Visions of Paradise

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Scar

One of the most difficult feats for a writer is to follow a masterwork with another novel which does not disappoint its readers. Thinking back through my nearly 40 years of reading science fiction (40 years? Where the hell has the time flown?), it is hard to find many contemporary writers who wrote two consecutive masterpieces. Many subsequent novels were quite good, but two masterpieces in a row? Perhaps Orson Scott Cad who followed Ender’s Game with the superior Speaker For the Dead. Going back farther, Alfred Bester followed The Demolished Man with The Stars My Destination, which I also thought was superior to the first one.

What difference does it make if the followup novel to a masterpiece is its equal? Objectively, not much, but subjectively, when reading the followup novel there is often the anticipation in the back of a reader’s mind of the second novel being as good as the previous one, so that if the novel is 80% as good, or even 90% as good, it is still not the equal of its predecessor, and hence can be somewhat of a letdown.

Years later, when the followup novel is reread on its own merits, without the stigma of following the masterpiece, it generally stands or falls on its own qualities without such a subjective comparison. Such novels often seem much better upon that second reading than they did initially. Which might explain why Michael Bishop has not published another novel since Brittle Innings was published a decade ago since, in my opinion, Brittle Innings may have been the finest science fiction novel ever written.

So why am I discussing all this now? Because China Miéville’s Perdito Street Station was the type of masterpiece which comes around once or twice a decade and immediately anoints its author as one of the contemporary grandmasters of science fiction. I think it only had 2 equals among sf novels in the past decade, the aforementioned Brittle Innings and The Fall of Hyperion.
I try not to raise my expectations for a novel too high, but what could Miéville possibly do for a sequel? The initial reviews of The Scar were generally positive, and one of them even claimed it was better than Perdito Street Station. Knowing that was unlikely, I still ordered a copy of The Scar as soon as it was published, and began reading it the day it arrived in the mail.

The Scar features many of the same strengths as Perdito Street Station: Miéville’s ability to create a living, breathing world which is strikingly original compared to most generic fantasy; characters who are obviously products of his fantastic world, a combination of alien and familiar, yet always realistic enough to provide emotional ties for the reader.

But Miéville never forgets to be a storyteller first, realizing a book set in a fantastic world can still be tedious if nothing worthwhile happens in that world.

The setting of The Scar is pirate city; no, not a city of pirates, but a square mile-sized city in the middle of an ocean built of hundreds of pirated boats permanently tied together. Its inhabitants are either captured from pirated boats or descendants of captives. With a few exceptions, nobody goes to Armada voluntarily; nearly everybody is there by force. Most inhabitants learn to love it, although some accept their entrapment there grudgingly and make the most of their lives.

Armada is a fabulous creation, and Miéville makes it both believable and continuously inventive. The city has its own ecology, its own political structure, its own tourist attractions. The book is equal parts travelogue and a complex plot involving Armada.

Unfortunately, the plot itself is not nearly as successful as the setting. Where the plot of Perdito Street Station fit the setting perfectly, the plot of The Scar suffers from a lack of believability. Parts of it reminded me of a Rube Goldberg creation in literary form: needlessly confusing and impossible to succeed without stretching credibility near the breaking point.

Nor did this lack of believability happen only once, but several times in the book. I won’t discuss them for fear of spoiling the book’s surprises for other readers, especially since what I consider weaknesses might be pleasant developments for others.

In spite of its weaknesses, the marvelous setting and characters carry The Scar very well, and while it never achieves the level of a page-turner, it never drops below the level of pleasant reading. If only Miéville had thought a little bit deeper about some of his basic assumptions though. The Scar had the potential to equal Perdito Street Station as another masterpiece, potential which it did not achieve.

However, this did not lower my expectations for Miéville’s latest novel, Iron Council, about which my comments must wait until the paperback copy appears in the Spring.


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