Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

three moments of an explosionImagination is not enough…


This is a collection of 28 short stories from an author who appears to be one of the big names in current sci-fi/fantasy. I’m afraid I only made it through four of the stories before deciding to abandon the book, so this review is more an explanation of why I came to the conclusion that life’s too short.

The title story, Three Moments of an Explosion, is only a couple of pages long. The basic premise is that in a future world, a building is being demolished. Some young people take a drug that slows down time for them, allowing them to go inside the building during the explosion and witness it from the inside. An imaginative premise, but there’s not enough room to allow for any kind of development, though it hints that it’s maybe trying to make some kind of point about capitalism. Maybe.

Next up is Polynia, which is still quite short, though longer than the first one. Again a brilliantly imaginative premise and, as with all the stories, well written, if you don’t mind the constant swearing (which, of course, I do). Suddenly one day, with no warning, icebergs appear floating in the sky above London. No-one knows why. And by the end of the story, still no-one knows why. And nothing much happens in-between. Another great idea left completely underdeveloped and unresolved. I was still trying to buy into the whole thing at this point, so speculated that perhaps this was some kind of apocalyptic climate change warning, but I think I was being too generous.

The third story is The Condition of New Death. Very short. The idea is quirky and original – suddenly when people die, their feet always point towards anyone who looks at them, even if several people look at them at the same time from different angles. This is a kind of joke on shoot-em-up computer games, but it’s a fragment of what could have been a fun story had it been developed.

The one that finally made me give up was the fourth story – The Dowager of Bees, touted as the best in the collection by many reviewers. The premise has loads of potential – sometimes in poker games, a mystery card will turn up from nowhere, and when it does the players either get a prize or have to make some kind of forfeit. Had Miéville bothered to tell us what the prizes or forfeits were, that might have been fun. And the ending, possibly intended to be intriguingly ambiguous, felt completely unsatisfactory and a bit of a cop-out.

China Miéville
China Miéville

Frankly by that stage I’d had enough. I looked at reviews on Goodreads and even the positive ones (mostly as far as I can tell from generous existing fans) suggest that all the ‘stories’ are like this and that some are in fact even more fragmentary than these. Each of the four that I read had the potential to be a really original story, but ended up feeling like it was a great idea the author had jotted down in a notebook intending to develop it later, but then couldn’t be bothered. I don’t think every short story necessarily needs a beginning, a middle and an end, but neither do I think throwing a nugget of imagination onto the page is enough, however golden.

The quality of the writing and imagination make me a bit regretful to be giving the collection 1 star, but since I metaphorically threw it at the wall at the 12% mark, I reckon it’s the only rating I can give. The consensus of existing fans’ reviews seems to be that his novels are better. I’ll take their word for it – I’m left with no real desire to find out.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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39 thoughts on “Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

  1. I also found Perdido Street Station by Mieville to be a colossal disappointment and I was so looking forward to discovering his work at the time. Some people love his stuff but I couldn’t relate to any of the characters in that novel.

    • I certainly didn’t relate to any of the characters in these, but I put that down to how short and undeveloped the stories were. I can see the attraction of his imagination – some of these ideas were very original. I was a bit sorry I hadn’t gone for one of the novels instead but sounds like I might have hit similar problems with them…

  2. Oh, dear, and I’ve got one of his novels (The City and the City) lined up to read. I don’t usually read much sci-fi – but what I have read has been of a very high quality. I’ll have to see whether I can relate to him or his characters. I understand that one is a bit crime-fictiony, so that might be a good thing.

    • Well, the reviews from fans definitely suggest that the books are much better, and I’m pretty sure my sister said she’d enjoyed Miéville – she’s much more of a fantasy fan than I am. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it – after abandoning this, I felt I was probably done with him, but maybe you’ll be able to change my mind…

    • For what it’s worth, The City and the City is quite different than the other Mieville books I have read. Billed as a noir detective novel of sorts, it is tight and sharp and can be read as a fantastical work about two superimposed cities or as an allegory for how we often chose to live in big cities. When I was in Cape Town this year I frequently thought of a city where people learn to see and “unsee” the parts of the city that they want ( or don’t want) to see.

