Imagine science and technology came to Middle-Earth. Now imagine that it’s not Middle-Earth, but Bas-Lag, and in place of hobbits, orcs, elves, and ents, you have steam-cyborgs, crays, cactacae, and ab-dead. Instead of epic heroism, imagine people so morally murky that Sauron would walk away from the worst of them in disgust. Mix SF, fantasy, steampunk, and traveller’s tale, people the result with psychologically complex (and complexed) characters, and have an extraordinarily gifted writer tell their stories. The book is The Scar by China Mieville, and I suspect it will receive my vote for best novel at this year’s Hugo Awards.
Title: The Scar
Author: China Mieville
Original Publication Date: July 2002
Cover Price: $13.27 U.S./23.16 Canadian
A librarian fleeing the government of New Crobuzon (featured in Perdido Street Station) finds herself shanghaied by a legendary floating pirate city and entangled in a sailor’s knot of uncertain politics, fantastic conspiracy, and shifting alliances.
China Mieville has created a world as fully realized as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. True, The Scar lacks the mythic purity and widespread appeal of The Lord of the Rings, but in Bas-Lag we have a world as complex and dirty as our own, which must wrestle with issues that never plagued the Hobbits. There are no heroes here, and no simple moral answers. I didn’t entirely like anyone, but I never doubted them as characters.
Bas-Lag has a history and a geography that sound real, and which matter. We have neither appendix nor map to which we can turn; we see and feel these things where they affect the story. The writer never forgets that this history exists and it influences events profoundly, but he understands perfectly what the Turkey City Lexicon calls “the Edges of Ideas.”
Mieville constantly surprised me, and yet I recognized everything, or nearly so. He has taken bits and pieces of history, palaeontology, maritime lore, and genre conventions and reconfigured them into something familiar, yet alien.
The ending wasn’t entirely satisfying, but perhaps the morally murky world of Bas-Lag doesn’t permit closure. Still, I felt a bit cheated. The time-frame also seems a little odd. A minor character named Meriope is pregnant at the novel’s start, and ready to give birth two-thirds of the way through the story. A huge lot of ground– or rather, expanse of ocean– gets covered in those nine months. It feels like more time should have passed.
Originality: 6/6 The Scar contains enough original and bizarre ideas to fill several shelves in a genre bookstore.
Imagery: 5/6 This may be the most original and vividly-described alternate world in recent years; I can feel Armada’s unsteady back alleys beneath my feet. (The pirate city also incorporates Bas-Lag doppelgangers of various famous ships).
Mieville avoids specific description of many of the creatures and inhabitants, giving us only hints and details. Often, this allows us to create our own images. In the case of the crays, however, he does become specific at one point, and I admit I was a little disappointed by the official version of these beings; they seem too anthropomorphic. The book has far more memorable discoveries than mildly disappointing ones, however. The island of the anophelii comes to mind as one example.
Story: 5/6 Brilliant, with many unexpected twists. The ending disappoints somewhat.
Characterization: 5/6 Mieville renders beautifully several characters, such as Bellis Coldwine and Tanner Sack. Others remain enigmas. We learn too little about Hedrigall, who plays a key role in the conclusion.
Emotional Response: 6 out of 6. Wow.
Editing: 6 out of 6. (Ok…. 5.6) Only once or twice does Mieville fall into the linguistic excess sometimes found in the SF and fantasy genres. Of this year’s nominated writers whom I’ve read, he is far and away the best wordsmith.
Overall Score: 6 out 6.
In total, The Scar receives 39 out of 42.
Additional Notes and Comments:
The Scar has been nominated for a Hugo Award and, of the three nominated novels I’ve read thus far, this one has my vote. Look for reviews of the remaining two nominees in the novel category between now and August.
Articles on other Hugo categories will also appear come summer.