China Miéville's The Scar: The Literature We Deserve (Lucky for Us!)
Reviewed by Sherryl Vint
23 September 2002
Pirates, vampires, unfathomable creatures from the depths, a kick-ass ultimate warrior, science, magic, conspiracy, betrayal, action-packed fight scenes, and moments of moving philosophical speculation. Where can a reader find all these things in one package, and, what's more, be convinced that they should all occupy the same narrative space? In China Miéville's latest offering, The Scar. In this novel, Miéville again demonstrates his remarkable imaginative talent for breathing fresh life into the familiar tropes of fantasy, science fiction, and horror in the hybrid style that he has labeled "weird fiction."
Miéville's impressive credentials are worth noting here, if only because the man has yet to write something that is not nominated for a major genre award. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild First Novel Awards. His second, Perdido Street Station, was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Award in 2000, and for the World Fantasy Best Novel Award in 2001; received the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the August Derleth Award (given by the British Fantasy Society) in 2001; and was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2002. The Scar has already been nominated for the British Science Fiction Association's Best Novel Award for 2002.
The Scar returns us to the complex and frightening world of Bas-Lag, although we quickly leave the New Crobuzon setting of Perdido Street Station, following linguist Bellis Coldwine as she flees the city for the colonies. Bellis plans to lay low in the colonies until it is again safe for her to return to New Crobuzon, but is diverted when pirates hijack her ship, and she is press-ganged into joining the floating city known as the Armada. In the rest of the novel, what happens is less important than how Bellis responds to events. Not that the story is short on events, including the pursuit of the creature from the depths, visits to isolated and exotic civilizations, an epic battle naval battle that rivals the sinking of the original Spanish Armada, a civil war, and a journey toward a tear in the very fabric of reality, the Scar (to name just a few). Despite the page-turning excitement, however, The Scar remains one of those novels for which the answer to the question, "What happens?" is not the same as the answer to the question, "What is it about?" Miéville delivers something for both those readers who want to be swept up in the plot, and for those who like a book whose troubling questions stay with you long after the final page has been read.
I don't want to say too much and hence ruin the considerable pleasure of encountering these events at Miéville's intended pace. The experience of reading the novel is a bit like being hijacked yourself. Each time I thought I had sorted my way through the various heroes and villains to a stable moral picture, Miéville confronted me with yet another layer of depth and complexity that required me to revise my interpretation of earlier events and the novel's characters. Like Bellis, the reader is thrust into an alien world in which our previous experience does not always prove the most adequate guide. Betrayal, loyalty, and trust are recurring motifs. As the novel progresses, Bellis -- and through her, the reader -- is forced toward a more intimate understanding of what these terms mean. The story avoids conventional black and white morality, working instead with a grayscale pallette that artfully captures the world we live in. I should quickly reassure you, however, that the novel is not merely a sterile or cold exploration of these themes. Miéville's penchant for portraying the bloody, the grotesque, the vile, and the visceral in almost loving detail remains in the forefront.
The real strength of the novel, though, is its characters. I found Bellis to be a compelling figure, all the more so because the novel does not present her in an unambiguously positive light. I was also very pleased to see a remade character, Tanner Sack, take a central place in this novel. The remade, who are criminals both political and "ordinary" whose bodies are surgically and magically reshaped according to macabre dictates of poetic justice, struck me as the most interesting "alien" figures in Perdido Street Station. In the earlier novel, we see the remade only through the eyes of other characters, preventing the novel from exploring the subjectivity that such a drastic change in one's physical self would produce. In The Scar, the suggestiveness of remade identity is explored from the inside, helping us to see the remade as another example of scarring, an image that Miéville uses productively throughout the novel to represent both injury and healing. One of Miéville's gifts is his ability to truly engage with the Other in his portrayal of alien characters. From King Rat's insistence that he killed only the usurper, to Isaac's inability to comprehend Yagharek's crime in other than human terms, Miéville has demonstrated an ability to thoroughly think through his non-human characters, a refusal to reduce them to humans in fancy dress. In The Scar, this talent is put to good use creating the Anophelii. I, for one, think it is long overdue that someone recognized that mosquitoes are the most monstrous of species.
Structurally, The Scar makes the reader work harder than did Perdido Street Station, but it is rewarding work. The novel raises questions about the function of stories and storytelling by having multiple "truths" circulate to different audiences on the Armada, and through the device of Bellis's letter, which lets the narrative combine first- and third-person narration. The blank space to whom the letter is addressed, in addition to emphasizing Bellis's loneliness, draws our attention to the fact that an author is structuring the novel for us, the readers. In contrast to the more straightforward narrative mode used in Perdido Street Station, The Scar encourages us to reflect on story-telling as a process that shapes, as much as it reports, the "truth."
This structure also creates a more complex and therefore more engaging portrait of our main character. Bellis's loneliness and isolation were, for me, more absorbing and evocative than Isaac's anger and grief in the earlier novel, because the mix of her first-person voice with third-person narration gave access to her motives as well as to other's perceptions of her role in the novel's events. The gaps between her story and the reports others make of her reinforce the theme of loneliness by drawing our attention to the fact that we all live in our own subjective versions of the "truth" and the "good." Miéville admirably balances an obsession with detail (which he has linked to a background in gaming) against a firm grasp of the dependence of the uncanny upon the author's refusal to explain it (an art perfected by Lovecraft). The Scar is a deep and lyrical exploration of what it is to be mortal, fallible, and vulnerable.
Perhaps the most striking feature of The Scar is simply that it is so striking. It makes an impact; its ideas stay with you. The novel blends a page-turning, action-packed adventure with plenty of grist for the mill of the mind. The motif of scarring appears in a number of guises throughout the novel, forcing us to recognize the connection between scarring and healing. Although no one emerges from the novel unscathed, there seems to be more hope in this novel than in Perdido Street Station that the characters might make something out of the wounds in their lives. The title itself points to this more optimistic mood, focusing on the scar rather than the wound. As well, although there are monsters in this novel, the narrative, like Bellis, is hijacked, in a way. Although we initially think we are reading a story about defeating these monsters, we soon realize that this novel is not taking us to the familiar conclusion implied by the formula. Instead, we discover that the real crisis threatening the Armada is not the monsters without, but the conflicting, mutually suspicious cultures within. In my view, the story of how the Armada's citizens begin learning to live collectively, so as not to destroy their home, proves more interesting than the monster hunt I initially expected.
I should mention that while this novel can stand alone, it will be more easily understood by readers familiar with Perdido Street Station. Most of our access to the story comes through Bellis, a citizen of New Crobuzon, and our experience of the Armada is coloured by her preconceptions. Bellis is determined to reject it and the diversion of her plans that it represents, struggling to find a way back to New Crobuzon for most of the novel. One of the forces driving the narrative is the tension between this Bellis-centred, alienated viewpoint and the conflicting perspective of the citizens of the floating city. However, I suspect that it is difficult for a reader who doesn't know New Crobuzon from the earlier novel to fully appreciate the nuances of this tension, given that the only information we have about it in this novel is that Bellis was forced to run away from its government in fear for her life, despite her innocence. This gives a pretty negative impression of the city and, without any other context, may make Bellis's overwhelming desire to return home inexplicable and hence unconvincing.
Although it is difficult to imagine an author who has already garnered so much praise continuing to get better with each novel, in many ways The Scar is even stronger than Perdido Street Station. Without sacrificing the exciting pace of the earlier novel, The Scar has greater emotional power and more substance. Bellis is changed by her experiences in the novel, and so are we by reading about them. Miéville is perhaps most notorious for launching an attack on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien -- particularly its endorsement of hierarchy and absolute morality -- as a platform for more broadly rejecting the conception of fantasy as a literature of consolation. In contrast to such heavy-handed attempts to reconcile us to a world of inequality and injustice, Miéville argues, we should have "fantasy not as comfort-food but as challenge," a fantasy, he says, that we deserve. In The Scar Miéville delivers what we deserve and more.
Sherryl Vint is an Assistant Professor at St. Francis Xavier University. She is currently working on a project about the intersections of science studies and science fiction. She completed a dissertation on representations of the body in science fiction in 2000. You can send her email, or see her previous appearances in our Archive.