  3. Ah well, another one I needn’t add to the TBR – I keep hitting up against the name, and thinking ‘I must investigate’. Maybe investigation can happen in a year or so. Or not. But, at least it was well written. I nearly STAMPED on my Kindle in rage and frustration at a new low for writing beyond dreadful (yes, my book club’s choice – but not mine – for Halloween. TBH, to my jaundiced little tastes, not one of the offered choices was one I wanted to sully my Kindle with, but the chosen one was not the best of a bad bunch, which all looked impossible. Such a trappy genre, not to mention, such an attractively alluring one for so many bad – I can’t dignify them with the term – writers.

    Anyway, having avoided the Kindle fling I contented myself with a far less destructive (if not so physically venting) ‘delete the title from your Kindle, and decided I could go no further than the crass scene where the investigating policeman on questioning a witness had a projectile vomiting sequence, lovingly described, and the ‘author????’ treated us to details of gobbetty cleaning up with paper towels. Really?!! Said ‘author???’ does not appear to have the marginal excuse of being aged 9.

    So……….I picked up the Kindle for a restful and intellectually interesting read of another book about the novel, by Tim Parks, various collections of pieces published in literary reviews etc. It was cheering that one of the first chapters was exhorting readers NOT to try and finish books (even good ones) because they think they ‘should’ And of course, reading BAD books wastes the time which could be spent on reading ones which add to your life.

    Before you say ‘leave that club!’ I have to say I have also been introduced to great stuff which I missed. Challenges with readers of different tastes, of course, abound, and it’s rare we choose a one size fits all which everyone gets SOMETHING from.

    • I fear I have to agree – a lot of horror fiction, genre fiction in general, is incredibly poorly written. I guess it always was and it’s just that with the classics it’s only the better ones that have survived. I do see the attraction for wannabee writers – it’s much easier to create a world than to have to research the real world. But even so stories have to be internally consistent, and as we were discussing the other day, they have to be vague in the right way. Just not having an ending or story arc doesn’t count as tantalising vagueness. I think I’m actually more forgiving of the poorly written, derivative stuff though, than I was of this. Because he is clearly brilliantly imaginative and has the ability to write, it just felt like laziness – in fact, it felt like he was taking his existing readership for granted, knowing they’d buy the book anyway. But to be fair, he is getting far more positive reviews than negative, so maybe it’s just a matter of taste – I know I do tend to prefer stories to kind of surreal ideas left hanging in the air. But maybe that’s because I don’t have the kind of imagination that can create my own story around the kernel he provides…

      Leave that bookclub!!! When I rule the world, and I think I’ll have to start soon, all descriptions of bodily functions will be banned from all but medical books! It’s the same on the TV – you’re just settling down with a nice meal to watch some nice programme, when all of a sudden you’re treated to someone giving it the old heave-ho! Even the news is fraught with peril – especially the BBC rolling news, who like to fill in space by taking us into the operating theatre and showing us brain operations!

  4. Phew! That must have been that earth rumbling I experienced not long ago…

    I hate when I hope for good things in a book and having to throw it against the wall. Oh well, onward and upward. 😉

    • I wouldn’t want to put you off completely. I’m not great with fantasy at the best of times, and this book is undoubtedly getting positive reviews from people who’ve liked his other stuff, though they definitely gave me the impression they think his full-length books are better. But I suspect my preference for ‘proper’ stories meant these kind of imaginative fragments were never going to work for me…

    • Yeah, his name seems to be everywhere at the moment, and I can see how his imagination would make his stuff appealing. I kinda regret going for the short stories rather than trying one of his novels first – it’s put me off him, for a while at least…

  5. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of his novels, but I’ve not read any short stories. After your review, I don’t think I’ll bother!

    • You’re more into fantasy than me, so maybe they’d work better for you, but I don’t know. They really did feel more like reading somebody’s ideas notebook than full-fledged stories.

