“The stories burrow under your skin, crawl back out again, and leave you playing with the wounds!”
It’s been ten years since China Miéville’s first short fiction collection, Looking For Jake & Other Stories, was published. During the ensuing decade Miéville’s reputation as a novelist has grown from strength-to-strength, gaining him a mantle-load of awards along the way should physical evidence of his abilities be required. Diversifying from the interlinked Bas-Lag-situating of his early novels, Miéville has gone on to write a children’s novel, detective novel, hard SF and (naturally) horror. Three Moments Of An Explosion is a return to short-form fiction for Miéville, and a revelation for those who may be familiar mostly with his novels.
First off, it must be said that this is not strictly speaking a ‘horror’ collection. There are ‘horror’ (and ‘horrible’) elements to many of these stories, but they also exemplify the cross-pollination of genre that Miéville is known for. Three Moments is no exception. In the same way that The City & The City (Macmillan, 2009) is not a straight-forward detective novel but rather a detective novel seen through a surreal, dislocated aperture – a detective novel askew – the short stories in Three Moments are often something other than just short fiction.
The visual focus in these stories is often violently pulled in or out, making the horror (or the delight, the tension, or even the humour) come at the reader sharply. In the 400 pages on offer here Miéville has managed to prise-in twenty-eight stories, many with enough depth of imagery to keep you infectiously dwelling on for hours afterwards. Some are thirty-pages long; others two or three. Some could be considered to constitute a decent synopsis for a future novel (if not a miniseries), whilst others are, quite literally, the transcript to some fictional two-minute movie trailer.
The first piece (and title story) presents, as the name implies, a single event seen from three different perspectives. That the collection should be named after one of the shortest pieces is telling. In ‘Three Moments of an Explosion’ Miéville does in fact explode one short story into something far grander and more pervasive than its word count suggests. In three numbered paragraphs, one event – a high-rise demolition “sponsored by a burger company” – is simultaneously part-commercial sensationalism, part-melancholic reflection and part-Ballardian urban dystopia. As a bullet, or a snapshot of a story, it sets the stylistic standard for much of what is to come.
Where Miéville might be deliberately parsimonious with plot, he can be over-generous with detail (a trait which Miéville himself claims is an integral aspect of weird fiction). In ‘The 9th Technique’, Koning, an obsessive collector of artefacts used for (or present during) acts of politically-motivated torture, attempts to nurture an insect, a harmless caterpillar, which was recently used as a torture device. Koning is a “self-made expert”, who prepares a nest made of “shredded grimoire and scrunched-up rules of engagement”. She expects the caterpillar, initially in chrysalis form, to change into one thing but it instead transforms into “quite another animal”. As the thing grows, Koning perceives the static cocoon as no longer “transformation pod but execution chamber”. The black poetry of Miéville’s gruesomely intricate descriptions provide not only anatomically gratifying visuals, but also a micro-commentary on torture itself, and the mutational effects of such a traumatic event on the psyche as well as the flesh.
From the up-close body horror of unnatural transmogrification, Miéville goes on to yank the reader into (not particularly) Deep Space with ‘The Rope is the World’. Laid-out like a pitch perfect outline to a novel that isn’t, this story is Cubist hard SF; the pretext, initial construction and eventual comprehensive establishment of a worldwide network of interlinked “space elevators”, or “geostationary tethered-dock haulage columns”, used to take humanity (and whatever it needs to drag along with it) off the planet and into the salvation of exo-planetary colonies – indeed, everything you need to know about the “skyhooks” – happens all at once for you. The international class wars over whose elevator is the more prestigious; what happens when the funding runs out; the best ways to commit suicide off of one. Get this, there is even a casual nod explaining what visiting alien races thought of them (they are perceived as uttering “polite, uninterested Hmms, like a queen visiting a biscuit factory”).
When Miéville does give us a more temporally mimetic story, such as the damp horror of ‘Säcken’, the results are immersively unsettling. Modernising the mythological semantics of Algernon Blackwood, ‘Säcken’ is a creeping, suffocating exercise in the uncanny effect of half-knowledge and the half-unknowable, reducing what the reader can garner from the story to once more come from Miéville’s gift for anatomically precise descriptions of horror rather than any sort of actual explanations as to why this is happening. The reader is left in a similar situation in ‘The Slopes’, but rather than the proximate terror of ‘Säcken’, ‘The Slopes’ presents a mystery from the distant past: an archaeological dig reveals the supposed inter-species co-existence of a race of aliens and humans, wiped out by a volcanic eruption. Although described in insectoid terms, the notion of the ancient aliens living alongside humans in ‘The Slopes’ is less Lovecraftian in its intensely weird content, but akin instead to Nigel Kneale with its reflective, almost melancholic tone. The personal, social and academic disputes within the party at the dig reflect particularly contemporaneous egocentric tendencies in society, leaving the mutually protective embrace of the lava-obliterated beings of the distant past all the more distant.
There is so more that could be covered about Three Moments of an Explosion. The sumptuous inter-war Gothic Horror of ‘The Design’. The eco-surrealism of ‘Polynia’ and ‘Covehithe’ (for fans of Un Lun Dun (Macmillan, 2007). The interjecting ‘movie trailers’. The aeon-spanning, heartbreaking familiarity of ‘Rules’. The chilling conclusion to ‘A Second Slice Manifesto’. Just go and read them. Have the stories burrow under your skin, crawl back out again, and leave you playing with the wounds.
Release Date: 30 July 2015
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