When is a cicatrix a metaphor, and when is it actual?–China Mieville’s “The Scar”

A scar, or a cicatrix, or a series of scars, appears pertinently in three or four places in the book The Scar by China Miéville.  It is the second of his three books about the world of New Crobuzon and its denizens, the first being Perdido Street Station and the third being Iron Council.  The books are loosely connected and feature a world of cityscapes, seascapes, hard laws, and maritime justice.  This book, The Scar, happens to be the one I picked up first, and so I’m making my post on it first, not having read Perdido Street Station yet.  The Scar itself embodies a scar across the face of New Crobuzon, taking place mostly on the imaginary world of Bas-Lag’s oceans and seas in a piratical kingdom known as Armada, one opposed to New Crobuzon’s rule of the easily known parts of the world’s waters, and subsisting on what it can steal and rob from others.

But I should start at the beginning.  The main protagonist, a woman named Bellis Coldwine, is fleeing her beloved New Crobuzon in a ship bound for colonies in Nova Esperium because she is afraid of being questioned by authorities for her possible connections with a scientist known as Isaac, a man having something to do with a contagion in New Crobuzon.  She has done nothing, but has a strong feeling that this will not help her to maintain her own rights and freedom from imprisonment.  In fact, she uses her abilities as a translator of arcane languages to win her a berth aboard the Terpsichoria, a ship which also contains in its hull a number of prisoners with their own kinds of actual scars.  Their scars are the physical ones of the “Remade,” people whose bodies have been fitted with odd and outlandish limbs and gadgets to punish them for some infraction or other.  Her logic that outlaws are more comfortable in the colonies is fine, as far as it goes; that is, until the New Crobuzoner ship reaches the land of some of its allies, the cray people, only to find that one of its own three drilling towers maintained on the cray people’s harbor is missing!

At this point, things begin to destabilize around Bellis, and because of decisions taken by others, over which she has no control, she finds herself prisoner in a casual way aboard a pirate vessel which absorbs the ship she is on and adds it to a floating pirate city farther away in the waters, a city made up not only of its own native citizens, but far more of a community of freed Remade (or fRemade) peoples, people who have accepted a change in allegiance in exchange for their lives, and odd people from here and there across the face of the world who have lost their homes to the pirates or to chance.

Bellis never gives up hope of getting back home to New Crubuzon, where she hopes she will be able to return when she is no longer being sought.  But before this can happen, she goes through a scarring and self-changing life experience in the pirate city.  The city is divided into ridings ruled by powerful sea-lords, not excluding one called the Brucolac (a vampir), who has a “cadre” of vampirs working with him.  Another riding, or city section, is ruled by a man and woman called “the Lovers,” who have a strange history which Bellis Coldwine gradually susses out with the mysteriously inclined help of their henchman, one Uther Doul, a mercenary fighter who controls a mysterious Possible Sword, which makes several different possibilities happen at once when he fights.  Bellis is appalled by the way the lovers join, by making mirror image cuts on themselves and the other as an act of twisted love; they, of course, have scars, but more scarring still is the experience they foist upon the city, the experience of seeking a mysterious rift in the world called “The Scar,” where all things and all possibilities exist at once.

When Bellis and a man whom she thinks of as a sort of ally, one New Crobuzon spy named Silas Fennec (or Simon Fench) plot to sneak a message back to New Crobuzon about a supposedly eager-to-invade people named the grindylows, and involve a loyal fRemade man named Tanner Sack in their plot, Bellis finds out too late that she has been played by Silas Fennec, as has Tanner Sack, and there is actually much more than meets the eye to this spy who supposedly had only escape at heart.  She and Tanner Sack both are punished with lashes on the back, and thus she painfully and in agony acquires her own scars in this world, where the scars are both physical and psychic, but seemingly in equal measure hurtful.  But Silas Fennec has much more to suffer than they, not only from the pirate’s sense of justice, but also from the grindylows, who skulk along the bottom of the oceans until their time to strike comes.

There is a lot of wounding in this book, many weeping cuts and hacks and numerous psychological and physical bruises, and a lot of blood.  Throughout the book, Bellis is writing a letter to a friend at home, which is interspersed with the narrative sections written in third person about her, as well as sections told in first person from several others’ points of view.  Both Bellis’s letter and her narrative sections as well as those of the others startle and shock with their grisly details; this is not a book for someone with a weak stomach.

