Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
The Scar
China Miéville
Macmillan UK, 604 pages

Edward Miller
The Scar
China Miéville
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a master's with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

There were few in the world of speculative fiction who failed to notice Perdido Street Station, published on the eve of the new millennium. Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke and British Fantasy Awards for 2001, this prodigious novel immediately catapulted young author China Miéville to the forefront of literary fantasy, loudly proclaiming a new and major talent in the field. Conjuring a cityscape unparalleled since Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast or M. John Harrison's Virconium, Miéville significantly blurred the lines between literature, fantasy and science fiction, constructing a brooding landscape that was at once modern and medieval, envisioned with both protean wonder and horror, and populated with a cast in part Dickensian, in part utterly alien. Rife with metaphor and at times biting social criticism, Miéville was nonetheless able to invest his characters, even the most grotesque and foreign, with an abiding sympathy that peered behind the depravity and inhumanity that often described the squalor and mechanistic poverty that mapped the streets and ghettoes of New Crobuzon. Like a photo by Joel Peter Witkin, Miéville was able to frame and mirror a disturbing beauty amidst monstrosity that provides a uncomfortable glimpse into the darker nature and existence our own souls, an aspect of ourselves we prefer not to recognize or talk about, yet offering an uneasy if hard redemption and grace gained through having fallen.

In many ways, as heralded by its title, The Scar bids to carry on this existential delving into the hidden and wounded nature of human experience, reinforced by a return to the wonders and horrors of New Crobuzon. However, in The Scar, Miéville chooses to build his city anew, in the form of a floating Armada, a pelagic architecture constructed of decaying and rusted ships roped together by rigging, catwalks and suspended bridges of cordage and plank that drifts upon the currents of the sea. Unknown to the authorities of the city-state of New Crobuzon, Armada is a loose confederation harboring many of their former misfits and criminals, a refuge for escaped Remades, divided into semi-autonomous ridings that support themselves by their own industry, thaumaturgy and piracy. Strange and exotic gardens grow and overhang decks and crowded, tottering tenements built upon the raised and gutted hulks of ironclad steamers and rotted wooden frigates that continuously bob and shift upon the water, weathering calms and storms far from any shore, dwarfed in the vast expanse of the Swollen Ocean. A sprawling ships' graveyard, "a city built on old boat bones... spread over almost a square mile of sea... a vista of reconfigured masts and bowsprits... of beakheads and forecastles," cafés and markets crawl the narrow streets, and factories, with their smoke and smelt pots, punctuate the evening skyline of the industrial quarters. Fleets of dirigibles and balloons ferry equipment and people over the crows-nests and crosstrees foresting the city. Below, cargoes are bustled and stacked at Basilio Docks, mobs of pedestrians pursue sundry errands or head off to work, farmers raise inbred stock and highly sought-after, if sickly, crops. Monkeys dwell and chatter amidst the rigging, grudgingly sharing their aerial perch with sea birds and lost flocks of parakeets and pigeons. Below the water, beneath a tangle of twisted pipes, ladders, seaweed and barnacled hulls, crays, menfish and submersibles troll and harvest the treasures of the sea. When the jerried "flotilla of dwellings" needs to move, it is towed along by a fleet of scuttling tugs.

Armada "is the sum of hundreds of cultures... the sum of history's lost ships," a maritime home to renegade privateers, press-ganged Crobuzoners, escaped slaves and Remades, khepri, cactacae, scabmettlers, cray, spined hotchi, and llorgis, gathered together from every nation of Bas-Lag, from countries as different and far afield as Kohnid, Gnurr Kett, Dreer Samheer, Nova Esperium, the underwater world of Salkrikaltor City, or even legendary High Cromlech. In appearance, Armada is everything New Crobuzon is not: a world inverted, never stationary, drifting upon the ocean, where "aerostats [sail] like submersibles through the city's rigging," the sea reveals depths to equal the heavens, and in terms of environment, water replaces the land. Each riding possesses its own form of governance, from the democratic council of Curhouse, the mercantile guild of Thee-And-Thine, to the martial caste system of Shaddler, the collegial Booktown of the khepri, ethnic, cactacae Jhour, or aquatic Bask. Egalitarian, different cultures and beliefs live side by side, united by their common interest and pride in the sanctuary and freedom afforded by their floating city. Even the vampir have been accepted and accommodated into the riding of Dry Fall, whose common citizenry live well and protected in exchange for contributing a periodic goretax of a couple pints to their ab-dead overseers, an arrangement agreed of mutual benefit to all. Though poverty exists, it is of a different breed than that of New Crobuzon, with no one lacking a roof over their head, or having to scavenge dangerous slums in order to survive. Crime seems noticeably absent, unless one counts the piracy practiced upon others.

