Short fiction is a very particular art which can stand or fall by its presentation – within either the collection or the standalone. Great collections, where every story hits the mark are rare, and rarer still from a single author. Three Moments of an Explosion is the latest collection by literary master of the imagination China Miéville. Best known for his complex science fiction, this body of work might be seen to be exploring a different side of his mindscape.
Presented here are 28 short stories of varying length, style and quality, from what amount to narrative poems stretching for just over a page, to transcripts of trailers for (yet to be made?) films (on 3 occasions) up to much longer explorations of the human condition and the world around us.
Very few of these stories could be called science fiction. What you have, in the majority, is a version of us, and our planet and our existence, but just off kilter; slightly or sometimes totally outré. There is fantasy and horror, surrealism and just plain weird. Which I love. There are some classically styled stories and others that can be only be described as experimentation in language and understanding. Which is, to this reviewer, a slight problem. Some of the stories, most notably The Dusty Hat, are almost beyond comprehension. Sure you follow the plot but some of the sentences are filled with either gibberish or words of such obscurities than renders them almost pointless. Descriptions are beyond the ken of most. I imagine, however, most critics who would fawn over Miéville would not admit their own ignorance with this admission. It’s a shame, because the majority of the stories are excellent: thought-provoking, highly imaginative, almost like nothing you’ve ever read before. Miéville either sees things we don’t see, or describes those things we do from a completely new perspective. Witness:
The opening eponymous description is 2 pages of, well, I’m not so sure. While The Condition of New Death is almost reportage of horror which is beyond description. In the Slopes is a glorious take on the rivalries of scientists which focuses on bizarre techniques and unexpected outcomes. Interestingly, many of Miéville’s stories don’t end in the expected way. There is often no clever twist or neatly wrapped up conclusion. Repeatedly, they are almost introductions to a wider story and he lets our own imaginations ponder on what might happen next. Säcken being the perfect example, when the disappearance towards the conclusion is only the beginning of the genuinely creepy and disquieting story. The animal horror of the twisted future in After the festival and the creative brilliance of The Bastard Prompt are my favourites in the collection, showing Miéville off at his peak. These tales show thoughts and constructs almost beyond comprehension, but based in a relatable and readable narrative. Well written characters allow the reader in to the bizarre musings; while the oddities of the zombie animals and medical training practices become clear. A final nod to the genius of A Second Slice Manifesto – literally looking at art from a new perspective – and Covehithe, which perfectly taps into a child’s darkest imaginations and draws it to a spectacular conclusion, as inanimate objects become animalistic, returning to draw from the earth what we taught them.
Not all these stories are brand new, but the important thing is that they work well as a collection. This is partially because of the commonality of Miéville’s descriptive style and ideas (even the complex stories with seemingly made-up words and nonsense sentences) – floating icebergs above cities, burning stags, feral humans wearing a pigs head and one of the few genuine pieces of science fiction which features decaying space-elevators. As noted, there are a variety of styles of prose – some more successful than others. It feels more natural when he is telling stories rather than playing with language. Although the writing is generally terrific; featuring wit, social concerns, intelligence, beauty and flair. But strip away these facts and concerns and Three Moments of an Explosion represents what all good fantasy and horror does: what is that shape in the dark corner; what lies just beneath those waves; where did that disease come from and what was that, just over there, beyond our understanding? The horror works, the fantasy works, the collection of short stories works.
This is a collection I would like to come back to in the not too distant future. Like that difficult second album from a favourite band, it is a collection of stories that at first read (listen) makes you nod in appreciation most of the time, but frown on occasion (does this really work, is this a story(song) experiment too far?). However, sometimes a little effort is required and I expect a re-read of Three Moments of an Explosion will bring ever greater rewards. But I’m still not bringing a dictionary!
Original review version: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookgeek/2015/08/12/three-moments-explosion-china-mieville/