An A-Z of China Miéville
26 January 2012
By James Luscombe
Take a look at the A to Z of China Mieville, the three time Arthur C. Clarke award winner, all the way from Antlion to Zone!
A is for AntlionAKA Myrmeleontidae larvae. If you're American, they're 'doodlebugs', but that's too whimsical a name for these terrifying predators. They hide buried at the bottom of conical sand traps they dig steep enough that insects within slide ineluctably into the antlion's awful jaws (as fictionalised, with gusto, in Lindsay Gutteridge's great work of scale-shifting wonder Cold War in a Country Garden). (See E is for Eruchthonousness.)
B is for Brond A 1987 Channel 4 drama, based on the book by Fredric Lindsey, unaccountably unreleased on DVD, despite starring Stratford Johns and a young John Hannah, and being, insofar as dreamlike bewildered reminiscences can be trusted, very weird and surprisingly good. Sort of surreal political thriller with an intensely shocking opening scene, and a killer theme tune: 'Secret Ceremony' by Bill Nelson. (After 1 minute 15 seconds, it starts to go all noodlynoodly jazz, but the first minute is wonderful).
C is for Crosshatching This term has been adopted by the great John Clute to describe two or more overlaid realities. It's an excellent metaphoric deployment, but the original usage is pretty uncanny too. In the field of pen-&-ink art, crosshatching is the representation of differing shadows by the overlaying of thin lines at various angles. It exists in artistic traditions around the world, throughout history. It's an everyday miracle, the exploitation of imperfections in human visual perception to make depth out of two dimensions simply by drawing lines in different directions. (See R is for Reid.)
D is for Dessalines Jean-Jacques Dessalines, born a slave, one of the leaders of the great Haitian Revolution that overthrew slavery. Today much ink is still spilt to stress that race is a social construct, not biological fact. It's humbling that such arguments were won two centuries ago, when, in his 1805 constitution, Dessalines committed one of the outstanding historic acts of subversion against a racist/racial order, insisting that all Haitians 'shall hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of "Blacks"' – and included as 'black' were those whites, such as Germans and Polish troops, who had fought for the revolution.
E is for Eruchthonousness & Exabyssalism The cultural weight of many horror-inflected denizens of earth or water is not derived only from their subsurface existence, but has its vanishing point in that submergedness's momentary cessation at the point of predation - the breach. The bad numinous of sandworms and antlions, great whites and the trout that tries to eat Jeremy Fisher culminates in those brief hungry emergences-into-light. Thus describing the former two as 'telluric' or 'chthonic', the latter as 'aquatic' or 'submarine' is, while true, inadequate. Such dryland breachers would better be described as eruchthonous; the wet as exabyssal. (See A is for Antlion; P is for Pike.)
F is for Flukerise The annual Anglo-Dutch board-game convention Spelfest has distinguished itself from competitors with a growing reputation for experimentalism and an avant-garde approach to design. Its competition Flukerise exemplifies this. Over the days of the event, random game pieces - cards, dice of all shapes, pawns, figurines, tiddlywinks, whatever - are donated by players of the hundreds of ongoing games of all varieties. At dawn on the penultimate day, six competitors receive equal-sized scoops of this mix of ludic clutter. From that point they have until sundown the following day to design and name a boardgame that uses every one of the pieces they've been stochastically allotted. At deadline, these games are played throughout the room, while the Spelfest attendees wander from table to table, gauging gameplay. They vote for the winner, whose game is professionally produced. (Usually this is in a limited run for enthusiasts, but Flukerise has also thrown up enduring classics like Xento! and Monkeyshell. The latter, was in fact the runner-up in 1981, but who now remembers the winner, Slate Hunt Jingo?)
G is for Gladio Not only the Italian organisation of that name, but the whole NATO complex of secret armies set up after WW2. The extraordinary sordid history of these 'anti-Soviet' and 'anti-subversion' organisations - encompassing collaboration with Nazis and fascists, terrorism, illicit surveillance, murders, corruption - is a handy corrective any time one is momentarily lulled by the protestations of leaders of soi-disant 'civilised' states as to their civilisation.
H is for Holi On a recent trip to India I encountered for the first time the festival of Holi, which people celebrate by chucking coloured water and powder at each other. At the end of a day's partying people wander happily home as dappled and multicoloured as an artist's smock. The UK is, thankfully and fabulously, a syncretic place, for the most part cheerfully mongrel in its attitudes to food, culture, and so on. Please can we all have Holi?
I is for Intricate Beast
J is for Jess A strap that fastens to the leg of a hawk or falcon, and to which a leash can be attached. The item seems ridiculously semiotically overdetermined, and it's mildly surprising that it hasn't yet operated as an organising metaphor for a literary novel about someone feeling constrained in their relationship.
K is for Kondratiev The existence of the long-term waves of economic activities named for Nikolai Kondratiev is still debated. Even among those who believe in them, the causes are controversial. Without taking sides on either question, 'Kondratiev wave' might - though it would probably make economists wince - be a useful analogy for any long, slow, relentless repetitive trend up and down and up again. (Kondratiev waves of literary fashion, for example, or sexual mores, or whatever.)
L is for Lutens Serge Lutens makes perfumes that unman me. (Not much to achieve, admittedly.) 'Fille En Aiguilles' is like roughhousing with an uncouth, sexy, androgynous pine spirit.
