Friday, April 23, 2010

Middle Shelf Story: China Mieville's "Reports of Certain Events in London"

On the twenty-seventh of November 2000, a package was delivered to my house. This happens all the time -- since becoming a professional writer the amount of mail I get has increased enormously. The flap of the envelope had been torn open a strip, allowing someone to look inside.
Conventions keep genre fiction standing tall, and its readers typically enjoy playing within their chosen box, be it science fiction or horror or literary or what have you. And when those same old pieces get a little boring (as they inevitably do), ingenious authors will mix and match them, pressing together steampunk dystopias and paranormal romances. But what happens when an author decides to go into the workshop with a few lengths of pine, a bevy of power tools and enough narrative moxie to start from scratch? If you're China Mieville, you end up with "Reports of Certain Events in London," a fantasy as intricate and fine as it is unconventional.
Report on a Work in Progress: VF and Hermeneutics
by B. Bath

Problems of knowledge and the problematic of
knowing. Considerations of VF as urban sculpture. Kabbala considered as interpretive model. Investigation of VF as patterns of interference. Research currently ongoing, ETA of finished article uncertain.
China Mieville is used to people tampering with his mail. Given his rather radical political views, it's no wonder that the odd missive turns up with a torn-open flap. So when an open letter appears in his mailbox one day, he thinks nothing of it -- at least until he starts reading what's in it. The contents are a strange assortment of old meeting minutes, indecipherable charts and personal correspondence to someone named Charles. Wait, Charles? No, that's the name, and there's the address, plain as day, only it isn't right, isn't right at all. China knows he ought to return it, but he also understands that he has stumbled upon something very strange, evidence of a secret society dedicated to tracking a race of creatures older than London itself. And so he keeps on reading ...
Mr. Dear Charles,

I'm quite aware that you feel ill-used. I apologize for that. There is no point, I think, rehearsing our disagreements, let alone the unpleasant contretemps they have led to. I cannot see that you are going anywhere with these investigations, though, and I simply do not have enough years left to indulge your ideas, nor enough courage (were I younger ... Ah, but were I younger what would I
not do?).
"Reports of Certain Events" feels like an odd reimagining of the epistolary narrative, the plot twining through puzzling bits of arcane material with only the vaguest explanations provided by an unidentified amanuensis. "Subtle" only begins to describe it. This is a story that not only rewards multiple readings, but also almost requires them. But when you finally understand exactly what sort of thing Charles Melville and his cohorts have encountered, you also begin to grasp the width and depth of Mieville's imagination. Haunting, poignant and utterly original.

You can read "Reports of Certain Events in London" in Looking for Jake or The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighteenth Annual Collection.


Scattercat said...

A friend and I once made plans to do a collaborative epistolary narrative, but he flaked out on me. (As happens a lot when he says he'll do stuff; he has boundless enthusiasm and a consistent blind spot for his own ability to keep up with his spinning plates.)

I was kind of bummed. It's fun making sideways assertions and seeing if your partner picks up on them.

Loren Eaton said...

Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck on collaborative projects. It's darn hard getting folks to follow through, isn't it?