The Scar (2002) by China Miéville

TheScar(1stEd)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.

TheScar1The 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” [278], 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” [278] or “he’s stupefying them with pomposity…” [34] or “prowl the coastal settlements of Bas-Lag committing wordstorms…” [107], 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!)

TheScar3And maybe Miéville would say the best metaquote is “I always preferred them stories without morals” [26]. Hmmm. I don’t buy it.

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.



25 thoughts on “The Scar (2002) by China Miéville

  1. Steph says:

    I’m torn. I like/respect Perdido Street Station but I don’t know if I want to take the next step. You have me thinking…


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The Scar feels like a more traditional story– less gritty, less unwieldy. I took it slowly with both books, reading a little here, listening a little there. I think Perdido is more fun AFTER reading it, just because it’s such an experience. The Scar is more fun DURING the read, because it just reads like just a really good story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Superb review. I read this and several other of Mieville’s excellent novels before I started blogging, and have debated about re-reading them to write reviews. I’m not sure I need to when I can come read reviews like this one. (Though for some stupid reason I read the Bas-Lag sequence skipping Perdido, so I’ll have to read that one sooner or later.) The Scar is my favorite of Mieville’s, though I have a soft spot for Kraken and think it’s a bit underrated by reviewers.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks! I keep hearing great things about Kraken, so I look forward to reading it. My next Mieville is Iron Council, which I hear is boring.

      What did you think of Bellis when you read this? I can’t help thinking she was meant to be amoral and unlikeable, and I completely missed the point by loving her.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did think she was a bit cold and distant, but as you point out, she’s more watchful, homesick but resolute, waiting for the opportune time to make her move. Getting her sea legs as it were. Really, I was just waiting for her to strike. Unlikeable is pretty harsh; as for amoral… Well, aren’t most people amoral in Bas-Lag?


  3. I have yet to be able to connect with Mieville, but admittedly I haven’t tried much. I was enjoying the audio book of The City & The City when it first came out, but only got about a quarter into it before the library police were banging down my door. I should go back to that, I suppose. Or finally read The Kraken, which a friend gave me.

    I’m sure I’m colored to some degree by things I’ve read that he has written/said that I don’t agree with, but that certainly hasn’t stopped me from enjoying other authors in the past. Maybe now that some of the drum-banging for his work has died down I won’t have that feeling of him being terribly overrated when I go into his work.

    Love your description of Bellis. She sounds like an interesting character, both for what she does and what she doesn’t do. Also enjoyed your speculations as to what Mieville might have been trying to say with her character and with the novel overall.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Ugh, library police. They are so militant. 😛

      I couldn’t connect with Perdido Street Station on my first attempt years ago. I think I just wasn’t experienced enough with SF to really appreciate it back then. And, also the library police wanted it back, too.

      I really, really try to avoid knowledge about authors because I don’t want that knowledge to influence my experience with their books. It’s a lot more fun speculating when I don’t know Jack about these people. But it’s hard to avoid the buzz about some authors. What little I know about Mieville makes me want to like him, but he has been overhyped, which is why I’m a little disappointed to have enjoyed his work so much. The contrarian in me…

      I really love Bellis and I’m curious why he chose to depict his heroine in this way. I’m sure he’s been asked and I could go google it, but it’s much more fun to speculate.


      • I can be a contrarian that way myself. Friends like to point out how ridiculous it is as I love some very hyped authors and tend to hold off on others. Its a quirk.

        I don’t actively seek out information on authors generally either. I’d rather not know. I don’t want their opinions clouding my enjoyment of their work. Sometimes that is easier to do than others.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. thebookgator says:

    Excellent review. I’ll have to move it up the list.
    Bellis sounds as if I’d rather like her. Or am her. But I’d probably cancel on dinner too.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Haha! Glad someone else admits it! I think part of the reason I love Bellis so much is because I can relate. Reader vanity. :-/


  5. Widdershins says:

    I’m with you about cruise ships. Won’t get on one, never will. All them humans. **shudders**


  6. Hestia says:

    Great review — there’s a whole lot going on in this book, so many cool, wait-they-just-what? moments. I’ve always been skeptical of the kidnapped main character who becomes part of the crew (or the society, in this case) but I thought it worked here.

    I never got the sense Bellis was a stand-in for any sort of political type, though I often miss things like that. She is very much the anti-adventurer, though, which was an interesting direction for a character in an otherwise adventury story.

    I just read Kraken last year — I thought it was fun in its own apocalyptically goofy way.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I keep hearing good things about Kraken and “goofy” seems out of character for this author. I’m curious.

      Bellis is definitely a unique protag choice for this adventure story, but you bring up a good point about the dubiousness of the quickly adaptable kidnapped character. Maybe Bellis never assimilates in order to make the tale more realistic.


  7. I find it fascinting that most of the reading world likes this one better than Perdido. Perdido has my heart forever. I really enjoyed The Scar too, but it…well I have trouble putting my finger on why I enjoyed it (just a little) less.

    I have Kraken on the way…”goofy” are you serious? I’ll believe he can do goofy when I see it. Tried Railsea but couldnt get it into it (yet), and have The City and The City and Embassytown on the shelf too. I think The City and The City is the one I’ve had people recommend the most lately, so here’s hoping I love it as much.

    Oh and my husband was just trying to read Iron Council, but he was bored and gave up.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think The Scar follows a more traditional story structure than Perdido, and Perdido’s characters are so bizarre that it scares off traditional readers. So you, my friend, have bizarre taste. Imagine that. ;-P

      I keep hearing Iron Council is super boring. I am determined to make it my favorite, just to be annoying.

      The City and the City is just so cool. I can’t wait until you read it.


  8. But what do you recommend for people who hate stories?


  9. […] finally posted my review of The Scar (2002), which I truly, truly enjoyed. I loved Ms. Belis Coldwine more than maybe any other character […]


  10. […] Perdido Street Station (2000) is ostentatious and grotesque, and The Scar (2002) more traditionally fantastic, Iron Council is thoughtful and political…but unique […]


  11. […] on China Miéville’s third and final Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council (2004). Not as exciting as The Scar (2002), nor as lascivious as Perdido Street Station (2001), Iron Council is a steady political […]


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