Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Looking for Jake and Other Stories by China Miéville

I never fail to be impressed by China Miéville. There are few genuine literary innovators in the genre, and Miéville is arguably the best of them. Looking for Jake and Other Stories is his first collection of short stories, containing fourteen overall, most notably his novella The Tain. Since I haven’t revieweda book of short stories before, I’m going to experiment and take a quick look at all of them and briefly assess their successes and failures (but mostly successes).

Looking for Jake

The titular Looking for Jake established the primary theme which runs through the collection; London. The unnamed protagonist is combing a London which has suffered a  vaguely defined apocalypse to find his closest companion Jake. The bizarre apocalypse to have befallen London has a wonderfully ill-defined quality to it, and Miéville spells nothing out for us. Although I was impressed enough by this story at first, I do find it somewhat odd that this was the one chosen to headline the collection, as it’s arguably actually one of the weaker stories. Very similar themes to this story are re-explored in other stories in the collection, and to greater success. It’s still a treat to read however, and this means that it doesn’t fall into the common anthologising trap of setting such as high bar at the opening of the collection that nothing else manages to live up to it.

Foundation

Foundation is the only story which contains no element of the supernatural, but it is certainly very strange. It tells the story of a contractor and veteran of the first Gulf War, haunted by the atrocities he committed in Iraq. Miéville has long been a staunch human rights advocate and critic of military incursions in the Middle East by the West, and this is the most overtly representative of current events in the collection. Although other stories certainly reflect Miéville’s left wing leanings, in few is it as overt as in this one. It is interesting that Miéville’s sympathetic protagonist of the tale is the committer of the atrocity rather than the victim, reflecting that unrestrained military jingoism can destroy the lives of people on either side of a conflict.

The Ball Room

The Ball Room is probably the most straight forward story in the collection, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most fun. It’s a rather chilling little story about the ball pens found to entertain the children in department stores. The satire upon consumerism is somewhat heavy handed in this one, but it’s hard to get too wound up by it because it’s just such an entertaining read. I really won’t say much more about this one, as to say much more would be to give it away.

Reports of Certain Events in London

Now, this is a spot on example of the kind of innovation that makes Miéville such an impressive writer. The underlying concept off the story is that the author China Miéville has accidently received a package intended for a certain Charles Melville. The package contains a series of different texts, from committee minutes to letter, which Miéville presents in order to the reader. The different texts tell an interesting, somewhat Neil Gaiman-esque tale which is made all the more fun to read about for the intriguing way it is presented (I’m beginning to realise that Miéville has quite a lot in common with Mr. Gaiman.)

Familiar

This is one of the creepiest stories in the collection, and does an excellent job of undermining expectation. At the beginning of the story, the tale is told from the point of view of a witch who creates a familiar (an animal consort) to bolster his power. Disgusted by the grotesque creature that results, he dumps the familiar in a canal in London. The POV shifts at this point from the witch to the familiar, as it makes its way through London, growing as it does so. What is set up as a fairly standard Frankenstein-esque story , tutting at the hubris of creating life and playing god becomes something much more interesting as we are privy to the alien thought processes of the familiar. This is probably the strangest story in the collection, but certainly one of the most compelling and unique.

Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopaedia

Miéville wrote a summary of a fictional disease for an anthology of fictional diseases for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases which also contained contributions from writers such as Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman. It’s a fun and whimsical couple of pages, of which I shall say no more.

Details

Miéville wrote this one for an anthology inspired by H.P Lovecraft, and there is certainly something eerily Lovecraftian about this tale. A young boy is tasked by his mother to bring food to a mysterious woman who refuses to leave her flat and is also regularly visited by an odd motley group of people. This is one of those stories which, after reading it, reshapes how  you see the world for a time. It crawls into your head and refuses to leave, and I personally found it deeply unsettling. Miéville’s talents as a horror writer are on full display here.

Go Between

Go Between tells the tale of a man who, for several years, has been receiving strange instructions to deliver seemingly random items from location to location. The protagonist agonises as to what effect his deliveries are having, as he considers stopping the deliveries in case he supports a malignant cause, but fearful to stop in case he is aiding a good one. The concept itself is a compelling one, but it is the internal torment of a good man in an impossible situation which is so interesting to read about.

Different Skies

This story is about a lonely old man who purchases a bizarre and old fashioned window. After having it installed in his London flat, he realises that, in the middle of the night, it looks out upon a different sky to the others surrounding it. Forces beyond the window begin to torment him, and we are left with an interesting twist on the ‘group of nasty young kids torment a pensioner’ trope. This is a fairly straight forward fantastical reinterpretation, but it’s certainly a compelling and creepy story, if not one of the collection’s strongest.

An End to Hunger

This is another of Miéville’s overtly political texts, relating the relationship between the protagonist and a radical Turkish hacker named Aykan, who becomes obsessed with bringing down the website of a charity known as ‘An End to Hunger.’ This story reflects Miéville’s own disdain for shallow corporate gestures of charity, and he does an excellent job of buoying you along with his outrage. Of particular geeky fun is the fact that Akyan programs a revolutionary left wing gaming experience in a Nintendo 64 cartridge. That made me smile.

Tis the Season

This was originally written for the Socialist Review, and tells a satirical tale of a future in which holidays, most notably Christmas, have been privatised. Those unable to afford an ‘official’ Christmas can experience cheaper knockoff alternatives such as ‘XmasTym.’ This is the funniest story in the collection, as Miéville depicts a motley collection of amusing protest groups trying to bring back their beloved holiday. This is a nice hearty slice of satire as it should be; funny, yes, but with teeth.

Jack

I will confess that it was for this story that I bought this collection. Jack is set in New Crobuzon, the main city of the fantastical Bas-Lag setting of his novels Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council. I absolutely love this world, and want to read every little scrap of literature set in it. Although it is certainly brief, it was very nice to return to New Crobuzon for a spell. Jack tells the story of Jack Half a Prayer, a sort of Robin Hood figure of New Crobuzon who was ‘Remade’ with a giant praying mantis claw on one of his hands. He is a figure who appears fleetingly in Perdido Street Station and by Iron Council has entered into the realm of legend. This story doesn’t bring us any closer to the man himself, but does explore the legend without sacrificing the air of mystery which surrounds the character.

On the Way to the Front

This one…well, it honestly went a bit over my head. This story is told in graphic novel format, but due to the limitations of typical novel printing quality which mostly only needs to print words it can be very hard to tell what is going on. I’m far from an expert on graphic novels though, so I can’t really speak to its quality.

The Tain

This is the main selling point of the collection, and the most lengthy and complete story that it contains. The Tain in many ways bringing the collection full circle, returning to the idea of an apocalyptic London (although this is a different apocalypse to the one see in Looking for Jake). The Tain depicts a London that has fallen to an invasion of bizarre creatures known as ‘imagos’, and I won’t say anything more about where they have come from, but to say that it’s an interesting idea well executed. In many ways, this story combines elements from all the other stories of the collection (although from some more than others). The setting is reminiscent of Looking for Jake, it reshapes your perception of the world like Details and it reflects the political bent of Foundation.

 

Overall, this is an excellent collection, and would make a good starting point to Miéville (with the exception of Jack, that should be read after his other Bas-Lag books). To date, this is the only collection Miéville has published, and I eagerly anticipate the next one, which I’m sure is one day forthcoming.

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