Looking for Jake: Stories
by China Mieville
A review by Doug Brown
If you haven't read China Miéville's rich, wonderful Perdido
Street Station, stop reading right now, get a copy, and read it. I mean it.
He has an amazing ability to create dystopian worlds where things are somehow
off-kilter, populate the worlds with strange and fascinating characters, add a
dollop of chaos and entropy, and let them careen where they will, with steam and
oil spurting out from the ill-fitting seams. Calling his work science fiction
doesn't really describe it; it's more events taking place in worlds that are distinctly
other, and yet somehow not.
Looking for Jake is a collection of fourteen stories that should appeal
to anyone who sees the world through a glass darkly. The title story is about
a man suddenly alone in a world still populated with people. "Foundation"
is about a building inspector who listens to the bodies of those buried under
the world. "Familiar" is about a witch who truly creates a familiar,
an oozing blob of flesh that learns about the world by sucking it in and incorporating
what it needs. "Reports of Certain Events in London" is a collection
of papers from an organization who studies feral streets, lanes which move about
at their whim. "Details" concerns a woman who one day realizes the
devil really does live in the details. In "Different Skies" a man
buys an antique window that looks out onto a different London than his other
windows. "Jack" is the only story which takes place in New Crobuzon
(the world of Miéville's previous books Perdido Street Station,
The Scar, and Iron
Council), a tale of Jack Half-a-Prayer. "On the Way to the Front"
is a short graphic-novel story, a cryptic tale of soldiers on public transportation.
Miéville creates fantastic images that sear and scar and gnaw. Here's
a sentence from the story "Looking for Jake":
I've seen the trains go by with howling faces in all the windows, too fast
to see clearly, something like dogs, I've seen trains burning with cold light,
long slow trains empty except for one dead-looking woman staring directly
into my eyes, en route Jesus Christ knows where.
Or this from "Familiar":
It found a nest of mice and examined their parts. Their tails it took for
prehensile tentacles; their whiskers bristled it; it upgraded its eyes and
learned to use ears. It compared what it found to dust, blades, water, twigs,
fish ribs, and sodden rubbish: it learned mouse.
Or from "Details":
It lurks before us, in the everyday. It's the boss of all the things hidden
in plain sight. Terrible things, they are. Appalling things. Just almost in
reach. Brazen and invisible.
Two UK-isms that I had to look up: A "Wendy House" is the UK term
for those little playhouses that a couple of kids can fit inside of, commonly
found on playgrounds and in the playrooms of malls and fast food establishments.
It is named after the scene in Peter Pan when the Lost Boys build a little house
around Wendy. A "crèche" is what is called a nursery in America,
particularly a day-care type nursery.
As with any story collection, there are a couple of entries that don't have
quite the impact of others. However, this is overall a very solid collection
of really good stories. I was a bit afraid this would be a collection of "formative
early works" just to cash in on Miéville's newfound celebrity, but
no worries. If you loved Perdido Street Station, then get this. Each
story creates a world as different and other as New Crobuzon. Call it fantabulist,
call it supernatural noir, or just call it damn good imaginative writing, China
Miéville has given us another pulsating lump of snaggle-toothed gold.