Review: Kraken, by China Miéville

Cover Art: Kraken by China MiévilleTitle: Kraken
Author: China Miéville
Series/Stand alone: Stand alone
Genre: Fantasy/Contemporary
First Published: 2010
Edition Reviewed: Del Rey (2011)
Hb/Pb: Trade Paperback


Billy is a curator at the Natural History Museum. His main work is in preserving specimens, and his biggest triumph was the preservation of Architeuthis dux, the giant squid. But one day, as he is giving a tour of the museum – one which always ends in a viewing of the squid – when he opens the door to the big finale… the squid is gone.

Naturally the police are called in, but it’s all a bit of a mystery. There’s simply no way that squid could have been moved without the (conspicuously absent) intervention of cranes and other noticeable paraphernalia. A special branch of the police are called in, the FSRC. They caution everyone present in the museum not to talk about what has happened, but Billy can’t resist. There’s no way such an event could be kept secret anyway, he reasons, so he tells his best friend, Leon, and Leon’s girlfriend, Marginalia. But, you see, he wasn’t supposed to be able to talk. Office Collingswood of the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit had ‘knacked’ everyone who had knowledge of the squid’s disappearance so that they couldn’t talk about it. In breaking that knack, Billy has called attention to himself. He is visited by the FSRC again, and they admonish him once more not to talk.

More and more curious, and beginning to understand that something other than natural is going on, Billy decides to investigate the odd sounds he’s always heard around the museum that nobody else ever seems to. In following the noises, he is led to discover something truly shocking: a man sealed into a jar of preservative. A man who had only recently gone missing, but who seems to have been enjarred for decades… in a jar whose neck he could not possibly have fit into. His discovery makes Billy officially a person of interest, and not just to the police, who make efforts to mystically seal his flat from entrance by unwanted individuals. A more substantial ‘knack’ is laid upon Billy not to talk, and the police suggest they can put more substantial protections on him if he comes to work for them.

Billy’s in shock. He doesn’t know what he’s gotten into, but the world’s different today than it was yesterday, and he just saw a man who had been murdered and pickled. He calls Leon, and Leon comes round. Despite the more powerful knack, Billy manages to talk, telling Leon everything, just as two terrifying newcomers find a way around the mystical protections on Billy’s flat: Goss and Subby. Goss inhales Leon before Billy’s eyes, and abducts the stunned curator, taking him to see the fearsome Tattoo – a crime boss whose enemy, Grisamentum, had turned into ink and tattooed onto the back of a hapless man. The Tattoo, like everyone else in London underworld, wants to know what has happened to the Kraken – a powerful symbolic item – and he thinks Billy knows. Billy, the man who preserved the Architeuthis, who first discovered it missing, who found the pickled man. But Billy knows nothing. He only escapes from the Tattoo’s clutches with the aid of some power within him he didn’t know he had and Dane, a cultist who worships the Kraken as a god, and who has been tracking Billy just like everyone else.

Billy is thrust into a mysterious and terrifying world of magic and crime, a world where religions and cults are more various than we in the ordinary world could ever imagine, a world where belief is power, a world where someone has stolen a god, and the precognitive Londonmancers have suddenly started predicting an apocalypse unlike any other – unlike the many and varied apocalypses of the many religions of London. An apocalypse where time itself is unwritten, and there will be no new world to follow. Billy and Dane are in a race against time, and against the police, the Tattoo, Dane’s own church, and possibly even the supposedly dead Grisamentum, to find out who took the Kraken and how to stop the end of the world.

How was it?

Rather awesome, is how it was. This book has a lot of elements aligned to recommend itself to a number of people of my acquaintance: giant squid, not-Cthulhu cultists, supernatual police-procedural, gangsters, and the familiar mix of intensely imaginative oddities we expect from China Miéville. And it delivered on all these fronts, surprisingly well.

