China Miéville


King Rat


This book reads like a cartoon spin-off movie: it’s Batman/X-men/Spiderman (in this case our (tortured disenchanted teen) hero finds he’s got super rat powers). It’s all about the dark mood. It's very self-consciously visual: at one point Miéville actually describes a scene as looking 'like a page out of a graphic novel'. It almost crosses the line of trying just a bit hard to be cool - and as we all know a definitive thing about cool is that you're NOT trying. OK, it does cross the line with his raptures about 'jungle' as the supreme art form (as opposed to the faddish derivative that it is). But we’ve got the classic props – troubled rebellious youth telling their elders to stick it, dark, gritty city scenes, gratuitous use of the ‘f’ word, loud music – no sex though, which is a refreshing variation from formula. Although now I think of it, the movies I just mentioned are relatively low on sex too. It feels very cyberpunk even though it’s not set in the future: anti-suburban, our hero isn’t that heroic (I don’t see him using his powers like Superman to set up shop to protect the weak).


The ride is gripping enough, if reliant on moderately frequent almost ‘horror’ violence. The characters are not throwaways, but remember this is not a novel based on relationships nearly as much as special FX style action.


The climax was really annoying (spoiler warning). I can see why he stuck with it even if the obvious OBVIOUS flaw was screaming at him too. It was perfect for Miéville’s purposes to have the piper’s discovery of multi-tracking in ‘Jungle’ DJ music as his ultimate weapon: a fantastic new art form grants the siren-manipulator the means of entrancing several species at once – even undoing our heroic hybrid (who is saved, hooray, because he gets down on the bass, baby). He built to this and spun it for all it was worth. Now lets, in no particular order – actually, no, I’ll save the most numbingly obvious flaw until last – list the problems here:

a)       If the piper has always been limited to a single melody through his monophonic instrument, he has always been open to simultaneous attack. At least Miéville anticipates this objection by saying his animals can never take the chance that it will be them who will be targeted in a multiple attack, but there are several places in the book where his birdman, ratman or (his version of) spiderman do place themselves in just such risk. It’s not as if Saul makes all the difference – the ‘animals’ are never assured that he’s a match for the piper;

b)       Jungle music is, I’m sure, innovative in some ways, but hardly the first instance of multi-tracking, something that has been used extensively for decades. Recorded music is hardly a recent development, overdubbing likewise;

c)       Indeed, polyphonic music is not an innovation – try some of that hot-off-the-press Bach. What? Several melodies at once? Inconceivable! OK, sure, piano-accordion could hardly be the instrument of choice for a cool arch-villain … but as I recall Jimi Hendrix looked pretty inspiring with his guitar (something you can even play polyphonic Bach tunes on if you’re John Williams). Simultaneous melody is, like, so (centuries) old…

d)       Ear plugs (Odysseus picked this a while ago);

e)       It just gets way too silly to have all these resourceful enemies of the piper pulling out their hair going, “Oh no, he’s using amplified music! Whatever could we possibly do to overcome that??”. Um, excuse me, but aren’t there just a few ways you could pull out the plug? (Sshhh, don’t say that, it’ll ruin the whole suspense thing). Nobody even tries to. For goodness sake, you could just throw something heavy at the DAT player, cut through a lead, go outside and pull a fuse, noodle down the street and blow up the local grid. All would seem a wiser course than running towards the piper and away from the ridiculously simple weakness in his obvious weapon.


It’s just such a stupid hub for the climax to turn on. I mean, fantastic if you ignore the obvious. It reminds me of the equally stupid climax of Die Hard 2, where – to great visual and emotional effect – Bruce Willis lights up the fuel spill of the escaping hoons, blowing up their plane and providing the lighting to enable all the other planes to land. A great finish – as long as you can stop that little voice from saying, “Um, why didn’t someone think of another way of lighting up the runway before this?” Headlights? Flares? Petrol generators? Fires? Dumb, dumb, dumb.


Sorry, but this really hurt. Overall the mood is cool and the pages slide by. I realise I’m being a bit elitist with the music references, but the glorification of ‘jungle’ as the be all and end all did make me gag – as if it’s the first time anyone’s ever discovered the power of bass. There’s some definitive immaturity in the way Miéville praises it by saying, “It’s not Everything But the f-ing Girl”. Great players in all sorts of styles are often generous in their praise and appreciation of other styles – they can love, say, funk, without having to add, “because Classical is boring, and country is stupid, and jazz is pretentious.” Part of growing up is realising there’s a world outside your tiny sub-culture, and just because something isn’t the same as ‘yours’ doesn’t make it ‘wrong’. If the art you love is really good, it’s good enough to not be threatened by the existence of other good art. (Disclaimer: this is an overreaction of someone who teaches music to high-schoolers who think anything that hasn’t been on video-hits in the last six months must automatically suck. Including ‘Jungle’).


August 2004