I’ve polished off the final 9 stories of Three Moments of an Explosion sooner than I thought I would. The creativity on display throughout this collection has kept me coming back for more. So now it’s time of the final part of my story-by-story thoughts, and at the end of the post, my overall review of the collection. Be sure you’ve read parts one and two before you delve into these last stories!
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)
(39 pages) This lengthy story concerns a curious kind of apocalypse: circular moats begin to appear spontaneously around people who stay still too long. Even stranger, there are reports of sounds from within the moats. It makes for gripping reading, following the crumble of civilisation due to the moats. There may also be a metaphor somewhere in there about the human need to distance oneself from others. Once again though, Miéville chooses to end the tale on a premature climax, favouring a poignant-but-perplexing final image over an actual resolution. It’s beginning to become a problem with stories in this book.
“A Second Slice Manifesto”
(4 pages) This is an exceptionally clever little piece, which describes a strange new art movement just plausible enough to exist. Artists take existing paintings and produce new works that act as “slices” through the scene: producing anatomical cross-sections of the people therein, in the manner of CT scans (search for such scans in Google Images and you’ll immediately know what I mean). Not satisfied, Miéville takes this concept and adds a really creepy twist. I won’t be able to look at certain paintings in the same way again.
(15 pages) Not as remarkable in this book as when it debuted online (being now surrounded by similar, resolution-wanting stories of similarly inexplicable phenomena), this story of derelict oil rigs rising from the depths to march on land is still imaginative and poetically written. I love the zoomorphism Miéville inflects the machinery with: they’re lumbering pachyderms, bewildered animals trying to carry out their biological instincts. And “petrospectral” might be the best wordplay of the book. There’s kind of a sweet reveal towards the ending as well, making this story less sinister than some of the others in this collection.
(19 pages) A journalist writes about the recent murder of a screenwriter, who was responsible for one of the most offensive movies ever made. The exact nature of the movie, and who it offended, is spun out slowly and satisfyingly. Big laughs when the name of the film is finally dropped. It’s a funny comment on media, publicity, and the controversies of our era. I’m not exactly sure what Miéville was trying to do with the ending, though.
“Four Final Orpheuses”
(2 pages) Why did Orpheus turn around? Miéville offers four possible reasons in this, the shortest story of the whole collection. I’m a fan of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, so I really like this piece. I just wish each of the “alternate endings” was fleshed out a little more.
(19 pages) A young couple rents out a room in their house to a budding animator, and soon this story becomes a take on the classic “haunted object” horror trope. Miéville always likes to play with genre conventions though, and a section near the end pokes critically at the need for these stories to give their evil object a backstory. Instead, Miéville lets malevolence just be malevolence. Thankfully this story has a proper ending — a good one, at that. I enjoyed this tale thoroughly!
“Listen the Birds”
(4 pages) A third movie trailer script, this one about recording bird songs. Just as incomprehensible as the last one. Maybe each of the three movie trailer scripts are commenting on the fact that movie trailers are all about showing interesting imagery while not necessarily giving any plot information. Anyway, it has a creepy vibe… but I still just don’t get it.
(4 pages) Miéville waxes lyrical on ghosts and porcelain animals. Not much more to say about this short but wandering story. I don’t really feel about it one way or the other.
(32 pages) The collection ends with one of the most marvellous and enigmatic stories Miéville has come up with. It’s a period piece, following a Glaswegian medical student in the early 20th century who discovers intricate scrimshawing on the skeleton of a body he is dissecting. It’s beautifully told, an unlikely love story as well as an absorbing magical-realist tale. Once again, the importance of the plot is not placed upon the origin of the weirdness, but its effect on the people who encounter it. Like in “Polynia”, the mysteriousness only heightens this story. A final thought: is Miéville talking about the overall inscrutability of this collection when his character says “perhaps understanding’s overrated”?
* * * * *
It’s easy to see why China Miéville took three years to release a new book after Railsea. Apart from a monthly comic series, he was beavering away on a huge variety of novelettes, short stories, and pieces of flash fiction. And that’s the key selling point of this collection: variety. There is an enormous wealth of creative ideas bursting from the seams of this book, and while the execution doesn’t always live up to the promise, I guarantee you that with each of the 28 stories of this book you will be presented with a new and unusual fantasy, SF, horror, or weird fiction idea, which will worm its way inside your head.
Miéville doesn’t let readers at his ideas easily though. The premise of every story is buried in their middle pages, leaving the reader disorientated at first, having to find their own way in the story — before, like the sections of a puzzle box unfolding, the pieces are slowly unveiled. Think of how long the nature of the cities takes to be revealed in The City & the City. Every story within these pages is like that, writ small.
There are some stories in this book that will stay with you a long time. The absolute gems marry exceptional creativity with eloquent prose and brilliant execution. Other tales, however, might let you down if you’re hoping for a definitive conclusion to the weirdness… but the journey through Miéville’s mind will be worth it anyway. Most of the short, experimental pieces work well too, even when they are just fragments of stories.
If you’ve read through all of my story-by-story descriptions, you’ll have seen me lament more than once for a proper ending. Resolution-shyness is the collection’s biggest flaw, but I think Miéville chose to end most of the “culprit” stories ambiguously and abruptly in order to preserve the inexplicableness of the weird — and not for a lack of ending ideas. Regardless, this approach to storytelling is going to frustrate fans, newcomers, and critics alike. I definitely look forward to seeing what Miéville says about the stories in this book, in his inevitable upcoming interviews and appearances.
I can genuinely recommend this collection to any Miéville fan. It will terrify and amaze you. It’s so weighty with rich imagination and prose skills honed over a brilliant career. However, I still think that novels are Miéville’s finest medium, because longer works discipline him into developing his outlandish ideas more thoroughly and coming up with satisfying conclusions.