Despite Armada's reputation as a sanctuary, the city's growth is based upon a continuous influx of citizens seized during piracy and forced into joining the populace. These newly acquired citizens are watched, whereas others, those deemed too resentful of their new status to be entirely trusted, are detained to see whether they will adapt to their new circumstances and citizenship. The press ganged can never leave, and no one knows, or at least discusses, what happens to those who prove unable to adjust. New citizens are assigned employment, just as they are allotted residence. These decisions are not a matter of choice. And, regardless of the veneer of equality, Armada is a nevertheless a city, necessitating a bureaucracy, even if not the expected "brutocracy." Still, for the most part, Armada's immigrants soon enough come to embrace or at least accept their new if imposed home.

But the city also possesses a secret, glimpsed at times in the watery shadows undulating beneath the sea. Whispers and uncertainty dwell in the streets. And though each riding in theory provides a loose confederation of equals, Garwater has risen to preeminence and unspoken authority amongst the confederates. Led by the mysterious couple known simply as The Lovers, they have a vision for Armada known only to themselves and a secretive cabal of hunters, scientists, and thaumaturges who serve them, protected by the dread and unknown warrior, Uther Doul. More, and unbeknownst to the inhabitants, the city is being stalked by something from the depths.

Into this exotic world and mystery are thrown five complete strangers, press ganged into citizenship when their ship is waylaid by Armada pirates on its way to the remote colony of Nova Esperium. These five passengers initially have little in common: Johannes Tearfly is a naturalist, bound on a sabbatical to study the fauna and flora of far flung Nova Esperium; Shekel a cabin boy who unintentionally befriends a Remade convict, Tanner Sack, deformed by grafts of tentacles dangling from his chest, the marks of his torture and punishment, and his passport into exile and slavery on New Crobuzon's newest penal colony. The linguist Bellis Coldwine, on the other hand, is fleeing from New Crobuzon, sought by the authorities for her possible involvement in a plague of murderous dreams that have recently terrorized the city (a former lover of Isaac der Grimnebulin of Perdido fame, by the way, which is the source of all her immediate problems). Silas Fennec, however, only joins their journey late at Salkrikaltor, possessing documents that, without explanation, force their ship back to New Crobuzon. It is a return voyage that will never reach its destination.

Once aboard Armada, all five will become variously entangled in plots to save not only New Crobuzon from dire threat, but the Lovers' dream of raising and harnessing a transplane creature of legendary proportions that will enable Armada to journey to the fabled Scar, a rent in the world's fabric where possibilities can be mined. In the process, some will travel to a distant island, prison to the murderous but scholarly anophelii, a storm of lightning elementals will be invoked, battles will be fought, and fabulous wonders and perils will be experienced that will unite former foes as well as pit allies against one another, until Armada itself appears poised either for epiphany or ultimate destruction. Amidst turbulence and shifting appearances, marvels, sorcery and intrigue, little is as it seems, and characters will betray not only each other, but eventually themselves. And the possible outcome will itself become but another question.

While in outline appearing perhaps the stuff of typical if imaginative fantasy, anyone who has read Perdido Street Station will instantly suspect there is much more going on here in The Scar than simple or mere tale-spinning, however wonderfully or inventively imagined. From title until the end, the nature and perception of scars is a recurrent theme throughout, echoed in the author's cast of grotesques. These scars can be visible, as in the ritual, sexual and impassioned carving the Lovers perform nightly upon one another's bodies and faces, wounds that precisely mirror each other until they represent "a map of their love," or the more invisible if as deeply exacted scars of memory. The Lovers' scaring "give Garwater its strength," their "cuts for love," "marks of mutual respect and equality" to be given as well as received, once mere displays of territory now transfigured into an act of metamorphosis for which the Lovers constantly hunger. This scarification becomes a form of communion, a "[bleeding] one into the other. Rupturing their integrity for something way beyond sex." But, as the chirurgeon reassures Tanner Sack, while performing elective surgery to refashion Sack's humanity into that of an aquatic creature, "scars are not injuries... a scar is a healing. After an injury, a scar is what makes you whole." Conversely, as in the struggle between Shekel and the Remade Angevine to consummate their love (complicated by the fact that Angevine has a boiler where her legs should be), the experience of love can cause "a caustic pain," leaving feelings to evolve and "heal in a new form, to scar."

