The Way We Walk: Getting Started with the Short Stories of China Miéville

Sometimes you’re better off starting with the short stuff, developing a taste, and then tackling the larger works.

An example: Genesis’s The Way We Walk, for those that didn’t home-school themselves in 1980s prog rock, is a set of two live albums. There are The Longs and The Shorts. Naturally, the first one I got was The Longs, because, value, right? Right? And, boy, was that a mistake—because The Longs consisted of basically a half-dozen amorphic medleys, 1980s squidgy power harmonies with a shapelessness that bordered on the Lovecraftian. It took me a while to try Genesis again, and this time I dipped my toe into The Shorts. And that album was (and still is) fantastic—complete with instant, anthemic crowd-pleasers like “I Can’t Dance,” “Invisible Touch,” and “Jesus He Knows Me.” “Ah-ha!” I told myself. “This is why this music thing is a thing!” Later, I even got back into The Longs, as The Shorts had introduced me to the style in a more immediate, approachable way. I got to ease into liking it, rather than leaping into the deep end.

China Miéville, like Genesis, is a complicated, sophisticated creator—whose work runs the gamut from immediately accessible crowd-pleasers to more sprawling, complex creations. And, as much as I adore, and rave about, and respect, and, frankly, idolise, Miéville’s novels—the shorts are just as worthy of attention. And for many, the shorts are The Shorts, the most immediate, accessible way to learn about a great author’s work—or just jump in with a novel. I’m easy.

(If you’re like, “seriously, did you write this entire introduction just so you could write the phrase ‘China Miéville, like Genesis…’?!”… you may be right.)

So on the eve of Three Moments of an Explosion, Miéville’s new short story collection, here’s a selection of his short stories that would belong on any greatest hits album:

“Reports of Certain Events in London” (Originally McSweeney’s, collected in Looking for Jake).

Down to its unusual epistolary format, “Reports” is Miéville at his (W/w)eirdest. A seemingly simple story about sentient streets, “Reports” is deceptively straight-foward. Until, of course, you start thinking about what that actually would entail, and the sheer impossibility of it all. Like The City and the City, this is story that requires certain mental gymnastics from its readers, and is all the more fun for it.

“Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia” (from The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, collected in Looking for Jake).

I like scary meme stories—for example, the Necronomicon, “The King in Yellow” (the fictional play that’s within The King in Yellow)—books that warp reality by being read. This short piece plays on that same idea: a disease that is a word; an infection that’s spread by speaking it, and also demands that carriers speak it. This is a take on the memetic apocalypse, the power of language or, hell, even the notion of the zombie apocalypse. Exploring language and its power is also the central concept of Embassytown, in which Miéville creates an alien civilisation that hangs on every spoken word.

“Covehithe” (from the Guardian, collected in Three Moments of an Explosion).

“Covehithe” is set against a background of shambling, animate oil rigs, come to life and possessed of animal instincts. As with many of Miéville’s other stories, this parable—of climate change, corruption, urbanisation, alienation of nature, you name it—is less about the central conceit than the human response. “Covehithe” is gloriously melancholy. Miéville manages to communicate both the greater, natural tragedy, but also make the oil rigs themselves empathetic. Miéville’s talent at creating connections with ‘monsters’ is display in both Railsea and UnLunDun—the latter featuring shambling hordes of (literal) trash, who are, somehow, heartbreakingly charming.

“Go Between” (Looking for Jake).

Miéville is underrated as a horror author—or, at least, relatively speaking, his ability to write terror often goes unnoticed. Of all of his horror stories (and “Sacken”—from Three Moments might be the one worth a million screams), I find “Go Between” the most personally unnerving. A man receives instructions to do things—fiddly little tasks. As he obeys, he begins to wonder about the repercussions of his actions. Is he doing good? Evil? Should he stop? Can he stop? It is a Kafkaesque ‘school dream’ in action—the idea of being trapped in a repetitive, unending, ominous sequence, with no agency.

“Jack” (Looking for Jake).

Welcome to Bas-Lag! Miéville’s brilliant fantasy series consists of three stunning novels—Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council—and one short story: “Jack”. “Jack”, as with the rest of the series, is intense, political and intensely political—one of Bas-Lag’s most iconic criminal (or terrorists? or freedom fighters?) has been captured, and this is the narrative of his interrogation, as shared by one of his associates. Uncannily (and sadly) relevant, “Jack” is about the connection between prisoners and those who imprison, and the blurred lines between morality and the law. As with the the rest of the Bas-Lag… mythos… “Jack” teases an enormously interesting setting. However, it is more sparing with its fantasy elements—a tighter focus, making it all the more powerful.

“The 9th Technique” (from The Apology Chapbook, collected in Three Moments of an Explosion).

Another example of Miéville’s range, this is a contemporary urban fantasy, and unlike “Jack”, the fantastic isn’t downplayed in the least. Instead, magic is interwoven into the real world. A wizard searches for the final, macabre component for a powerful spell, and, upon finding it, considers the repercussions. The blend of the real and the fantastic is compelling, but also disturbing—with the magic serving as an embodied metaphor for humanity’s nastier behaviour. For those that like their urban fantasy with an edge, “The 9th Technique” serves as an excellent lead-in to Kraken and King Rat.

“Three Moments of an Explosion” (first published online, collected in Three Moments of an Explosion).

Written, as Miéville explained upon its first reading, to the rhythm of the Metropolitan Line. This is a short, taut story about capitalism and rebellion, where three different narrative points converge in tragedy. Playing with language and structure, using science fictional elements in a throw-away fashion, giving the reader freedom to interpret and expressed in a powerful voice, “Three Moments” might be one of the quintessential contemporary Miéville pieces.

 

These particular stories—in case you haven’t cottoned on—were all selected as possible starting points for new readers. Which Miéville stories are your favourites? And which would you recommend to those who haven’t tried his work before?

Jared Shurin is an editor for Pornokitsch and the non-profit publisher Jurassic London.

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