Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories – A Review
Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
Finished the last bit of China Miéville’s new collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories, yesterday afternoon. I think the most succinct way I could explain how I feel is that I’ve been conned, but it was so effective that I don’t mind.
I’ll unpack that a bit – the collection contains 28 pieces in all, which cover several styles of narrative. There are longer, self-contained stories, as well as short pieces that only run a few pages, and little vignettes or breakdowns of imagined film trailers which are shorter still. I say it’s a con because a lot of them read more like self-indulgent exercises, especially the short pieces. Whimsy, which is enjoyable enough to read, but not a whole lot to sink your teeth into.
The longer works are better – Miéville has an estimable rendering of different voices, by which I mean that choice of tone, of language, of which details to gloss or hide are in themselves an effective way of characterising the various narrators. The individual pieces are well researched – there is enough appropriately-placed jargon to make believable that these should be the recollections of a New York psychiatrist, that a bourgeois English Doctor, and these others a sectarian Leftist, and so on and so on. He is also able to make use of an efficient development of feeling – with space constraints tight, the ability to get the reader to feel for the protagonist and their relations within the first page is laudable. Miéville achieves this with an economical rounding of his characters – you get a good sense of who these people are, and are thus able to understand their motivations and their reactions, developing a sympathetic attachment to them. They are believable, and, despite some surreal or fantastical situations, they behave in a human way.
Even the longer works, though, generally leave you hanging. I might be wrong, but I think that this is likely by design. Without assuming too much about intention, I want to say that the lack of a satisfying resolution, the failure to draw back the curtain on the mystery, to offer up the background details of the weird and sometimes horrific circumstances, this is meant to mirror the frustrations of actual life. More often than not, reality fails to provide a satisfying, full explanation for the oddities of life, so why shouldn’t fiction mimic this? It’s challenging, it can be a bit of a let down, and, in less capable hands, would fall flat pretty quick, but when done right does a good job at pushing the form forward.
Miéville’s sociological training comes to the fore in several of the pieces. His interest in systems, in the organisation of communities of people and in the flotsam of dead civilisations is on display throughout. Despite the brevity of each of the sections, this stratigraphic depth, this clutter of hidden lives and times gone by broadens out the feel. Without wasting costly words, one gets a sense of breadth, of something beyond the horizons. As I said in my review for The City & the City, it’s a good job that Miéville keeps the lens tight – the more surrealist and weird pieces, they work because everyone is in on the oddity, or because the fantastical is hidden well enough that it doesn’t overturn most everyone’s lives. This works especially well in short fiction, where you don’t have to account for the knock-on effects in the wider world, quick and dirty, you can cut in and out. The lack of exploration of these ramifications is a large part of my earlier grievance – the stories usually cut out before you get the satisfaction of how this is all meant to work, or what it means on a larger scale. Human, thy condition is disappointment.
So, on the whole, pick it up if you’re a fan of China or of challenging fiction. You won’t find much satisfaction here, not of the mundane variety, but, if you’re looking for something that will tease you, will leave you wanting more, this is a solid bet. There are moments of humour, certainly, and some of the longer reads, whether they be apocalyptic, tragic, or horrific in tone, can leave you feeling a bit troubled – a definite sign of effective writing. I found it clipped along fairly well, despite refusing to render up the fulfillment of easier fiction – the bite-size portions break up the 430+ pages nicely. Good for something before bed or a light commute.