It hurts so good

So scribblingwoman finally reads some recent China Miéville, long after Crooked Timber covered it (nothing wrong with that…if you saw my stack of books waiting for me to finish them…). She brings up a few interesting points, though, and one in particular poked me right in my reading biases. In Perdido Street Station(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), one of the central characters, Lin, meets a particularly unpleasant fate, and this after we’d been reading about her for a long time, gotten to know and like her and find her engaging. Then, wham:

And it’s true that while Lin’s fate is hardly aesthetic — she is not conveniently dead; she is alive, present, and markedly diminished — it is still uncomfortably sexualized. Even if she were not actually raped — for as Miéville points out, Isaac believes that she has been but we are not told — Isaac has to look after her and deal with her continuing sexual desire for him, despite her ruined mind. He is uncomfortable and does not have sex with her, but the issue is raised. And it is difficult to transpose the genders here. There is something specifically feminized about her catastrophe and its aftermath.

(And, are not male readers also uncomfortable with Lin’s fate? I don’t think any expressed any disquiet, at least at Crooked Timber. So perhaps readers’ responses around this issue are also particularly gendered.)

I don’t think character gender has much to do with it; horrible things happen to the male characters in The Scar (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), too, so while Lin’s fate may have had some particularly feminine horror to it, the fellows also meet some ghastly ends. In all cases, I felt disquiet and discomfort, but I didn’t feel any need to express it: it’s what I expected. Horrible things happen to people in the real world all the time, and I find myself more disenchanted with books in which the main characters stroll through amazing conflicts to emerge unscathed at the end, and where truly bad things never happen (it’s why I didn’t care for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at all). There’s an attitude played off of in the meta-story to the The Princess Bride along those same lines.

KID: [Passionately interrupting] Hold it! Hold it! Grandpa, you read that wrong. She doesn’t marry Humperdinck, she marries Westley! I’m just sure of it … after all that Westley did for her, if she didn’t marry him, it wouldn’t be fair!

GRANDFATHER: Well, who says life is fair? Where is that written? Life isn’t always fair!

KID: [Angrily] I’m telling you, you’re messing up the story! Now get it right!

There are comfort stories where nothing bad is supposed to happen to the characters (and The Princess Bride is knowingly in that category), and then there are the stories that tell you that Life Isn’t Fair. Guess what category Miéville’s work is in? I was disturbed by Lin’s fate, but this was not the kind of book where the heroes get to walk away without paying a heavy price.

The fellow who is probably my favorite author right now is Iain M. Banks, and oh, but does he emphasize the Life Isn’t Fair principle. I was shocked when I first read one of his books, and partway through, one of the central characters is senselessly and unexpectedly dead. It wasn’t a death that advanced the rest of the characters along their goal, either—just dumb, wasteful fate obliterating a life with no great meaning to it. In Use of Weapons(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), the book ends with a character we’ve wrestled with throughout the story dying messily, in despair and frustration, with a robot rather graphically taking his head apart. In Consider Phlebas(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), many of the characters end up as “…debris…a dump of bodies…all lay buried under kilometers of glacial ice…compressed into a tight ball of mangled wreckage and frozen, mutilated bodies…” It’s all very grim, and I don’t think The Kid would make it past page two.

Sure it’s disquieting. But I think the point of the story is to be disquieting. It’s what I look for in my light reading: not too much sweet, lots of bitter and darkness, a good helping of sorrow to end it all.


  1. says

    In Use of Weapons(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), the book ends with a character we’ve wrestled with throughout the story dying messily, in despair and frustration, with a robot rather graphically taking his head apart.


    You know he doesn’t actually die, right?

  2. says

    Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to post spoilers on the internet without a warning? I suppose you never wipe your shoes when you come in from playing outside either.

  3. says

    Yeah, that’s part of the nastiness.

    I was pretty careful not to say who was dying…and if you don’t know that a bunch of characters should be expected to meet grisly demises in a Banks novel, you shouldn’t read them.

  4. mcmillan says

    I’m kind of amused that you mentioned both of the books that I bought during my semester living in Denmark after the supply I brought with me ran out, Perdido Street Station and Consider Phlebas. I actually didn’t care for Perdido Street Station but really couldn’t pin down what it was that I didn’t like. It wasn’t enough to turn me off Mieville though seeing as I just got the Scar.

