China Miéville’s New Crobuzon trilogy
A while back I worked my way through China Miéville’s engrossing trilogy set in the retro-modern dystopic city of New Crobuzon and beyond, in the world of Bas-Lag. The books defy categorization, but if I had to assign them a genre, I would have to go with weird science-fantasy. The three books feature stand-alone stories that connect by how they affect the world at large.
I have never been a fan of settings with flamboyant supernatural elements or a high level of weirdness, and I tend to back away slowly from anything that smells of high fantasy. I think I associate such worlds with tropes and pulpy writing. The three Bas-Lag books, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, are proof that I need to lay such prejudice to rest. The world is weird, unfamiliar, over-the-top, and downright bizarre. But however weird these books get, it is clear to me that the world is built on a strong foundation of speculative ideas that have an underlying logic to them. Without flaunting it or shoving it in our faces, Miéville shows us that the magic, weird science, and philosophy is based on more than just whimsical ideas arbitrarily thrown together.
In the first book, we are introduced to the world in a way that makes it feel at once strange and oddly familiar. It is a shining example of how to introduce unfamiliar concepts without using lore dumps. Miéville reveals the world at a pace that feels natural to the protagonists and that manages to keep us sufficiently informed so that we are not completely lost. Often I felt my nose was only just above the waterline, but I found it didn’t put me off but made me more curious. I can fully appreciate the difficulty of maintaining that balance.
Throughout the three books, Miéville never stops introducing fascinating and bizarre ideas, but at some point along the way, we begin seeing them as the characters do; more oddities in a world filled with oddities.
One of the few complaints I had would be about Miéville’s tendency to overuse certain words that he appears fond of. But he is forgiven, not only because the books are so thick that repetition is unavoidable, but because of his skill with words. Take a look at this passage from Iron Council, describing a passing hovel.
“The architecture looked thrown together, chance materials aggregated and surprised to find themselves a town. Old but without history.”
I can highly recommend these books, but be warned: they are probably unlike anything you’ve read before. Our brains are programmed to think that’s a bad thing. It isn’t.
What weird books have you read that surprised you by being good?