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  1. Culture
4 June 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 10:30am

Altered states

By Tim Martin

Writers of fiction stand or fall by their writing and not their academic qualifications, but the bewilderingly talented China Miéville (degrees in anthropology and international relations, PhD in Marxist theory and law) often makes it wonderfully hard to separate the two. Take “A Second Slice Manifesto”, a very short story from this second full-length collection, which ­imagines an avant-garde movement that extends “conceptual slices” into the perspective of existing works of art and derives new images from this altered view of the plane. Members of the school apply themselves to Les Parapluies by Renoir and Van Gogh’s Chair, and find that their new perspective – the equivalent of cutting through a cube – exposes detail invisible to the original painters and observers. Miéville writes:

In slice-paintings of Victorian still lives we see the blood-flesh-and-bone circles of children crouching behind doors. With the thin silver lines of cross-sectioned steel hiding in the dark of wood, what have for decades looked like canes are revealed as sword-sticks. Thefts have been revealed – the bright colours of gems in briefcases. The grey-bound blood of great fish below boats.

The story concludes as the researchers “slice” through an innocuous smudge of painted vegetation and find, with a chill, that “there is something living but not animal, something watching us from the tree”.

You couldn’t seek a better metaphor for the stories in this collection, which slide their resolute little scalpels through the inherited conservatisms in the author’s chosen genres and onwards through assumptions about literary form. Conventional topoi from science fiction, fantasy and horror are anatomised, exposing strange and troubling curlicues; perspectives are wrenched around to show uninspected social and intellectual spaces. In “The Rabbet”, Miéville transposes the haunted-picture theme of M R James’s ghost story “The Mezzotint” to a designers’ flatshare in a gentrifying borough of London, implying, in a memorable final scene, that the nature of a frame has more troubling significance than anything one puts in it. In “The Design”, a Victorian medical student dissects a body and discovers intricate patterns cut into the bone: what begins as Gothic, all gaslight and bodysnatchers, expands into a languid, haunting piece, the intellectual conclusions of which hover tantalisingly out of reach.

Few writers have this much profitable fun with forms and tropes. Some of the stories are two-page micro-fictions; some are miniature film scripts; some are relayed in the clotted idiolects of academia, political theory and (gasp) magazine journalism. In “Polynia”, Miéville presents his own take on the dreamy early Ballard novels of ele­mental rebellion: it features giant icebergs hovering in the skies above the capital, to the mild bemusement of the populace. (“I love the London bergs,” remarks the narrator. “They still circle, and they don’t get in the way of business.”) “Covehithe” reads like a refracted response to the environmental-industrial horror of Godzilla and The Iron Man, as abandoned oil rigs begin to haul themselves up on the shores of British towns and move inland to breed. A brief, transcribed trailer for a zombie film (zombies under threat from more evolved, deader zombies) takes aim at self-recycling horror cliché while preserving a nasty suggestiveness of its own. And “The Dusty Hat”, perhaps the most cryptic story in this bunch, is a half-comic horror set among the feuding activists of a far-left political action group (Miéville is a former member of the Socialist Workers Party), in which political concepts – “having a platform”, “the longue durée” – are given concrete form, and dust, “the most radical wing of matter”, is co-opted to the fight for socialism.

This collection fizzes with energy and experiment, but its deeper impulses are slower, sadder, freighted with desperation and sorrow. Some of the most memorable pieces are the longer ones, in which Miéville combines an eerie facility for symbol with an economical talent for creating character. In the clapped-out London of “After the Festival”, Shoreditch hipsters attend pumping rave parties and wear the heads of ceremonially dissected animals – but what sticks with you is not the bacchanalian splatter but the stonily clipped sentences of Miéville’s narrator as her friend slides deeper into a mysterious and transformative addiction.

“In the Slopes”, which might have been an alien-contact story in the hands of another writer, is set among the arguing academics and dispirited locals of a tiny island under which new Pompeiian figures have been discovered. As crystal statues begin to emerge from the ground, Miéville’s hazy rhythms, switches of focus and sparse descriptions give rise to a genuinely strange atmosphere, part kitchen-sink and part De Chirico. Meanwhile, “Rules”, two pages long and a standout in this collection, is a miniature fable about cultural extinction that expands in the reader’s mind far beyond the tiny confines of its text. But there aren’t many duds here. When you put the book down, the world seems a richer, deeper and more frightening place.

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