strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
Gosh, I found this book disappointing. In theory, it should have been right up my street (whether that be total, alter or cross-hatched). It is speculative fiction about cities, majoring especially in boundaries. Man, I'm so into that shit that I've just finished the peer-review edits to one paper on urban boundaries, am starting to research another, and will be going on a walk about it on Monday. And I could swear friends have been waxing lyrical about this particular book on the periphery of my attention-sphere pretty much ever since it came out. Except that maybe I didn't listen properly to what they were saying. Because while I entirely recognise that its world-building is superb, and its plot is certainly perfectly competent, the fact is that it offers almost no characterisation or indeed human emotional colour whatsoever. And that doesn't half make for dull fiction.

Actually, I found even the world-building a little bit disappointing, because although it is certainly an outstanding example of what it is trying to do, that wasn't quite what I expected, or what tends to appeal to my tastes. Knowing in advance that the book dealt with two cities which physically occupy the same space, but whose residents are unable to see one another, I expected the relationship between the two to be supernatural - as for example between London Above and London Below in Neverwhere, the muggle and magical worlds in Harry Potter, or the parallel worlds in His Dark Materials. In fact, though, the division is legal and social )

In all fairness, that is a brilliant concept, and Miéville builds it up beautifully from the first chapter onwards, dropping little hints of crumbs at how the city works into the narrative of his viewpoint character (a Besź police inspector) at just the right pace to intrigue without becoming tedious, and while also ensuring that his readers are entirely au fait with it all by the time it becomes crucial to the plot. But a) it isn't the magic I picked the book up hoping for (not at all Miéville's fault) and b) unfortunately the drab emotionless characters give us all too little sense of what a division like that would really mean to the people living it out every day (very definitely Miéville's fault).

The main viewpoint character I mentioned a moment ago, Inspector Tyador Borlú, came across to me as an avatar with no internal life. Some authors would have written deep inner conflicts into his psyche to mirror the divisions of the city which he inhabits, and explored them in depth, but as it was his entire function seemed to be to work his way through the plot like the sprite in a puzzle-based computer game. He learns some new things as the story goes along, of course, but does he experience any kind of emotional arc, or change in any fundamental way as a result? I don't think so. Since he ends the story doing spoilery things ), it is just possible that Miéville wrote him that way from the start to set him up as well-suited to that lifestyle. But if that's the case, then almost any of the characters Borlú interacts with could equally well do the same spoilery things ), because none of them seemed any more alive than him.

So, in short, I'm unlikely to read any more of Miéville's novels. But at least I've found that out now, and can thus target my meagre reading activities towards more satisfying objects in future.

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Cities old and new

Thursday, 14 July 2005 17:45
strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I'm busy collecting information about Timgad (ancient Thamugadi) today. It's a Roman colony in what is now Algeria, which is very well-preserved because it was abandoned in late antiquity, and then just left to its own devices while it slowly vanished under the sand. Hence there was no robbing of stone or burying of old structures under new, and it was pretty much all still there when the French excavated it at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

I'm very familiar with it already, having written a Masters' dissertation in which I compared its suburbs with those of Roman Lincoln (a warm-up exercise for my D.Phil. thesis on Roman suburbs more generally). So I'm drawing on that knowledge to put together some stuff for my interview at Reading next week about how the streets of Timgad were used by the local elite to help show the city off to its best advantage. This sort of behaviour will be the essence of my next research project, so I'll be outlining what I plan to do, and demonstrating how some of my ideas can be applied with reference to Timgad.

Just now, though, I had a visitor pop into my office. It was the estate agent I originally rented my flat from this time last year, and who had come to borrow my key from me so that he could show some tenants round who were interested in taking it up in September. I'd been searching for images of Timgad on the web, and this one was up on my screen when he came in, causing him to ask, "Is that a bombed-out German city?". I explained what it actually was, and on closer inspection he could see his mistake, but it had made him think at first of places like Dusseldorf or Dresden (no doubt partly because it is in black and white).

Fearsome to think that human destructiveness can reduce a city in days to what nature takes 1500 years to achieve, though, especially in light of recent events.

EDIT: On the subject of pictures of Timgad, this man is now my new hero. You couldn't mistake that for a bombed-out German city!


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