Review: The City & The City, by China Miéville

I had heard about China Miéville for some time – years, actually – and was just about to get Perdido Street Station when I for some reason put it back on the shelf at the shop. Instead, and considerably later, I got The City & The City. Then it went to sleep, on my bed side table, from where I picked it up some days ago – I hadn’t had the energy left for reading for some time but decided I just HAD to read, to get back on track again.

It starts out an almost ordinary murder mystery. A woman with too nice hair and skin to belong either among the whores she’s made up to look like or in the neighbourhood in which her body is found is murdered and we follow the detective who got her case on his table.

I say “almost” ordinary, because it is soon clear that something is not what the reader could expect it to be – the detective chooses to “unsee”, and it is soon apparent that it is something weird going on with this city, the city of Beszél. After a while the reader understands that the city is a city state and not only that – it is TWO city states, sharing the same physical space, more or less, and with the respective citizens respecting the borders by reflectively not seeing – unseeing – people who look different, houses or infrastructure not belonging in the city they live in even if sometimes half a house is Beszél and half house is in Ul Qouma (which is their “neighbour” state).

The perpetrators play with this, making things difficult for the detective.

This could had lead somewhere interesting. There’s lots of opportunities to discuss alienation, the Other, nationalism, and other things. Instead – and here’s a spoiler warning is in it’s place, because I’m almost going to tell whodiddit – there’s a power-greedy politician, a disillusioned archaeologist, an opportunist multinational, and an obsolete map. Felt like a cop-out.
There is some more to it, of course, but this is exactly how it felt after I had turned the last page – let-down, not living up to the promises made by the build-up.

The author clearly is skilled at writing. The imagery is vivid. It was a nice read as long as it lasted. But then it was gone, without leaving much of an impression. So, off to find something else to read :-)

Review: V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

Long time no write… I actually finished V for Vendetta more than two weeks ago but life have been hectic so…

Reading this back to back with The Incal was very interesting. They both have a totalitarian state as setting for their stories, and they are both attempts at the graphic novel format. Similarities end there, though.

Where The Incal is flamboyantly coloured and drawn V for Vendetta is clearly born from the super hero graphic style – sparse, lots of contrast, not much colour at all. Where the story of The Incal is New Ageish mumbojumbo V for Vendetta is, while hard, cold and dystopic much more rooted in a rationalist tradition.

Both are interesting reads but V for Vendetta is though-provoking and perhaps a bit disturbing in how people are portrayed as victims and opportunists while The Incal, despite the dystopian setting, is a sparkling firework – dazzling as long as it lasts but fast forgotten.

V for Vendetta shows how people’s need to survive works to suborn us into accepting conditions and actions we would not have thought ourselves capable to, had we lived in better times. Historical evidence shows that the picture painted by the story isn’t that far off a very well beaten track indeed and that makes the story worth reflecting over.

What I feel most ambivalent about is the politics of the book. Anarchy is, to me, not about taking your faith in your own hands or about having a say in how the world is ruled. As a young one I flirted with that -ism and both my readings and my practical experiences from how an anarchist movement work show that at heart it is libertarian, without regard to those who cannot, for different reasons, speak for themselves. As such is it’s not a democratic movement, in my not so humble opinion – it only masks itself as one.

The way the story is told it is not clear which way the authors lean in these matters – a bit pro, a bit con, more interested in telling a tale than in promoting ideology, perhaps, and only using this particular -ism to provoke thoughts in the reader? This ambivalence is part of what makes the story such a good one.

A must-read.

Visiting a museum of history, a lesson in historiography

Yesterday, after much nagging from son, we went to the Swedish Museum for Natural History, or Riksmuseet, as we call it locally.

To me that museum has always epitomized the dusty staid museum archetype. Best remembered from my childhood for it’s endless rows of weird yucky things in glass jars, a large room entered on a gantry to better view the evil-smelling sea life skeletons hung from the ceiling, and perhaps some display cases with stuffed animals (which could just as well be a visual memory from some other museum).
I also remember some mushroom exhibition, from when I was a bit older.
Anyway, on the general scale of museum experiences Riksmuseet rated somewhere among the bottom feeders, in company with my 80’s experience of the archaeological museum of Athens – talk about NOT being able to tell a story!

Nowadays it’s the Monster Museum, to son. Not because of some bleached artefacts in jars but because of the dinosaurs, which is but a small part of an exhibition telling the story of how life evolved on this planet, from the chemical stew to humans sawing off their own branch – most of which doesn’t interest a 7 year old boy.

The museum could get much better at their signage, so it was possible to get some hang of where to start, but all in all the main exhibitions are well made, and the building is in itself a museum artefact – a monumental Jugend (the strict Northern cousin of the flowery Art Nouveau) colossus, excelling in craftsmanship and detail, in a style reminiscent of the baroque ethos. In this, too, it could be labelled a Monster Museum, because it must be one of the grandest buildings in all of Stockholm, making a miniature of the Royal Palace, and it’s acreage in itself a monument to another time.

What they could do more of, considering their wast collections, dating from the mid-18th century and onwards, is a more thorough historiographical reflection. They do, in part, but it is shallow and sparsely commented – more a display of some objects, with notes added, than storytelling. To me the changing story of the explanation of ourselves and our surroundings is of an importance on par with the Story of Evolution because it tells us the tale of how human perception and customs – common sense – changes throughout time, and that these changing perceptions affect the interpretations of what we see around us; the story about ourselves and our place.

Perhaps that is too bold a demand, though, because it forces self-reflection. But it would be most interesting and an important lesson in the evolution of knowledge that should not be restricted to the few; it has a popular interest in that it adds an oft-neglected dimension to our knowledge-space, a dimension furthering understanding – scientific method displayed, as opposed to rote learning.

And that is, of course, what a Museum of Natural History should aim at. In my not so humble opinion.
And they definitely have the space and means needed to do it ;-)

Review: The Incal (omnibus), by Moebius & Jodorowsky

Back when time began I loved reading comics. Especially Tintin and Asterix but it didn’t much matter what it was – I read it. And at one point someone decided to run Blueberry in the Phantom comic magazine. This was how I discovered Giraud, and later on his alter ego Moebius.

Back then Moebius was, perhaps, a bit too much for me. I don’t know. Anyway, I just passed him by (I own some of his albums, but…), in favour of Enki Bilal and Hugo Pratt (Corto Maltese).

So, about a year ago I started eyeing the omnibus edition of The Incal. It was not inexpensive so I closed my eyes and stayed away from it. Then, last fall, I caught sight of it on a shelf at the local library. I was on my way out so I let it sit, but ever since I’ve kept an eye out for it. And at last it was back on its shelf.
Of course I grabbed it.

I was not rewarded.

Back in the days what attracted me was the colourful graphics. And I still enjoy the drawings and the compositions. But the story is pure mumbo-jumbo. A unimpressive mish-mash of various new age semi-religions that in combination with zero character development and character believability leaves the visual imagery the only interesting aspect of the story.

Not an aspect to ignore, especially since it IS a graphic novel – but I for one was happy that it was a library loan because I would not want to waste prime shelf real estate on this rather hefty tome.