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Who needs 'Star Wars' when you've got 'The Scar'?

The Agony Column for May 6, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


"I'm your father, Lucas." Someone made enough money to found a new nation bringing the covers of old Edgar Rice Burroughs books to life on the big screen -- but forgot what lies between the covers.

Is the title of this book -- er movie -- er whatever, devoid of irony? What generation of xerox are we talking about? Don't look for a review of this book, or movie in this column!

Cover art is a great way to sell a book. But we all know that the best part of any book lies behind the cover. So how is it that movies have become mere moving book covers, instead of filmed novels? All the surface, none of the depth. It's an interesting inversion that one can see in the covers of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that clearly inspired Star Wars. Now, I'm not that conversant on everything Lucas. But I wish more of the investment went into the scripting.

Now playing from your independant UK bookseller -- China Mieville's 'The Scar' will blow you away, if you like that sort of thing.

There's only a one or two month lag-time --instead of over a year -- between the US and the UK publication dates. Int he US, you're going to have to settle for a trade paperback version.

The realized scenes in recent SFX spectaculars actually pale in comparison to the experience of reading China Mieville's 'The Scar'. This 604 page work of imaginative fiction has many scenes that will leap into the reader's brain with a clarity that will linger long after two hours of 95dB heavily panned explosions. Fortunately, they're actually spending about 1/1,000,000th of the SW2 publicity budget promoting this novel.

Mieville isn't exactly unknown in the SF world. He's won awards, recognition, his books are given big print runs and are readily available at MegaSmega Bookmart. But because many of the scenes in 'The Scar' echo those found in parts of various SW movies, it's time for readers to come out swinging. This book is excellent evidence that the experience of reading is much more intense and memorable than the experience of seeing a movie. A great writer can create an intensely visual rapport with the reader. Our personal special effects are always the best.

The true first edition of China Mieville's 'King Rat' (something that only real book geeks like me actually care about) was the UK trade paperback.

Tor books did the right thing to immortalize that first novel in hardcover. Too bad they rather screwed the pooch with the release of his follow-up.

Mieville has come up to speed quickly. His first novel, 'King Rat', was released as a trade paperback in the UK in July 1999. It's a very urban dark fantasy story, filled with ultra-hip musical references -- Mieville's gift to the jungle music scene. Tor books released the hardcover (the first hardcover version, for you^H^H^H us hardcore book collector types) in October 1999. In it, Saul Garamond, a twenty-something nothing, returns home late one night. Upon awakening, he finds that his father has been killed and he's the suspect. In jail, he's freed by The Rat King and plunged into the supernatural underground of London.

While Saul and the Rat King are excellent, memorable characters, the real star of 'King Rat' is the city of London. Mieville lavishes and unleashes language on the city as if it were an errant lover, a horrible bully-thug, and an undependable best friend. He builds and destroys, invades and escapes, badgers and coerces. Nooks, crannies, intersections, underground, dirt, filth, green grass and dark skies are all caught in his words. He also does an admirable job of writing about music, the jungle/drum-n-bass music of the late 90's in particular. It's not easy to write about music without sounding precious. Yes, I admit, I'm a bit more likely to whinge when it comes to writers writing about music. I was working with the people who actually programmed many of the sounds used by jungle musicians when this novel was written, and the descriptions really capture the feel of the music without annoying the heck out of me. For what it's worth.

'King Rat' got lots of notice and Tor brought it out as a hardcover. So in March of 2000, when 'Perdido Street Station' exploded into our midst in its riot of invention in the UK hardcover, Tor immediately took notice and brought out the US version at virtually the same time, in a similarly lavish hardcover edition. Oops, my bad. No, Del Rey waited nearly a year to bring out the US version as a trade paperback. I just don't get it, I just don't get it. 'Perdido Street Station', for the three people reading this column who haven't read the book, is a huge, colossal fantasy set in the world of Bas Lag, primarily in the city of New Crobuzon. Certainly presaged by Mieville's evocation of London in 'King Rat', New Crobuzon is still an incredible creation, borrowing from every genre it can find and creating new ones where necessary. If you haven't read this novel, run to your local independent bookstore and buy their copy. They'll probably have at least one on hand, and there won't be any of that mail order waiting. 'Perdido Street Station' is a novel that is instant gratification personified, cast into 700 plus pages. At least for some of us.


Steampunk, swordpunk -- fantsy or science fiction? Literature or horror? 'Perdido Street Station' is pretty much everything it wants to be to those who like, uh like that sort of thing.

Too late but never too little, Del Rey brought out the US version of Perdido Street Station in a trade paperback format. Rather a nice trade paperback format, but still, nothing you could injure somebody with.

