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Book Review: Three Moments of an Explosion

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Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Miéville

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville 2

The fiction of multiple award–winning author China Miéville is powered by intelligence and imagination. Like George Saunders, Karen Russell, and David Mitchell, he pulls from a variety of genres with equal facility, employing the fantastic not to escape from reality but instead to interrogate it in provocative, unexpected ways.

London awakes one morning to find itself besieged by a sky full of floating icebergs. Destroyed oil rigs, mysteriously reborn, clamber from the sea and onto the land, driven by an obscure but violent purpose. An anatomy student cuts open a cadaver to discover impossibly intricate designs carved into a corpse’s bones—designs clearly present from birth, bearing mute testimony to . . . what?

Of such concepts and unforgettable images are made the twenty-eight stories in this collection—many published here for the first time. By turns speculative, satirical, and heart-wrenching, fresh in form and language, and featuring a cast of damaged yet hopeful seekers who come face-to-face with the deep weirdness of the world—and at times the deeper weirdness of themselves—Three Moments of an Explosion is a fitting showcase for one of literature’s most original voices.

My first encounter with China Miéville’s fiction was Kraken, his seventh novel. It’s about a squid cult and the end of the world. Marine eschatology. Sort of. It’s packed to the gills with weird ideas, baroquely complex characters, and literary archaeology. In an interview promoting that book, he commented, “Part of the appeal of the fantastic is taking ridiculous ideas very seriously and pretending they’re not absurd.”

Three Moments of an Explosion is an exploration of the quotidian colliding with the fantastic. What would otherwise normal people do in such extraordinary circumstances? What does it mean to be human in an abnormal context?

The stories in the collection range from two to thirty nine pages, from flash fiction to novelette. but the quality remains the same regardless of length. Three of the pieces are descriptions of movie trailers, short works in the style of Blade Runner (a movie). These scripts provoke a struggle to comprehend what’s depicted, to connect the images and create meaning. Yet they’re evasive. Urban legends. Shared images. Semantic feedback.

Like his novels, the stories often contain a phrase that very well could have been the seed for the story. A trick of grammar that extrapolated outward into a few pages or a few dozen, however far he wanted to take it, or however far it took him. Sometimes it’s in the title, as with “The Crawl.” Other times it’s almost invisible, like the polysemic ‘Collaborator Culture’ of “In the Slopes.”

At turns terrifying, amazing, amusing, and sublime, these stories showcase Miéville’s inventive language and exceptional creativity. “The Condition of the New Death” interpellates an obscure gaming convention into reality. “The 9th Technique” problematizes the Bush administrations infamous torture memo. “Säcken” might cost you some sleep. “The Dowager of Bees” suggests that even Go Fish could unexpectedly transform your life.

Reviews are bound to focus on some persistent environmental themes,a concern with hierarchical power structures, and corporate commodification. But, honestly, that’s where our mysteries lie. China Miéville is simply our best prepared semiological adventurer reporting back from the expedition.

Recommended for fans of Zero History, “Mysteries of the Unexplained,” and Exterminator!

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