This post will focus on the first 10 stories of the collection. Check back soon for two more posts, covering the rest of the stories in the book. There are 28 stories in total, making this a very meaty collection!
At the end of the third post I’ll give an overall verdict about the book, and which stories I liked the best. After that, I may go back and revisit Miéville’s first collection, Looking for Jake. And there are a handful of uncollected stories I could always track down and review as well!
Read on for short descriptions and thoughts about each individual story. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil any endings. (NB: page counts are for the UK hardback edition)
“Three Moments of an Explosion”
(2 pages) This is a cool little piece of flash fiction using three speculative fiction ideas to explore the relatively mundane scenario of a building demolition. I like the way Miéville combines satirical SF in the vein of his earlier short story “‘Tis the Season”, with interesting counterculture, oddball physics, and supernatural elements. A crazy idea that shows off the author’s incredible mind. As for why the story is used as the title of the entire collection — who knows? It’s just a cool, evocative title I guess.
(21 pages) That “icebergs over London” story which most Miéville fans have probably read online by now. A simple weird fiction premise, mixed with some elegiac musings on climate change, that Miéville does a lot with. It’s fantastically written, told from an interesting perspective (a pre-teen hooligan), has beautiful imagery, and it creeps me out just thinking about it. While it ends without explaining very much, preserving the weirdness makes the story all the more indelible in my mind.
“The Condition of New Death”
(6 pages) While the idea and imagery in this short tale is pretty terrifying, it kind of dissolves into some weird academic manifesto piece. It would have been much spookier as a simple narrative. The basic idea is this: dead bodies all around the world suddenly start to shift in space (often defying physics) so that their feet always point towards whoever is looking at them… even when there are multiple people observing. It’s as creepy as it sounds. There’s also some connection to early video games which I don’t really understand.
“The Dowager of Bees”
(18 pages) This story seems like it could be set in the world of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. It explores a secret underworld of people meddling with uncertain and dangerous magic. In this story, that magic just happens to take the form of mysterious and unfamiliar playing cards. I was on the edge of my seat as the narrator, a card-shark and legerdemainist, describes his various encounters with these cards, which turn up unexpectedly in high-stakes games and whose suits and values are unorthodox, to say the least. Whenever the cards show up, they tend to change the lives of the people playing the game. I really loved how Miéville explored this idea, although I think too much was merely hinted at, without being overtly spoken in the narrative; and the ending was a bit unsatisfying.
“In the Slopes”
(39 pages) The setting of this story, one of the two longest in the collection, is a small island dominated by a dormant volcano. The island has become a tourist attraction and academic curiosity due to a Pompeii-like ancient city unearthed there. However, this city was home to more than just humans. It’s a fascinating backdrop on which a story about academic rivalry is hung — told from the perspective of a bemused local shopkeeper. I really enjoyed the gradual reveal of the island’s archaeological treasures, although I must admit I got confused by the end about the focal character Gilroy, her methods, and her “transformation”. I’m left unsure as to what exactly happened, and wishing that Miéville had teased the story of this island and its secrets into a full novel.
(6 pages) Another flash fiction piece, in the form of a script for a movie trailer. It adds an extra dimension to zombie cinema, and has some absolutely horrifying imagery. But if there’s a joke, or some kind of overarching point, in the fake movie’s plot (and especially in the voiceover script) then it’s eluding me.
(16 pages) A small community, trapped by water and cliffs on an isolated peninsular, spend years watching ships of all varieties arrive in their waters and, often, sink themselves. The ships have no visible crews or passengers, and their purpose is inexplicable, although the townspeople think that the ships are spelling out words in some indecipherable script on the sea bed. The focus of the story is very much on atmosphere: it’s a melancholy and unsettling tale. Some new events transpire towards the end, but I was left wanting more of a resolution.
“The 9th Technique”
(11 pages) I’ve described this tale of dark magic in length in an earlier post. To sum up, it’s about a magic user acquiring a curious item for her art — an insect chrysalis once used in a psychological torture technique by the US government. There’s an ambiguous ending from which you can infer dark consequences. It’s simply a great story, crafted with meticulous skill. One note: I read in somebody else’s review that Koning is, supposedly, a minor character from Kraken. I have to say, I can’t remember her, and a quick search of the ebook doesn’t find anything, but I could be wrong. Perhaps the events of this story are mentioned in that novel, but she isn’t named? I haven’t read Kraken in 5 years, but next time I do I’ll keep an eye out.
“The Rope is the World”
(6 pages) A bleak, hard-SF future history, about the rise and decline of Earth’s space elevator industry. Miéville takes a technological concept often featured as a prop in optimistic future settings, and turns it as pessimistic as you can get. In just six short pages, Miéville spins some phenomenal and evocative stories. It reads like quick-fire SF brainstorming. I could see epic, post-apocalyptic adventure films set entirely within one of these defunct elevators. Am I making it clear enough how much I love this story? If you haven’t got the book yet, go read it online now!
“The Buzzard’s Egg”
(16 pages) In this monologue, a jailer (who is a prisoner himself) sits in a tower and tells stories and gives assurances to his captive. What you soon find out is that the tower is on the outskirts of an imperial city, serving as a prison for the gods of the city’s enemies. Not a bad story, but a bit uneventful. I liked that it could have been fantasy or mundanity: is the jailer really conversing with the gods, or is he just rambling to statues and idols?
And with that, I am one third of the way through the collection. I will keep reading on my upcoming weekend-and-a-bit-long interstate trip, and hopefully I’ll have the second one of these posts (covering 9 more stories) up at the start of next week.
EDIT: Part 2