Still, this book is consistent in several major ways with other books I’ve read by Miéville:  it is full of unexpected twists and turns; alliances change and merge as the book progresses; the book is an intellectual delight at the same time as it is a visceral nightmare; and one makes it through the nightmare by following the patterns of thought traced by a main figure who thinks and feels his or her way through the bloody images and happenings, to a resolution that strikes one as being a sort of “settling” for the best that can happen, under adverse circumstances.  This resolution pattern is what gives the books a strong sense of reality which makes the fantasy/science fiction elements more believable.  And Miéville never once condescends to his readers, in fact he imposes stresses and strains on his readers’ ability to understand by insisting on not offering translations and explanations of terminology, but by instead merely presenting items of lexicon and interpretation simply and making the reader progress ahead with an imperfect sense of what exactly is meant, which of course is mimetic of the experience the characters are going through.  Above all, no one character knows everything:  there’s no final sense of authority to appeal to.  All rules are conditioned by circumstances of conjecture and hypothesis, until the truth, at least the probable truth, becomes clear to main characters and thus to the reader.  Most things, by the end, are simply a matter of personal choice, but not free choice unconditioned by life’s circumstances, rather by acceptance that there are limited moves available left on the chess board, and one must take oneself in hand and choose one’s own outcome.  And this is what makes Miéville’s work so exciting–the combination of outrageous fantasy with hard choices and realistic character traits.  But don’t take my word for it–read one of his works soon, and see for yourself.  Chances are, he will leave a creative cicatrix on your imagination, he will leave his mark on you.  One thing is certain, whether you like what you are able to visualize from his word pictures or not, you will certainly “see” them, in all their vivid (and sometimes gory) vitality, and my prediction is that you will be eager to read him again and again.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

7 responses to “When is a cicatrix a metaphor, and when is it actual?–China Mieville’s “The Scar”

  1. There was a point half way through that review that I was almost salivating, I will be taking your advice and picking up some Miéville.as soon as I am near a decent bookshop. You really do have a way with words and you make me feel under read, I like to be challenged though and will be endeavouring to catch up and look deeper into the books I do read.


    • Thanks for the kind words. Mieville is so unlike most sci-fi/fantasy that I regard him more as an intellectual treat than a simple provider of excursions into other worlds. His worlds are so fully imagined, I guess is what I’m saying. He makes you remember a lot, and there’s a lot he tells you once, more or less, and expects you to remember. But it’s definitely worth it. My first book by him was “The City and the City,” which is almost more a sociological meditation on cultural separations than it is fantasy, a sort of mystery/detective story which sticks very close to the real world. But whichever you choose to read first, I can predict that someone with as lively a mind as you have will appreciate him.


      • The more you tell me of Mieville the more I need to read all the books, I am a bit of an obsessive like that. To be thrust deep into a new world and to not have it all on a plate in terms of repeated exposition is always a good thing and is an example that should be followed more.


  2. Valerie Stivers-Isakova

    I should try this one.


    • “The Scar” is certainly a remarkable book, but it takes a strong stomach. The events and imagery all have “perversity” as the subtext, and I don’t just mean the two lovers who cut each other and themselves as an expression of love. It’s one of those books where the author seems to be attempting to see just how much cruelty to his characters his readers can tolerate, and in case that sounds like naive literary reading, I do want to say that I’m sure that his choice was partially made because he was dealing with the subject of pirates and the pirate world. So much ink and movie cellulose has been spent making pirates safe and cute for kids that I guess we had it coming, and (as you said in another comment) a “world-builder” like Mieville would want to even up the balance. But there is a bit a fun with a new view of vampires, who have been made safe for teenagers, and are definitely not safe here. All in all, I think it’s an excellent (if very long) book, which is well worth the time it takes to read it.


      • Valerie Stivers-Isakova

        All of that sounds amazing to me. I have a fairly strong stomach when it comes to literature.


  3. I hope you will read the book then, it’s quite good. Sometimes I think that as we broaden out as readers and read more and more, our experiences cause us to become better able to stomach some effects that would be horrifying in real life, but are part of the standard “what-if” of literature that prepares us for the vicissitudes of life. Not that I’m suggesting that literature is only meant as a “handmaiden” to life, but that it can certainly help out when we have no where else to turn.


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