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The Tain

by China Miéville, introduction by M John Harrison

(PS Publishing, £8, 89 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition paperback, also available as signed, numbered, limited edition hardback priced £25, published December 2002.)

cover scanChina Miéville doubtless wasn't planning it this way, but reading his novella of a chaotic, militia-ridden London in the week when Baghdad went from dictatorship to anarchy was an uncanny experience. The Tain initially looks as if it's going to be a savage rewrite of the cosy catastrophes which were a mainstay of British sf for a long while:

There was small-arms fire coming from Brompton. He had heard that a squad of paratroopers had regrouped somewhere to the west of Sloane Square, and the noise seemed to verify that. He had no idea what they were fighting, nor how long they would last. (12)

Miéville is, unsurprisingly, very good at reworking the familiar trope of a half-deserted, threatening city; as in his novels, a particular strength is the degree to which he conveys the physicality of fear. One is constantly aware of how watchful the protagonist Sholl has to be, how much his few possessions matter, and how much has been stripped away from everyday life since the cataclysm which changed everything.

The nature of that cataclysm is the subject of a second narrative thread, which alternates with Sholl's. There has long been, it transpires, another race of beings, the ones we see every time we look in a mirror or a pool of water. They have been compelled to do or suffer whatever we have done when we have looked at our reflections. It was a humiliation and a punishment for them, and became infinitely worse once humanity discovered the tain, the silvering on the back of mirrors: "Every house became Versailles. Every house a hall of mirrors." (23) Mass-production of the source of their pain made the last few centuries a source of particular bitterness for them, and so they found a way to break free from their mirror-world into our own, where they created the havoc which engulfs London.

Once this premise is assimilated, everything else in the story follows. There's the striking image of a city where nothing reflects -- not the Thames, not shop windows, not even puddles on the pavement. There are brief, surreal glimpses of disembodied hands or lips, partial reflections given autonomous life. And there's the story of Sholl's gradual realisation of the nature of the war he's embroiled in, and his place in it. It becomes clear that the story is directed to making the reader see the scale of the mirror-peoples' suffering and then, perhaps, put down the book and look outwards for a moment.

It's not difficult, in other words, to arrive at an explicitly political reading of The Tain. If, Miéville seems to be saying, I made you see the horror of the mirror-peoples' plight, what is there you take for granted in the real world which is also founded on exploiting other beings? The clothes you wear? The food you eat? What would you say to those who make the things you use if you met them face to face?

As a story which uses the tropes of the fantastic to address the real world's injustices, The Tain can stand with the best work of another stylist of decaying empires, Lucius Shepard. It has a stunning and sombre wrap-around cover by Edward Miller, and comes with an introduction by M. John Harrison which unpacks the story as an artefact of the "New Weird". Harrison suggests that, by taking a less fantastic setting than usual, Miéville's London is more estranging than his New Crobuzon. I'd put it a different way. Here we have a China Miéville book which feels stripped down to its essentials. That's not just because it's 89 pages rather than 890. Sentence to sentence, as well, it feels as if the author has deliberately pared away his story, omitted the scenes or details which would be merely striking diversions, and given us a narrative in which form follows function with emphatic rightness and force.

Review by Graham Sleight

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