The Scar, China Miéville's third and perhaps best novel, tells the tale of a world-spanning quest for a mythical, mystical source of power. Put like that, it sounds like the archetypal epic fantasy, but unlike most fantasies of this kind, it is not modeled on The Lord of the Rings. Instead, The Scar subverts our expectations of fantasy. In so doing, it galvanizes its chosen genre, and it confirms Miéville as one of our most important practitioners of speculative fiction.
The Scar, like its award-winning predecessor, Perdido Street Station,is set in the imaginary realm of Bas-Lag, an alternate world which may, if we are lucky, usher in a new era in epic fantasy. The Scar is related to the earlier novel, but is not a continuation of its story. Rather, it introduces a new cast and expands the horizon of Bas-Lag, taking us from the dense metropolis of New Crobuzon (the memorable setting of Perdido Street Station) out into the vastness of the oceans, to far-flung islands and half-forgotten realms.
By choosing to create an entirely new story rather than using the basic materials of Perdido Street Station as the building blocks of an indefinite number of sequels, Miéville distances himself from the standard practices of many successful fantasy writers. This, however, is the least of his deviations from the norm. The typical epic fantasy features a plucky band of heroes who journey across the patchwork kingdoms of their pre-industrial world in order to save it from ultimate doom, all the while harried by the forces of darkness. The Scar, conversely, focuses on a solitary, unsympathetic woman, who sails across the world against her will and has no goal, no higher purpose, beyond returning home. It has no clearly defined heroes or villains. It takes place in a fantastic world replete with magical swords, arcane magics, impossible beasts, but it is also a world of industry, class struggle, elyctricity and chymicals. Instead of elves, dwarves, hobbits and dragons, there are cactus-people, insect-people, crayfish-people, mosquito-people, cyborgs (here called Remade) and even stranger beings. All of these elements jostle together chaotically in a world which seems to be bursting at the seams (which, in fact, proves literally to be the case) and teeming with races and realms and factions in constant flux.
There isn't even a map inside the front cover with which to orient ourselves. Instead, we have Bellis Coldwine, the heroine of the novel, insofar as it has one, and the principal viewpoint character. Bellis is a New Crobuzon linguist who takes passage aboard a ship bound for the distant colony of Nova Esperium, paying her way by agreeing to act as a translator. She is fleeing her home because she is being hunted by the city's militia, for reasons which remain obscure in the novel's opening sections, and which -- to the reader's surprise -- prove largely irrelevant to the proceedings; this is just one of the novel's many bracing misdirections.
Bellis is none too pleased with the fate which has consigned her to spend years in a distant colony, but matters soon degenerate even further. The ship on which she travels is boarded by pirates, its captain killed, its crew and passengers press-ganged into becoming citizens of the pirates' home, Armada -- a free-floating city of ships, bound together and built up with dwellings, stores, cafés, headed neither to New Crobuzon nor Nova Esperium.
Bellis is not much of a heroine -- indeed, to refer to her as such is to devalue the very notion of a heroine. She is a cheerless loner, grimly intent on keeping a distance from all around her, lacking in basic human kindness and consideration. She is the literary cousin of Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, an even more alienating fantasy hero. To afflict the reader with such an unlovable individual is one of Miéville's most challenging subversions of the fantasy tradition. But as a character -- rather than a heroine -- Bellis is considerably more interesting and credible than the hero of the usual fantasy quest, the everyman, orphan, or foundling of humble beginnings, destined to save the realm, who grows, inevitably, into maturity and nobility while thwarting his evil nemesis. Bellis is more complex, her "character arc" more ambivalent. Just as fascinating as Bellis, and more sympathetic, is the story's other main character, Tanner Sack, a Remade prisoner who finds himself suddenly gifted with freedom and newfound purpose after being captured by the Armadan pirates.