I say ‘surprisingly well’ because, having treated myself to this book at EasterCon last year, I then put off reading it. I put off reading it because although I hold Perdido Street Station to be one of the most phenomenally well-written, engaging, and original pieces of fiction to be released in decades, I’ve struggled a bit with China’s other works. I read and liked The Scar, but although I did eventually reach the point of addicted what-do-you-mean-I-have-to-stop-reading-to-eat-things, it did take quite a while to get into. If I hadn’t loved Perdido Street Station so much, I probably would have given up long before the addictiveness kicked in. I also own The Iron Council in hardback, but I haven’t read it. I’ve read the first few pages a few times, but it doesn’t grab me, and it doesn’t help that those I know who have read it report that it is relentlessly slow, overly-political, and only really worth it for what is apparently an awesome tableau at the end.

Why did I buy Kraken, then, given that I haven’t read the last China Miéville book I bought? Well, I was intrigued that it was set in our world (or one very closely adjacent). I speculated that rooting it in the familiar might save on the intensive description that worked so well in Perdido Street Station, but not so much in his other works (and I like descriptive writing, as a rule). Plus, I’d heard good things – people were telling me that it was a much easier read. So I thought: what the hey? And gave it a go.

I’m so glad I did. I really have very little bad to say about this book. It’s swiftly paced and quite a contrast in style to my more recent readings of China’s work. Where I expect a Miéville book to be dense, this book is positively sparse. It was a bit of a jolt, actually, and I’ll admit that in places a little more description might have helped me to visualise what was going on, but these places were few and far between. It read a lot like a slightly more polished Neil Gaiman novel (oh yes, I went there). Miéville is masterful in this light-touch approach. The layer on layer of mystery and intrigue could easily be confusing and difficult to follow, but Miéville avoids such pitfalls, carrying the reader effortlessly along with his protagonist, who is just as out of his depth as we are.

I have just two complaints. The first is a particularly poor use of language that happens very early on in the book. It may well be that this wouldn’t bother most people, but it very nearly put me off completely. It’s just a little piece of dialogue, Leon describing Marginalia: “Convent girl. Hence tiny Jesus-shaped guilt trip between her tits”. I instantly dislike Leon, and I don’t think I’m meant to. I mean, I get it: ha ha, Jesus juxtaposed with an especially crude term for a woman’s breasts. See how I mean that she’s sexy but still weighed down with the remains of Catholic guilt? But ‘tits’ isn’t a sexy word. It’s an ugly, objectifying word – hard-edged, reductive, silly. Like you’ve not only reduced the woman to these wobbling tips on her chest, but also ridiculed her. Using the word ‘tits’ connotes a complete lack of respect for the items designated, and for the person they’re attached to. That’s how I feel about it, anyway. Maybe it is just me – I’ve had men protest that it means just the same to them as ‘breasts’, and they don’t see what’s wrong with it… but I can’t help but note that they don’t seem to use the word in the same way, and I’ve seen countless contradictory statements that equate the use of the word with an extra layer of objectification. At the end of the day I have to admit that I do instantly lose a bit of respect for anyone who uses it, and if that’s just me, then, well, all I can do it honestly report on how I responded emotionally. Part of me feels uncomfortably prudish – haven’t I always argued that no word should be banned, and an author is absolutely right to use a ‘crude’ word if it’s the right word for the context? Well, yes, but it seems to me that ‘breasts’ or even ‘boobs’ would have worked just as well, if not more so. Because it wouldn’t have made me assume that Leon was being deliberately and unpleasantly dismissive of his girlfriend, which I realised after several chapters wasn’t the author’s intention at all.

So, that’s minor point number one. And it is minor, except that it really bothered me, and it took a substantial amount of subsequent good writing for me to be comfortable again with the novel. The other point is philosophical, and not 100% negative. It’s this: one of the plot points turns on an exemplification of a rather neat philosophical point about personal identity. Anyone who’s dabbled in this area of philosophy will have come to realise that on most likely accounts of what it is for a person’s identity to remain the same across time, most of the explanations offered for what transporter pads do on Star Trek entail that that kind of teleportation is, in fact, murder. Or, at the very least manslaughter-cum-suicide. If it’s direct dematerialisation and rematerialisation from different molecules elsewhere there is no spatiotemporal continuity whatsoever, and most accounts of personal identity require spatiotemporal continuity as a minimum. Now, of course, if you include souls or spirits in your ontology, this doesn’t necessarily follow; although an account would have to be given of how the incorporeal aspect of self related to the physical body, and you’d still have to do some fancy footwork to argue that the soul would instantly attach itself to this completely other set of particles in this completely different location. Miéville’s plot point turns on the rejection of such an account; ‘beaming’, in Kraken, is essentially killing.

