The main attraction for visitors to London’s Darwin Centre is a perfectly preserved giant squid, Architeuthis dux (Archie to those who work there). Then one day it disappears, tank and all, without a trace, and Billy Harrow, a museum curator, finds himself the target of a number of very strange people. With this, the reader and Billy are thrown into an alternative London, replete with squid-worshipping cults, rival gangs (one of them ruled by a terrifying sentient tattoo) and unionising animals, and where a special branch of the police force exists to control supernatural happenings. It’s a London where one can literally read the entrails of the city to divine the future. And everyone seems to think that the world is about to end.
China Mieville’s The City & the City (2009) was recently awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best sci-fi novel published in the UK, making him the only author ever to have won the award three times. His latest book, Kraken, is a comic, allusive, adventure story set in London. This is far removed from the dense, baroque language of Mieville’s earlier books. If anything, it is closest in style to his young adult novel Un Lun Dun. This does not, however, mean that it’s an easy read. Like any Mieville book, Kraken is brimming with ideas about, among other things, groups, fandom, cities, religion and belief. It’s also Mieville’s least restrained work yet.
The book reads as a loving tribute to geekdom, a gleeful tour of all that growing up as a science-fiction fan entails. The fascination with cephalopods and tentacles has been a big part of geek culture for a while now, and is traceable back to the pulp horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. There are references in Kraken to other major writers who have influenced Mieville, including J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock. There are a number of references to Star Trek: Wati, a disembodied revolutionary spirit, spends much of the novel communicating with the other characters by inhabiting an action figure of the original series — Captain Kirk. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, another fantasy novel set in London, gets a nod in the form of Goss and Subby, two apparently immortal assassins who call to mind Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar. There’s even an element of The X-Files in the interaction between Vardy and Collingwood, members of the special police.
Last year, Man Booker Prize judge John Mullan dismissed the entire science-fiction genre as being “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other”. Mieville has been critical of this extremely reductive view of the genre. Yet Mullan’s description seems a strangely apt description of the world Billy enters. It’s far too tempting to point out the parallels between the cult-filled underbelly of Kraken’s London and science-fiction fantasy fandom itself. In part, this is because the preoccupations of this world (giant squid! Atlantis!) are so fannish. Mieville makes the connection even stronger with the introduction of Simon Shaw, a character who is both a “Trekkie” and a part of the supernatural underground.
Far more than being a book about fans, though, this is a book for that “special kind of person”. If you grew up watching Star Trek, reading Moorcock, playing Dungeons and Dragons, Kraken is an utter delight. But this may actually be the book’s biggest flaw. At times it appears more an act of redamancy towards the genre than an actual novel. Plot is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of a pun or a clever allusion. The conclusion is clever but it is unnecessarily dragged out, to the point that we end up having multiple “final showdown” moments.
With a little more of the discipline and rigour that characterise some of Mieville’s other works, Kraken could have been brilliant. Yet a Mieville book is always worth reading. Kraken is the product of a fascinating mind at play, and is worth reading for that reason alone.