  6. Oh, my, FictionFan! What a disappointment! I’m sorry to hear that this one went straight into the DNF file. But I completely understand what you mean about the fragmentary nature of these stories. And the ones you describe…well…let’s just say my TBR is not threatened this time round. I do appreciate your cherry-picking, though.

  7. HaHa *laughing lots* Sounds like a complete waste of time, FF. How DO folks get stuff like this published?? I agree, you gave it a chance, though. Four stories read certainly convinced you that you had better things to do than plow through the rest — thanks for once again saving me time and money!!

    • It was! I guess once you’re a ‘name’ you can get anything published – and maybe the publisher’s are right – he’s certainly getting lots of reviews so the book must be selling. And most of the reviews are pretty positive so maybe it’s just me who’s missing something, but I couldn’t have taken another 24 unworked fragments! Life really is too short…!

  8. This is an author I’ve also had to give up on. I struggled through his “Kraken” and afterwards had to look up reviews. There was a lot of lavish praise and I felt really out of synch. The main fault for me was that he adopted an “anything goes” scenario which all becomes rather pointless- there were talking tattoos, people being folded into envelopes but little dramatic tension. It did fizz with ideas though but they were not followed through and he does have a huge vocabulary. His work is termed the “New Weird” but I’m afraid it’s not for me – Give me the “Old Weird” anyday!

    • Yes, I can see why they’d be called ‘weird’ but even weird ought to have an actual story hidden in there somewhere, I feel! This collection’s getting a lot of good reviews too, but there is a feeling about a lot of them that they are existing fans trying to justify the collection rather than wholeheartedly praising it. And I know that temptation – if one of my favourite authors comes out with a poor-ish book then I find myself desperately looking for positives.

  9. Funny, but your honest review has left me thinking I might actually like this one. It wouldn’t be high on my agenda anyhow though since I do have two of his other books sitting around unread at the moment.

    • Ha! That happens to me sometimes with negative reviews too. In Miéville’s defence I freely admit I do prefer the more traditional story format and am not the world’s greatest lover of fantasy or weird tales, so I was always going to be hard to persuade. I’ll look forward to your and MarinaSofia’s reviews of his books, and see if maybe I can be tempted to revoke my ban on him… 😉

  10. OH, what a shame, my husband likes Mieville (too violent for me!) but I’ll warn him off this one. I know he went into self-publishing at one point, so I wonder if he’s vetoed having an editor. Such a shame, though.

    • I didn’t pick it up from the book or blurb, but some of the reviewers mentioned that these were early stories – my cynical mind suspects they’ve been published to cash in on his current success. But people who’ve liked his other stuff seem to have enjoyed these much more than I did, so your husband might find them interesting if not completely satisfying…

  11. That’s interesting, although not entirely surprising, that his short stories were so fragmentary. I think his writing as a whole is less defined, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions at points. And yes, for the adult books, the language can be a bit much. For what it’s worth, I have enjoyed the novels of his that I’ve read, and I intend to read more. But I think I’m more into fantasy/sci-fi than you are, generally speaking. His children’s book Un Lun Dun is probably my favorite, and the only one I’d likely recommend without reservations. Thanks for the honest review! 😀

    • Yes, you’re definitely more into fantasy than me. In fact, it’s a genre I mostly avoid, which makes me always feel a bit guilty when I give one a negative review, since I know it’s likely to work better for people who like the genre more. I’d be interested to see what you think of these, if you get around to them at some point. I do like sci-fi more, and I’d say several of these had the potential to be sci-fi rather than fantasy, but they just weren’t developed enough for my taste. Oh well! 🙂

  12. Thanks for the honest review! I’ve heard so much about this author but I haven’t had a chance to read any of his stuff yet – although I have one on loan from the library that I will get round to at some point! Have you read any of his other books?

    • I haven’t, but I’ve had a couple of comments on Goodreads and Amazon from long-term fans saying they don’t think this is a good one to start with and recommending trying his earlier novels instead. I haven’t recovered from this one yet though… 😉

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