    I really liked Consider Phlebas. Banks seems to have done a really good job of creating the world for the story, which is something that really appeals to me. I’d actually forgotten the author and have been meaning to track it down so I can look for some more books by him.

  5. todd. says

    Though, in the case of JS&MN, it’s a bit watered down. It’s not a conventional fairy-tale ending, but you end up feeling pretty good for everyone.

  6. says

    I’ve followed the career of Mieville with a lot of enthusiasm, though his more recent work seems to be getting repetitive and feels focused too heavily on style over substance. I was disappointed in both Iron Council and many of the stories in Looking for Jake. My reviews are on my site here.

  7. says

    I’ve been a long-time fan of Iain Banks (and more recently China Mieville). I was hooked after reading my first Banks novel – ‘The Wasp Factory’, his first. Once I read the end, I had to go back and re-think everything I ever thought about each incident in the book, and my feeling about and interpretation of those events. My favorite is still ‘The Crow Road’; I defy anyone to read the first chapter, concerning the grandmother’s funeral, and then put the book down and not continue onward. Most of his books have a ‘moment of revelation’ for the reader, when many of the events of the book take on a new and distinctly different light. Speaking of disquieting world-views, ‘Against a Dark Background’ is perhaps the most depressing, especially when you realize exactly what implications the title holds….

  8. Daverz says

    They could do what Tim Powers does and just make sure their main character gets mutilated a bit for his trouble.

  9. says

    I was going to mention Powers (another favorite author). Usually, though, things work out mostly well for his protagonists by the end, they just have to go through exile, maiming, torture, and at some point, getting nailed to something.

  10. says

    I agree with everything you’ve said, PZ, and I do think that some of the criticism of the way Mieville treats his characters is unreasonable. But there is a particular perversity to some of his representations that gets under the skin. Which is not to say that it is his perversity; he is alluding to perversity in the real world. Anything that happens to a Remade in one of his novels has a corollary in some torture chamber somewhere. I suppose the issue is that one is not used to such a realistic, un-aesthetic iteration of “life’s not fair,” particularly not in fantasy. Which is not to say that it is inappropriate — quite the opposite: it’s long overdue. But it is bound to disconcert.

    I don’t even really have a problem with what happened to Lin, in the sense that women in real life are certainly targeted as women, so it would be a lie not to depict it.

    But I still maintain that the various readers’ responses are interesting, and probably gendered.

  11. says

    I guess the question is, how is it a gendered response? I don’t think it’s that men are more likely to regard the degradation of Lin with equanimity, since at least I thought it was horrific.

  12. Dan Someone says

    Another author who has taken the “life’s not fair” approach is George R. R. Martin, in his A Song of Fire and Ice multivolumology. He is working in a quasi-medieval fantasy setting, but instead of happy dancing fairies and rainbow-maned unicorns, he’s got squalor, blood and violence. Characters who have been sympathetic for a very long time — multiple volumes — end up dead, sometimes rather suddenly. The bad guys don’t ever seem to get their comeuppance, and in fact seem to prosper. (Though to be fair, many of the main characters are so nuanced it’s often hard to say who is a “bad guy” in the long run anyway.)

    Anyway, I’m not a proselyte for Martin, but it’s nearly the only fantasy fiction I’ve been able to read in decades, and it is compelling stuff. I also happen to be a huge fan of Banks’s Culture work, and I have to say I’ve never noticed his application of the “life’s not fair” principle — or at least not felt it unusual or jarring.

  13. says

    Perhaps it’s only gendered in the sense that women for some reason seem to feel free to voice their discomfort.

    Re. Banks. One of my absolute favourites. And yes, bad things happen to characters, certainly. Very bad things. But somehow they seem to fit into some sort of aesthetic structure; they lack the real-life randomness that Mieville cultivates.

  14. vivian says

    My first reading of Lin’s fate was: well, of course, since the protagonist had overreacted (to a learned of rape) he needed to be punished by losing his future happiness. So of course his lover is the one who suffers horribly, but it struck me as literarily instrumental – how much more effective and symmetrical a punishment (between our protagonist and his former client/friend). Even though, as Belle Waring noted on CT, when the moth attacked Lin it did so implausibly, ignoring a much more credible target.

