June/July/Aug 2010

Kraken

Bret McCabe


The giant squid/sea monster is such a science-fiction and mythological cliché that the very title of British novelist China Miéville's eighth novel, Kraken, embraces the genre as pulpy entertainment. Running a brisk five hundred pages, Kraken follows a frenetic stretch in the life of Billy Harrow, a curator at London's Darwin Centre of the National History Museum. One day, Billy escorts a tour group to the main attraction—a preserved Architeuthis dux—only to discover that the giant squid is missing.

Thus begins a descent into a netherworld of quasi-religious cults, part-human creatures, spirits, and "knackers"—people gifted with supernatural powers—lurking beneath the London Billy knows. The search pulls him into the orbits of the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit (an unconventional police bureau) and of a group of kraken worshippers who want to protect Billy from the Tattoo, an underworld crime boss embedded in the ink on a man's back. Like the Fundamentalists, the Tattoo believes Billy knows where to find the squid.

This is Miéville's genre slipstream—H. P. Lovecraft weirdness, J. G. Ballard anomie, horror, fantasy, apocalyptic reverie, and a leftism indebted to the British sci-fi New Wave of the 1960s. Goss and Subby, the assassins hired by the Tattoo to track down Billy, don't look like much, but they quickly appall everyone they meet. Suit-clad, the young Subby stares silently as his wiry old partner lets loose with mellifluous conversation: "'Attention one and all,' said Goss. 'I love it when you're very very quiet. Beyond this door,' Goss said, 'just over the road, we can open up the old bonnet, take a look inside, and see what's making the old girl seize up like that.'" But Goss is talking about cutting into Billy's stomach in order to divine his thoughts. It's one of his many unseemly talents, along with swallowing a man whole and origami-folding a body into a pocket-size corpse.

These are just two of the supernatural characters Billy runs across. Miéville explores real-world situations in a fabulist realm, and one of his most intriguing creations here is Wati, an Egyptian afterlife underling who freed himself from servitude and, though only able to inhabit statuary, has unionized those golems, homunculi, and animals that serve knackers and alchemists. As with any union, its members are threatened by political and physical power when Wati calls for a strike: The Tattoo makes deals with London law enforcement, who look the other way as strikers gets busted by underground muscle for hire, a supernatural fascist sect whose symbol is "the eight-pointed chaos star altered to make a Moorcock weep, its diagonal arms bent fylfot, a swastika that pointed in all directions."

As intellectually engaging as Neal Stephenson and as verbally adroit as Martin Amis, Miéville here delivers a concentrated dose of his captivating interests.

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March 25, 2013
6:48 am

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