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The Tain and the Tain: China Miéville’s Gift of Uncanny London

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 13, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 133-153 | 10.1353/ncr.2013.0021

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Once again it is the city, with its doors and mirrors, the labyrinth

Like all good stories it’s about what it does: in this case the bending of light. This is a history of mirrors. A history of narcissism. A history of culture through the history of the tain, the silver of the mirror.

Imagine that mirrors would not be in the world, simply included in all onta and their images, but that things “present,” on the contrary, would be in them. Imagine that mirrors (shadows, reflections, phantasm etc, etc.) would no longer be comprehended within the structure of the ontology … but would rather envelop it in its entirety, producing here or there, a particular, extremely determinate effect.

There is a moment in a 1971 science fiction film when we get an almost perfect encapsulation of the British subgenre of the cosy catastrophe: the camera looks down between the buildings of a deserted city on a red, open-topped sports car driven by a middle-aged man in a safari suit and dark glasses. The car draws to a halt; he produces a machine gun; and he fires, seemingly at random, at a window. In the following sequence, he hears a phone ringing (although it might just be in his head), and he retires to an abandoned cinema to watch (presumably for the umpteenth time) the documentary Woodstock. While this is an American film—The Omega Man—with an American star—Charlton Heston—this is the cosy catastrophe writ large, an archetypal form of British science fiction. First identified by Brian Aldiss with the novelist John Wyndham, the form was subverted by the British New Wave in the 1960s and then revisited at the height of the British science fiction (SF) Boom in China Miéville’s The Tain (2002). This novella will form the focal point of this essay, where one character (Sholl) attempts to fight back single-handedly, and another (unnamed) character “find[s] a comfort in this nearly empty city” (Miéville 2006, 257). As M. John Harrison argues in his introduction to the original appearance of the novella, “Sholl reminds us forcibly of Charlton Heston, always panting, always running, always panicking, always prowling the streets of the city with his machine gun, always being pursued by vampires” (Harrison 2002, 5). I will examine this story in terms of the uncanny and within/without a number of deconstructive frameworks offered by Jacques Derrida, such as the hauntology of Marx, the notion of the gift, and the significance of the tain.

Miéville’s first novel, King Rat (1998), had been a horror or urban fantasy novel set in contemporary London, owing a debt to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996). He came to prominence with his second novel, Perdido Street Station (2000), a hybrid of SF, fantasy, and horror that won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award. It was shortlisted for the Nebula, Hugo, and British Science Fiction Association Awards and drew comparisons with the Gormenghast novels of Mervyn Peake and the Viriconium stories of M. John Harrison. He quickly became a popular guest at conventions and conferences, talking about his influences such as Weird fiction and criticizing J. R. R. Tolkien’s brand of fantasy, as well as discussing the emerging British SF Boom at a guerilla program item at the conference “2001: A Celebration of British Science Fiction,” organized by the Science Fiction Foundation at the University of Liverpool and on a panel at the 2002 International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was also active in politics in the Socialist Alliance, delivering papers at their annual Marxism conference. Miéville stood as Member of Parliament in the Regent’s Park and Kensington North constituency for that party in the 2001 general election, being hailed by the London Evening Standard as the sexiest man in British politics (Renton 2001, 25). Miéville continues to write in a variety of genres: two follow-ups to Perdido Street Station, The Scar (2003, winner of the British Fantasy Award and the Locus Award for Best Fantasy...

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