“The Scar”, China Miéville
So, a while ago I reviewed “Perdido Street Station”. “The Scar” is the follow-up and has a tangential connection to the events of the earlier novel. If “Perdido Street” was a steam-punk take on the Victorian vampire novel set in London, “The Scar” starts off looking like a colonial novel – Bellis Coldwine, linguist, flees New Crobuzon for its new colony, on a ship with a cargo full of convicts who are to serve as labour to the free settlers. The convicts are transferred to the ship at night from rotting prison-hulks moored in the great city’s river.
However, the action soon takes a different turn when the ship is captured by pirates. (No, honestly, they are scary, nasty and violent.) What follows is a unique and compelling idea: the pirates come from their own state, Armada, a floating city of vessels chained and roped together over an area nearly a mile square. Nor is there a simple “pirate king”, it is divided into ridings, each with its own rulers and systems of law.
Once again, Miéville invents a city from scratch and peoples it with exotic concepts. His particular gift, I think, is for conveying a sense of the alien – unlike a good deal of science fiction, his non-human races are often genuinely weird with motivations that are at first, quite hard to fathom. Sometimes they manage to be quite horrifically alien in the Lovecraft manner, yet no less sentient, rational beings as opposed to just being man-eating nasties.
The plot has some lovely switchbacks, and the author’s talent for action scenes is well-used. The concept of scars (as wounds, as signs of healing, from fights, from surgery, self inflicted, and as a form of personal map or history) as an organising theme is well-used. His remains a fairly brutal, loveless world, and some of the characters may seem a little thin – or at least unknowable. One can feel a little for Coldwine’s plight, but she remains such a stern emotional self-disciplinarian it’s often difficult to empathise with her. The key spy-figure is revealed as nothing but a “skin full of schemes”, without real personality of his own; and the mercenary general/bodyguard Uther Doul is deliberately cast as a figure who keeps his own counsel so closely, it is impossible to know him.
Does “high concept” plot-driven science fiction always have to be at the expense of characterisation? Nonetheless, a rollicking read, fabulously imaginative and memorable, and full of Miéville’s fondness for obscure vocabulary.