'Perdido Street Station' is large enough that it won't yield to easy summarization, and I'm not interested in that anyway. Suffice it to say that creates an entire city from whole cloth that is like nothing you've ever read about in a book or seen on a movie screen. Mieville uses his language so well that readers can see through the cracks between the words. He brings to life a huge cast of races, creatures, cultures and ideas without apparent effort. The smart money is that this novel owes something to Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' books, which happen to be one of my favorite fantasies. There is a linguistic similarity, but mostly Mieville is out on his own.

What's most striking about 'Perdido Street Station' is the author's ability to top himself again and again, to paint a scene that lives in your brain like a great movie set-piece, well beyond the date you finish reading the book. It's worrisome at first. You come upon some exquisitely created bit of spectacle early on and say to yourself "There's 590 pages left in this book and I've just read the best scene? What the heck!" But Mieville delivers another scene, as good or better, x pages down the line. And he keeps doing so for 710 pages. In one utterly original bit after another.

Now what's important here is that this book, and other books like it, can easily replace the pleasures offered by big-screen SFX spectaculars. There's just no doubt in the reader's mind that, trapped in the pages of 'Perdido Street Station' are genuinely visual scenes of wonder and awe. Scenes that I remember more clearly than any SF movie. (Now I'm not against Terry Gilliam's two part adaptation of 'Perdido Street Station, mind you. Isn't that the plan?)

Of course, the old Usenet caution of YMMV ('Your Mileage May Vary') applies to 'Perdido Street Station'. It is a rich stew and a huge one. I actually gave a copy of this novel to a friend because I was so sure that they would enjoy it -- and they never finished it. There are extenuating circumstances, but still... If you like this sort of thing, and if you like this novel -- you will love this novel. It's easily re-readable.


This 1981 re-issue of the The Warlord of Mars seems to be inspired by some scenes from Star Wars.

This is the cover the exact edition of the Mars books I read when I was a kid, and Lucas has brought them to life many times over.

That brings us to the dueling spectaculars -- the created-by-me Duel to the Death between Star Wars 2 and Mieville's latest novel, 'The Scar'. Tor has almost kind of learned its lesson. The UK hardcover version of this novel is currently shipping. The Del Rey trade paperback will be out in the US in June. They're pulling out all the stops for this book. That is, they're going to publish it, ship it, and see if they can get it reviewed in a few prime places. SW2 has mega-stars, mega-budgets and SFX to die for. They've brought the old covers of Edgar Rice Burroughs books to life. They've brought the covers of old Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov books to life. But they haven't gone any deeper than the covers.

At this juncture, I think I'm supposed to say "But it's a movie, what do you expect?" I expect that a science fiction movie could be rather easily made that had the subtlety of say 'Chinatown', the depth of say 'Amadeus'. It's not undoable. Look at 'Pi', a science fiction movie where the overall budget and the screenplay budget were more closely proportional.

Darren Aronofsky's 'Pi' was a science fiction movie where the proportion of script costs to overall budget was more in line to deliver a quality experience.

But if you look at the script costs versus overall costs of the SFX spectaculars, you'll see what the problem is. Nobody's paying much attention to the writing part of the movie. One can understand that the folks in charge would want to get to the really fun stuff, taking out the big, expensive digital toys and making them go bang. But wouldn't it be better if they bothered to invest in the script, so that the characters they were blowing up were people we cared about? Or even so that the Wonder Weapons they deployed were a tad more interesting than ten millionth version of the death ray? In the 21st century, we're still seeing the echoes of stuff that was done in Flash Gordon.

Then there's the problems of creation by committee. Few movies get made alone, and it is by definition currently impossible for one person to create by themselves a special effects spectacular -- unless they're writing a book. No matter how burning the vision of the film director, at some point they're going to have to talk to someone else and get their input and compromise their vision against what the available technology can do. Yes, technology has advanced significantly in the past few years, but it's far from perfect. Plasticky only begins to describe the current level of achievement. But imperfect special effects aren't the problem. People are the problem. Only one medium allows the creator to hotwire their audience directly into the visions of their mind -- the written form. No shortcut, no conversation, no compromise. Pure creativity can be poured from one vessel into another.

All this brings me back to Mieville's latest. 'The Scar' has the ultimate version of something held very near and dear to the hearts of every SW fan out there. Mieville's just written about it. That's all it is -- words on a page. But by the time he deploys it, his Wonder Weapon jumps off the page and swirls around the reader in images you'll never forget. As for cities of wonder, Mieville does that too, and when he simply describes Salkrikraltor City it's a feat worthy of the kind of investment it would take to generate the damn thing using the latest CGI. And the CGI version would still be less impressive. (But I'm willing to put up with Terry Gillliam's version anyway.)

The bottom line is that no matter how special the effects are, nothing that is projected before the eyes can compare to that which is created behind them. Go ahead, jump in line and enjoy your popcorn. But when you really want to see thrilling images of startling wonder, to travel to exotic worlds that may never exist without leaving your seat, turn away from the screen and towards the printed page. When it comes to special effects, you brain has no budgetary limitations. Even the sky is no limit.




Rick Kleffel