China Miéville, The Scar (2003)


I don’t believe we need to introduce China Miéville on our Reenchantment blog… After all, we’ve already reviewed a number of Miéville’s works to date, from Kraken and Railsea, through Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun to This Census Taker. A published academic in the field of international law and Marxism, a socialist, and an awards-winning fantasy author, Miéville is something of a celebrity. But before you shun him as not being geeky enough, read something he wrote. It’s really worth it.

The Scar, winner of 2003 British Fantasy Award and Locus Award, is Miéville’s  second novel set in the Bas-Lag universe, depicting events only slightly related to what had happened in Perdido Street Station. At 717 pages it can be safely called a really long novel, and that length is tangible, almost palpable, even if you read it on Kindle ;). It is a hefty book, starting slowly and slowly gaining momentum – or, more precisely, several momentums – an equivalent of Cameron’s Aliens with its strange cascade of climaxes.

The love for monstrosity and weirdness is another thing that both works share – but that’s normal for Miéville. What is a bit more unusual is the perspective he takes in The Scar: the main protagonist, whose voice we hear for most of the time, is a female. Bellis Coldwine, a cold, reserved and alienated spinster fleeing from New Crobuzon in fear for her life, is a character difficult to like. But she is also a perfect lens through which we can observe the events unfolding in the book – highly intelligent and distanced from others, Bellis sees the world around her in a cool, seemingly dispassionate way. But ultimately her cool reserve proves to be only a façade; and she, with all her hidden emotions and judgments, with her suppressed wishes and regrets, turns out to be as fallible as anyone else. She uses others and is used in turn, even when she doesn’t really know it. The almost omniscient narrator to her own bitter surprise turns out to be just another anonymous cogwheel, subject to blatant manipulation,  dispensable and ultimately unimportant. But the best part is that Bellis, being intelligent and dispassionate and ruthless even – or mostly – to herself, realizes it. And that tiny liberation, that spark of awareness won in a series of harsh, cruel battles, is one of the biggest awards The Scar brings to readers. That liberalizing aspect is a leitmotif of The Scar – and it is very Hegel-like; freedom coming from realizing one’s place in the scheme of things. I’m not a big fan of Hegel, but appreciate Miéville’s effort – he writes very convincingly ;).

All right; I jumped directly to the conclusion, saying almost nothing about the 717 pages of densely written prose. It’s a bit unfair, really, because a lot is happening on those pages. The Scar, as a proper maritime book, takes place on the many oceans and seas of Bas-Lag, and yet is a very urban novel, much like Perdido in many aspects. How is it possible? The answer is Armada. A fabled, hidden pirate haven made of thousands of old ships, boats and vessels from many different cultures and epochs, is a floating city, constantly moving through the waters of Bas-Lag. Our main protagonists, New Crobuzoners on their way to New Crobuzon’s faraway colony Nova Esperium, find themselves in Armada when their ship, Terpsichoria, is attacked and taken by Armada’s military arm. All the passengers are press-ganged into becoming Armada’s citizens; they become subjects to Garwater rulers’, the strange, repulsive and fascinating Lovers. There are quite a few rulers in Armada, each holds sway over his own little holding, a piece of the floating town; and Miéville finds time and space to describe to us all their different philosophies and natures of ruling, from almost medieval, through strictly mercantile, to something like benevolent autocracy – if something like that is even possible. True to his convictions, author of The Scar doesn’t portray democracy or capitalism in overly positive light :P; but the criticism is rather blunted and underplayed.

The Scar is a story of learning oneself – true to the ancient Greek ideal Know Thyself, Γνῶθι σεαυτόν; it’s not a coming of age story, for Bellis it is much too late for that, but of realizing what she is and why she is, even if the answers are fleeting, mutable and momentary. But if you expect something like Mann’s The Magic Mountain, you will be rather disappointed; The Scar is a full-fledged fantasy novel from the New Weird guru, spiced with many elements of a classic thriller; there’s espionage and betrayal, manhunt, political pamphlets, naval conflict, biological discoveries (and once again we can glimpse Miéville’s fascination with Darwin and big, mythical creatures ;)) and quite a bit of philosophical musings about the nature of possibility and crisis.

The characters are solid, as usually in Miéville’s books; Bellis Coldwine somehow managed to grow on me with time, maybe because of all that terrible shit that happens to her ;). The same goes for Tanner Sack, a secondary protagonist (if something like that is even possible) – a Remade criminal turned slave turned Armadan citizen and adoptive father of adolescent boy, turned a sea creature when he liberates himself from the New Crobuzon by Remaking himself even more, turned spy, turned revolutionary… But the most fascinating of The Scar characters is Uther Doul. Who is he, that man-beast who shuns responsibility and takes it nonetheless? What does he know? Who is he really trying to manipulate? Himself? Others? Miéville plays his cards close to the chest and even in the end we know only what Bellis knows and what she suspects – and that is absurdly logical and smacking of conspiracy theory at the same time. Very Poweresque ;), and that is a compliment. Uther Doul mystery is infuriating but very stimulating as well – and in the end the readers are left with as many questions as they received answers. As Bellis puts it,

And that is all: contingent and brutal without meaning. There is nothing to be learnt here. No ecstatic forgetting. There is no redemption in the sea.

And there is also the equivocal Scar – the wound in reality as well as the symbol of healing; the sign of remembering and of change which you can accept or deny, but which will remain with you forever. Scar, and the process of scarring, is another of the main themes of the book – tightly linked to the motives of liberation and quest for self-knowledge that I mentioned above.

Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.

The Scar is full of literary interplay – allusions to Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland, to Lovecraft and Verne… you name it. And here a special note for the anophelii island – the allegory of womanhood portrayed there was as hilarious as insulting, and I have a few pointed questions regarding the author’s rather Freudian fears… Still, it was a fun to read.

Honestly, I think you could carve two or three books from The Scar, and each would be complete and maybe even better that the whole. It is bumbling and overbearing at times, it happens to lose pace and momentum more than once, and it is by no means a light read – but it’s definitely worth the time.

Score: 9/10

One thought on “China Miéville, The Scar (2003)

  1. piotrek

    It’s nice to have a few Miévilles ahead of me still, this one I’ve yet to read. Looks like another solid one 🙂
    “It is bumbling and overbearing at times, it happens to lose pace and momentum more than once, and it is by no means a light read ” – all his novels show these tendencies, but he’s still worth our time…


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