Aboard Armada, Bellis becomes enmeshed -- once more, largely against her will -- in the political machinations of the city's factions. The city's de facto rulers, the enigmatical, fanatical, mutually scarred couple known only as The Lovers, seek to harness the power of an avanc, a deep-sea leviathan from another dimension, for reasons known only to themselves and their inner circle. Some of the city-ship's factions are displeased with this plan; hints of mutiny are in the air. A rogue adventurer called Silas Fennec informs Bellis that New Crobuzon is threatened by an invasion from a mysterious and terrifying race called the Grindylow and enlists her aid in trying to get a message to the city's rulers. There are suggestions that the long-standing animosity between two of Armada's most renowned citizens, the impassively lethal warrior Uther Doul and the sinister vampir known as the Brucolac, will soon come to a head. Meanwhile, in the interludes between sections, we observe the progress of a pack of cruel underwater dwellers who are hunting Armada for unspecified reasons and clearly represent a grave danger.
All of these simmering sub-plots are brought to a boil more or less simultaneously by Miéville, in a series of climaxes each more stunning than the last. The relatively young author shows here, as he did in Perdido Street Station, that he is a master at orchestrating massive multi-level narratives -- although he does have a tendency to rely on neatly timed (i.e., unlikely) coincidences to generate his most dramatic effects. He also has a remarkable propensity for animating memorable set-pieces. The Scar is graced with several such: amongst others, the arrival of an exploratory party on the sweltering, silent island of the much-feared anophelii, a miles-deep descent into the ocean by submersible to view the avanc, and the harnessing of a storm of lightning elementals as a source of energy.
It would be unfair to reveal the outcome of all this. But it is safe to say that The Scar does not unfold in the customary manner of high fantasy. Traditionally, the goal of the fantasy quest is to restore the world to what it once was, before the encroachment of evil. The goal is stasis, nostalgia: everything in its proper place. In Miéville's world, nothing has a proper place and nothing can be restored to what it once was. The wounds of time may heal, but they leave permanent traces. The title of the novel refers to a geographical location, but there are references to scarring throughout and scars come to represent the price or manifestation of change. The Scar is in part about the pain, and the inevitability, of change, whether good or ill, desired or not. It rebukes the idea that the world can be restored to innocence, or, for that matter, that it was ever innocent at all.
Miéville is an original and distinctive author. He stimulates us with the thrill of the new, but this does not mean that his work is without precedent. He is indebted to other writers of bleak or ironic fantasies, writers like Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison (both of whom are cited in the acknowledgments of Perdido Street Station) and Michael Moorcock (himself an admirer of Peake, Harrison, and, more recently, Miéville).
Like Peake, Miéville has a love of verbose, passionate descriptions of places and people, a flair for the grotesque, and the ability to create complex milieus which take on a life of their own.
Like Harrison, he is attuned to entropy and decay, the tendency of all systems to fail -- both The Scar and Perdido Street Station are full of corrosion, filth, darkness, death, wounds, horrors of the flesh. Also like Harrison, he punishes his protagonists sorely for their illusions and false sentiments -- even a woman like Bellis, who harbors few illusions and scorns cheap emotion.
And like Moorcock, Miéville has a prodigious, baroque imagination, a willingness to stage scenes many writers would not even conceive of, and a facility for names and concepts whose names are richly evocative: the Possible Sword, rockmilk, the Malarial Queendom, scabmettlers, Machinery Beach. Here is a sample, almost a throwaway passage, a sidebar to the story:
"I'm further from my first home than you, Crobuzoner. More than two thousand miles. I'm from the the Firewater Straits … From an island called Geshen, controlled by the Witchocracy … The Witchocracy, more ponderously known as Shud zar Myrion zar Koni … City of Ratjinn, Hive of the Jet Sorrow -- and suchlike. I know what you New Crobuzoners say about it. Very little of which is true."
This is but one of many such passages, which refer to places and entities which are seldom mentioned again. The proliferation of characters, names, milieus, even species, is at times overwhelming, but the density of detail contributes to the vitality of Miéville's world, which has the dynamism of a living system. This dynamism is intensified by Miéville's insistent prose, full of curt monosyllabic words, strong verbs, pungent adjectives. He brings urgency to even the most mundane scenes.
It is easy to say -- and it has been said -- that Miéville's books are too long, that prudent editing could reduce their length by one or two hundred pages. There is some truth in this claim. But the length of The Scar and its predecessor can also be understood as necessary to conveying the sprawl, the energy and the fecundity of Miéville's fantastic setting. Bas-Lag is not a world that could exist -- at least, not as it does here -- in a slim, lapidary volume. Only an epic could do it justice. | July 2002