China Mieville is an author that’s hard to categorize, as his stories often escape or defy comfortable genre classification. He is one of the forerunners of the New Weird movement, which should tell you a lot; he writes weird fiction, a blend of the improbable and the impossible with a chilling bite. He’s also damn good at his job, one of the powerhouses of genre fiction today with a slew of top-shelf novels to his name. He’s not as well known for his short fiction, though he has written pieces before—some for magazines, newspapers, websites, or his blog, both longer novellas and short idea-generation flash fiction. A number of those previously published stories are combined with brand new material to make up Three Moments of an Explosion, a 2015 release with 28 shorter works. (And I should add, with a novel slated for release early next year, Mieville is as productive as he is innovative.) Three Moments releases today in North America and is already out in the UK; I received an advance copy from Del Rey and NetGalley in exchange for this open and honest review.
“Polynia” is one of first big stories in the collection at 25 pages, and it’s a perfect example of Mieville’s style of short fiction. In near-future Europe, pieces of the earth destroyed by human influence make a striking return: icebergs form in the sky above London, brain coral begins growing off the EU buildings in Brussels. The story is rich in atmosphere—the wonder and unease caused by these natural-yet-unnatural occurrences, things that should not be. Our protagonists are kids, watching footage beamed through the BBC of failed military expeditions or sneaking a look at illegal footage shot by extreme explorers. It’s almost a coming-of-age story—the muggy, junk-laden back-alleys of London which become oddly chilly when a massive iceberg floats past. “Covehite” also mixed contemporary issues with the inexplicable, as oil rigs destroyed by nautical accidents stomp their way out of the seas and head inland.
And like the best magicians, Mieville doesn’t reveal his secrets. One of the common criticisms of Mieville’s earlier collections were that his stories lacked a sense of finality or closure; the reader expecting a nice clean denouement that explains away the wonder and wraps everything up with a neat bow may be disappointed. I refute the point: the stories work best when Mieville’s powerful creativity runs rampant, where things wondrous and inexplicable happen to everyday people. Explaining the mystery would detract from the experience; Weird Fiction works best when it’s allowed to be weird. And in many cases, there’s usually a deeper meaning for the reader to find and ponder.
Such as with “Three Moments of an Explosion.” It’s another perfect example of Mieville’s short fiction, but is nothing like the sprawling “Poylnia,” just a few short paragraphs that take up a page. The title is quite accurate; it describes an explosion from three points of time: the corporate-sponsored demolition of an old building, the drugged-up urban explorers who race up and back down as the building crumbles in slow motion around them, and the fading memory of the one explorer who didn’t make it out in time. The story has a surreal, dreamlike quality to it, and acts as cutting commentary that spreads out to strike at several targets. It’s one of those stories that a reader may ponder for days later—three paragraphs with just the right amount of meat to give you something to think about.
A good number of the stories are more like flash fiction than a traditional short, toying with form and format, playing with brevity. Some, like “The Rope is the World,” feel something like story outlines—a brilliant little short history that sets up an intricate world where space elevators were created, then abandoned, leaving people stranded on the infinite decks. There’s a lot of interesting concepts packed into such a short tale—perhaps not enough for a novel, though in some cases I’d like to see someone try. There’s also a few gems that show Mieville could have a brilliant career as a screenwriter: “The Crawl,” “Listen to the Birds,” and “Escapee” are trailers for fake horror films, striking the right balance between not revealing any of the films’ big secrets but showing enough of their atmosphere that I want to know more. Similarly, “Syllabus” is exactly what it sounds like, the syllabus for a far-future college where your AI must approve your essay topics.
I sometimes forget that Mieville’s first novel, King Rat, earned top-notch horror accolades for a good reason. The reason is because his brand of creepy weirdness plays very well with horror, and the more traditional fantasy-horror tales in this collection are knockouts—“Säcken” and “After The Festival” show that Mieville’s talent for crafting chilling horror is still in top form. “Säcken” follows two women as they vacation by a quiet German lake; as one woman become terrified by strange occurrences, their relationship becomes strained and rocky, placing them both in danger. Dread oozes from this story like cold, murky lakewater, sending chills up my spine. “After the Festival” inserts a Medieval-esque ritual into an otherwise normal world, where partygoers wear the decapitated heads of animals as part of a celebration—but wearing the heads too long leads to serious danger, changing the wearer and unleashing their animal nature.
The crushing weight of unknown forces comes through in stories like “The Bastard Prompt” and “Keep,” relying heavily on the mystery and weirdness of how the world has changed to keep you reading. By the end they make a kind of sense, but the how’s and why’s are mercurial; both feature apocalyptic changes that the protagonists struggle to understand, while they become in tune with the strange occurrences. Unexplained phenomena remain surreal and terrifying when there’s no scientific explanation for the things that should not be. That’s why Mieville isn’t often categorized as science fiction: he writes weird tales, stories where characters react to the impossible and unknowable as best they can.
Three Moments of an Explosion contains a number of gems and excellent stories, among the fascinating bits of flash-fiction ephemera. Examining all of them will take time, and to be honest, I think they are best left to their own weird ways—just roll with the weirdness, as neither you nor the characters will know exactly why or how the impossible can happen. That’s what makes the stories full of breathless wonder, strange mystery, and chilling terror, and why reading the collection all at once may be a bit draining. Mieville has established himself as one of the best writers of the unknown, and this collection is yet another showcase of how powerful, dynamic, and—well, limitless his imagination can be. It’s a must-read for fans of Mieville and the New Weird movement, and it may be a good in-read for those who haven’t yet read one of his novels. Really, for any horror or fantasy reader, there will be things here for you to enjoy. Two thumbs way, way up.
Title: Three Moments of an Explosion
Author: China Mieville
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Release Date: 16 June 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via Netgalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 110188472X / B00R04OVOA