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Looking for Jake and Other Stories

Looking for Jake and Other Stories - China Miéville The name China Miéville isn't generally synonymous with short stories, probably because he doesn't write them that often. In the past decade, he's published 10 novels, and in the same span, produced only 16 pieces of short fiction. I mean, whatever. Dude is busy. I think he also became an economics genius, ran for political office, and did about 3 million arm curls during that decade too. Oh, and got a giant squid tattoo. Anyway, it's pretty annoying to discover that he also does short fiction astonishingly well. I love Miéville as a novelist, but longform talent is no guarantee of an aptitude with short fiction. Also I generally don't much like short stories, which raises the bar higher still. And the jerk pretty much clears it with ease -- this is right up there with Stories of Your Life and Others on my list of "short stories collections that I didn't just half-heartedly flip through." Which, to be fair, is pretty much every other book of short stories I've read that Stephen King didn't write.There are fourteen stories here, most having appeared elsewhere. A few earned some minor awards (the Locus? Is that a thing people care about?), but no Hugo or Nebula nods. Nevertheless, each of them has its strong points, and there are only one or two outright clunkers in the bunch -- an astonishingly high batting average if you ask me. There is very much of a Chinaness about them all though -- if you are a fan, their style and content will be pretty comfortable. If you aren't, nothing here is going to suddenly turn you on to the fact that everything he writes is pretty great and oh, how wrong you have been in the past. But if that's the case, you have been. Wrong.Looking for Jake - The title story is probably one of my least favorite in the collection, if only because it feels so underdeveloped. The hazy premise -- a man searches for his missing friend in a world that has undergone some unexplained remaking that has seen random people disappear in an instant and letters dropped into mailboxes delivered to everywhere or nowhere by someone or something or nothing and buildings that are vacant but not vacant -- is mostly an excuse to play up a paranoid atmosphere, which other stories in the collection will do a lot better. Sets the mood though. GRADE: B-Foundation - This one is my least-favorite, no probably about it. Also it is easily one of the least-subtle things China has written. A guy can speak to the foundations of buildings, which is a nice perk for a contractor, though mostly they just complain about how they are miserable and dead and filled with sand. Because they are the bodies of all the people dude killed in the Gulf War. Something something oil. It's an effectively chilling tale, but too telegraphed and thusly, rather unsatisfying. GRADE: C-The Ball Room - I really liked this slight but inventive ghost story (co-written with two others), if only because it and I are simpatico on two key points: those ball pits kids play in? Are gross. And stores like Ikea? Are hell. GRADE: B+Reports of Certain Events in London - An idea so China, China had to make himself the narrator just so he can tell us how NEW WEIRD the whole thing is. Meta-China is mistakenly delivered some notes and photos (intended for one Charles Melville) from a secret society tracking these rogue streets that have been appearing and disappearing around London. Cute idea, but the fragmentary presentation left me feeling a bit baffled. It won some award though, so what do I know? GRADE: B-Familiar - Remember how large swaths of Perdido Street Station are just descriptions of how gross and pustule-covered everything is? This entire story is one big pustule. A witch accidentally makes a familiar out of his own discarded flesh. It evolves. Grossly. Later it fights with a big pile of living garbage. Still, can't say China doesn't make two blood-muck-garbage monsters fighting sound damn poetic. GRADE: C+Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia - The shortest story in the book, it is what the title says it is: the etymology and history of a brain-liquifying disease spread by the utterance of a single word. Yes, the word is included, but not the pronunciation. So get cracking! Brief, but amusing; snarky academic footnotes are always worth a few bonus points. GRADE: B+Details - A contender for the finest story in the collection, this one explores a young boy's relationship with a weird neighbor who has locked herself away from the world because she's able to see "the devil in the details." You know, literally. An unusually intriguing idea, effectively told... and ended! AGo-Between - The exploration of a man's paranoia: the narrator thinks he has been targeted to receive and send secret messages of world-shattering import. But he can't figure out if the message-senders are on the side of the devil or the angels. So he never sends their last message, and drives himself crazy trying to figure out if he did the right thing or not. We, as readers, can also posit a third option: he is nuts. GRADE: BDifferent Skies - My favorite! Feels like vintage Stephen King: old man buys a fancy antique piece of glass in a consignment shop, installs it in his study window, and soon discovers that the view through that particular pane is now... a little different. It looks out onto a different sky, and there are presences lurking out there, taunting him. Wanting in. The last line gave me non-hyperbolic goosebumps. GRADE: AAn End to Hunger - You know that annoying website FreeRice.com that makes you play a word game and awards you "points" in the form of grains of rice donated to starving third world countries? Does that website make you want to throw your internet out a window, because what kind of put-a-bow-on-it feel-good useless corporate bullshit fake-charity is that? China Miéville agrees with you, based on this story of a hacker who decides to take a similar site down. It's a fun bit of corporate paranoia, and if you question the politics behind it, just remember that it was originally published in a socialist journal, so you know what you're in for. GRADE: B+'Tis the Season - Hey, a funny one. Christmas (TM) has been purchased, copyrighted, and licensed, and don't let them catch you with a Christmas Tree (TM), Tinsel (TM), or Wrapped Gifts (TM) unless you have an official license, buddy. So what happens when a bunch of protestors decide to take back Christmas? Trenchant social commentary, I bet. GRADE: BJack - If you read Perdido Street Station, you no doubt remember Jack Half-a-Prayer, oh he of the late-book deus ex mantis-arm appearance. Here's a little more about where he came from and what happened to him later. If you've visited New Crobuzon before, you know it isn't going to be pretty. I still want to know more about this guy -- this glimpse is more about the city itself, its corruption and politics and the horrible way it tortures its criminals by literally remaking their bodies into representations of their crimes. But, so, mantis arm... sometimes the representations are kind of abstract, OK? GRADE: B+On the Way to the Front - A brief "graphic" story about... hmmm. Well, there's this guy on a bus and... Some soldiers seem to be... But you can't quite tell... Is the guy dead? Or wait, are the soldiers? Is the art supposed to be so crappy? I think maybe it is something about... anti-war. Going with anti-war. GRADE: ?*The Tain: The longest story, originally published separately as a novella by a specialty press. It's late, and I can't finish this right now, so TO BE CONTINUED in my review of that edition.Look! Pretty:* I also tried listening to this one as an audiobook, to see if it would be any clearer with a narrator explaining the images. Nope.