China Mieville’s last novel, The City and the City, was a mind-bending exercise in genre-smashing and world-building—a book that both transcended the limitations of traditional sci-fi and thrillers creating something wholly new, alien and strange. That book, which ostensibly centered on a unsolved murder in a fictional central European state, was actually a showcase for the strange setting: a dual city called Beszel, which cohabits space with another, entirely unrelated city, Ul Qoma. Inhabitants from one city are prohibited from crossing over into the other, although various rips and overlaps in the two geographies allow citizens brief glimpses at the “other”. Crossing from one side to the other—called “breach” in the book—is the gravest crime a citizen can commit.
If this all sounds rather bewildering, don’t worry; Mieville’s handling of the concept is so deft, and his story—happily—follows certain conventional norms, so that over the course of a few chapters, the strangeness begins to feel perfectly normal.
The point here is that Mieville is a hell of a writer, one gifted with the ability to make even the most foreign and bizarre concepts feel natural after a time. His newest book, Kraken, is a 500-page testament to this. Unfortunately, despite its innumerable forays into weirdness both delightful and chilling, Kraken drags more than a little.
Like the previous book, this one begins with a crime: the theft of an enormous dead squid from London’s Museum of Natural History. Billy Harrow, a curator at the museum, discovers its theft and is immediately beset by the obvious question: Who the hell could steal a giant squid floating in a tank of formaldehyde, and without being seen? Come to that, why would anyone want to?
Billy soon starts to learn some possible answers to the second question, if not the first. If, for example, the squid is worshipped as a god by some members of London’s underground, then its theft could be seen either as an act of devotion or, if carried out by a rival sect, a declaration of war. If the latter, then maybe the more arcane elements of London’s shadow society—its necromancers and magi and undead—are involved. It’s all enough to make one turn to the police, except that the police themselves, even their secret branch responsible for the investigation of supernatural crimes, are stumped.
What does become apparent fairly quickly is that if the squid is not soon recovered, the world—or at least London—will very likely be devoured in an all-consuming fire from which no one will survive. This knowledge pulls Billy further into the investigation more or less against his will.
The deeper he gets, the stranger things become and the more sinister the cast of characters. Give credit where it’s due: Mieville is to be lauded for creating a world in which a sentient, malevolent tattoo is one of the most compelling characters on the page, or where a disembodied spirit must flit from one inanimate figure to another (kewpie doll, granite statue, Captain Kirk figure) in order to communicate with the “real world” characters. A few hundred pages of this and it all starts to seem normal, along with the fist-headed thugs, the Londonmancers who read the entrails of the city itself for portents of the future, and all the rest.
Somewhere along the line, though, the sheer mass of inventiveness on display begins to weigh down the storyline. This is, after all, the story of: what happened to the squid? Compelling as the consequences may be, this is the question that needs to be answered, and at times that question seems awfully far away.
The book is filled with such sentences as, “There are many millions of Londoners, and the very great majority know nothing of the other mapland, the city of knacks and heresies… The economy of gods and monsters was stagnating.” Or weirder moments: “There was a naked man on all fours. His lips fluttered. He had dials pushed into him, above each nipple. Unbleeding but extruding clearly from his body. It was from his open mouth that the radio sounds
Ultimately, the weirdness becomes almost abstract: “The fucking angels of memory were out. They had come out of their museums, out of their castles. They’d gone to war against whatever this incoming to-come was. The very facts of retrospection and fate that had various sides fighting were not out themselves, personified or apotheosed and smacking seven bells out of each other directly.”
To read this book is to submit oneself to a lot of such dense, hallucinatory imagery. Mieville is a writer unlike any other, and for that reason alone is to be valued; the novel itself ultimately generates a great head of steam and barrels through to its conclusion. However, it expends an enormous amount of verbiage and more than a few Star Trek references to get there. A bit of judicious trimming would have streamlined the story and made it all the more powerful.