    So I believe Mieville when he said that he only meant to ensure an unhappy ending. But the specifics of her brain damage, and why that was particularly horrible and sexualized for her given her peculiar religious upbringing is especially vivid for me and somewhat less vivid for you (meaning no disrespect). That it happens as a literary device to punish the protagonist indirectly seems pretty trite, strikingly trite given how rich and unusual the rest of the book is. I wonder if later in life CM might not reconsider whether the end diminishes the rich character of Lin, subordinating her to plot or maybe politics.

    Then again, maybe the gendered response is simply as you say, male discussants simply don’t seek the specific type of “life ain’t fair” used in each book, while female discussants seem to. Not so much lack of empathy as resistance to delving, or to put it positively, more interest in some other elements?

  15. says

    “And, without saying a word, or even smiling, they neatly hanged him on the outer wall�and the tale is one of those that have not a happy ending.” — Lord Dunsany

  16. says

    I, for one, was devastated by Lin’s fate. Not surprised, but I found it sufficiently moving that I had to put the book down for a while before I could continue.

    One of the things I appreciate about Mieville is that while he crafts his characters carefully, he doesn’t protect them. He put a lot of work into Lin, making her one of the most human characters despite her non-human characteristics. If he chose to use her to accomplish a literary end, who am I to judge?

    As to whether or not my response is gendered, I can’t even begin to speculate.

  17. Bachalon says

    Paul Park does the same thing, albeit in a much different way.

    Anyone else a fan of Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, or Mary Gentle?

    The last really awesome sf/f I read was “Empire of Bones” though right now I just picked up a bunch of Mike Resnick.

  18. G. Tingey says

    Ian Banks should be read even more right now:
    “Consider Phlebas” puts us 9even with our faults) in the Cultures’ postion re. the islamic nazis … oops.
    And Banks’ disregard to say the elast of religion ….

  19. says

    Ooh, a discussion of my favourite author (Iain (M) Banks) on Pharyngula. Does it get any better?

    As mentioned above, Against a Dark Background is one of the best examples of the Life’s Not Fair principle in action in his books, as well as being an amusing pastiche of religious commandments.

    The turning point in Banks’ books, where suddenly most of what you’ve understood is shifted dramatically, also reflects what he does with his sense of scale. He often spends a long time describing some large object, and then zooms out by several factors to fit several million of this large object in something else. And then puts a dozen of these star-sized megatructures next to each other until your mind begins to approach the limit of its understanding of “big” altogether. It’s quite fun :)

  20. says

    BTW, if Ian Banks is under discussion, somebody should probably point out that Ian Banks and Iain M. Banks are the same guy, but don’t write the same books.

    Somebody more knowledgeable than me, who could explain what different kinds of books he writes under the different names… I know there’s some significance, but I forget what it is.

  21. Michael J says

    “BTW, if Ian Banks is under discussion, somebody should probably point out that Ian Banks and Iain M. Banks are the same guy, but don’t write the same books.

    Somebody more knowledgeable than me, who could explain what different kinds of books he writes under the different names… I know there’s some significance, but I forget what it is”

    Under the name Ian Banks he doesn’t publish science fiction. I’ve read one Ian Banks book, it was okay but not as good as his science fiction.

    Two of my favourite authors on my favourite blog. Hmmm, must be intelligent design.

  22. says

    China Mieville is one author that both my SFnal partner and my drum n’ bass-mad sons can agree on. I’ve also met him a couple of times at lefty UK political events and he’s as yummy as his book jacket picture…

    Banks, though, is my favourite SF author bar none. His creations The Affront, squid-like gas-giant beings who have all the charm of old-Etonian football hooligans and who have made cruelty into an art form, are just plain brilliant.

    And who wouldn’t rather live in the Culture than the mess we have now?

  23. Nomen Nescio says

    i’d been thinking of picking up either Mieville or Banks for some light reading — thanks for letting me know i needn’t bother. if i want senseless, disquieting misery, i can just look to my personal life; i don’t need to pay money to read about it in my spare time.

  24. Nick says

    The end of “Perdido Street Station” bugged me: specifically, the way Isaac reacted to Yagharek’s crime. He lives in a thoroughly corrupt, violent culture where torture and mutilation are accepted parts of law enforcement and the authorities quite literally make pacts with Hell. He interacts with giant reality-twisting arachnids who could give Cthulhu a run for its money. I just don’t believe that he would act like a horrified 21st century American when he finds out that Yagharek is *gasp* a [spoiler]

  25. jackd says

    Nick, if Isaac had known just what Yagharek’s crime was from the start, I think your point would hold. But he doesn’t – Yagharek insists that garuda culture is so radically different that telling the details of the criminal activity would obscure rather than reveal what his crime really was.

