filled: but that is where it all stops, as in the best work here, a vial waiting for the world to fill it.
The best stories seem to have been held back to the second half of the book, a hint that Explosion should probably be taken as a whole if taken at all. "The Dusty Hat" (new) contains a superbly sad elegy to the splintered sects of the Left in Britain, and a vision of chthonic abysses within the vial of the world both comic and savaging. In "The Bastard Prompt" (new) an actor does "standardized patient" gigs (presenting various disorders to trainee doctors to test their ability to read bodies), and finds herself presenting diseases that do not, it may be, yet exist: but all we are left with is, once again, human behaviour as something both strangely easy to mock up but in fact inexplicable, as in a Strange Tale by Robert Aickman perhaps. "Keep" (new) does not exactly shadow David Mitchell, any more than it does Quatermass and the Pit, but there is a sense some planet is shared here, though pared to the bone. "Covehithe" (2011) comes about as close to the comic as Miéville seems to want to reach this time round; the tale starts in Dunwich, Suffolk in order to allow a shout to both M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft, then climaxes farther north, in Covehithe, Norfolk, as a giant sunken oil rig surfaces from the sea, and clambers ashore to lay eggs like a giant turtle, under the protection of the army. And "The Rabbet" (new), which simultaneously evoked for me both Mark Danielewski and Kelly Link, is a genuinely original, and extremely ruthless, exercise in framing the nature of art: the frame here being entirely visible.
So. Several of the tales in Explosion, misprisioned in synopsis, sound like many of the stories we continue to read, skeletons of pure Story patriotic to the species by virtue of the flesh that drapes them. But in almost none of them does the flesh hold. In the end, bone is all she wrote.
There is no way to claim that Nalo Hopkinson thinks of the stories assembled in Falling in Love with Hominids as anything more than vessels designed to give estimable themes room to breathe. They are not exactly by-blows, and Hopkinson is too skilled to commit through offhandedness the kind of error a story-doctor could fix, and too loving to create mockeries of assertion; but the full enveloping panache of her genius seems pretty well restricted to her longer work, for her novels embed raw themes without being about them: which is to say they are works you return to for their own sakes. A YA tale can be difficult to return to after you take the medicine it provides the cuckoo young of our species. A collection of the relatively modest length of Hominids does therefore perhaps feature one or two too many stories where teenage girls wrassle with bad body image and/or supernatural menaces in order to gain necessary self-esteem. But even these YA yarns are good in their straightness about the body: her characters, male and female, exude themselves constantly. They sweat. They drip. They itch and flow. If this is what hominids are, you want to be there.
Most of the tales assembled here must be described as obedient, then: there is no glaring intransigent naked skeleton of story here, no runic Scrimshaw Inside, nothing unanswerable. What stories do here is mostly what stories are normally supposed to be able to do, which is tell us something we need to know about being here, without lying, and Nalo Hopkinson is almost so unbendingly and usefully truthful you might wish she told the occasional fib. Some tales stand out well. Though it may be a tad too tied to the superchild-in-a-world-of-normals topos, "Message in a Bottle" (2002) neatly ironizes itself through a rather likeable but shit-thick male narrator, who does not quite grok the fact that one of our opossums is hissing. And "Shift" (2002) is a cunning and cumulatively moving play on Shakespeare's Tempest, not the first but one of the best re(in)scribing of Caliban into the new discourse (to use a couple of words). It may not be accidental that these tales, which are the best in the book, are also the longest, except for "Ours Is the Prettiest" (2011), which engages in a mild quarrel over the fact that the Faerie featured in the Borderland shared world series is racially and culturally unmixed. It is also dead, but never mind. The longer stories from Falling in Love with Hominids set in richer worlds than Borderland are a lot richer than Borderland. Their richness is estimable. That they do not aspire further may simply recommend them to Hopkinson's sane and loving readers. But it is her novels that make the world fluent with being. Goodness well expressed is not the half of what she does. There is far more than goodness in the skookum heft and ardor of Hopkinson afire.