‘Coming Up Short – My Literary Hero Returns With a Whimper: a review of China Mieville’s “Three Moments of an Explosion”’, by Thomas Wilson

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The first thing you have to know about China Miéville is that he’s a bit of a badarse. Just look at the guy:

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I would not mess with him. But listen to him speak. He’s basically the Chuck Norris of the literary world. Entering the genre fiction scene in 1998, he has dominated it ever since, winning almost every prize from the Hugo to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His work is prolific and varied, and he doesn’t like to tie himself down to a genre, theme or world, unlike most genre writers. His politics is fiercely left-wing: in 2001 he ran in the UK General Election for the Socialist Alliance and he wrote his PhD on Marxism and international law. But in the end he’s a geek, drawing much inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons. I wouldn’t fight him, but he’d be great to have around for dinner.

But, there’s a conundrum. Fans love him for his weird writing and worlds, and clamour for his next release, but it feels as if he is spinning uncontrollably, as if his bottomless pit of imagination and horrific splendour is running ahead of him. His latest release, Three Moments of an Explosion, is a collection of short stories, vignettes, flash fiction and glimpses of the absurd. There are myriad ideas on show here, but nothing quite enough to satiate. It’s a mish-mash collection of his strengths and weaknesses, a return to form as first draft.

I think I may have outgrown my literary hero.

The person who’s changed is me.

Over 2011 and 2012 I devoured all of Miéville’s novels. That’s a long gap from then until now and a good reason for why my taste may have changed. For example, in 2011 I would have loved the story The Rope is the World. It’s about space elevators, but only offers a glimpse of a world stuck between Earth and orbit. So much more could be done, but we’re left dangling. And space elevators are so passé. Miéville was my literary champion, but my idolisation has switched to others such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Peter Watts. Robinson was writing about space elevators twenty years ago! Miéville feels scattergun, ideas bursting forth and ricocheting away. On the other hand Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer with vision and drive, someone with a purpose. Someone I can trust. I’d love Miéville to revisit some of the ideas with Three Moments of an Explosion and draw them out, but I’m afraid he’s already moved on.

But what’s changed? Certainly not Miéville’s writing. The person who’s changed is me.

Let’s start in the most obvious place: endings. Miéville has said that he is surprised when his work is described as bleak, although coming to the end of most of his novels can leave one staring into the abyss, and a streak of nihilism courses through all his writing. I found the endings to his novels unexpected yet perfectly realised within the context of the story. Iron Council had one heck of a copout finale, yet it still made sense ­– if it infuriated a reader that showed just how impeccable it was. I felt edgy and cool to be able to make sense of his endings, and to embrace their oddly positive destitution. Yet many of the tales in Three Moments of an Explosion feel weak because they don’t go anywhere.

In longer pieces he can get away with ambiguity; in a short tale there needs to be some resolution. The biggest culprits by far are After the Festival and In the Slopes, which seemed to simply stop, though most of the shorter pieces fizzle along and never explode. It’s fine to be weird and mysterious, but if you are going to give the reader a beginning and middle, at least provide an ending. Older me wants the full picture. An interesting counterpoint would be Four Final Orpheuses – a story about an ending – which speculates on the conclusion of the Greek myth. But between literary jokes and half-formed stories that trail off into the ether, is there a collection?

Not quite.

What we have here is writings that have appeared on the web and in various publications, with a good deal of new material coming from his time in fellowships and residencies. It’s very experimental in places, like his imagination wasn’t given time to settle over an appropriate plot or characters: little mind-bursts that seem clever but don’t satisfy. My favourite stories were actually the most formulaic, which is not what you expect when talking about Miéville. It was Perdido Street Station that hooked me, and that is far from a straight narrative. Perhaps I need structure these days. Säcken, The Dowager of Bees and Dreaded Outcome were all superb stories, great ideas that did not take centre stage but were interwoven with pace and characters. Säcken in particular was absolutely terrifying, albeit in all the expected ways. He has a way of getting inside your mind, though this isn’t always for the best.

There has been a worm niggling at me for quite some time regarding Miéville’s work, some nauseating feeling that scratches at my mind. I felt it first while reading Un Lun Dun. It persisted through Iron Council. It nagged at me in Embassytown. And Three Moments of an Explosion has revealed its true face.

It’s an obsession with objects. The mundane comes to life in some way, and the notion of an idea become object, some symbol-cum-tool bludgeons the reader; metaphor and allegory overplayed, similes cooked well-done. Often reading Miéville’s work feels like looking at his illustrations that he sometimes doodles – inexpert, trying too hard.

Take Covehithe, a sort of Pacific Rim-meets-Deepwater Horizon. Oil rigs start rising from the deep. We attack them. They lay babies. Life continues. An obvious metaphor? Sure is. Lack of specific plot or reason for investment? Unfortunately so. Objects come to life that defy the imagination just a little too much? Damn straight. It felt like a revisit to Iron Council where golems are the magique du jour. They begin as mere rock entities, but progress in fancy through the novel, culminating in a time golem. A golem made of time. This progression leaves you addicted to his fevered mind, asking – screaming – ‘and then?!’ to the pages. It worked for me in the past, but now it feels like a magician’s sleight of hand, cheap trick after cheap trick.

Compare Covehithe to Polynia, where floating icebergs appear over London and reefs grow on land. It still has that haze of literary masturbation regarding an object, but the story of hoodlums interweaves magnificently, and the subplot is intriguing even if we never learn the outcome. And the most striking thing is that it’s a YA short. Railsea was my last long sojourn with Miéville’s mind, and while it too had palpable semiology, it was fun, absurd and most importantly a much stronger YA outing than his previous attempt, Un Lun Dun. Perhaps his strength and focus is for a younger market, a Lovecraft for teens. Unfortunately, given the three-year wait since Railsea, I am left wanting after Three Moments of an Explosion.

To me at least, his flame is waning.

But this is the author I want him to be, and it seems I am past my Miéville phase. In the end this collection is evidence of his imagination and creativity, his ability to weave together words and worlds that are striking. On the sentence level Miéville’s writing is gorgeous. Each of the stories in the book has absolutely beautiful parts, even if as a whole they don’t come together. A lot of it falls flat, but if you are a fan there is much to enjoy. If you have not read Miéville a, look elsewhere (I suggest either The City & The City if you do not read fantasy, orPerdido Street Station if you want to jump in the deep end). His oeuvre is one that covers all genres, much like the variety found in Three Moments of an Explosion. He’s still got a spark, but, to me at least, his flame is waning.


A publishing all-rounder, Thomas Wilson has worked for The Conversation, Monash University Publishing, Lot’s Wife, Overland, Aurealis, Seizure, Walker Books and HarperCollins. He’s also a science fiction nerd trying to make waves with his new project, Fantastica.