Art is political. The stories we choose to tell, with the characters and circumstances we use to shape their themes, make statements about society through the journeys of individuals and cultures. Genre fiction, often derided as “less serious” literature and a boon to readers searching for escapism, nonetheless regularly engages in discussions on human nature. Constructing new worlds allows for the development and presentation of political systems and ideals; likewise, the mere concept of diversity in art has become a political matter, so characters can, by default, be seen as vessels for political sentiment.
China Mieville’s short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion is undeniably and sharply political from the start. The eponymous piece, opening the collection, is a brief, incisive condemnation of capitalism as an entropic force, where demolition and decay is a branded, corporate enterprise. Mieville follows it with “Polynia,” a story of an evolving Earth wherein icebergs suddenly appear floating above London and are eventually revealed to share the shapes of those that once floated in the Arctic. References are made to coral sprouting on the buildings of Brussels and rainforests overtaking Japanese electronics factories. It is a common environmentalist trope, the living Earth adapting to its destruction at human hands, though it deviates from the standard destruction by showing humanity adapting in return.
“The 9th Technique” is in reference to a government memo listing and describing ten approved torture interrogation methods. The story takes place in a version of our world where items can become magically charged in the presence of intense stress and high emotion. The story is dark, at times chillingly quoting the memo as an incantation. Mieville tackles religion in “The Buzzard’s Egg,” a psychological story about a man charged with taking care of gods imprisoned in a tower, and returns to environmentalism in “Covehithe,” in which oil rigs sunk in the ocean come to life and lay eggs on the shore. “The Dusty Hat” features a universe where everything in existence chooses factions in an eons-long political war, while “The Junket” is about the political and social ramifications of art.
Beyond politics, Mieville pivots the worlds of his stories around an instance of the preternatural or the weird. He is often morbid, always unsettling, and on occasion dives straight into horror. He excels as a tone writer, constructing psychological tension and sickening unease as needed, setting emotion as a core foundation. This is most prevalent in a trio of pieces set up as movie trailer scripts, a minimalist combination of described images and dialogue blurbs invoking vivid, visceral horror tropes.
“Säcken,” the story that most directly falls into the supernatural horror genre, with an ancient supernatural menace rising from the deep to haunt the protagonist, is also the one that sits most sour in my memory. “Säcken” is one of two stories in the collection that feature a queer couple as the lead characters. Mel and Joanna are a lesbian couple renting a lakehouse while Joanna works on academic research. The title refers to the entity in the lake, a sack containing a woman sentenced to execution, carried out by tying her into the sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper, and a token representing a monkey, and throwing them into the lake. The woman’s crime? Infanticide. The entity begins to haunt Mel, seeking a replacement for the monkey token that has slipped out, and ultimately devours first Joanna, then Mel.
When so much online discussion has been devoted to examining violence against women and the Bury Your Gays trope, and with an author who otherwise seems keenly aware of the political messaging of his work, “Säcken” feels like a disgusting interlude in a tour of the surreal and strange. Perhaps the piece was intended as a judgment of archaic laws and mindsets, a reminder that women are more than their wombs, but if so, that clarifying moment does not come through.
It is also possible that the final story, “The Design,” was intended to provide some balance against “Säcken.” “The Design” is essentially a romance between two men. William and Gerald’s meeting as medical students is catalyzed by William’s discovery of detailed etchings on a cadaver’s bones. He steals the body, beginning a series of interactions that leads to his friendship with Gerald and, eventually, their living together until their deaths. It is a surprisingly sweet and final ending to a collection of stories that delights in the unsettling and ambiguous, but is is not enough to prevent “Säcken’s” impact lingering like a stain.
Mieville’s intellect and skill as a writer is not in doubt. His voice is distinctive; he bandies about words and ideas with the expectation that the reader will follow. Many of his stories lack a clear resolution, leaving mysteries unsolved in favor of reflecting the dilemma of characters confronted with problems that have no satisfactory, natural solutions and the fact that life must always go on. Existence continues, as in real life, past the end of the page and past the strangeness, except for when it is not allowed.