Reading the latest China Mieville anthology, “Looking for Jake.”
As is usual for his work, it wanders between extremes of “Eh, I guess. Well written, though,” (like “Iron Council”) and “Oh sweet blithering Christ, why didn’t *I* think of that?!” (Like “Perdido Street Station and “The Scar”)
One of his short stories is a fabulous one about feral streets that move between cities, fighting with each other, occasionally mating and producing rogue alleys. God! Why didn’t I ever think about wild streets?
Everybody gets the “crap I wish I’d thought of that!” thing if you’re in a creative field, I imagine, it’s one of those buttons wired into our brains, but Mieville’s writing doesn’t so much push that button for me as take a sledgehammer to it until the plastic shatters. I think it’s because he has the absolute disregard for conventional plausibility that I strive for, and he does it without ever once blinking, which I think is the trick. People will accept almost any weird thing, as long as its A) kinda neat and B) you never admit for a minute that it’s completely absurd. You start “Perdido Street Station” with a beetle-headed woman, and you immediately think “I dunno, I’m not gonna suspend my disbelief for THAT, and by about twenty pages in, you realized that the author doesn’t apparently care if you do or not. There is no effort spent to tease you into letting down your guard with careful rationalizations of the history of the noble talking whatsits, all the standard fantasy stuff to make sure that you’re not rolling your eyes or weirded out or troubled by the strangeness of it. Be troubled! This is troubling shit. You’re either seduced by the fabulous weirdness of it all, or you can get bent. It’s fantasy that’s actually fantastical–not in the sense that anything gets used as a deus ex machina, (terribly far from it!) but in the sense that the world is just full of weird stuff. It’s Alice in Wonderland meets Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” meets hell. And it doesn’t blink.
And now, to trot out a variant one of my favorite rants, god, I wish more people would do that. God, I wish *I* would do that. All the infinite possibilities of fantasy, and instead we get ten thousand rehashes of a quasi-Western European culture with elves, fairies and telepathic wolves, and magic systems so stratified and carefully explained, so that nobody ever gets the idea that the author is using magic as an excuse for stuff, that they have all the exuberant joy of a rectal exam. Given an infinite canvas of potential oddity, we spend our time recreating Pern, Valdemar, and Middle-Earth with different hats. Strange is like a lost art. Trying to think of books that are genuinely bizarre and fantastical gets me the aforementioned Mieville, Clive Barker’s Abarat, King and Straub’s “The Talisman,” maybe Gormenghast, to a lesser extent Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”…and…um…some of the fantasy bits in Tad William’s “Otherland” which was science fiction anyway. Stories where the laws of physics were different, where the world is a gigantic house, or where an archipelago was made of islands of different times of day. Whereas if I made a stack in my living room of books where a young girl bonds telepathically to a horse/dragon/wolf/tiger in a quasi-European society, the fall from the top would probably break my neck.
And the thing is, I’m so totally guilty of this. I think that’s why it pisses me off–it’s our own flaws that aggravate us most in others. Given the infinity of fantasy, what did my Obligatory Fantasy Novel consist of? Elves and furries. (I take small comfort that there are no telepathic wolves anywhere.) Digger’s a little better–at least we have one-way holes and shadow eaters and thank god, vampire squash–but it’s still fundamentally a medivael society with some weird bits. It is not premised on the absolutely strange.
Well, it’s pretty understandable. Within most of us, there is an internal censor. I don’t know if we’re born with it, or if it gets nailed into our heads as children or what. And when you think of something silly, this censor says “That’s dumb,” or “That wouldn’t work.” In many ways, this is a very useful thing–it’s good to have something in your head that is fully aware that drinking lye is bad and when you jump off the roof, you’ll break your legs.* Unfortunately, it tends to jump up and say this about a lot of things, and the most cruel is probably “People will think this is dumb,” and “People will think you don’t know what you’re doing.”
The first time you tell this censor to piss off and paint something weird, it’s scary and exhilarating, and you expect to be slapped down immediately by the viewers. And of course, sometimes you are, and that ends the matter. But sometimes you get encouragement instead, and then the next time you’re willing to go a little farther into silliness, and after awhile of this, you’re painting lemonlopes and giant bleeding turnips. Each time, you make a little bit more headway. Sometimes he pops up again in a direction you don’t expect, though, so it’s sort of halfway between wrestling with an angel and a game of mental whack-a-mole. (Somehow, I suspect whack-an-angel would be a huge hit in certain quarters.)
I think, sometimes, it’s that unblinking and unself-conscious strangeness that I really want to achieve–in art, in writing, whatever. Strangeness that doesn’t have to justify itself. I am delighted to write about the behavior of the wild lemonlope, but I am not willing to sit down each time and try to explain how Bob the Magic Horticulturalist got an impala drunk and impregnated it with a lemon wedge and did the Rite of Unspeakable Vegetables to create the lemonlope species (except for a joke, because the Rite of Unspeakable Vegetables sounds pretty funny.) But a painful explanation each time smacks of justification, of trying to say “See! See! It’s too weird to stand on it’s own, but I can rationalize it and it’ll be okay!” I don’t want that. I want an unblinking oddity. I want strangenesses that simply exist, in the way that reality exists. I may go and read about squirrel botflies, and be fascinated, but at no point does anybody have to explain how the botflies got here, or why I should accept the botflies are plausible, or explain the rules of botflydom so that reality doesn’t have the option of using a botfly as an easy plot device. It’s enough that they exist, here’s what they do. I do not get the feeling that the author is afraid I won’t believe in botflies. They’re there whether I want to believe in them or not.
And now, having rambled incoherently for much too long, I will go back to editing my tale of furries and elves, and I will refrain as best I can from a sudden overhaul to inject strangeness, because it would be cruel to my editor, and serve no purpose except to appease my sense of creative guilt. And nobody wants that.
But the next time I write a novel, goddamnit, it’s gonna be strange.
*And don’t give me any rot about being able to fly if you really believed in it, because if I wanted to be smothered in cheese, I’d have swan-dived into one of the big cheddar vats in Tillamook when I took that tour.