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'Three Moments' Is A Symphony Of Short Story Strangeness

"A dense forest of might'ves." That's how the Willesden Kid, the main character in China Miéville's short story "The Dowager of Bees," describes the weird world he's found himself in: A world much like ours, only ominously askew. The Willesden Kid is a newcomer to an underground circuit of gambling. His sense of reality is already a little off the grid. But things get even more bizarre for him as he begins to discover secret suits in decks of cards — bees, chains, chimneys, and scissors in addition to clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades — that signal stranger possibilities, or "might'ves," than he ever imagined.

"The Dowager of Bees" is one of many mind-bending excursions into the fantastic that appear in Miéville's Three Moments of an Explosion, his first collection of short stories since 2005's Looking for Jake. During that time, he's published some of his most acclaimed novels, including such high-concept speculative masterpieces as 2009's The City & The City. With Three Moments, he's returning to a form he's never been particularly celebrated for: Short fiction. With this book, however, that should change.

A mix of new and previously published stories, Three Moments dazzles and confounds. In "Polynia," the mysterious arrival of vast, levitating slabs of ice above London is only the tip of the fabulist iceberg. In "The Rope Is the World," the future becomes a chilling place of shifting geopolitics, globe-altering technology, and space-elevator suicides. And in "Rules," a seemingly trivial question — "Who was the first child to pretend she was an airplane?" — becomes a poignant bookend to a brief meditation on time and probability.

Exploring topics from different sides simultaneously has become a hallmark of Miéville's work, and that's no different in Three Moments. The book's title story plays, pauses, and rewinds a scene of civil disobedience that takes place amid hyper-commercialization and street-level quantum physics. But just when it seems like Miéville might out-geek himself, he pulls back into more approachable territory with three vignettes — "The Crawl," "Escapee," and "Listen the Birds" — that are written as the scripts of horror-film trailers. Don't let the fun format fool you: Even within this lightweight triptych, there's a vein of subversion, sick humor, and insidious sadness.

Miéville has been accused of valuing concept, politics, and language over characterization in his fiction, although that's always been a shaky claim — and one that Three Moments regularly dispels. The inhabitants of these stories don't effusively emote, but their subdued awe in the face of encroaching strangeness speaks deeply to our own numbness in a world where real marvels and monsters crop up on a daily basis. Still, Miéville is more humane than human, approaching his subjects with just enough clinical distance to keep the atmosphere curiously eerie.

"The Design" is the sound of Miéville firing on all cylinders. In Three Moments' closing story, two medical students in the 1930s discover intricate illustrations carved on the bones of an otherwise unremarkable cadaver they've just dissected. In a way, it's like the titular character from The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury's famous book of speculative short stories, turned inside out. It's not clear if that's an intentional parallel, but it doesn't matter: The story's rich portrait of friendship, secrets, and how they hold up under the pressure of the impossible stands on its own. But "The Design" makes an even cleverer reference: By picturing the dark, horrific beauty hidden beneath the meat of reality, the story is a metaphor for Three Moments as a whole.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Heller