Friday, 20 May 2011

The Emperor's New Clothes

The tale of the Emperor's new clothes goes thusly: "An Emperor who cares for nothing but his appearance and attire hires two tailors who promise him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "just hopelessly stupid". The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position or stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense. Suddenly, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others."

I am curious right now about whether this effect is occurring with a book.

*breathes a deep breath* Let's go....

I want to preface this by saying that I adore China Miéville. I love his geeky credentials. I love the way he is so proud to be a part of genre literature. I love the way he is prepared to talk back to the establishment and make them listen. I thoroughly enjoyed The City and The City, which still remains the one and only novel of his I have read.

But not the only novel I have started. I started Embassytown the night I received it at the (much-derided) pre-publication launch. I read the first one hundred or so pages on the train on the way home. When I arrived home I put it down and have not yet felt inclined to pick it up and finish it.

I found it dense and virtually unreadable. I enjoyed the unfettered joy in language on display, but found the novel itself cold and difficult. I am quite prepared to stand up here now and tell you all that I felt stupid because I didn't appreciate it, and I was mighty curious as to the reviews that would emerge of the novel. Would the reviews deal with the difficulty in immersing yourself in Miéville's latest novel? Would they call him out at all for the fact that language gets in the way of enjoyment?

So far, all the reviews I've read have been *glowing*. China's best novel to date; a tour de force; a glorious novel that is sure to pick up awards; the most likely genre novel of recent times to be placed on the Booker shortlist..... And I found myself scratching my head.

Am I the only one who hasn't appreciated it? (with the caveat that I've only read the first hundred pages or so!) Or is everyone else falling under the spell of New Clothes and declaring the novel perfect, even if they believe, deep down, that it is not the book they say it is?

I know this is controversial and likely to be shouted down (I'm particularly waiting from comments from Martin, Kev and Larry, who have all told me I am wrong on many occasions *winks*) but I would be interested in two discussions.

The first being:

Is Embassytown worth pursuing? Does it all click into place? I want to hear reasoned arguments as to whether I can find anything of value if I pick it up again?

The second being:

Do you think the case of the Emperor's New Clothes occurs with novels? Have you been mystified about the success of a novel, and wondered if everyone is part of some strange conspiracy to talk it up? Which novel was it for you?

You can even yell at me for being stupid if you wish! But please do remember - I ADORE China. He's ace. I'm not attacking the author in any way, shape or form!


  1. Can't comment on #1 as I haven't read it, but on #2 - Suzanna Clarke's Jonathon Norrell book completely perplexed me. Everybody raves about it and yet... I attempted to read it twice and still couldn't see what the fuss was about. Got bored halfway through and had to fight to make it to the end.

  2. I put down Perdido Street Station after 100 pages and never picked it up again. It may be that some people just don't like China's work at all and others only like some of it...

  3. 1. Yes. I think it's ultimately a more successful novel than TC&TC, in fact, though I wouldn't rate it as highly as most of the reviews have. But you're absolutely right that it's a chill, tough read. It becomes a bit more linear in the second half, and a certain amount of suppressed emotion bubbles to the surface, but it never becomes a welcoming novel, precisely. (But I actually like the affect of it: bright points of life surrounded by immense and uncharted darkness.)

    2. I think the first wave of response to a book is the first wave of response to a book. It's not "right" or "wrong" per se; the way I'd put it is that the community seeks an opinion, a conventional wisdom, so discussion of a book can quite easily seem to converge around strong poles of opinion. (Hence also backlash.) Over time a more nuanced picture of a book's popularity, strengths and weaknesses, tends to appear.

  4. I read City and the City first and was amazed by the novel, so much so that I bought every single one of his previous novels (pre-embassy town that is).

    I thought I'd start at the beginning and go through them in the order China Miéville has written them, which so far has meant that I've read King Rat, which I also loved.

