Underground Reading: The Scar by China Miéville
Friday, December 12, 2008
China Mieville's third book, The Scar, is cursed to be ever-overshadowed by his second, Perdido Street Station. The Scar, however, is a classic in its own right. A entertaining, absorbing and complex book, The Scar should serve to further seal Miéville's name amongst the greats of this (and any) genre.
Although The Scar takes place in the same world as Perdido Street Station (and has a few oblique references to some of the events of that book), it leaves New Crubozon behind and explores a vastly different city, Armada. Mr. Miéville is a practiced tease - rather than succumb to overtly masturbatory world-building, he gracefully dances around his exotic locations, leaving the reader desperately praying for another scene in the library. Or under the ocean. Or by the rift in the world...
Miéville has created one of the most compelling worlds in fantasy, and he's such a damn good writer that he doesn't even wallow in it.
The primary protagonist of The Scar is Bellis Coldwine. A talented linguist, Coldwine is fleeing New Crubozon for mysterious reasons that don't become clear until late in the book. Although initially chilly and unapproachable, Mr. Miéville gives us access to her thoughts (and her diary). A creeping empathy is unavoidable, as Coldwine's past - and her present loneliness and homesickness - quickly become apparent.
Without getting too far over my head, the main theme seems to be one of authorship. Coldwine's dismal view of the world is exacerbated by her belief that her fate is completely out of her control. Her life is not her own, and she struggles with the awareness that choices she's made in the past may have been externally prompted. Coldwine worries (rather placidly) that she has no free will and is merely the servant of the insinuations and influences of other powers. Throughout The Scar, Coldwine is ostensibly little more than a pawn - self-aware, sanguine and - potentially - powerless.
Bellis Coldwine is also surrounded by a cast of unusual characters - a well-meaning academic, a Remade engineer striving to find a new home, an island of mosquito scholars, a displaced vampire lord and one of the nastiest swordsmen in modern fantasy. As The Scar journeys forward, the reader discovers that these characters, however much they feign temporal authority, are struggling with the same problem as Coldwine. How can they take control of their own lives and destinies? Even the city itself struggles with this issue - drifting (metaphorically and literally) under the control of tides (fluid and political), on a quest to achieve the ownership of its own actions.
If anything, The Scar is a slightly more 'conventional' fantasy than Perdido Street Station, with recognisable tropes that make it more immediately accessible. Coldwine still follows the Miévillian tradition of flawed and unusual protagonists, but fans of more traditional archetypes will enjoy her shipmates - especially Uther Doul. Perdido's sprawling genius still makes it my favorite of Mr. Miéville's three Bas-Lag novels, but The Scar is a work of unusual brilliance in its own right.
Tube journeys: 1 long plane flight and 1 distraction-free day by the pool