Every time I read a blurb about one of China Miéville’s books, I think, “Oh, that sounds wonderful — he sounds like an author who’s right up my alley.” And I have friends, too, who love him and all his New Weirdness, and they’re always encouraging me to read more of his work (ones I haven’t read yet always turn out to be his best, go figure.) But I’ve had a couple of discouraging experiences now: I didn’t get on at all with The City & the City (a concept I found fascinating but dully executed) and Railsea was okay (trains! giant moles! Ahab!) but didn’t blow me away. Still, I thought: third time’s the charm, yes?
I have to tell you right now that my personal motto is “Don’t eff with anything from the deep ocean.” There are some things with which people should not meddle, folks, and when we sink into that deep blackness, that’s where we find most of it. From angler fish to Cthulhu, it all makes me want to curl up with a blankie. So when I chose Kraken, Miéville’s book about a giant squid-god (!), I had some sense of what I was getting into. But not enough — oh no, not enough.
Everything starts when Billy Harrow, an unassuming curator at the Darwin Centre, is giving a museum tour and discovers that the eight-meter giant squid specimen — Architeuthis dux — is completely missing, tank and preservatives and all. Just gone. This theft (is it a theft?) launches Billy and a set of the unlikeliest imaginable characters into a whirling tornado of events: the disappearance of the squid, which turns out to be a dark deep-sea god, has somehow, inexorably set the world on a path to apocalypse — or rather, apocalypses, as rival cults fight like street gangs to get their end-of-world scenario in first.
London itself, as in much of Miéville’s fiction, is one of the strongest presences in the book, and a number of the supporting characters spring from it. Below the simmering surface there is a whole economy of the weird: there are Londonmancers who can split open the sidewalks and read the city’s guts; there are horrifying paranormal hit men who work for bosses who are living tattoos on other men’s backs; there are familiars on strike for better working conditions all over the city (pigeons and cats and breezes walking picket lines, and their union leader, who spends much of the plot incarnated in a Captain Kirk action figure); there is a special special branch of the police force set up to deal with cults and the paranormal, and at least one of the officers on the team is a pretty bangin’ witch. The sea itself is a speaking character. Are you getting the idea?
Miéville’s prose is fizzy, dark, and funny, with lots of shaggy-dog style jokes, puns, and pop-cultural references that come bursting into the grittiness. As the great squid leads the world toward an apocalyptic burning, and as Billy and his new, impossibly strange associates run and fight against doom, Miéville is keeping all his plates spinning. Or, not plates: molluscs, clownfish, coral, moray eels.
In Kraken, Miéville is both enjoying and satirizing urban fantasy, and having a great time doing it. The novel has original ideas coming out of its pockets. But in some ways, the plot is so action-packed that it weighs down on the characters, who never really make it past the stage of being caricatures. Neil Gaiman’s books, or Nick Harkaway’s, give us bubbling-up fabulous ideas, and also characters we can connect to; Miéville’s — for the third time now, with me — is a great piece of original weirdery, but without emotional resonance or wider connection. In the end, I think it’s a squid pro quo I’m not willing to undertake.