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The Late Review: Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

5th Jun, 2024

Author: Peter Tennant

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I used to own a copy of Perdido Street Station, but never got round to reading it (too many books, too little time), so the collection Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories is my long overdue introduction to the work of China Miéville. Originally published by Macmillan in hardback in 2015, the collection contains twenty eight stories, many of which are vignettes and more than a few that could be categorised either as horror or tangential to the genre.

Kicking off the collection is the two page title story, and the "Three Moments of an Explosion" are explosion related throwaway ideas that the author has collated together on the theory that the end result will be greater than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of something that Fredric Brown might have written, brief enough to not outstay its welcome and conceptually original enough to engage the reader. In "Polynia" icebergs float in the sky over London and the population must adapt, while an obsessed youngster learns something of their secrets. It's a blue sky concept, one that Mieville develops with precision and panache, drawing his characters and their response to events with admirable clarity. "The Condition of New Death" is that corpses always end up facing a particular direction in relation to the observer, the story presented as a study of this phenomenon, part of which links it to video games. It's a fascinating piece, one that makes the concept seem credible even as we know in our hearts that it is completely bonkers.

There's more than a touch of Tim Powers' oeuvre to the next story as gamblers learn of the hidden suits, including "The Dowager of Bees". It's an engrossing read with totally believable characters, and hints of the numinous to be found in even the most innocuous of activities. "In the Slopes" has archaeologists employing new techniques to recreate the bodies of people who were encased in lava when a volcano exploded. The different methods used and attendant academic rivalries result in a story that is compelling and yet always with the sense of something just beyond the reader's perception, not least owing to the unexpected nature of some of the 'corpses'. "The Crawl" is the first of three stories presented as film trailers, with a second by second breakdown of the action. Here the concept is of a war between different breeds of zombies. Both idea and presentation are ingenious.

The members of an island community are "Watching God" and obsessing about the strange ships that sail close by but never stop (but then they do). It's another story that builds well, with detail piled atop detail and hints of something beyond the ken of the participants, culminating in an ending that offers an unexpected interpretation of all that has gone before. "The 9th Technique" details a black market trade in magical artefacts, but Koning's planned use of one such item goes horribly awry. Larger than life characters and concepts that arch skyward are the appeal here, in a story that beguiles with its invention and an execution that is never less than engrossing. Short "The Rope is the World" pitches the idea of space elevators and asks what happens to those that outlive their purpose, the story taking a fantastic idea and running with it, developing the concept in the most plausible way given its acceptance by the reader.

There's a Dunsany feel to "The Buzzard's Egg", the narration of a slave addressing a god left in his care. It's a compelling piece, one that delights with the wealth of detail and invention between its pages, and refuses the obvious end twist, albeit in favour of something that to my mind felt a little too ambiguous. "Säcken " was my favourite story in the collection, the one that was most overtly a work of horror fiction. Two women retreat to an isolated house next to a lake and end up victims of an unusual haunting. There's a steadily growing atmosphere of menace here, one that mounts with each page, while the research involved to discover what has happened adds to the verisimilitude of the narrative while exposing the macabre nature and injustice of the cause event, but the strongest appeal of the story lies in the chilling descriptions of the spectral visitation and the horrible feel of inevitability hanging over the fate of the two women. "Syllabus" is a three parter like the collection's title story, presenting loosely linked throwaway ideas as the elements in an academic course. I can only repeat my thoughts on the first story - brief enough to not outstay its welcome and conceptually original enough to engage the reader.

A new form of psychiatry is explored in "Dreaded Outcome", with the therapist adopting extreme measures to help his patient. It's a delightful slice of satire, written with tongue in cheek and thoroughly enjoyable for the reader. "After the Festival"those who have worn animal heads find themselves infected with a new form of illness, unable to remove the heads until they have rotted away, and Tova tries to save her friend Charlie. There's a hint of Midsommar to this, though the story predates the film. It seizes the interest right away with the strange actions attendant upon the festival and never lets go as we learn more of what has happened here, with elements that are not for the squeamish. In "The Dusty Hat" Miéville satirises the zealotry of political factions through what, for want of a better term, I'll describe as an existential out-take. Reminiscent of stories by Fritz Leiber, it starts at the realist end of the fictional spectrum only to then turn everything on its head, all while never losing sight of the intent to mock the self defeating t crossing and i dotting of the zealots. The second 'trailer' story is next, "Escapee" in which a man tries to leave the factory production line. It's a story filled with vibrant images, touching on the superhero and science fiction genres, hinting at the idea of identity being manufactured.

