Book analysis

Is This Census-Taker set in Bas-Lag?

this-census-taker-bas-lagIt’s been out for quite a while, but I just recently got around to reading China Miéville’s latest book, the novella This Census-Taker. It was a really quick read, at just 130 pages, and I very much enjoyed it, although I wish it had been longer and explored the setting a bit more.

That, I think, was the only drawback of the book: Miéville revels in describing fantastic worlds — it’s his biggest strength as a writer, in my opinion — so for him to take such a restrained approach with This Census-Taker means that I’m left feeling the tiniest bit deprived. I wish Miéville had expanded the end, and unveiled more and more of this weird world. I wish we could have seen the narrator’s full journey from his childhood to the “present day” from which he tells his story.

Maybe the reason I’m feeling deprived is because I think I started to uncover some clues throughout the story, but they never added up to a satisfying answer. These clues were inserted sparsely in description and dialogue, and they pointed to the unearthliness of the setting. A fanboyish part of me started to think that maybe they were pointing in a particular direction, one that the real fans would recognise. You can probably guess where I’m going with this — I mean, I made it the title of this blog post.

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In lieu of a real book review I’m going to talk mostly about the setting of the work. I’m no literary critic, so I couldn’t begin to unpack here the deeper meaning of the work, the potential allegory and metaphor and themes propping up the story. There are probably a hundred reviewers who have already done that, and I plan to find their reviews later and read my way to a better understanding of the novella.

What I really want to do in this post is just nerd out a bit, and examine those clues I talked about. I want to see if I can structure an argument to convince myself, let alone anyone else, of my hunch. I really want to ask the question: is This Census-Taker set in Bas-Lag?

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China Miéville’s Embassytown: re-read — Part Two: Festivals

embassytown_re-readAfter a little bit of a break, it’s time to talk about Part Two of Embassytown, a section titled “Festivals”! Catch up on the previous posts in this series by visiting the intro & index page.

PROBABLE SPOILERS AHEAD

Here we have nine chapters, continuing the alternating Formerly/Latterday structure so that Miéville can intersperse the slow-but-steady acceleration of the plot with more worldbuilding-dense flashbacks. First I’ll talk about the Latterday plot events, before continuing to examine the background details of the novel’s universe.

“A slow catastrophe”

After the turning point at the end of Part One, when EzRa opened their mouths, there is a period of confusion as to what went wrong. Something is undoubtedly wrong but not everyone is privy to the “slow catastrophe” brewing. The Staff and Ambassadors are suddenly on edge, but are keeping tight-lipped, leaving Avice and the majority of Embassytown (not to mention the reader) in the dark with a faint feeling of dread and unease. This tantalising, but opaque, slide into apocalypse makes the eventual moments of clear terror all the more delicious for the reader — much like the slow, uneasy build up to the reveal of the Slake Moths in Perdido Street Station.

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China Miéville’s Embassytown: re-read — Part One: Income

embassytown_re-readThis week I’m bringing you my analysis and thoughts on Part One of Embassytown, “Income”.

This series of posts has an intro & index that you should start with. As I mentioned last week, I might get some of the details wrong because it’s been a few years since I first read this book. Bear with me, I’ll correct myself as I go.

PROBABLE SPOILERS AHEAD

As we enter the meat of the novel, China employs an interleaved flashback structure to the chapters, divided between “Formerly” and “Latterday”. The Formerly chapters detail Avice’s return to Embassytown and her relationship with her husband Scile (and later, with others). We learn a lot of the key exposition about Embassytown, the Hosts, and their Language, through their conversations. Meanwhile, the Latterday chapters return to the day of the Arrival Ball from the book’s very beginning, which is kilohours after Avice’s return — a period of time probably in the ballpark of Earth-months.

This entire part of the novel, about 50 pages long (in the UK hardcover), keeps the reader in kind of a holding pattern. We linger at the ball, where we know something momentous must soon occur; and in the meantime China takes advantage of this lull to impart some must-know worldbuilding, in order to get us up to speed on how human-Host relations work on this world, so we understand how everything goes wrong. It’s not until the conclusion of Part One that the main conflict of the book swings into motion.

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China Miéville’s Embassytown: re-read — Proem: The Immerser

embassytown_re-readWelcome to the first part of my Embassytown re-read, covering the section “Proem: The Immerser”.

