Kraken, by China Mieville, is another “city-within-a-city” novel, like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s previous (rather lacklustre) effort, UnLunDun. In this case the city-wthin-the-city is a supernatural world of grafters, shonksters and magicians, all oriented around a plethora of cults who worship “cast-off” deities and apocalyptic visions, all residing within London. There are some parts of London that are hidden or secret but the majority of it happens in plain view, in the same London that you or I know.

Unlike Mieville’s previous effort, the elsewhere London in this novel is really apt to the real London. It’s a world of cockney arseholes, criminals, rip-off merchants and sleazebags, where people construct their magical lives from cast-off objects and ideas, working their magic in the interstices of objects and cultures. Even the magic itself is beautifully London, a type of make-do enchanting called “knacking” that depends on the resemblances between real objects and the spells constructed from them. The magic is often low-key, cobbled together, not-quite-right, and a bit dirty. Just like London. The elsewhere world perfectly reflects the realities of London’s fragmented, higgledy-piggledy reality, its dirt, the way everyone in the city has to make the best they can of what they’ve got. It also cleverly reflects that sense in London of ideas and cultures all packed together, confused, borrowing from each other and overcrowded in the same supposedly English space. London is a broken, nowhere town, full of transient people, transient plans and transient cultures. Mieville seems to have finally put all this together into a science-fantasy of quite stunning brilliance.

He’s also managed to merge the modern and the arcane in quite clever ways, just like Jim Butcher has in the Dresden Files. A few small examples:

  • a character uses the internet to search out her lover, and discovers a whole hidden world of “knackers” and cultists working online
  • a character is paid for his work in Star Trek memorabilia that has been “knacked” so that it works
  • cultists and believers steal ideas for their “knacks,” their style and manner from science fiction and fantasy, so that their work is self-referential, and sometimes their magic is intended to mimic the magic or tech of their favourite shows
  • a chameleon character uses his magic to infiltrate organizations by appearing to be one of their members; but the way he does it is perfectly and completely dependent upon mimicking and exploiting modern corporate culture

My absolute favourite so far has been the chapter devoted to describing the background of the guy who runs the Familiar’s Union. He used to be  a statue that served Egyptian souls in their afterlife, but he ran a strike there, then left the afterlife and swam back up through the netherworld to the world of the living, to become an organizer. This story is uniquely brilliant to me because it merges cultures rather than technologies from two different times. Instead of him being simply an Egyptian magician who wears an ankh necklace and hangs out in a club, he’s an Egyptian magical slave from a slave-owning time, who has transcended the netherworld to become that quintessential element of the modern Industrial age – a union organizer. But the things he’s organizing don’t always have souls, and work in an industrial landscape that is pre-modern (the cottage industries of wizards). This is Mieville at his best, blending politics, culture, and history through sci fi fantasy for the pure purpose of having fun.

The plot is also beautifully self-referential without being wanky. Essentially, it involves the theft of an embalmed giant squid from the London Natural History Museum. The squid is probably a dead god, and is worshiped by a cult of messianic krakenists, who believe that at the end of the world they will be drawn to a heaven in the Ocean’s deeps. The whole thing is full of cthulhu references (sometimes directly) even though there’s no admission that either the squid or the cult are directly cthulhu-worshipers. The theft coincides with some kind of magical change in London, and the chase is on to find the squid before something really bad happens. Of course the people doing the chasing are in conflict with a sinister, evil organization or organizations, who are really really evil and constructed from a really interesting pastiche of modern images, sub-cultures and cults. The book includes two bad guys, Goss and Subby, who are almost up to the standard of the bad guys in Neverwhere.

I thought that Mieville went off the rails a bit with Iron Council (pardon the pun) and UnLunDun, but he’s back on track with this gem. I haven’t finished yet but so far it’s brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone who needs a bit of science-fantasy entertainment. This book also cements my view of China Mieville as a great writer of, and possibly the main exponent/inventor of, some kind of new sub-genre of science-fantasy, Urban Chaos Science Fantasy, maybe, or CityPunk, or something. His three best novels that I’ve read – Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and now Kraken – are all based in a kind of city, and the vibrancy of the city itself is essential to the plot of the books. The city is almost a character on its own in his work, and his strength is in his representation of the extraordinary and ordinary lives of its denizens.

I also think that Mieville’s leftist politics is a complete furphy in analysis of his work, because although it clearly informs the creation of some of the characters, and his depiction of the different strata of the societies he creates, I think ultimately his works are surprisingly devoid of political messages (though rich in political conflict). For a man who is generally caricatured as a cardboard cutout lefty from the Politburo, his work is actually both suprisingly anarchist (not leninist at all!) and generally devoid of strong left-wing political messages. I don’t think I’ve met a single character outside of Iron Council who ever could be said to represent Mieville’s politics, nor have I read a plot that shows them clearly. Even The Scar, which is a bit of a Utopian quest, if it has any political interpretation at all, would be a guarded critique of the folly of trusting vanguardists – which would be a bit wierd coming from someone of Mieville’s supposedly Marxist-Leninist views. The key to understanding Mieville’s work is his representation of cities.

So, again: read this if you have the time and money, ’cause so far it’s great!