In "The Bastard Prompt" an actress takes work pretending to be ill so that doctors can be assessed, but then she starts to describe 'impossible' symptoms with unexpected repercussions. It's another fascinating story, one with beautifully drawn characters and ideas so over the top that they start to feel reasonable. "Rules" to my mind is perhaps the weakest story in the collection, noting that just as there was a first child to play at aeroplanes there will be a last, after which new and different games will arise. There is little to this except the idea, which doesn't impress given the company it's keeping. A rundown "Estate" is visited by a burning deer, a phenomenon that occurs in other parts of the country. It's an intriguing story, touching on themes of rural sacrifice and urban renewal, but ultimately doesn't deliver an ending that lives up to the promise of the story, coming across as oddity for its own sake.

Longest story in the book, "Keep" is set in a disease blighted world where if infected people stop moving a trench inexplicably appears around them. The story is told from the viewpoint of a soil specialist recruited by the American military to investigate the phenomenon. It builds well and with assurance, despite the crazy nature of the concept at its heart, with credible characters (kudos to Miéville for not taking the obvious route of having the officer in charge a nutcase). With the world on the brink of collapsing, we follow the trail back to the place and person with whom it all began, and there is the suggestion that emotions might have played a central role in all of this. A new art movement presents its case in "A Second Slice Manifesto", with paintings based on other paintings, but somehow exploring them and revealing more than can be seen in the original. It's hard to see how this would work in reality, but the concept is eminently appealing and the story has a final note that is both chilling and promising. "Covehithe" offers us a variation on the kaiju trope, with the appeal of the story rooted in the nature of the behemoths who emerge from the sea with a mind and purpose of their own. Written entirely straight, it's a story that dazzles for both its audacity and the invention woven into the text. I loved it, not least for the familiar (to me) setting.

Another favourite of mine, "The Junket" talks around the theme of a controversial film, one whose scriptwriter was murdered in one of the most horrid ways imaginable, with the final reveal granting us a Springtime for Hitler moment. It's a wonderful idea and beautifully executed. The brief "Four Final Orpheuses" presents various motives for Orpheus turning back to Eurydice, the story engaging without being anything more than a presentation of the ideas. There's a Mezzotint feel to "Rabbet", another story that would fit well in the horror genre. A couple take in an old friend as lodger, but his naff cartoons improve dramatically when he uses a special frame as a drawing aid. The story builds wonderfully, with one unsettling detail piled on top of another, and an ending that left me feeling as shocked as the protagonist. "Listen the Birds" is the third and final 'trailer' story and not as successful as its two predecessors, a little too vague for my liking, suggesting some relationship between people and birds, but overly ambiguous to my mind. "A Mount" is something to do with a boy on the street and carousel rides, but I couldn't really get to grips with it and don't have much idea what it was about.

Finally we have "The Design" in which a medical student makes an unexpected discovery when dissecting a cadaver and subsequently develops an 'unhealthy' obsession. Another highlight of the collection, it's a story that reveals much and hints at far more, with compelling characters and ideas that delight. A gem of a story that I loved and I'm equally smitten with its setting, the collection Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories. Sure, not everything was to my taste, but there were more than enough winners to justify the reading, stories that stand out for both their ideas and novel execution. On this showing, I'd describe Miéville as the Borges of science fiction, at least as regards the short form, somebody who uses concepts that you wouldn't expect to have much literary mileage and takes them off into the stratosphere, both entertaining the reader and allowing us to see possibilities other than the most obvious. 




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