    I find it difficult to define just what it is I like so much about his style, in a way I feel that he manages to capture the essence of those writers in the "golden age" of science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke etc) and as such it's like he's writing in a science fiction-esque voice but telling fantasy style stories.

    I'm not sure that the new clothes analogy works for his writing as both books I've read so far have been very different in style and delivery but just because you like one book written by an author doesn't mean you will like them all.

    For me Michael Moorcock is a good example, some of his novels I think are great, but other books by him I've just not liked at all - and yet I do still seriously respect the author.

    As Jenny mentioned it's all a matter of taste too, I found Susan Clarke's novel just completely boring...

  5. Embassytown is the first (and so far only) Miéville novel I've read, and I thought it was fantastic. To be honest, I was gripped from the first page and couldn't put it down.

    I've read complaints about how Miéville drops you in without explaining anything and expects you to catch up; but that's how most of my favorite authors—including Steven Erikson and Gene Wolfe—write. It's that slow drip of information that keeps me engaged, reading along in anticipation of mysteries becoming clear.

  6. And, I should add, they do become clear.

  7. I have attempted The City & the City about three times now and each time my attempt has been cut short less than fifty pages in by the headache it causes.

    It is not exactly a difficult book or anything, there's just something about it that produces a headache from hell, which makes it impossible to read or do much of anything at all until it subsides. Of course, this could just be coincidental, but since it has happened every time, I prefer to blame the book.

  8. I know what you mean, and it does happen – I read The Wise Man's Fear and thought it was beautifully written but massively overlong (and a bit Mary-Sue-ish), and then the reviews came out and were lavishing it with so much praise that I had to wonder if I'd read the same book.

    Embassytown is an amazing piece of work, but it's not what I'd describe as an enjoyable novel (it reminded me a lot of Light, by M John Harrison - a literary SF book that is lavished with an insane amount of praise, but which I have to admit I simply didn't get), and for me I don't know that the effort in getting through Embassytown completely repaid the reward. It's got a lot of the same 'thought experiment' feel to it that The City and the City had, but unfortunately without the whodunnit thriller aspect that really made that book work for me. And, to be honest, while writing Science Fiction is a departure for him, I kind of wish he hadn't written a book that's quite so China Mieville - personally, I'd have kind of preferred it if he'd gone "Screw it! Here's an epic Iain M Banks space opera with lots of starships!" just to shock the hell out of everyone, rather than writing something that's incredibly inventive but does, to be honest, feel like another China Mieville novel about politics and language and urban environments and incredibly imaginative creatures. But then, that's me.

  9. I am honestly somewhat wary of picking up Embassytown. I loved The Scar (still think it's his best), Perdido Street, Un Lun Dun, and The City and the City, but I was really disappointed by Kraken. I guess I'm just worried that Mieville is now in some new stage of his writing career and Embassytown will be just like Kraken for me. I think eventually I will pick it up, though, since I liked so many of his books.

    As for the second question... The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don't get the hype. I couldn't get through it. :/

  10. I feel this way about a lot of books other people love and hold up as the gold-standard-of-x-y-and-z. However, considering the sheer volume (and relative level of authority) of people who seem to love these books (and number of people who don't like the books I've loved), I've come to the conclusion that I'm just wrong.

    Re: Mieville, I read Perdido Street Station and finished it. The ending was so depressing I've been reluctant to read any of his other books. I also get the impression that, if China had his way, it'd be about ten times the length it is now (and it's already huge).

  11. @ Saxon

    I have never understood why The Name of the Wind gets so much praise. The book was OK and left me with no desire to continue on. To me, the prose was middling, but readable, and the characterization ventured too deep into the Sue end of the pool. Nothing impressive. The only thing that kept be going was that it was a decent enough story and the pacing was blazing fast... well, until it splattered into a brick wall when the dragon bit came around.

    Reviews for Wise Man's Fear have painted it as more of the same, which, for me, goes against the high praise the series has received and especially terms like "masterpiece".


