by China Miéville
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Tain of China Miéville's title refers to a thin layer of silver or tin foil such as is used on the backing of a mirror. In this case, the tain in question divides the world of humans from the world of imagos, which are never entirely defined by Miéville, but which are clearly antithetical to humans and live in a sort of mirror world...usually. Some time prior to the beginning of the story, the imagos have managed to breach the tain between their world and ours, laying waste to vast tracts of London, which is now sparsely populated by imagos and humans alike, although in separate regions.
Miéville brings his awe-inspiring command of descriptive prose to bring this dilapidated London to life in all its misery and decay. There is a real sense of atmosphere as well as a sense of history. It seems reasonable that the London he depicts can grow out of the modern city. Another way history influences the text is the manner in which it calls to mind John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids, with Sholl replacing Masen as the central character. Like Masen in the earlier novel, Sholl has an interest in these strange invaders, although his goal is to eradicate them.
Unlike Wyndham, Miéville also presents the point of view of one of the imagos who comes into contact with Sholl. While this could provide more information about the imagos and their world, in fact, the imago Miéville depicts is as much in the dark about many aspects of its own society as Sholl is. This allows Miéville to slowly reveal what he feels is necessary for the plot and philosophy of the story.
Although the segregation of London into human areas and imago regions may call to mind a Wellsian examination of stratified society, Miéville's work does not readily accommodate that reading. The imagos are less a different caste of human as they are a psychologically different aspect of humans. In this manner, they work well as a foil for the humans who have succumbed to their need for protection and force, for while the humans are forming themselves into squabbling militias, to whom outsiders, whether human or imago are evil, we are not shown such activity by the imagos themselves.
While evocative, Miéville's prose is not always the easiest to handle and it does require concentration for the reader to fully appreciate the story he is trying to tell and its various layers of subtlety. The Tain, for all its short length, is an excellent introduction to Miéville's style which he so gloriously presents in such longer works as King Rat, Perdido Street Station, and The Scar.
(Cities, including A Year in the Linear City, The Tain, Firing the Cathedral, and V.A.O.)