Love Overcoming Obstacles (Or Not)

The Scar by China Miéville: Miéville has been sweeping the SF/F awards since his debut and I’ve been intending to read him for quite some time now. (In fact, I’ve had a copy of Iron Council for over a year now, still unread.) I’ve been dragging my feet though because from previous skims at the library and bookstore, it’s obvious that Miéville’s writing is dense and baroque, the sort of style that I love to read but also requires the right state of mind to properly appreciate. (It’s a sort of compulsion to read every word and savor it because it seems like such a waste to just gulp the book down. I’m sure wine fanciers have similar hang-ups about guzzling an expensive vintage.)

I was surprised to see The Scar being recommended as a book about “love overcoming obstacles”. Well, to be sure, almost any story involves or mentions love, but I’ve always heard of Miéville as writing dark, gritty, political stories. Still, it meant that I kept a particular eye out for the love story hidden in the plot, and I was rather fascinated by the two characters he created. They weren’t the protagonists of the story by any means, but their dynamic was incredibly interesting.

A quick summary: Terpsichoria, a ship carrying prisoners from New Crobuzon (city-state and major mercantile power in Miéville’s world of Bas-Lag) to the colony of Nova Esperium, gets taken over by pirates, who turn out to belong to the floating city of Armada. Armada is built from stolen ships and boats lashed together and survives by, yes, piracy, while keeping its identity and location hidden by press-ganging the sailors and passengers. These eventually become the new citizens of Armada; the city is a diverse throng of people from every country in Bas-Lag. Many of them are former prisoners who have been Remade, that is, their bodies have been surgically and magically altered with grafted mechanical or biological parts. One of the prisoners on the Terpsichoria for example has two tentacle limbs grafted onto his abdomen. The Remade are former criminals and slaves in New Crobuzon, but in Armada, they are equal citizens. So are other humanoid species, such as the cactaceae, who are pretty much like human cactuses, and vampir, who are “photophobic haemophages”: they can all live openly in Armada where they can’t anywhere else. A city of outcasts, misfits, deserters, criminals…Miéville does a fantastic job with worldbuilding and describes the landscape and cultures of the city.

The novel feels rather steampunkish in that it combines magic with an industrial setting: New Crobuzon seems rather reminiscent of Victorian England, with names like Johannes Tearfly and Bellis Coldwine. The latter is the principal point-of-view character, though we get interludes from other characters as well. She left New Crobuzon unwillingly and out of necessity, and she is horrified to find herself trapped in Armada, from which she will never be allowed to escape. Her love and loyalty to New Crobuzon resonated with me—in her initial depression, she refuses to get to know Armada and believes that it can never compare to her city—since I feel much the same way about my own home city. But she eventually gets caught up in the political changes that are sweeping through Armada, and that’s where the Lovers enter.

Bellis never learns their real names, and neither does the reader, but they are the rulers of Garwater, the largest and most powerful district in Armada. They are always referred to as the Lovers, and they have mirror-image scars covering their faces and bodies. They are always in agreement and continue each other’s sentences as if they were in fact one identical person. The Lovers are ambitious: they have plans to trap an enormous beast, called the avanc, and harness it to make the city mobile. (And it turns out, over the course of the novel, that it’s merely the beginning.)

Bellis becomes involved in the project to summon the avanc, since she is a linguist who specializes in High Kettai, the language used by the only living person to summon one. She ends up learning the meaning behind the Lovers’ scars: initially, the Lover (male) had intended it as a mark of possession, since it was used in his original culture as a way to prevent other men from desiring one’s wife. She however, surprised him by cutting an identical mark on his face, and since then, it has become their ritual of lovemaking. Bellis overhears the Lover (female) at one point cutting herself while she is separated from her Lover. When they reunite, the Lover (male) has an identical fresh cut on his face. As if they were trying to “bleed into each other” to become the same person.

Against all odds, the Lovers succeed in all their plans, but uneasiness grows in the city, and at the moment when the city turns against them, the Lovers’ connection to one another snaps. As one leaves, with a new cut on her face that now marks her as different from the other, it becomes apparent that the illusion of identity was indeed a delusion. The one left behind on Armada continues to rule but remains broken.

I’ve completely glossed over the meat of the storyline here: I haven’t mentioned, for example, how Bellis for all her guarded detachment and defensive walls ends up being manipulated by others, or the still-mysterious character of Uther Doul, who is the Lovers’ bodyguard and was born in a near-mythical zombie city. I haven’t said more about Tanner Sack either, who is the other principal protagonist, although he doesn’t interact very much with Bellis at all, and how he embraces life on Armada by becoming amphibious. I doubt that any review can really cover the richness of details that Miéville embeds in his world—without infodumping either, which means the reader has to work to piece together the picture—or the extensive cast of characters or for that matter, the suspense of the plot, which involves at turns political intrigue and at others high seas adventure. Nor all the allusions and references built into the names, e.g. one ship named the Aronnax, after the captain of the submarine in Jules Verne’s 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea.

It’s an epic book but without the trappings of your typical fantasy epic. I saw a lot of elements of horror fiction as well: Miéville apparently loves inventing monsters, although he doesn’t make any of them really monstrous. (That being said, I did find the descriptions of anophelii women—basically mosquito humanoids—really repelling.) Miéville also experiments a lot with different narrative techniques: he interrupts his limited third-person narrative with first-person “stream of consciousness” and epistolary excerpts. I think he’s better at some than others (I thought the grindylow passages were a little overdone and the first-person interlude from the perspective of the Brucolac read as unnecessarily melodramatic), but I do find it impressive how he manages to supply us with all this information and multiple perspectives but still keep the plot exciting and surprising. The pace took a little time to gain some momentum, but once it did, I couldn’t put the book down at all until I finished.

I’m definitely going to go find Perdido Street Station at the bookstore.