Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville
I am, like many, a huge Miéville fan (I’ve lost track of how many of his books I’ve placed on my best-of-year lists). I’m also more of a fan of the long-form rather than the short form, especially in the genre, greatly preferring novels and novellas to short stories. So how, I wondered, would I respond to Three Moments of an Explosion? Would Miéville’s style and deep ideas win out, or would the short story form constrain him, robbing him of some of his tools? It turned out to be a bit of both, and though I was admittedly somewhat disappointed in the collection as a whole, I’d still call it well worth reading. I’m going to give my impression of some selected stories, then discuss the work in its entirety.
“Polynia” — Icebergs over London. The story, told from a young teen’s POV, is well told with some lovely imagery of the floating ice-scapes, the landings on them, the way they move overhead. My favorite aspect of this story however was the idea that nature will not be contained, will find ways, odd as they might be, to appear in different milieus, will defy us or perhaps even haunt us, as the icebergs appear in the sky despite how we destroy them in their home, or the coral reefs appear on buildings, once we’ve wrecked their natural habitat.
“The Dowager of Bees” — Hidden suits appear in card decks at various times to a select group of initiates. I absolutely loved this story. The POV, a young card player who get initiated into the secret knowledge early on and then witnesses others do the same, is brilliant in the way it slowly brings the reader into the world (both the magical one of the special suits and the mundane one of card playing) and creates a high level of tension as the story moves toward a edge-of-the-seat ending.
“Watching God” — An isolated peninsular community, bound by impassable cliffs, forest, and water, watches over generations as a series of ships — sourced from who knows where — enter their waters and often sink there, their traces, according to the watchers, spelling out an as-yet-unknown sentence. This is another story where the POV leaves the reader in the same confused state as the narrator. Mostly I liked this story for how it can be read as being about the ways in which our minds will always seek to make sense of what we experience, inexplicable as it may be. And I loved as well the connection to language, and the literal idea of “sub-text.”
“The Rope is the World” — Set after the grand achievement of space elevators has dwindled like the modern-day auto industry in Detroit. A sharply vivid story in its setting (I can see someone taking this as the starting point for a full novel), but my favorite part was probably the premise — how Miéville took what is often painted as a giant utopian step of grand achievement and turned it into a dingy dystopian vision. I also enjoyed the satire of materialism (think naming rights for space elevators) and the way the ending opened things up rather than closing the story down.
“Buzzard’s Egg” — A man in a tower holds several conversations with the god he is supposed to guard (or maybe not). Another one I liked quite a bit, especially for the way it very slowly opens up, revelation (an appropriate word in a god-based story) after revelation appearing in the long-running monologue as much is revealed about the speaker, his role in this prison, and the larger context of war and invasion. Some lovely precise moments of description in here as well, and I also enjoyed how Miéville keeps the reader off balance throughout, all the way through and past the final sentence.
“Saacken” — A horror story set in a cabin on a lake, and then a pursuing, well, saacken. This was told well enough I suppose, though it felt overly familiar in its surface details. What made this rise above the same-old horror tale a la “The Grudge” or “Ring” was how “law” and/or “Justice” lies at its core, though I don’t want to say anymore so as to not spoil anything.
“Dreaded Outcome” — A somewhat warped but oddly accepted take on modern therapy. This is basically a one-joke story, but it is told so vividly, and it’s such a funny joke, that you just don’t mind that’s all it is. Really a wonderful example of black humor coupled with cultural criticism.
“The Bastard Prompt” — The narrator’s girlfriend finds acting work as a “standardized patient”— one who role-plays an illness to train doctors in diagnosis. The premise of this was intriguing, and I liked where Miéville took it (yes, I’m being vague, but that’s to avoid spoilers), but the relatively weak characterization meant it didn’t seem to fulfill its story potential.
“The Keep” — The end of civilization as we know, caused not by natural disaster or alien invasion or pandemic or zombies, but by a truly odd phenomenon — the appearance of personal moats around people who remain still too long (if you wonder why that’s so bad, imagine, as one example from the story, such a moat appearing on a plane, the trench digging through all the hull and/or wiring of the plane). This was another of my favorites, thanks to the snippets we get of civilization gradually collapsing, the personal urgency of the immediate situation as the narrator (a soil scientist) tries to figure out a “cure,” or even a simple understanding, by examining “Patient Zero.” The story was compelling enough, but I love the metaphor of that personal moat and the several ways it could be interpreted as metaphor or as a commentary on modern society.
