THREE MOMENTS OF AN EXPLOSION
By China Mieville
Del Rey/Paperback/382 pages/$31.95/Books Kinokuniya
Even when he is orbiting somewhere in a galaxy too far away for normal human comprehension, genre-subverting English novelist China Mieville is dazzling. His latest collection of short stories, Three Moments Of An Explosion, crowds virtuosity into every sentence.
The stories - long, short, scraps of ideas, fully imagined almost- novellas - roam all over the place but typically start with people going about their business, life humming gently along, no worries.
A man and his daughter walk along the beach in England. A doctor prepares for a conference in California. A psychiatrist in Brooklyn talks about her work.
And then something turns. Suddenly the man and the girl are watching, awed and frightened, as an offshore oil rig that collapsed years before rises from its grave beneath the sea, lumbers along the earth and lays eggs underground.
Suddenly, the doctor is describing how the bizarre symptoms invented by his girlfriend, an actress who helps train medical students - she says her hands look like ghosts' hands, that she is vomiting food she has not eaten - are coming true in real patients.
Suddenly the shrink is crouched on a rooftop in Bushwick in the middle of the night, aiming a hunting rifle and declaring: "If you have to take more than one shot, maybe you shouldn't be a therapist."
After that, things skew so quickly into another dimension that even when Mieville goes too far, cramming too much into too small a space, you can only marvel at the suppleness of his imagination, the inventiveness of his language.
Like his stories, his books skitter among genres, magpie-ing elements from science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, traditional fairy tales, steampunk, horror and something called weird fiction, among others.
In his noir detective novel The City & The City, he imagines two cities superimposed on each other whose residents are ordered, by law, to "unsee" one another.
His fantasy novels, including a trilogy set in and around the magical city-state of New Crobuzon, have the refreshing effect of making Middle-earth seem plodding and flat. There is interspecies sex, for one thing.
And who needs Shelob, Tolkien's grouchy old spider, when you can have the Weaver, the multi- dimensional spider-god of Perdido Street Station (2000), who speaks in verse and is obsessed with a web connecting everything in the universe?
Mieville is also a Marxist and left-wing campaigner who received his PhD in Marxism and international law. His literary preoccupations include power imbalances, the abuse of citizens by governments and the methods by which people are killing the planet.
It would seem difficult to find interesting new ways of describing the impending apocalypse, but Mieville rises to the challenge.
In the story Keep, victims of a deadly epidemic become ringed by trenches - depressions suddenly erupting in the earth - if they remain still for too long.
In Polynia, Londoners grapple with the sudden appearance of a flotilla of icebergs that waft in the air above the city.
In The Condition Of New Death, corpses swivel around, for no apparent reason, so that their feet always point towards whoever looks at them.
Some of my favourite stories in the book are straight-up horror tales reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe or the 2014 movie The Babadook.
Sacken is a sharp little tale about a young woman subjected for an unknown reason to a horrible ancient punishment, first laid out in Justinian law, involving a sack, a bunch of animals and a body of water.
I did not love all the stories. Some were so abstruse, so erudite, that I had a hard time keeping up.
Mieville knows high culture, low culture, history, how to spell "anagnorisis" and "integument", how to use phrases such as "radical aesthetic democracy" in a sentence and what the Book Of Thoth is.
It is not that he is trying to show off - if anything, it feels as if he has so much to say that he is limited by the words and forms of thinking available to him - but occasionally I thought he was too smart for me.
He can't help impressing though. There are things to admire in every story, even the ones you cannot quite grasp. The book left me feeling unsettled, uneasy, nervous and I think that is Mieville's point.
He wants to draw attention to the scratching under the floorboards, the panic in our heads, the rebellion of nature and inanimate objects.
As he says: "These days, there are so many odd and troubling noises in the city." NEW YORK TIMES