#CBR4 Maneuver #10 – The Scar
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Weird Fantasy, Pirate Adventure, Bas-Lag
Summary: From the Back Cover, “Aboard a vast seafaring vessel, a band of prisoners and slaves, their bodies remade into grotesque biological oddities, is being transported to a fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. They are joined by a handful of travelers, each with a reason for fleeing the city. When the ship is besieged by pirates on the Swollen Ocean, the senior officers are executed. The surviving passengers are brought to Armada, a city constructed from the hulls of stolen ships – a floating, landless mass whose bizarre leaders harbor a sinister agenda.”
After Action Report:
The Scar is the second novel set in Miéville’s Bas-Lag universe. It does follow and relate to the events of Perdido Street Station but only in the most tangential of ways. None of the same characters are involved and aside for a fragment of an inciting incident and a few expositional rambles, the two stories never intersect. Miéville brings us back to his bizarre world to explore a new place with new faces and a completely different attitude. Where Perdido Street Station was a psychological horror novel wrapped up in a fantasy wrapper, The Scar is a swashbuckling pirate yarn that happens to incorporate fantasy elements. The combination of the genres is less jarring than Perdido, making The Scar a much more accessible read. In some ways, I really recommend starting here and working your way backwards to the harder novel. You’re really not missing anything by doing so.
The Scar follows Bellis Coldwine, a linguistics expert on the run from some nebulous threat posed to her by the New Crobuzon government. The first, short arc of the book sees her captured by pirates on her way to a remote colony. The pirates are representatives of Armada, a floating pirate city composed of captured vessels and flotsam. Bellis was captured as part of a larger plot to solve Armada’s one critical weakness: the city’s inability to move on its own. While Bellis was an unexpected bonus, her language skills soon become critical to Armada’s plan.
As with Perdido, the real star of The Scar is the world of Bas-Lag. The hybridizations of magic and science produce such fascinating sub-sciences as Multiplanar Biology and Probability Mining. Armada’s plan relies on the summoning and harnessing of a massive quasi-real sea creature called an Avanc, and much of the book is occupied with the complex process of doing so. Miéville’s approach to magic, as both something scientifically understandable and something fundamentally unknowable, is appealing because of its inherent contradictions, much like Bas-Lag itself.
While The Scar is another superlative example of world building, it does suffer from a few glaring flaws. The first few chapters are slow moving and so thinly related to the main plot as to be extraneous. Bellis Coldwine is fundamentally unlikable, although she is not the worst offender in this category. Her standoffishness with the rest of the cast reduces her use as a sympathetic figure. I can’t honestly say I felt sorry for her getting kidnapped and her ‘reward’ in the ending seemed almost too good for her. That ending poses the largest single problem with the entire book. After a climactic battle with some rather mysterious enemies, Armada, and the book, limp along for a few more chapters until the plotline is suddenly derailed by an unexpected quirk of probability. It’s hard to explain without getting into spoiler-filled specifics, but the entire experience feels like a massive case of literary blue balls. It was almost as if Miéville wanted to avoid a catastrophic ending, but wanted us to believe that it happened.
I’ve held up The Scar to Perdido Street Station at every possible turn. This is partially because the two books are very closely linked in plot and setting, but also because they have many of the same literary strengths and weaknesses. Because I’ve read them both now, it’s difficult to recommend either one as a standalone experience, in spite of the fact that neither is required reading for the other. My experience of The Scar would have been very different if I had read it first, and I probably would have ended up liking it a bit better. It is a little cleaner, a little less confusing and much less aggressively hostile to its reader. It is an easier read. But it also doesn’t reach the same brilliant heights as its companion, or challenge me to think about alien things in the same way. This shouldn’t make it a lesser story, but it does make it a lesser book. It is still good, but not everything can be excellent.