    Consequently, Isaac and the reader are led to see the tragic and noble sides of Yagharek’s character. Sure, everyone in New Crobuzon is corrupt, venal, and criminal to some degree. But the human narrative impulse is to overlay our perceptions of people with caricature. We unconciously choose which parts to emphasize and which to ignore. So once Yagharek’s actions were revealed, it made sense to me that Isaac would be conflicted about how to see him.

    By the way, I read The Scar first, then Perdido Street Station and am reading Iron Council currently. Mieville’s capacity for invention is just astonishing. What I really appreciate about it is how he eventually explains most of his references, but doesn’t feel obligated to lay out explanations at the first mention. Waiting for those partial and eventual revelations heightens my sense of wonder at the strangeness of it all.

    Bachalon, Gene Wolfe is a fookin’ genius and the only reason I haven’t read more of his stuff is trying to get an entire set (e.g. “The Long Sun”) before I wade in.

  26. says

    Wolfe and Butler are both fantastic writers that have pretty much been elevated to demi-god status in the SFnal pantheon (they haven’t been writing long enough for true godhood).

    Mieville, along with Jeff Vandermeer and other writers who are all obscenely more talented than I are making big waves in fantasy and SF circles with their inventive work. I mean, Mieville alone is turning fantasy on its ear and making it look easy. I also enjoy Nalo Hopkinson’s work a great deal. She’s a great writer for one, but brings a distinctly non-whitebread America perspective to her work.

    And I may be out of it, but this is the first time I’ve heard gender issues being brought up as major elements in Mieville’s writing. Russ, Le Guin and Tiptree, now THEM’S some writers with gender issues (and highly recommended, too).

  27. Moleman says

    Lin’s fate did bother me quite a bit, but that’s because to some extent the end of the book feels like Mieville’s trying to negate the achievments of his characters (Oddly, Iron Council is the only one that doesn’t give me this, mainly because it’s addressed explicitly). I’ve often suggested to folks who don’t like unpleasant endings for their protaganists that they stop reading right after the climactic fight scene in Perdido Street Station and assume everything’s semi-alright.

    To some extent, Banks has a more deft hand at this, I feel- his latest ends with only one viewpoint character still living, and in flight from a galaxy spanning quasi-dictatorship, and the solar system the story is set primarily in is cut off from the rest of the galaxy, conquered by a crazed cult leader, and then re-conquered by the aforemention repressive galactic government. But very little of it feels like he’s just checking off a list of who’s got to be in a worse state than they started- possibly because he telegraphs his punches a little more than Mieville, possibly because he’s incrementaly more of a romantic (the climactic, if you can call it that, deaths in Look to Windward were more bittersweet than tragic).

  28. Kristjan Wager says

    Tiptree is even more interesting to read, if you keep in mind that everybody believed she was a man – now, that make the gender issues really stand out, in retroperspective.

  29. says

    One of my favorite bloggers is also a fan of some of my favorite authors? Holy crap! Perhaps that explains why I so enjoy reading this blog. Next you’ll tell me that my other favorite blog, Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, loves to read Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross :-).

  30. ajay says

    I read an interview with Iain Banks once in which he quoted a usenet exchange:

    “I just finished reading a book by Iain M Banks in which all the characters died except one. Are they all like that?”
    “No, sometimes they all die.”

    Which at least rings true.

    Not about all of them, though: “Espedair Street” has a happy ending, and so do “Feersum Endjinn” and, somewhat, “Excession”; “Look to Windward”, as mentioned, is more bittersweet than tragic; and “The Bridge”, his best, ends well.
    And, yes, fairly sure that the character in question doesn’t die. I assume that the first and last chapters show his life after the operation, working on his own account.

    Mieville writes good worlds but lacklustre stories, and his characters are too broad.

  31. says

    Mielville is one of my favorite authors even though he’s pretty much the antithesis of what I usually enjoy in fiction. But I don’t particularly “like” his characters, even when I find them fascinating. It’s his world that draws me.