M is for Mekurya Obviously one starts from the position that the saxophone is always a mistake. But one of the best things ever is having our own givens overturned. 'Antchi Hoye' by the magnificent Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya belief-beggaringly anneals dangerous urgency with ecstatic trance.
N is for Notebook The perfect pocket notebook appears not to exist. Has to be tough but flexible. Moleskin of course a non-starter (inadequate paper stock, poor quality cover, insufferable advertising campaign). The Ciak's a decent 2nd best, but the paper's too variable, the leather isn't turned in at the edges, and the elastic band is horizontally oriented which feels wrong. The Cartesio has a nicer flex, a vertical band and is another good b-lister, but the paper isn't top notch, and just doesn't like fountain pens enough. Smythson paper is fantastic, if nervous-makingly thin, but they insist on printing asinine slogans on the front of their books, and they refuse to stop colouring their paper blue (which no). The droolsomely perfect paper, in size, shape, ivory-colour and opacity, exists in the Rhodia webnotebook (so long as you get the newer 90gsm batch, not the earlier 80gsm). However, their decision to print 'Rhodia' on the bottom right of each recto page is infuriating and intrusive, and the cover is inflexible and not leather. The search goes on.
O is for Octopus The towering culmination of all animal life.
P is for Pike William Hope Hodgson was not the only body-builder-cum-pulp-visionary-purveyor-of-underwater-monstrosities. In 1982, Cliff Twemlow, 'the Orson Welles of Salford', who combined all that with being a film-maker, actor, musician and bouncer, published 'The Pike', about a giant killer fish in lake Windermere. There've been two attempts to turn it into a film. Neither came to anything. The first, however, got far enough that a giant robot pike was built in the early '80s. On the project's collapse, the mechanical beast was, apparently, relocated to a museum of robotics in Japan. Which museum and whether or not it is still in operation are harder facts to ascertain, let alone what shape the model's in. I choose to believe it is in perfect working order, and is waiting for me. That robot fish is my grail. (See E is for Exabyssal)
Q is for Quitting Nothing wrong with it.
R is for Reid For 'Faceache', above all, but also for 'Fudge the Elf', 'Jonah', and his magnificent interactive 'World-Wide Weirdies' and 'Creepy Creations'. Ken Reid – comic artist, genius. (See C is for Crosshatching.)
S is for Surpeti or Shrutibox An Indian instrument. The simplest manual version is a wooden box. The player plays it by working an internal bellows, which is done with a flap that takes up one side of the box. To put it another way, the player endlessly opens and closes the lid of a box and lets out a mesmerising, unvarying drone. Epic Pandora win.
T is for Trail-Smelter Arbitration In 1938 and 1941 (wheels grind slow), a special tribunal ruled that the fumes of a smelter in Trail, British Columbia, had caused damage in the American state of Washington. Deciding as it did that 'no State has the right to use or permit the use of its territory in such a manner as to cause injury by fumes in or to the territory of another or the properties or persons therein', this decision has been used since as an excuse for attacking almost any enemy on almost any grounds (including the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 2006 Israeli onslaught on Lebanon). This isn't to blame this particular decision: in its absence, the legal apparatchiks of powerful nations would be perfectly able to find other justifications. It is, however, interesting to see specific examples of the tendentious and virtuoso juridical reasonings of empire.
U is for Under My Roof Sometimes a book comes along the not-better-known-ness of which bewilders us. Nick Mamatas's bildungrsoman Under My Roof should be a modern YA classic, being totally charming, smart as hell, politically sharp without being preachy, hilarious and touching. If you're one of the great majority of humanity who haven't yet picked up this tale of telepathic teenagers and backyard Mutually Assured Destruction, please do so. (But NB: there's an important erratum on page 147 of the Soft Skull edition. There should be a line-break-and-asterisks, indicating a shift of narrator, before the line 'Qool Marts are different now'. It makes a big difference.)
V is for Ventricumbent Bad sleep for babies and for me.
W is for Windmills Several cities have been known as the 'City of Windmills': Woldegk; Nashtifan; Spearville; Puerto Padre; Saddlesheck. Saddlesheck was the site of an audacious theft from the central bank. Cornered on the roof by the semi-private Bullion Police, the thieves managed an utterly spectacular getaway. With a mixture of scrambling, grapple-hooking and roof-running, they used the sails of the town's decorative windmills like self-winding spools, complicatedly twisting together the metres and metres of twined nylon they'd used to abseil in and out of the vaults. The skyline over a sizeable section of the financial distrinct was quickly a chaos of knotted cord, several of the city's most iconic windmills were snarled up and scandalously motionless, the police helicopters could not land through the taut tangle, and the thieves got away underneath the temporary rope roof. Later insinuations that the whole thing was a performance were unproven, and couldn't dent the popularity of the Cats-Cradle Gang by then, anyway.
X is for Xenagogue If you are a writer of the fantastic, you are one.
Y is for Yellowbacks Proto-pulp, honoured literary ancestor.
Z is for Zone The exceptional zone is invaluable to SF/F, as in Budrys's Rogue Moon, M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract in Light and Nova Swing, the visitation zones in the Strugatski Brothers' Roadside Picnic (and, in a less interesting iteration, their equivalent in Tarkovsky's Stalker). In each case the zone operates at an intersection of emancipatory potential and inhuman deadliness, a byproduct of whatever its original, opaque function. It might now be time for a renewed attention on the quotidian, for stories in which the exception is at best a distraction, if it exists at all, from what goes on in the home worlds, the metropole, right here.