Adam Lipkin's review of China Mieville's new novel, Iron Council, despite some over-the-top pronouncements ("Mieville is just an abhorrently boring and pretentious novelist") offers a concise window into the strengths and weaknesses of one of the most popular, talented, and frustrating fantasy writers to come along in decades. (Jeff VanderMeer's Washington Post review of Mieville's previous novel, The Scar, raises similar questions about Mieville's strengths and weaknesses, though VanderMeer's tone is more balanced than Lipkin's.)
After reading the review of Iron Council, I read some of Lipkin's other reviews, paying particular attention to what he had to say about works I was familiar with. He's well read and thoughtful, a sensitive reader, and some of the more hyperbolic and general statements in his review could be ascribed to a few causes, not the least of which being Mieville's popularity. This is a writer who doesn't get too many bad reviews, who has a cult of fans, who has been hailed as a savior of everything from fantasy literature to socialism to humanity itself.
Being occasionally given to excessive, hyperbolic statements myself, I can forgive Lipkin his Dale Peck moments, because the fundamental complaint (obscured by his approach) is one we should pay attention to: Mieville could be a truly great writer, but his writing is so often unfocused and undisciplined that the occasional moments of brilliance -- sometimes a brilliance unparalleled by any living writer I know of -- seem all the more miraculous.
To a greater extent than with other writers, each of us sees Mieville's particular strengths and weaknesses differently. Lipkin hated Perdido Street, while I found most of it engaging and considerable sections of it utterly enthralling. Jeff VanderMeer (and, I should note, zillions of other readers) hated the first 100-150 pages of The Scar, while that was the only sustained section of the book I found captured my imagination, partly because it was the beginning and my hopes were high, but also because the latter part of the book felt like one battle after another, followed by interminable descriptions and exposition, useless digressions, hazy and downright goofy writing -- ugh, I don't want to think about it. Plenty of readers thought the book better than Perdido Street.
It may be that Mieville's incontrovertible strengths are what lead every person who reads him to value him differently. I, and I trust many other people, would identify those strengths as his prodigious imagination and his mixing elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, pulp adventure stories, political philosophy, and whatever other style of writing that floats toward his pen, allowing a great range to his novels. Those two strengths are what we all respond to with greater or lesser pleasure, and it may be because Mieville's imagination is so fertile that his judgment is so weak; he seems incapable of telling the difference between an evocative, breathtaking idea/plot device/sentence and a dull or silly one. Yet the range is large enough, the amount of ideas so high, that there is something for nearly every sort of reader now and then. At the same time, near whatever strikes their fancy, sensitive readers are likely to find something to annoy them. Or readers may simply find Mieville's unstructured excess overwhelming. (Not everybody who writes too much in too many different styles at once can be a genius like Melville, after all.)
I'll be curious to read The Iron Council, because I very much want Mieville to become something other than the Thomas Wolfe of speculative fiction, desperately seeking an editor to give shape to his imaginings, to reign in his worst writing, to sculpt the masterpieces hidden within his messes. On the other hand, Mieville may simply be what he is, and more discipline could constrict the vitality of his vision. I certainly hope not, because such vitality is exactly what fantasy fiction needs these days.