Friday, December 02, 2005

Looking For Jake

With his unique mixture of Dickensian settings, Lovecrafitan terrors and socialist political theory China Mieville achieved popularity and critical acclaim both within and outside the community of fantasy readers. While certainly descending from the traditions of fantasy and horror his novels, especially Perdido Street Station, developed a style uniquely his own. I picked up his new collection Looking For Jake filled with hope for finding something great within the pages. And, for the most part, it is. U.S. fans should note the collection contains several stories thus far only published in the U.K.

The weakest pieces are those based almost totally within his political ideas. "'Tis the Season", for example, is a world with commericialism done to the extreme. It's Christmas time, and everything--absolutely everything--related to Chistmas requires a license of some sort to participate. Although a fun read, it's little more than a throw-away piece, something you laugh at once but aren't likely to ever look at again. Likewise with "An End to Hunger", an odd blend of conspiracy theory and parody of charity organizations gone wild that reads with a political purpose all too obvious.

He takes some bold, dare I say even experimental, steps with a small handful of pieces. "Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia" is exactly what it sounds like, although the disease Mieville imagines for us is bizarre, well thought out and holds a unique history of discovery. Alongside artists Liam Sharp, he tries his hand at a short comic strip telling the story of city at the edge of war. Although it appears Mieville aimed for a lean, crisp and pithy style similar to Alan Moore's (The Watchmen) generate a piece that's a bit disjointed, sparce and diffiicult to follow. While these two are not wholly successful, it's always nice to see a writer stretch a little beyond his abilities by trying new things.

Mieville really shows his skill and imagination in the more horror-oriented pieces. He has that rare gift of identiftying those fears that flicker and lurk within the deepest, darkest basements of our own mind and dropping them down right in front of us. The progtagonist of "Different Skies" is an elderly man who fears the aggressive teenagers living in his neighborhood. He has a new window installed in his room and at night one of the panes looks out not on the beautiful park his home overlooks but onto a dank, dark alley filled with children who taunt and threaten him through the glass. In "The Ball Room" (a piece co-written with Emma Birchaum and Max Schaufer) turns a simple, common playroom in a furniture store into a haunting room of accidents, death and mystery. With all the bad horor I've read over the past year it was wonderful to read these creepy little gems that work beyond the simple twist ending and gore filled descriptions.

The strongest piece by far is the novella "The Tain", the longest story in the collection and the one that probably comes closest to the depths of his novels. For eons the population of a paralell world lived trapped within our mirrors and forced to mimic us as our reflections. Finally they burst free of their reflective prisons and begin destroying humanity. Sholl, the one human who holds a talent for defeating the inhabitants of the mirror world, becomes a begrudging hero and faces the difficult concept of surrender as the only means for mankind's survival. Giving his ideas more length gives him the room to mix his invetive horror with touches of political thought, hinting that Mieville's true gifts lie with the longer form and not the tightly nestled gems of short stories.

Extreme fans of Mieville's might grumble a bit that only one piece, "Jack", is set in the fantasy land featured in his novels. But if you can look beyond that you can see a writer willing to explore a variety of ideas over what promises to be a long and interesting career. Despite some of it's flaws, Looking For Jake is a collection well worth seeking out.

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