More than three years after the publication of his novel Railsea, China Miéville's new short story collection is finally out, and it's fantastic in every sense of the word. It consists of a selection of material previously published on Miéville's blog, rejectamentalist manifesto, and in various online and print magazines—and some amazing new stuff as well. The formats range from classic short stories to fictional movie trailers, from reports and observations, to rules and manifestos, and finally flash fiction.
Miéville's penchant for computer games and glitches is noticeable in several of the texts, and recurring themes include diseases jumping over from other species—much like bird flu, but in these cases contracted from buildings, or from the Earth, or from other dimensions—and also boats, in the water beneath which something is lurking. Miéville has previously mentioned his fascination with exabyssalism, which remains one of the strongest carriers of horror when it comes to under-described monsters: from the ostensible safety of our boat we can't see far down, but there is something there. What if it breaks the surface?
In this way, Miéville repeatedly frustrates the reader by being deliberately unspecific and then some; but at the same time this feels very much okay, since the breaking of form is fun for the reader, and the hidden joy in under-described horror is that the reader's imagination fills the gaps with various (and varying) possibilities, which can produce more horrific results than meticulous descriptions.
Perhaps this is related to the reasons why, in my opinion, Miéville produces his best work when the narrator is a character in the story, as in one of my favourites from this collection, "The Dowager of Bees." It revolves around professional card players and includes some interesting trivia about various designs of playing cards. (I've had the exact same playing cards described in the story since I was nine years old, and I never even noticed the Suicide King!) The protagonist discovers that sometimes, when there is only one player at the table who has never encountered them before, a card from the so-called Hidden Suits (e.g. Bees, Chains, Teeth, Ivy, Scissors) appears in an untampered-with deck. There are secret rules that come into effect when such a card is played, which include forfeits for the losers that are only ever alluded to. ("I made sure I had her address, and three-hundred and forty-seven days later, I found Joy and did her a favour I didn't want to" [p. 34].)
The second time we hear about such a forfeit, the rules of the game take on an even more sinister undertone: the narrator implies that, whatever (unspecified) act it is that must be performed by a given character when one of the cards in the Hidden Suits appears, it could always have been so much worse if it had been another card. The reader's mind starts to reel: What sort of forfeit? What are they making each other do? And we realise that not knowing is just as bad as the horror of not being in control, of being forced to submit.
As in the card game, we encounter unexpected breaks of the (narrative) rules throughout Three Moments of an Explosion, and every time a character says "I don't get it," we know exactly how they feel. And/but (or "bund," as one of Miéville's stories suggests) at the same time, we're enjoying ourselves such a lot. Take, for example, "The Condition of New Death": a bewildering story that was almost definitely inspired by computer games. It describes a recent phenomenon, a seeming glitch in reality, which causes corpses to automatically orient themselves so that their feet always point to the observer—no matter how many observers are present. Here we notice a new kind of narrative voice that makes use of a very impersonal tone and thus renders the text more a report than a short story, reminding us of horror formats like that of The SCP Foundation.
"In the Slopes" is another story that stands out in this way. The "spooky story starting in an antique shop" has been done to death, but this is a spooky story starting in a touristy tchotchke shop, then offhandedly mentioning "bars of soap in the shapes of collaborators" (p. 49) without any further explanation—and voilà, we have a new mystery, which is soon revealed as another twist on Lovecraftian myth-making. Miéville takes the "ancient ruins" trope à la At the Mountains of Madness and turns it into an anti-Lovecraft fiction. It is also increasingly difficult to tell "good guys" and "baddies" apart. Concepts crumble. And the visual descriptions of his alternate Pompeii-like excavated city, buried in volcanic ash, are stunning:
The creatures lay with the humans, dead islanders alongside them. They'd worked with them. Worshipped with them, the scientists said, looking anew at the shards of illustration still visible, the extraterrestrial and the human at prayer together, coronaed, altar-top boxes glowing. [. . .] One of the creatures, hunkered against the volcano's murderous flow, the wing-like limbs with which it could not have flown but which everyone called wings, curled protectively around two human youths, one girl, one boy.
They clung to it. They died together. (p. 65)
Another gem, "Watching God," is set in a world literally situated between the lines in a sentence from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (an isthmus, surrounded by the sentence, which the ships in the sentence never reach):
As soon as she understood she took me quickly down the path to the shore and we looked out at the sentence but then the ship had gone completely under so there was nothing new to see, though I told myself there was more chop between the wrecks than there had been.
It must have been laying deep grammar, my mother said. (p. 97)
This story reminded me of Simon Ings's brilliant City of the Iron Fish (maybe a bit more self-aware). With the characters trying to make sense of their world, it is also reminiscent of Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz:
I spoke to Gam, who was one of those intent on decoding the sentence. You could often find Gam drawing on rough paper, marking the positions and shapes of the sunk ships from one or other point on the cliff or the shore, connecting them variously with scribbled lines, measuring the spaces between them and applying various keys. Gam was sure that, seen from the right place in the right way, the sentence would make sense. (p. 99)
Naturally, this being Miéville, the playfulness is placed side-by-side with politics. "The Dusty Hat," for instance, is interesting because it is a Weird story about sentient dust with a strong socialist message. Miéville's dust is not unsettled, it's insurgent. This is not a haunting, because the dust has always been there. And it is political: because "the coal on the blackleg's legs was taking sides long before the meat beneath it" (p. 241). "Keep," meanwhile, comes with a touch of military SF, which is what makes it less interesting for me—but potentially more so for other types of readers. In any case, I enjoyed its anti-conservative SalvagePunk stance of adapting to new realities rather than trying to preserve or reestablish previous conditions.