Start with the intro & index if you are new to my series of re-read posts. And a note: I can’t remember a lot of the details of the book (which is one of the pleasures of re-reading) so I might be mistaken about some of the things I talk about early on. I’ll correct myself as I go!

PROBABLE SPOILERS AHEAD

Embassytown has a strange structure, even for a China Miéville book. It begins with a vignette from a crucial point from later in the story, then there is a 39-page (in the UK hardcover) prologue section, titled “Proem: The Immerser”. The “proem” (just a fancy word for prologue) is divided into three chapters, headed “0.1”, “0.2” and “0.3”. Oh, China Miéville.

Personally I love this introduction to the book. It keeps a lot of the main concepts a mystery (e.g.: the nature of the Hosts, the nature of the Ambassadors, the key points of the Language, the planet Arieka outside of Embassytown itself, and so on); instead focusing on Avice, her youth, and her adventures in the out.

The prologue functions as a broader stage-setting, saving the meaty plot-related concepts for later introductions. Miéville knows the books he writes can be mindbogglers (see The City and the City), so he draws you in gradually, gently. Nonetheless, there is still a lot about the universe of the book that we get introduced to, and I’ll go through what we know so far.

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China Miéville’s Embassytown: re-read — intro & index

embassytown_re-readI was one of the lucky ones to get an ARC (advance reader’s copy) of Embassytown back in 2011, and to read and review it before it was officially released. Out of pure excitement, eagerness to review, and the desire to brag, I raced through the book. Now, three years on, I am finally getting around to a more leisurely re-read: that pleasurable second time through a book where you discover ten times the detail you did the first time around, and can appreciate the gorgeous writing and the turns of the plot much more thoroughly.

I’ll be writing up my thoughts and observations about the book and its universe as I go, but in a much less rigid way than I did for my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Scar (which I may one day finish). Fair warning: I have no idea how many posts this re-read series will comprise, how long it’ll take, and so on. I’ll work my way through the book as I read my other 4 or 5 concurrent books, and hopefully I’ll be done before long.

I simply can’t wait for the discoveries I’ll make as I enter the Immerverse once more.

Post index:

China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 29, Ch. 30

The Scar - French cover

The Scar - French cover


Bellis is a popular gal in these two chapters, what with Silas sneaking into her apartment late at night, and Uther wanting to read her some poetry. How lucky to be pursued by two such fine suitors! Okay, not really… They each want something else out of her, I’m sure. But to say what before the spoiler warning wouldn’t be nice. So if you read on, BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE BOOK! [Intro and index]
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 27, Ch. 28

Artwork by Zdzislaw Beksinski

Artwork by Zdzislaw Beksinski


Oh crap, I missed a day again. It looks like I probably won’t get this finished in October. Oh well, it won’t kill me to spill a little over into next month. Tonight I’m sharing my thoughts on the first two chapters of Part Five, “Storms”. Our protagonists return to Armada with their message safely sent, and the city now has everything it needs to put its plan into action. Read more below, and BEWARE OF WHOLE BOOK SPOILERS. [Intro and index]

(Artwork unrelated; by Zdzislaw Beksinski)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 26, Interludes

Anophelii by Dominik Petr

Anophelii by Dominik Petr


It’s the end of Part Four, “Blood”, and our sojourn to the anophelii island is over; both missions (the public one of the Armadans, and Bellis’s private one) are complete. However, events are only just beginning to unravel; and the deeper plans hidden underneath those we know of are far from being revealed. Read ahead for my thoughts on these chapters. WHOLE BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD. [Intro and index]

(Art on left by Dominik Petr)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 23, Ch. 24, Ch. 25

Krüach Aum by Dominik Petr

Krüach Aum by Dominik Petr


I covered three chapters tonight to make up for a few missed days. I have a feeling I’ll have to do that a few more times at least. October is coming to an end and I would like to finish my analysis of The Scar within the month. Why? I don’t know, I guess I’m just a little OCD in that I need to finish books in the same month that I start them. These three chapters fulfil Armada’s purpose for going to the island in the first place, however Bellis’s secret mission is left unfinished for the moment. Let’s begin! BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE BOOK. [Intro and index]

(Art on left by Dominik Petr)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 21, Ch. 22

Anophelius by Shaarel

Anophelius by Shaarel


Tonight I begin Part Four, “Blood”. There’s a lot of it in this section of the book. Blood, and gore. There’s also a song in this post to accompany the creepiness of these chapters! Let’s begin our sojourn to the anophelii island… (intro & index, whole-book spoilers ahead, blah blah blah etc)

(Art on left by Shaarel)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 18, Ch. 19, Ch. 20, Interlude

Statue by Jason Chalker

Statue by Jason Chalker


I bring you three chapters and an interlude tonight to finish off Part Three, “The Compass Factory”. They’re all quite short, and I don’t really have that much to say. These are pretty much bridging chapters: now that we know we’re going to the anophelii island, these chapters exist mainly to show the preparations. Here’s the link to the intro and index, a starting point for these posts if you just got here. Watch out for WHOLE BOOK SPOILERS BELOW!

(Art on left by Jason Chalker)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 16, Ch. 17

Propaganda poster by Steve Thomas

Propaganda poster by Steve Thomas


In these chapters of The Scar, plans are formed and a clear destination is decided upon, setting up the most exciting shore leave the crew of Armada will have ever seen. Also, the plan involving the Avanc is made public, hence why I’ve chosen the awesome propaganda poster as the accompanying art for this post. I’m also running low on great fan-art to include each time, so I’m not sure what I’ll do for posts further down the line. In the meantime, read on, or start at the intro and index, and as usual BEWARE OF SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE BOOK.

(Artwork on left by Steve Thomas)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 15

Bellis Coldwine by Andrew Trabbold

Bellis Coldwine by Andrew Trabbold


Other books (and other things in general) held my attention tonight, so I only had time for one chapter of The Scar. No matter, let’s take a quick look at what happens in the first chapter of Part Three, “The Compass Factory”. Here’s the index and intro if you need it. SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE BOOK AHEAD.

(Art on left by Andrew Trabbold)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 13, Ch. 14, Interlude

Dunkleosteus AKA Dinichthys

Dunkleosteus AKA Dinichthys


This time around we finish up Part Two (of seven), “Salt”, with some action, some plot thickening, and some revelations. We end up about a third of the way through the book by page count, and it does feel like the end of a first act of sorts. The world-building and slow drip-feeding of hints thus far has been like the first climb of a rollercoaster, and we’re at the precipice of that gigantic first drop now. The best and most thrilling parts of The Scar are still to come. Here’s the usual link to the intro and index, and of course you’d be dumb to read any more of this post if you’re new to this book, because THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE BOOK AHEAD.

(Image source: Dinosaurs and Dragons)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 11, Ch. 12

Tanner Sack by Andrew Trabbold

Tanner Sack by Andrew Trabbold


There is a lot of gruesomeness in the next two chapters of The Scar, although the book will get way grosser than this before the end. These chapters feature a large amount of blood and gore, but the context isn’t what you’d think. Rather, it’s found in a ceremonial and artistic context, in the case of the Scabmettlers’ mortu crutt, or a medical context, in the case of Tanner’s transformation. Read on for my thoughts of chapter 11 and 12, or find the intro and index at this link; and beware of WHOLE-BOOK SPOILERS ahead!

(Art on the left by Andrew Trabbold)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 9, Ch. 10

Bellis Coldwine by Jim Grant

Bellis Coldwine by Jim Grant


Oh dear, I think I burnt myself out by writing such a massive essay of a post last night. Tonight I bring you a much shorter post, on two shorter chapters. They are still great chapters, with tons of world-building and character development and so on packed in, but I just don’t have as much to say about them. The index and introduction can be found by clicking this link, otherwise read on but beware that THERE MAY BE WHOLE-BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD.

(Art to the left by Jim Grant)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 7, Ch. 8

Armada poster by Joe D

Armada poster by Joe D


Two long chapters tonight, with a LOT to talk about! These chapters are chock full of more descriptions of Armada, mostly just detailing the lives of our characters after their capture, but with a few little slivers of hints at deeper, mysterious events. If you want, check out the introduction & index to this post series, or continue reading. Warning, WHOLE BOOK SPOILERS may be present.

(Artwork on left by Joe D)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 6

Today I dive into Part Two of The Scar, “Salt”. We get our first tour of Armada, and there’s a lot of ships to catalogue. From now on I’ll start noting the riding each ship is located in as well. Just one chapter tonight again. Tomorrow I will try to get back on track with two chapters per post. For the introduction and index of this post series, click the link below. And beware of SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE BOOK in these posts.

Introduction & Index

Armada artwork by Franco Brambilla

Armada artwork by Franco Brambilla

Chapter 6

“Salt” is a good section title. It represents the culture of Armada (specifically the shared language they all speak, but the language Salt itself is symbolic of Armada, being patched together from different cultures, with ships and books and peoples from all over Bas-Lag). It also could refer to the fact that we’re now in the Swollen Ocean proper. Miéville uses multilayered titles like this for most of the book’s sections, and the book itself. The title The Scar has so many different meanings in context of the book, not just the obvious one. Scars of different kinds will pop up constantly throughout the story. (Left: artwork by Franco Brambilla)
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 5, Interludes

Tonight’s post will be just one chapter and the interludes that come before the start of Part Two, because it’s late, I’m tired, and chapter 6 is long and full of tons of ship names. As usual, click the link immediately below for the index and intro. WARNING: WHOLE-BOOK SPOILERS ARE ABOUND IN THESE POSTS!

Introduction & Index

Uther Doul by Ashley Wood

Uther Doul by Ashley Wood


Chapter 5

This is the first big action chapter, where the Terpsichoria is taken by Armada, and we meet Uther Doul. The picture accompanying this post is of Uther, painted by Ashley Wood for the cover of Dragon Magazine when they did a Bas-Lag themed issue. Looks very cool. I’m not sure why, but when I first read The Scar I pictured Uther to be older, like in his 50s. He’s even described as being in his 30s in this chapter. Oh well.
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Ch. 3, Ch. 4

Chapters 3 and 4 of The Scar continue to lead us along a false path, in this introductory section before the true plot of the book begins; but there are clues to future events woven in amongst the descriptions of the journey. My thoughts are below the link to the intro and index. WARNING: WHOLE BOOK SPOILERS MAY BE PRESENT!!!

Introduction & Index

The Scar - US cover art

The Scar - US cover art

Chapter 3

One of the most awesome parts of each Bas-Lag book is when Miéville describes the Remade. This time around we have a freaky bunch, of which Tanner, with his chest tentacles (chesticles?), seems to be one of the more normal ones. I’m particularly disturbed by the “woman with a skein of spasming arms”. There are xenian prisoners too. Do the non-human races get remade as well? I can’t tell from this section. Bellis is viewing the prisoners from a hidey hole in a cupboard. Bellis seems to do a lot of watching in this book. She’s mostly a rather passive protagonist, somewhat like Avice for the early half of Embassytown: just watching, observing events happening out of her control.
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Prologue, Ch. 1, Ch. 2

Welcome to the first regular post in my chapter-by-chapter reread of The Scar. For more info about this series of posts, click the link directly below to go to the introduction and index. I won’t bother recounting the plot of each chapter in detail, I just want to give my thoughts as they come. Some will be overall thematic considerations, others will focus on the minutiae of the descriptions. WARNING: WHOLE BOOK SPOILERS MAY BE PRESENT!!!

Introduction & Index

The Scar - new UK cover art

The Scar - new UK cover art

Prologue

The Scar opens with a 5-page prologue which sets the tone of the entire novel: dark, frightening and organic. It introduces the sea almost as a character, much like New Crobuzon was introduced as a living organism in Yagharek’s narration at the start of Perdido Street Station. The descriptions of life in Bas-Lag’s oceans include creatures familiar to us as well as weirder things. Miéville’s love of cephalopods was on display here, with the mention of “presences something between molluscs and deities” haunting the deep crevasses of the ocean. Reading this sentence post-Kraken, it’s easy to see that those presences were lurking in the crevasses of Miéville’s brain all that time as well. Another cephalopod pops up as an underwater analogue to a hunting falcon, reared by a he-cray. The narrative switches to his perspective, and in the few pages before he is killed by the grindylow we get an appreciation that Bas-Lag’s ocean is as packed with sentient life as its cities are.
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China Miéville’s The Scar Chapter-By-Chapter: Introduction & Index

I just started reading China Miéville’s The Scar for the fourth time. I first read my brother’s copy in 2003, and to this day it remains not only my favourite of Miéville’s books, but also my favourite genre fiction book ever.

The Scar - UK cover art

The Scar – UK cover art

This time around I decided I’d share my thoughts on this blog, chapter-by-chapter. Even if nobody else out there happens to read it, it will stay here for me to look back on when, at some point in the future, I embark on my fifth read.
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