In Three Moments of an Explosion, you never find out what’s going on.
That’s true, at least, of many of the stories in China Mieville’s short story collection. As you’d expect, all of them are touched by weirdness. Many of them are set in worlds only slightly different from our own: in “Polynia”, the second story, icebergs gather over London even as they melt over the poles; in the final story, “The Design”, a medical student finds elaborate scrimshanders on the bones of a corpse he’s been dissecting; in “Covehithe”, sunken oil rigs walk out of the seas and lay eggs. In all three cases, we never find out exactly why.
Then there are the stories that more explicitly push formal boundaries: “A Second Slice Manifesto” is a piece about a deconstructivist artistic movement that reveals half-glimpsed uncanny truths in our world; “The Rope is the World” is more or less pure worldbuilding, a tale about the construction and decline of a number of space elevators sprouting around the Equator; a “Syllabus” for a course entitles Humanity, Introspection and Debris hints at a world in which time travel, sentient insects and privatised illness are all day-to-day facts of life. There are a number of scripts for film trailers, too, which get increasingly esoteric as the book goes on.
The point is to defamiliarise normality; to gesture at a reality that’s far stranger and more capacious than the realist literary tradition allows for. Sometimes this is for political ends, as in (the horrible) “Säcken”, a ghost story about how a failure of justice redounds upon itself in endless cycles of vengeance. Sometimes it asks us to question our genre assumptions: “In the Slopes” is a story about the excavation of a Pompeii-like volcanic site where extraterrestials lived and prayed alongside humans. We never find out where they came from. Sometimes it’s simply about how our societies are shaped by natural forces outside our control: strange new diseases (origins unknown) are a theme, in “Keep” and “The Bastard Prompt”, and there’s the return of the environments we’ve been neglecting in “Polynia” and “Covehithe”.
This is, in other words, a technique that opens to us other ways of seeing and thinking – to peer beyond the ideology of late capitalism and see new things. This is SFF doing what SFF does best: too unsettling to console, and too insistent on its own form to allow us to escape through it. I found myself rationing the stories out, one story per sitting, so I could give myself space to absorb and think about each one; it felt wrong to binge them, though I often wanted each story to be longer, to reveal more about the world it described.
If it’s not already obvious, I enjoyed Three Moments of an Explosion a lot. It’s really rare to find SFF as good as this; so a whole collection of it is a proper treat.