Genre mash-up is a recurring motif. In "The Design," a medical student discovers that a body he is about to dissect contains a full-skeleton scrimshaw design of seemingly natural origin. It's a beautiful retro-Weird story set in the 1930s, not quite Frankenstein, very much not Herbert West—more like a ghastly version of Bradbury's Illustrated Man. It also contains one of the best quotations with which to illustrate the central sentiment underlying Weird Fiction: "I suspect that sense of not being in on something is more or less the human condition" (p. 414). Other highlights are "The 9th Technique," reminding us that the worst horrors are often human-made, and "A Second Slice Manifesto," leaving us with the strong sense that there's always something out there, just beyond our field of vision, numinous and lurking.
The centrepiece of Three Moments of an Explosion, however, the masterpiece of ultimate horror which, IIRC, Jared Shurin mentioned as being "worth a thousand screams" on Twitter, is the story "Säcken." It may very well be my new favourite Miéville story ever.
"Säcken" features the first specified same-gender couple in the book, two women on a trip to Germany (one working on her thesis, her partner taking time off work to accompany her). Most of the action is centred around an isolated lake. The story is established much like a horror film. In the beginning the tone is light and playful. It almost feels a bit like Weird chicklit with its mentions of shoes, meeting the neighbours, and even some light humour when a lesbian makes a cock joke. At one point Miéville goes so far as to write a seriously ridiculous simile: "The boat was drifting into a patch of quivering water, dimpled as if with cellulite" (p. 149). (Seriously, WTF?)
At one point, we even get the impression that, with one character's spontaneous decision to chuck a potentially Weird artefact into the dark woods rather than investigate it, a whole possible storyline may have been discarded—but then of course it turns out that this was a "buried gun," a plot device that casually mentions something only to return it later just when it is needed.
Strange occurrences are only witnessed by one half of the couple, so the obvious thing in horror happens: she isn't taken seriously. It was obviously just a nightmare; there's no reason to be hysteric (a definite plus: Miéville never uses the word hysteric). Because of the obvious psychological undertone, we find ourselves worrying/wondering: What was that sense of "something missing" in the first encounter with the monster/ghost about? Does it refer to something in the story? In the relationship? (Here another potential moment of meta-horror occurs, since it would be all too easy to connect this to what could have been hinted at in cock-crows and cock jokes. But this is very much not how a lesbian relationship works, and Miéville knows it, so if a reader catches themselves thinking that—or fearing this outcome—it only throws their own opinions and politics back at them, makes them part of the uncanny, threatening atmosphere of the story.) The desperate question, "What exactly is this, Mel? What's this about? Talk to me." (p. 155) is exactly the reader's question. What is the central metaphor?! Of course, when her girlfriend vanishes, the protagonist is driven to investigate.
"Säcken" then turns into a ghost story with a Weird element/monster, based on a real historical fact, a Roman form of punishment. And here Méville is at his very best, showing us how Law is the monster, that torture and murder in the name of justice is the monster. And even if I tell you that this masterpiece excels with a The Ring-style surprise shocker ending, this is very much not a spoiler. In fact, I think I'll go back and re-read it after finishing this review. It is that good.
All in all, Three Moments of an Explosion is a brilliant collection of short stories, often breathtaking and mind-bending, and at all times thrilling and horrific. Like all the best Weird short fiction, the stories often start with something very mundane, followed by the realisation that the world just doesn't work in the way their characters had always assumed, and that there's no coming to terms with that. The settings and character names are quite international, and the stories are very inclusive when it comes to gender, sexuality, and ethnicity—but never in-your-face. There is no strained, artificial emphasis. Their diversity is just part of who these characters are, so when it's essential for a scene, there is a mention of skin colour, for example, and/but ("bund") it never reads as forced. We also get lots of female narrators, and there is even one unwanted, potentially gay kiss. (We never get to know that specific narrator's gender, which is also a great decision.)
Still, I get the impression that Miéville has done better on dis/ability (especially in the Bas-Lag books). This collection renders disabled people more or less invisible, which is something that has been committed by public discourse and public spaces for much too long (people aren't "handicapped"—the world is handicapping them). I would love to see more disabled characters in Miéville's writing in the future, and maybe some world-making to accommodate accessibility. An openly trans* character would be another big plus. That we can make these demands of Miéville with a knowledge that they may be fulfilled—and fulfilled successfully—is a mark of his importance as a writer of SFF.
TL;DR: Everyone should read this book. But don't tell me I didn't warn you: you might never sleep again.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, Weird fiction and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.