Its not that I havent appreciated the works of Clarke, Dick, Azimov, and even early predecessors like Wells, Verne, and Orwell, I tend to be a bit overwhelmed by the hyper-real worlds they present. I dote on reality-based fiction, and perhaps thats my problem - when whats outside your front door is already terrifically beautiful, going one step into the altered states of beyond can feel like - and I quote songwriter Greg Brown - one cool remove.
But I was intrigued when someone insisted I read “The Scar,“ the third book in a well-respected trilogy by an English author with the unlikely moniker of China Miééééville. I was sufficiently challenged when told that “this isnt your fathers science fiction,“ even as I winced, thinking that the parental units and my version of that genre probably werent so far apart anymore.
Miééééville was born in London in 1972, and by the age of 18, was teaching English in Egypt, and had developed a keen interest in world culture and Middle Eastern politics. He earned a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a masters from the London School of Economics. His debut novel, “King Rat,“ was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. The follow-up, last years “Perdido Street Station,“ won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award.
Now, along comes “The Scar,“ a mind-expanding blend of sci-fi, epic high seas pirate adventure, and the macabre, all of it set beyond the boundaries of New Crobuzon in Bas Lag, a world unlike any other encountered recently in fiction.
“The Scar“ picks up where “Perdido Street Station“ left off, resuming the tale of heroine Bellis Coldwine. Bellis, a renowned linguist, is reluctantly escaping New Crobuzon in an attempt to avoid a terrible punishment as a result of events that transpired in the last novel. Her trip to the Nova Esperium colony will become derailed when she is shanghaied and then abandoned on Armada, a near-mythic floating pirate city. Before that happens, we meet Bellis in an instantly captivating and slightly ominous opening to her story.
“It is only ten miles beyond the city that the river loses its momentum, drooling into the brackish estuary that feeds Iron Bay. The boats that make the eastward journey out of New Crobuzon enter a lower landscape. To the south there are huts and rotten little jetties, from where rural laborers fish to supplement monotonous diets... Men and women can be seen among the crops, or plowing the black earth, or burning the stubble - depending on the season. Barges putter weirdly between fields, on canals hidden by banks of earth and vegetation. They go endlessly between the metropolis and the estates. They bring chemicals and fuel, stone and cement and luxuries to the country. They return to the city past acres of cultivation studded with hamlets, great houses, and mills, with sack upon sack of grain and meat. The transport never stops. New Crobuzon is insatiable...
Bellis Coldwine took her passage on an east-bound boat in the last quarter of the year, at a time of constant rain. The fields she saw were cold mud. The half-bare trees dripped. Their silhouettes looked wetly inked onto the clouds. Later, when she thought back to that miserable time, Bellis was shaken by the detail of her memories. She could recall the formation of a flock of geese that passed over the boat, barking; the stench of sap and earth; the slate shade of the sky. She remembered searching the hedgerow with her eyes but seeing no one. Only threads of woodsmoke in the soaking air, and squat houses shuttered against weather. The subdued movement of greenery in the wind. She had stood on the deck enveloped in her shawl and watched and listened for childrens games or anglers, or for someone tending one of the battered kitchen gardens she saw. But she heard only feral birds. The only human forms she saw were scarecrows, their rudimentary features impassive. It had not been a long journey, but the memory of it filled her like infection. She had felt tethered by time to the city behind her, so that the minutes stretched out taut as she moved away, and slowed the farther she got, dragging out her little voyage. And then they had snapped, and she had found herself catapulted here, now, alone and away from home.
Much later, when she was miles from everything she knew, Bellis would wake, astonished that it was not the city itself, her home for more than forty years, that she dreamed of. It was that little stretch of river, that weatherbeaten corridor of country that had surrounded her for less than half a day...Bellis sat slowly back on her bunk and picked up her letter. It was written like a diary; lines or paragraphs separated by dates. As she read over what she had last written she opened a tin box of prerolled cigarillos and matches. She lit up and inhaled deeply, pulling a fountain pen from her pocket and adding several words in a terse hand before she breathed the smoke away. Skullday 26th Rinden 1779.“
Belliss fate is intertwined with that of scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, whose vison and brilliance has unwittingly unleashed a nightmare upon New Crobuzon. Bellis was intending to live among the new frontiersmen of the colony until it is safe for her to return home, but when her ship is seized by pirates and its officers executed, she and the other passengers are taken to brought to Armada, a city constructed from the hulls of pirated ships and ruled by a duality called the Lovers. No one is ever allowed to leave Armada, and any sign of dissent is an immediate death sentence. The only way out for Bellis is to learn the dangerous, mysterious secrets about the Armada, which are contained in dark, amorphous shapes that float miles beneath it.
Miééééville is a masterful storyteller, and to divulge any more of the plot would be a great disservice. This is a richly imagined work with a compelling heroine, provocative ideas about order and caste systems, and monsters that lurk in dark corners. “The Scar“ is a read that has certainly changed this reviewers notions about what state-of-the-art sci-fi can - or should be.