In some sense this becomes equally tied and transformed into a realm of possibility through Armada's seeking of The Scar. A remnant left from the arrival of the now vanished Ghosthead Empire, a rent into the fabric of the continent caused by an interdimensional collision, what was once called the Fractured Land has since become the territory of legend, lost to memory beyond the equally fabled and treacherous currents of the Hidden Ocean. Rumored to be a Possibility Seam "rich in deposits of chance," the Lovers hope to discover its location in order to mine possibilities (a possibility, I might add, that refutes der Grimnebulin's theory of crisis energy in Perdido Street Station), to break what they may then reshape: "for every action, there [becomes] an infinity of outcomes," an ontology the Lovers dearly wish to tap.

Strangely, the example of the Lovers becomes pantomimed in varying guises by both ritual and more prosaic if yet exotic forms of bloodletting, which spot the narrative from the goretax of Dry Fall riding, to the characterization of the vampir as junkies or the deadly proboscis and hunger of the female anophelii. In some ways parodying our own prizefights with a blend of Shaolin Temple, at ringside scabmettlers perform mortu crutt, bleeding themselves with knives to form a scab armor from dried blood. Armada's drilling of the ocean bed to obtain oil and alchemic rockmilk becomes but another form of feeding and transfusion that catalyzes (or should I say cauterizes?) but another transformation. In many respects, the letting of blood and more importantly the resulting wounds and scars become a kind of cosmogony for events transpiring in the novel.

Though The Scar's loose connection to events and description in Perdido Street Station invite comparison, in many respects this is an individual novel in its own right, and comparisons may be unfair, though likely inevitable. Similar to the earlier narrative, this is a story on slow burn, lingering in its development, its plot not really beginning to coagulate until a couple hundred pages in. The early sense of tension and menace tautly present in the previous novel is largely absent here, and never attains the sustained pitch of Perdido. Here moments of dramatic action, except towards the end, are more widespread or muted, though the "nightmarish journey from Machinery Beach" is one of the most horrific I have encountered in fantasy fiction. Events in the latter portion of the book are equally compelling in their pace and enactment.

The Scar is also in some ways deceptively more straightforward, appearing to be more linear in its development, for the most part centering on the perspective of Bellis Coldwine, and to a lesser extent, Tanner Sack. Both are sympathetically and distinctly characterized, especially Bellis, who is far from a warm figure. The role of Shekel, once past his discovery of language, rapidly disappears from the pages. Other members of the cast, such as Silas Fennec, Johannes Tearfly, the brooding Brucolac, or the grindylow, play decidedly supporting or singular roles in terms of their narration of events. As always, the author reveals all of his cast, even those least likely to be attractive, with evenhanded compassion and humanity, sometimes poignantly rendered, as in the final moments of Johannes Tearfly or the concluding scenes with the Lovers. At the same time, he can be brutally honest with his characters, as is evidenced in a later confrontation between Silas Fennec and Bellis Coldwine. Finally, in making comparisons, it might be argued that Miéville's use of symbolism and metaphor here is much more subtle and less readily accessible than this work's predecessor.

The book's greatest strength remains Miéville's vivid description and fecund ability to create and imaginatively bring to life his highly exotic, often perverse yet wonderfully revealed and realized cities, as well as the cultures and mythography of Bas-Lag. Additionally, the narrative is peppered with delightful and often momentary details, such as the galleon library containing children's books named the Corrosive Memory, the restaurant on the Raddletongue called the Unrealized Time, or the tallow ghast believed to wander the haunted quarter. The author continues his Dickensian naming conventions, though they did not always seem here to possess any informative purpose. Miéville also persists in taking opportunities to deromanticize his narrative: after providing what is essentially an ode to the ocean in his preface, he later goes on to typify the sea as a "massive, moronic childpowerful, stupid and capricious." Even during the more beautiful passages of the preface, danger and menace lurk in the background.

There were times when I felt that the author's description, regardless of how marvelous or wonderfully detailed, was being asked to carry along too much of the narrative, and I suspect portions of The Scar could have been pared down without any notable suffering on the part of the development of the story or the conceptual elements. In some instances, it seemed as if we were covering already familiar ground without any appreciable change or amplification. If an effort to inform the reader through reiteration, I would suggest better understood the first time, or give the audience more credit. And, whether it was entirely wise for Miéville to replicate another city on the scale of New Crobuzon and to use it in a similar fashion, despite the author's obvious and unsurpassed ability to do so, I will leave for the reader to decide.

A work that should solidify the author's reputation, if not necessarily significantly advance it, The Scar marks another prodigious effort on the part of the author, one that is likely to be acknowledged come award and best list time.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide