Monthly Archives: August 2011

Payoff

It might be naive to expect your genre fiction to explain itself. Literary, sophisticated genre fiction, especially, will be placed in that category many times but not giving the reader the expected level of information dumping, or payoff, to be found in lowlier and more typical specimens. And I’m ok with this, in general, as a reader.

But China Miéville’s The City and the City, which I have only recently read, did not live up to its failure to pay off. The only thing legitimately interesting about the conceit of the book is its history. The estrangement device is used to tantalize the reader, and there is a built-in level of unspecified political allegory. There are, after all, several real-world examples of cities divided by complex political circumstances; but none in which the schism has been institutionalized. The existence of these two cities would constitute the most salient fact imaginable in our world, even if the technology involved is more naturalistic than it at first seems. The implications for perceptual psychology and the ability of governments to manipulate and control their citizenry would go far beyond the dreams of the most utopian counterinsurgency planner. But the interest of world governments in the divided city seems to be restricted to archaeological smuggling.

The nature of the archaeology seems to warrant comparisons with the hrönir from Borges, and there’s all-too-expected twist in which a guru of liberation and reunion turns out to be a controlling psychopath. The plot tricks you into sympathizing, to a certain extent, with the most authoritarian state apparatus imaginable, and Miéville is a very theory-aware writer. So many of the more obvious readings are built-in.

But it still is a failure in my eyes for the lack of back story. I wanted a specific “as you know, Bob” chapter. I did not want this in Roadside Picnic or even Lem’s The Investigation.

The Historical Novel

Perry Anderson has an article on the historical novel in the most London Review. Right after an impressively keen assessment of the importance of Orlando, Anderson notes:

in Britain hoary sagas of doughty patriots battling against Napoleon poured—and still pour—off the presses, from C. S. Forester through Dennis Wheatley to Patrick O’Brian.

Patrick O’Brian? I hesitate to ask if Anderson has actually read one of O’Brian novels, but one must assume that they operate on a different level than Dennis Wheatley, with respect to cultural chauvinism, craft, and pretty much everything else.

In other news about historical novels (and Orlando), the latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (“Century 1969″) arrived. The plot is what you would expect: Aleister Crowley and an astral battle at a Stones concert leads to Mina Harker inventing punk. Jerry Cornelius also makes a cameo.

The pan-fictionalist conceit of the Moore books, along with his decidedly eccentric take on what fictional characters get representation in his particular world, gave me an idea about a pan-fictionalist world in which canonicity and market-value compose two differing levels of fictional existence. It could have interesting tie-ins with the various “how to live in a simulation” arguments I’ve always found fascinating.