There’s a scene in China Miéville’s The Scar where the enigmatic Uther Doul, the sinister strongman of Armadan politics, is surrounded by Crobuzoner troops. He blasts his antagonists away with multiple guns, and then, when the swarm grows again, he activates his physics-defying porcelain blade, the Possible sword, and annihilates his combatants:
His sword blossoms.
It is fecund, it is brimming, it sheds echoes. Doul has a thousand right arms, slicing in a thousand directions. His body moves, and like a stunningly complex tree, his sword arms spread through the air, solid and ghostly…
He is like a spirit, a god of revenge, a murderous bladed wind. He moves past the men who have boarded his ship and sends up a mist of their blood, leaving them dying, limbs and body parts skittering over the deck. His armor is red [465 – 466].
Fantasy physics is what you’ll get in The Scar. But that’s not even the best part.
Monstrous, behemoth, leviathan—the name of the game in this novel is BIG. The tale returns to the world of Bas-Lag, primarily set on Armada, a floating urban tapestry, a city of lost and hijacked ships, linked together into one fragmented communal unit. The feudal administrators of this nautical city attempt to harness a giant transplanar visitor from a cosmic doorway located in the deepest ocean trench, with the hope that the creature will pull Armada across the vast Empty Ocean, toward the mythical Scar. The cast of characters includes geo-empaths, lightening elementals, sphincter-mouthed hermits, their human/mosquito female companions, a Remade tentacled prisoner, menacing ghostly grindylow, and a vampiric bureaucrat.
But that’s not even the best part.
The political architecture is as intricate as the scenery. This seabound urban landscape brings to mind modern-day Cuba, cut off from the world, living off the remnants of aged and discarded possessions, with its ingenious methods of agriculture and medicine, and a people fiercely protective of their unique lifestyle. Floating civilizations are not new to SF, but perhaps The Scar serves as a political experiment for this author, an attempt to construct a society that is both cast out from, and rejecting of, the status quo. The “coincidental comrades” , also known as the press-ganged (mentioned 36 times. just sayin’), discover an unprecedented equality in Armada, a second chance to contribute to, and feel valued by, society. It can be overwhelming to some and suffocating to others. The contrary nuances of this lifestyle are authentic and familiar.
But that’s not the best part, either.
The flaws we find in the first Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station (2000), with its outlandish vocabulary, the juvenile grotesqueness, the cartoonishness, are muted, still present for that signature Miévillian flavor we like to make fun of, but less of a distraction from the narrative. Where PSS is indulgent and baroque, The Scar is focused and traditional. Both are immense and stunning in their ideas, but The Scar is a class above in scope, yet more user-friendly.
Still, not the best part…
…because Bellis is the best part.
Bellis Coldwine, the haughty, blue-lipped protagonist of The Scar, is on the run from the New Crobuzon military police, and barters her linguistic skills in exchange for a ride to the colonies on the Terpsichoria. She’s cold, arrogant, judgmental, and unsociable. She comes off as selfish. She doesn’t really DO anything. And, you know what? I would be the same way if trapped on a boat with a bunch of people I didn’t know. (Luxury cruises sound like a nightmare.) And pressgang me into a new lifestyle? OH, NO, I’D BE ALL– whispering with a coworker, and bitching about it to an acquaintance, and feeding gossip to an unreliable rebel and… drinking tea and reading books while chess pieces move around me…
Thanks to Bellis, The Scar isn’t swashbuckling. It’s posh-buckling. And I love her for it.
The most realistic and modern female SF character I have yet to encounter, Bellis is no jaw-dropping femme fatale, but she’s no wallflower, either. She’s self-preserving, cautious, and resilient. When her confidence blinds her, she shrugs and adapts. Her self-assuredness carries her through waves of disadvantage and humiliation with hardly a bruise on her ego. She rolls with it, because maybe it will come to her advantage later.
She doesn’t do much, but she’s opportunistic. Always watching. Always waiting. Often reading. Bellis is a woman of practical empowerment. Where most heroes and heroines seek to destroy the power structure with violence and ingenuity, Bellis knows the cracks are already there. But she doesn’t go looking for them. She rides the waves that come to her, but she makes no effort to sway the tide.
And if we’re really honest—okay, if I’m really honest— that’s exactly how I would be in her situation. No feats of suicidal daring and latently-realized expertise with weapons. No stealthy infiltration of the power structure. I’d be lying low, diplomatic when necessary, but steadily neutral. You’ve got something impossibly dangerous for me to do? I’ll get the guy with the tentacles to do it.
She’s flawed and she’s fabulous. Bellis is definitely the best part.
I don’t know much about Miéville other than slight gleanings of his politics, but I can’t help wondering if Bellis was originally intended as a satire of our dormant culture, those of us who watch horrific injustices and their subsequent protests, the armchair revolutionaries who never get anything done because, well, we’ve got leaves to rake and cars to wash, and an early meeting in the morning. I know my outrage has cooled since the WTO protests I once contemplated attending. Surely things will take care of themselves in the end.
Is Bellis supposed to be subversive commentary at its most subtle? Bellis’ other qualities suggest otherwise. She lets other characters manipulate events and take risks, yet she never surrenders her independence. She may be inactive, but she is her own agent. Is, perhaps, Bellis is a satire gone awry?
I rarely care whether I like, or even identify with, characters of novels. But Bellis strikes a chord that is both genuine and relatable, and it’s difficult to ignore how truly enjoyable she is to read. I’ve been looking for such a female character and I didn’t expect to find her here.
Originally, I had hoped I could say that, like Uther Doul’s multi-dimensional sword, The Scar is a Possible book. It’s really not. It is a story for story’s sake, probably, with some experimental society building, and frank, unsubtle commentary about body mutilation, prisoners’ rights, and sexual relationships, yadda, yadda, yadda. I had hoped to find an awesome metaquote, such as “[it’s] an ostentatious piece of prestidigitation”  or “he’s stupefying them with pomposity…”  or “prowl the coastal settlements of Bas-Lag committing wordstorms…” , but Miéville is too disciplined and restrained in this second installment of the Bas-Lag universe. There’s not much to pick on. (Okay, puissant/puissance. Twenty times!)
But The Scar is a grand and wonderful tale, with a wonderfully flawed protagonist, who I would love to have over for dinner, but we would probably cancel on each other. And we wouldn’t have much to say to each other, anyway.
Bellis, may you always be as frigid and sour as your awesome surname suggests.
Recommended for people who love stories.