Paul the octopus has an ally

Kraken by China Mieville (Macmillan)

In 1953 one of the fathers of British science fiction, John Wyndham, published a book inspired by a Tennyson poem, The Kraken Wakes. The tale told of an alien invasion by giant squid, interested only in colonising the ocean deeps — they needed pressure to survive — but provoked to world-shattering aggression by the thermonuclear human reaction to their presence.

Wyndham’s story implicitly attacked the absurd stereotypes of the Cold War as blinding people to far bigger threats to human survival.

China Mieville’s 2010 Kraken is likewise a vehicle for satirising war, the Cold War’s successor — the West’s new crusades.

“I am impatient with that kind of [Richard Dawkins] thumping atheism,” Mieville told Socialist Worker, “that treats religion simply as an intellectual error. But if you are writing about religion today in Britain, you cannot but be aware of the debates about Islam. But I didn’t want that in the foreground of the book because you run a real risk of rather clumsy analogies. It is as much about the melodramatic trope of cults as it is about real religions in the real world.”

The story starts as a pun-filled search for thieves who steal a preserved kraken (“squid-napping”) from an apparently thief-proof tank in the belly of the Natural History Museum. Wise-cracking curator turned investigator Billy Harrow explores an urban-fantastical London in his search for the thieves, meets up with the Metropolitan Police Cult Squad and at vital junctures in the plot buys off villains using memorabilia from Star Trek and mythical machines created by early 20th-century English fantasist William Hope Hodgson.

Quite swiftly Mieville knocks together the locked-room conundrum, the investigator of the supernatural, the secret government department and the currency of fan-cult goods — a neat collection of the devices of modern urban fantasy.

Being Mieville, though, nothing unfolds predictably. The fantastical city we are immersed in spins away wildly even from the unreal London of Mieville’s debut, King Rat. Mieville always had wit; here, the humour is not only satirical, but also sometimes as slapstick as in his children’s book, Un-Lun-Dun, often at the points where events are at their bloodiest. Laughter explodes from unease, deconstructing the flabbiness prevalent in commercial and cinematic fantasy while leaving intact the magic at the core of the genre’s best.

Billy Harrow is a believable, Arthur Dent-ish kind of bloke, doing his best while beset by the unimaginable. He is surrounded by Disneyesque cartoon characters, such as the Knuckleheads, thugs who are merely giant walking fists. But at the core is a serious set of questions: How do we know what we know and why are we impelled to believe?

Mieville tells us he was writing Kraken at the same time as The City and the City. Some critics have seen this book as a retreat from the “seriousness” of that one. That’s a mistake. Both come from precisely the same inspiration — in Mieville’s words, “not treating ridiculous ideas as absurd but seeing where they take you”.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Small towns not ready for level 3

Officials in Beaufort West, which is on a route that links the Cape with the rest of the country, are worried relaxed lockdown regulations mean residents are now at risk of contracting Covid-19

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday