Looking for Jake by China Mieville

(2005-08-16)

         

China Miéville – Looking for Jake and Other Stories

(Pan Macmillan, 307 pages. ISBN: 1 4050 4830 1. Published September 2005.

The New Fantastic; or ‘What place New Weird?’

In the past few years the speculative fiction niche of the bookshop has seen a proliferation of new sub-genres – singularity Sf, magic realism, British fantasy and New Weird.

New Weird is challenging, dark and downright unpleasant. It is not an easy read. It often looks at the seedier side of predominantly urban life, the horrors, the unpleasantness. It is dark and often ‘fantastic’, looking at the stuff that is both ‘there’ and ‘not there’. Consequently, this has become one of the most stimulating and challenging areas of contemporary literature, not just speculative fiction.

China Miéville, since his publication of King Rat in 1998 (and more so since the publication in 2000 of Perdido Street Station, which was widely applauded and won the Arthur C Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Award of 2001) has been seen as one of the leading revolutionaries in this area of speculative fiction. As such, he’s seen as ‘upthere’ with authors such as M. John Harrison (an acknowledged influence), Jeff VanderMeer, Ian R MacLeod and the like – pushing the boundaries, breaking down those genre barriers, defiantly showing non-genre readers that there’s more to speculative fiction than rockets and wizards.

Looking for Jake is his fifth book, and first story collection to date.

There are thirteen stories and one novella in this collection; three of these are new, one story dates from 1998. The novella, The Tain, was originally published by PS Publications in 2002, and is the last of the fourteen stories in the book.

I have enjoyed what I have read of China’s work, even when it is not an easy nor comfortable read. One of the key characteristics of New Weird, as I see it, is its ability to unsettle – to jolt the reader from the cosy environment of their reading environment. This collection clearly does this.

The first story, appropriately called Looking for Jake, sets up another of the key themes that runs through the rest of the book. It tells in first person narrative (actually the form of a letter) the story of a person, living in London, but a London where clearly ‘something weird’ has happened. People have disappeared; parts of London have changed almost overnight. As is often noticeable in China’s work, there’s a sense of place there: it is full of London references, which create that idea of normalcy when not all is right. Despite its short length, despite it not really ‘telling a story’, it is unsettling, by introducing this idea of recurrent change – reality shifting and altering, which appears throughout the collection.

If the sound of this is the sort of thing that lights your candle, then Looking for Jake is for you. The stories in this fix-up collection cover this idea in a broad variety of ways, all with that unpleasant undercurrent that makes you uncomfortable.

The general theme of the collection is a common one in most of China’s work - one which looks at horrors, both physical and mental, real and imagined. What this collection does, unlike Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, is use real places and real events, which emphasises the unreality – when what we know and understand becomes something twisted and surreal. This is also shown in the title story as well as again in the story, Reports of Certain Events in London.

 

If you have read some of this subgenre before, then many of these stories will not be new to you, but what is clever here is that together they form a complete jigsaw which looks at many variations of that idea, ending in the novella.

Strangely enough, one of my favourite stories was one called The Ball Pit. This is one that reminded me of Ray Bradbury in style (Did you know that Bradbury often used to get the idea for a story by starting to think of an item or place – ‘The Playground’, ‘The Visitor’?) but unlike Bradbury today, is utterly contemporary. And creepy. Sort-of Bradbury meets King, in a UK setting. But I would say that this was untypical of the rest of the book: possibly because it is a story cowritten by Emma Bircham and Maz Schaefer.

Of a similar nature is one solely written by Mieville called Different Skies, which is not only a moving piece about old age, but also about a window with a unusual appearance on the world.

With a feeling of deja vu, I read the story Gobetween, which is new to this collection. Scarily prescient of recent events in the real world, it tells the story of a person whose job is to deliver objects to places without knowing what the contents are.

Some of the stories are just unpleasant, Familiar being the most memorable of these to me. But then that, to some extent, is the purpose of New Weird. The collection definitely covers most of the conditions needed for New Weird - Dark. Nasty. Unsettling. Definitely weird. Definitely contemporary. And different to his longer stuff.

There’s even a story done as a comic strip: On the Way to the Front is a story written by Mieville, but drawn by Liam Sharp, which is a little pointer towards The Tain at the end of the book.

Stylistically, you are looking at a variety of stories here which examine variations on a theme. As such, and as an example of the field, this is about as good as you are going to get. You are not going to enjoy everything in this book, but if Perdido Street Station or The Scar were your thing, then this will be a memorable addition. (And for those who liked these earlier works, there's a New Crobuzon story called Jake, which is new in this collection).

Having said that, if I had a minor niggle, I would say that the shortness of the book is both a strength and a weakness.

Despite there being fourteen stories, this is not a blockbuster. In fact, I was surprised at how thin it was. Most of the stories in here are 10 to 15 pages or so in length. The Tain is 75 pages. However, it’s the breadth, not the depth we’re looking at here. This is not trilogy-bloated-fat-fantasy – it is cutting-edge-twenty-first-century-speculative-fiction: short, dark, sharp – punchy even. I read the whole book in a couple of days.

In my opinion, this is highlighted by the novella, The Tain. The main idea of the novella is that mirrors, instead of just reflecting light, are actually a restraining device on nasty creatures (possibly those glimpsed at in the other stories in the collection) suspended in alternate space. (The Borges quote at the end highlights the fact that many of these stories are about this idea). The ‘fun’ of the story is when these imagos, the mirror inhabitants from the other world, escape, leading to a battle between them and humanity, led by a person called Storr – all in a post-modern style.

Out of all the stories in this book, to me it was this one that was more engaging; despite all the benefits created by the shorter story, this worked more for me because it was longer, allowing the reader to really get their teeth into the edginess that is in most of China’s work. Though good, the earlier stories didn’t really leave as much of an impression on me as The Tain did.

So, if I were picking a work of China’s to show where New Weird is, I’d probably still go for something like Perdido Street Station or The Scar. But for those who want some more of the ‘new weirdness’, this is pretty good (if we can say that stories seven years old are ‘new’!)

What place New Weird? Well – here, and 'not here' also – but clearly something of importance.

Hobbit, August 2005

 

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