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”.


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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’.
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