Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Scar: China Miéville

China Miéville's The Scar is as dark as Perdido Street Station, which I reviewed previously. The Scar takes place mostly on Armada, a mobile floating pirate "city" of hundreds of lashed-together seafaring vessels. The main viewpoint character is Bellis Coldwine, a linguist who fled her home in New Cobruzon because the authorities seemed to be following her and becomes intimately involved in the future of Armada, all the while scheming to find a way back to her homeland.

This is dark fantasy, with Miéville's colorful prose showing us many shadowy corners of the world. Bellis plans to pay her way to temporary exile by selling her skills as a translator to a sea captain heading to what she hopes will be a short-term destination, but the ship is attacked by pirates, where she is joined by several remade prisoners. Tanner Sack is one such; as punishment for his crimes, he has had tentacles grafted on to his body. After reaching Armada, he adapts to the seafaring life by paying to be magically and surgically transformed into an even more amphibious form, which makes him quite useful in the mobile floating city.

Armada's past peregrinations were mostly random, going to where there were juicy targets for its piratical deprivations. When people are captured, unless they're expected to be a danger to the city, they're welcomed as new citizens, who can find lodging in any of the variously governed ridings that will accept them. Armada's inhabitants include vampires, cactacae (intelligent warrior cactus-people), scabmettlers (who mold their blood into armor before it coagulates), and others. The city is organized as a dozen different "ridings" with separate local government, and no real overall organization, though they manage to coordinate well enough to navigate to places where they can commit piracy and find the sources of information and tools their plans rely on. But the Lovers (a pair infatuated with each other who seem to hold the reins) have a plan that requires Bellis' linguistic skills to read a book in an obscure language, and a dangerous trip to interview the author. Once that's done, Bellis is of little use to them, but she still longs to leave Armada, and willingly assists in the skullduggery of Silas Fennec a spy from New Cobruzon who desperately wants to get a warning back to their home.

The success of Silas' message, and its disastrous consequences for Armada, as well as the initial success of the Lovers' plan and the violent outcome of that adventure keep the story riveting. Miéville continually throws in details of all the different races and societies, which are nearly always unsettling. It is the kind of fantasy where new kinds of magic constantly arise, though he keeps a kind of rough consistency, so characters seldom develop new abilities unless they were obviously the kind of person with hidden secrets or we got to watch them pick up a mysterious object beforehand.

The Lovers' goal is to get to the Scar of the title, an enormous rent in the world where unbridled possibility is loose, and bizarre powers are available. We get an early view of how possibility magic works when Uther Doul, the Lovers' bodyguard, unleashes his "Possible Sword", which he wields as a scattering of possible trajectories of the blade each laying waste to his opponents separately, while he dances lightly through their blades. The sword is a metaphor for quantum uncertainty made manifest. He is also an expert fighter with the sword powered down, since he doesn't know how to recharge it's ancient power source. He explains to Bellis later that the sword's special power is to unleash and make real the consequences of not only one actual outcome, but of a cloud of alternative possibilities.

Doul, already an expert and precise swordsman, taught himself a completely different art in order to make the most of it. He says

"My arm and the sword mine possibilities. For every factual attack there are a thousand possibilities, nigh-sword ghosts, and all of them strike down together.

"Fighting with a Possible Sword, you must never constrain possibilities, I must be an opportunist, not a planner—fighting from the heart, not the mind. Moving suddenly, surprising myself as well as the opponent. Sudden, labile, and formless. So that each strike could be a thousand others, and each of those nigh-swords is strong. That's how to fight with a Possible Sword."

The overall arc of the story is that Bellis escapes from her native city, is kidnapped, longs for home, and keeps taking one action after another at others' suggestion or request that seem likely to help her or her homeland. In the end, she still feels alone in a place she doesn't love. We're better for the journey, though she never frees herself from her captivity. As I said, it has a very dark feel to it. It's fantasy, but the various kinds of magic that are progressively revealed all feel like reasonable parts of this constantly shifting world.