    I'll never understand it, but different strokes, I guess.

  12. I found the exact same thing when I read Kraken. I found it very very dense and once I put it down I had little desire to pick it up again. However, Once I'd read through a certain amount I found myself enjoying it immensely. Everyone gave it excellent reviews so I stuck with it and I found I was not disappointed. I think Mieville's novels require a second read through in order to get the awesomeinaeity (that's a proper word, promise :P) of them.

  13. Gushing praise for every book, from some quarter, seems to be the order of the day. This makes it harder in some ways to identify the good (both books and reviewers) from the painfully mediocre.

    I've yet to see the blogsphere form a real consensus, as bloggers come to the books and hence their reviews, from different backgrounds, with different expectations, and more relevant, with very disperate levels of rigour applied to their critiques.

    Taste may make a difference, but a good reviewer should be able to communicate far more meaningful information than simply "I liked it" or "it stinks." Verbosity aside, there needs to be some signifiers and deeper digging into the work to really convince me - or a recommendation from a reviewer whom I truly trust, through exposition of the process directly above, or past successes.

    For example, I find that the likes of Paul Charles Smith of Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dream, Jonathan Mccalmont's Ruthless Culture, Martin Lewis from Everything Is Nice, Larry of the feared and Sciuridae loving OF Blog and a majority of the reviews at Strange Horizons, provide both the thoroughness and critical insight needed to expose a book for what it is, good, bad, or indifferent, and share enough of my own taste in genre fiction - and fiction in general, that I am almost always willing to take a punt on their recommended reading. To date, and many books later, I am pleased to say I've been rarely disappointed.

    But I can't claim the same for the majority of review sites I've stumbled across online. I've dozens of others bookmarked and on feed - but the truth is, mostly they seem to either focus on books that are not within my zone of interest or provide too minimal or fanish reviews of their material. So, while I don't disregard them, I certainly don't trust them - even in aggregate - in quite the same way.

    As for China - I'm a poor defender or critic of his work. I've only read one of his novels to date, The City & The City, and had mixed feelings about it. But it was for the most part, what I expected - and succeeded and failed, for me, along very predictable lines. Above all, I did not feel like I'd wasted my time reading it. There is no doubt that the writer was doing more than just showing up so he could collect his royalty check or work off his previous (and future) advances. Some day I'll correct this glaring oversight.


  14. I loved Embassytown. Then again, I live in a bilingual post-Soviet country (excuse my grammar), so the issues Miéville deals with - colonialism, the struggle for independence and not completely satisfying outcome, language use as a demonstration of power, the impossibility of understanding - they all are real for me, I've experienced them.

    The book starts rather slow. It gets faster, but still it's all about politics and linguistics, and a bit more funny if you know who Lakoff and Ricoeur are.

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  16. I listened to the audio versions of The City and The City and Kraken. I read Un Lun Dun. I've also tried to read Perdido Street Station. I loved both The City and the City and Kraken. I thought Un Lun Dun was great but didn't love it.

    I don't think I will ever pick up another Mieville book to read. I am going to listen to them. The transition from reading to audio for me changes the book completely and I'm able to enjoy it. I found myself getting so hung up in his extensive vocabulary and the detail of his writing that I wasn't enjoy it. It wasn't moving fast enough and the story seemed to drag. I can't explain why this changes when I listen to his books but for me it does. I found both books I've listened to, to be engaging and well paced.

    I didn't feel like Un Lun Dun was well paced when I read it. I got to a part in the book and thought it would be over except I wasn't even halfway in. The story just seemed to have an ending there and it threw me off when it continued on.

    Mieville is dense and delves into social/political issues. His writing isn't for everyone and at times it is completely unreadable because it gets in the way of a very fascinating story. I think if you can get through reading his cold, detached and sometimes overwordy prose, the books can be very good. The only way I've found that I can do this is with audiobooks.