“Covehithe” — Old sunken oilrigs come to life and walk on land to a surprising purpose. Love the premise of this and loved its imagery even more, wonderful characterization of these “creatures.” It takes a pleasantly surprising turn toward the end, leavening some of this collection’s darkness.
“Four Final Orpheuses” — A flash fiction segmented piece explaining various reasons Orpheus looked back. The last one is a killer.
“The Rabbet” — When a couple leases out a room to a friend who works as an animator, it all seems like it’ll work out fine. This is a horror story though and so, well, it doesn’t. Like “Saacken” this is a classic sort of horror story (the cursed object type), but it’s elevated by the author’s style, vivid characterization, and a fantastic ending.
“The Design” — A medical student dissecting a body discovers the bones are etched in elaborate script. This is simply a beautiful story, gripping at times, evocative in its imagery and ideas.
Overview: There are 23 stories in Three Moments of an Explosion, since the above 13 are the ones I particularly enjoyed or responded to, you can see I’d give a strong thumbs up to just a bit more than half. That’s actually not a bad percentage in my experience with short story collection, though I was hoping for a better ration of good-to-bad from Miéville. The other stories were less ones I didn’t like (though there were one or two of those) so much as ones that either just sort of sat there on the page while I read then quickly disappeared from thought after the last page of them turned, or they simply felt unfinished. Three of the stories are trailers, and while the premise was interesting enough (a zombie civil war for instance), there just wasn’t enough there for me to react to: not enough sense of character, not enough story development, not enough depth of thought to leave me lingering over the story.
My favorites (not coincidentally often the longest ones in the collection) not only held my attention through the story itself but kept me thinking about the ideas behind them long after the words themselves had faded. The theme of nature coming back to us in different guises for instance — defying our alleged “mastery” of the globe — not only enlivened the stories it appeared in, but kept me thinking about the questions raised days afterward. The image of what lies submerged — and therefore what may, as implied in that idea, rise again — is another theme and while it lingers for a different reason, this one more of an unsettling sense, it is no less effective. At their best, these stories have a feel of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez or an H.P. Lovecraft or at times, a marriage of the two, sharpened by the biting moments of social satire.
So sure, half the stories didn’t do much for me. But the others more than justify picking up Three Moments of an Explosion: for their sometimes gorgeous imagery, their outlandish premises, their sense of dislocation (in a good way), their moments of social criticism, and for the way especially that they’ll dig under your skin so you carry them around with you like some sort of book symbiote (hmmm, maybe that story will be in his next collection).
Excellent review, Bill! I’ve been looking for more input on this book, since I was also wondering how the New Weird genius of Mieville would transfer to shorter form. Most collections are hit or miss, and just over 50% isn’t great, but not surprising. Either way, I will definitely read this next year.
I’ve avoiding reading short fiction for most of my life because I assumed that you can’t really develop a rapport with characters in such a short span and plots don’t have room to grow, but having recently read a ton of Ballard, PKD, and Harlan Ellison stories, I realize this really isn’t true. I’ve even resumed reading The Best of Gene Wolfe now that I understand his approach better.
I have the same issue with short fiction, preferring that rapport with characters you mention, as well as enjoying being immersed in a full world. But there are exceptions, often where the ideas are just so good I don’t mind weaker characterization, or perhaps the style (the shorter form does I think often lend itself to more stylistic experimentation, which I like). I think you’d enjoy a decent number of these, if you go in with the assumption of a “hit and miss” overall result. I consider 50% a decent collection ratio, though as mentioned, I would have guessed this one would be higher given the author.
“Polynia” was published somewhere else and I read it there. I remember loving the descriptions of the icebergs.
This sounds like a great Christmas present for at least two people on y list.
I think what pushed me into a very positive review of this collection was that even when a story didn’t work for me, Mieville’s sheer creativity won my admiration. When you are pushing the edge of a genre, you’re going to have some hits and misses. Plus, ending with The Design was brilliant; it was so good it left me with warm feelings.