So, it’s lovely to see a work of fantasy engage with the discussion of personal identity at this level. However, this then contrasts with a rather blasé fudge of personal identity that forms another major plot point. This next bit is a rather spoilery, so you may want to skip on to the next paragraph, depending on how much you care about that sort of thing. Basically, a character has worked out how to render his essence into ink, to escape death. He is then able to exist not only as a single puddle of ink, but as writing on multiple and disparate pieces of paper. Each individual piece of writing has separate consciousness and awareness from the main puddle, yet is regarded as the same individual, capable of returning to be reabsorbed into the whole without difficulty. This seems to fly directly in the face of whatever theory of personal identity rested on the principle of spatiotemporal continuity employed so explicitly throughout the rest of the novel. At the very least it seems to be required that there will be some difficulty or confusion stemming from the re-integration of disparate memories and experiences. Not to mention that it looks like not simply each page of writing, but each letter unjoined to its neighbour will, however briefly, have a disparate identity.

Long story short: two completely different and contradictory theories of personal identity seem to be required for these two key plot points. Perhaps I’m just being niggled by this because I know a bit about philosophy, and if it weren’t a specialism of mine I could ignore it, but I guess the thing is that what I tend to go by is internal consistency. I’m inclined to agree that a literal dematerialisation/rematerialisation-from-different-particles-elsewhere transporter probably would be the killing of one person and the creation of a clone, but it doesn’t particularly bother me when I’m watching Star Trek. That’s partly because there’s just enough fudge around what exactly transporter beams do that it’s not clear that ‘beaming down’ really does fit this model. In one episode Lt Berkeley actually gets attacked by something whilst in the transporter beam, which rather suggests some kind of physical transportation of matter, plausibly allowing for spatiotemporal continuity. On the other hand, other episodes suggest the reverse. The episode where there end up being two Rikers because something goes wrong in transport and Riker rematerialises in two places rather suggests that we do have the destruction and reconstruction out of new particles scenario; as is backed up by the idea (expressed fairly frequently) that replicators and transporters work off much the same principles. But the thing is, Star Trek never really tries to say anything rigorous about this, so I don’t mind. The trouble here is that Miéville goes ahead and makes a significant plot element turn on a rather pleasingly sophisticated account of personal identity and its consequences… and then goes and completely ignores this for one of his other major plot points.

I can’t decide whether this bothers or intrigues me. Maybe it’s less of a problem than a challenge. Maybe Miéville is prompting us to reflect on our own ideas about personal identity by presenting us with two apparently contradictory views and thus poking us to reflect upon what we think about them. Perhaps they don’t have to be reconcilable. Much of Kraken is concerned with the thought that reality is partially dependent on our beliefs concerning what reality is. Maybe both beliefs are permissible (within the world of the book) because people generally don’t reflect significantly hard on the matter to make either concretely true for everyone everywhere. I don’t know. That’s probably the get out clause. It just feels a little… fudgy. Just can’t decide if it’s fudgy-bad or fudgy-provocative.

Like I say, a minor point that stood out for me because of who I am and what I do when I’m not wittering on about fantasy novels. On the whole, this is a rich, sophisticated, and remarkably accessible book. I heartily recommend it to everyone, but particularly to those who like squid, cults, and supernatural police procedurals (you know who you are).

I’m now off to spend some of my Amazon gift certificate on King Rat, as I’ve heard that’s a relatively accessible Miéville, too, and I’m having withdrawal now that I’m done with Kraken.

3 thoughts on “Review: Kraken, by China Miéville

  1. Pingback: Review: Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall | In Search of the Happiness Max

  2. Pingback: Speculative Fiction | In Search of the Happiness Max

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