Short story collections can be divisive for an author’s fans. For some people, I imagine the feeling is comparable to waiting for your favorite band to put out a new full-length album and instead getting a live EP; the big hits are represented, but you’re missing the depth, the had-to-be-there energy, and the newness to pour over and speculate about.
But most authors aren’t as skilled at writing short stories as they are at writing novels. Three Moments of an Explosion, the latest short story collection from China Miéville showcases not only what is so impressive about Miéville’s talent but what can be so enjoyable about the short form itself.
Comprising twenty-eight tales, Three Moments of an Explosion contains stories as swift and powerful as a suckerpunch and longer “What if?” explorations of civil unrest, human perception and undiluted awe. I once wrote of Miéville’s 2011 foray into SF, Embassytown, that “more stories in the Immerverse seem guaranteed,” but now I feel quite foolish. As expansive as his last novel was in scope, Miéville continues to flex and grow as a writer and it’s clear he currently has far too many new ideas to return to that particular well. So, no Hosts here, no krakens, no stories set in Bas-Lag. So much the better for readers of Three Moments, except that now there are new worlds, new societies to wish for expansion.
“Polynia” is one such story, occurring in a London that wakes one day to discover that floating icebergs have taken over the sky. What started off as a mystery becomes mundane as Londoners adjust to the cold reality of what is essentially a haunting. One child is particularly fascinated with the icebergs and relates stories of the authorized and guerrilla expeditions upwards and the unexpected things that fall down. It’s an entirely plausible, almost wistful, history of the extraordinary. Elsewhere, archaeologists vie for the alien secrets within the earth beneath the site of a volcanic eruption, a new Pompeii, in “In the Slopes” and a deadly form of psychotherapy has a permanent solution to all of your toxic relationships (“Dreaded Outcome.”)
“Covehithe” feels the most like a vintage Miéville story: in a future where humans have gone to war with animated oil rigs, an ex-soldier returns to the sea with his daughter to watch a former adversary reappear on an English beach. It’s an enjoyable concept—the flipside of Miéville’s YA novel Railsea in its way—sad, spooky, and touching on a kind of environmental collapse presented as almost inevitable.
Before we rush headlong into a societal breakdown, there are limitless futures presented here: new illnesses, some privatized by corporations, some brought on by symbioses, wiping people out, whole tribes living, dying, and fighting their way into the galaxy via space elevator (“The Rope is the World,”) revolutions of matter to be ignited (“The Dusty Hat.”) Apocalypse doesn’t need to be a permanent state: “The Rules” lays out a children’s game that has no known origin or end in a beautifully wrought testament of permanence and fate. It may be one of the sweetest things Miéville’s ever written.
Three Moments of an Explosion isn’t nearly as deadly serious as its motifs might suggest. There’s quite a bit of humor here, and tenderness, particularly among colleagues, friends, lovers, confronting the inexplicable. Other stories have a more overt wink in their tone, especially surrounding media. A triptych of horror movie trailers (“The Crawl,” “Escapee,” Listen to the Birds”) tease creepy conceits just long enough to not overstay their welcome, especially as you likely can’t help but read them in a movie trailer voice. “The Junket” is a particularly audacious story about the social repercussions of making the most offensive vampire movie of all time. I won’t spoil the movie’s title here, but imagining its release in the Twitter Age and taking it to its extreme seems uncomfortably prescient. This story itself will likely not be for everyone.
But in such a fat collection, not every story will necessarily be a winner for everybody. Some ended too abruptly or, like “Watching God,” went over my head a bit, but I expect to be confounded by this author sometimes. Some of my favorite stories were the more obviously horror-tinged ones: “The Rabbet” and “Säcken” maintained strong levels of dread, particularly the latter as it concerned a very obscure and nasty form of execution. “The Buzzard’s Egg” was another stunner about an elderly caretaker for imprisoned gods.
The closing story to Three Moments of an Explosion, “The Design” starts as a wonderfully macabre tale of a med student opening a seemingly ordinary cadaver only to discover the cadaver’s bones have been etched with symbols. What follows is body-snatching, unreliable narration, and an enduring partnership between two friends who do and do not want to know the secrets or answers of the other. It leaves its mark long after the final line.
A quick scan of the copyright page shows that many of the stories that were previously published appeared in venues genre traditionalists might have overlooked: literary magazines McSweeney’s, Subtropics, Granta, handouts to accompany an art installation in Liverpool (Science Fiction: New Death), etc.. So if you’ve been feeling like it’s been awhile since you’ve read anything new from Miéville, Three Moments of an Explosion shows the author has been far from idle. While these stories can be not-so-neatly filed away under whatever label one prefers—literary, New Weird, fantasy, Lovecraftian, it’s merely sufficient to just say that these are China Miéville stories and so they are smart, deliberate, deft, and full of enviable vision.
And for the complainers who avoid short fiction as a rule, Miéville has two novels (This Census-Taker and The Last Days of New Paris) releasing in 2016. So there.
Three Moments of an Explosion is available now from Del Rey.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering book reviews, gaming and TV, including Game of Thrones. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. A student of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ workshop, her short fiction has appeared in ChiZine. Follow her on Twitter.