    Lin’s fate didn’t bother me all that much, no more than anyone else’s. But then I don’t always have “female” reactions to things despite possessing the requisite equipment.

  32. NelC says

    I have to say, Lin’s fate did seem a bit forced when I read Perdido, as though the author thought whatever metaphorical point he was trying to make was so important he thought it was worth jarring the readers out of their immersion. Eh, I didn’t think it was worth it, and I haven’t got around to any other Mieville books, yet.

    The two things that really bug me (pun intended) about the book are: what kind of warped intelligent designer designs women with scarab beetles for heads, and how does that work, anyway? Is there a humanlike brain in there, displacing the beetle’s gut, lungs, etc? And the third thing: no matter how much you love their mind, how can anyone make love to a beetle-headed woman unless they’ve a serious entymological paraphilia?

  33. says

    no matter how much you love their mind, how can anyone make love to a beetle-headed woman unless they’ve a serious entymological paraphilia?

    Huh. Now there is a fascinating gender-related question, because I didn’t even hesitate over that issue in the book; in my mind’s eye, Lin was pretty darned hot.

  34. NelC says

    Well, don’t get me wrong, beetles can be quite pretty, but they’re not exactly… physically attractive to me. I mean, how do you kiss a giant scarab beetle?

  35. says

    I recently re-watched Psycho, which also plays on audience expectations: as the story opens, we know it’s about Janet Leigh and the money she stole. We know this because she’s a star, and the focus of the story. Then bam! she’s messily dead, and it turns out the story’s really about Anthony Perkins.

  36. says

    I heard (or maybe read) an interview with Mieville, where he explained his reasons for what happened to Lin. IIRC, he didn’t want her to be the “dead artist lover”, all nice and cliched and out of the way. Leaving her damaged but alive makes her more of a real person and a real woman, but still utterly tragic.

    I found her fate fairly disturbing, myself. In it way, though, it does leave room for hope; the individual stories of the characters don’t end at the end of the book, so maybe Lin recovers…

  37. Grimmstail says

    You might also try Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens to the main character…

    Good enough that I bought some of his other books.

  38. Christopher says

    Gee, thanks for spoiling this book just as I was in the middle of reading it!

    Lin’s fate bothered me not so much for its brutality, but for it’s… how to say it, arbitraryness. That doesn’t quite communicate what I want it to.

    The problem I have is the staging, where Motley is right there too. There’s no real reason for the Moth to go after Lin, as Motley is a bigger target and is essentially imobile. Not only that, he stays imobile for a long time and the moth essentially ignores him. It waits doing nothing until Lin is vulnarable, then goes after her, even as other characters try to yank her away.

    It just seems like there had to be a way of doing this so that the creature doesn’t have to ignore a juicier target.

    Actually, though, Lin’s fate didn’t bother me so much because everybody kind of got screwed. Seriously, of all the main characters, protagonist and antagonist, only the Weaver gets through the book unscathed. The best anybody can hope for is that they only loose somebody important to them.

    I don’t quite see what the message is either. Everything sucks? Well, yeah, so what?

    That said, it’s a brilliantly constructed book; even though when you read it it seems like it’s filled with extraneous background data, there’s actually very little that doesn’t factorinto the plot. I’m truly in awe of the masterful construction of the setting.

  39. rrp says

    The topic has forced me to de-lurk.

    Mieville’s consistently one of the most inventive writers that I’ve been reading over the last couple of years. He has come up with a complex and detailed world over the novels: Perdido Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council. Still character motivation, the forces that make the action go, always seems shaky. It’s not that I have to like characters or even like what happens to them, but I need to believe their actions come out of a certain sort of personal coherence. Even if a character’s insane, s/he’s not going to be random. Somehow, I can’t get to the suspension of disbelief point in these novels, but the surface, the description is so amazing I don’t much care. The short stories are better in this respect.

    Iain M. Banks, on the other hand, is just about flawless. Sometimes when I’ve finished a novel I go back to the beginning just to see how he’s set me up. As someone upthread noted, harsh things happen (death in nasty ways at the very least) to his characters, but it’s not Grand Guignol the way it is in Mieville.

  40. says

    If you want to try some SF, look into Peter F.Hamilton’s ‘Reality Dysfunction’ series (6 books altogether). Real writing, non-stop pace, intellectually engaging, fun and grim as hell.