Thursday, March 18, 2010

[Excerpt] Kraken by China Mieville

Foreword: Yes, yes, yes. This one leaked all over the world ages ago, but I was busy playing the Wheel of Fortune [the bi-polar edition]. While my colleagues posted and tweeted, I pondered whether to be pissed, down or ecstatic. What can I say, last week was quite dynamic.

Anyway, I have yet to read Mieville, but I am already loving the cover, the premise and the praise fellow bloggers dish out constantly.


The sea is full of saints. You know that? You know that: you’re a big boy.

The sea’s full of saints and it’s been full of saints for years. Since longer than anything. Saints were there before there were even gods. They were waiting for them, and they’re still there now.

Saints eat fish and shellfish. Some of them catch jellyfish and some of them eat rubbish. Some saints eat anything they can find. They hide under rocks; they turn themselves inside out; they spit up spirals. There’s nothing saints don’t do.

Make this shape with your hands. Like that. Move your fingers. There, you made a saint. Look out, here comes another one! Now they’re fighting! Yours won.

There aren’t any big corkscrew saints any more, but there are still ones like sacks and ones like coils, and ones like robes with flapping sleeves. What’s your favourite saint? I’ll tell you mine. But wait a minute, first, do you know what it is makes them all saints? They’re all a holy family, they’re all cousins. Of each other, and of . . . you know what else they’re cousins of?

That’s right. Of gods. Alright now. Who was it made you? You know what to say.

Who made you?

Part One

An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophecy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read FORGET IT.

Inside, a man walked through the big hall, past a double stair and a giant skeleton, his steps loud on the marble. Stone animals watched him. ‘Right then,’ he kept saying.

His name was Billy Harrow. He glanced at the great fabricated bones and nodded. It looked as if he was saying hello. It was a little after 11 on a morning in October. The room was filling up. A group waited for him by the entrance desk, eyeing each other with polite shyness.

There were two men in their twenties with geek-chic haircuts. A woman and man barely out of teens teased each other. She was obviously indulging him with this visit. There was an older couple, and a father in his thirties holding his young son. ‘Look, that’s a monkey,’ he said. He pointed at animals carved in vines on the museum pillars. ‘And you see that lizard?’

The boy peeped. He looked at the bone brontosaurus, that Billy had seemed to greet. Or maybe, Billy thought, he was looking at the glyptodon beyond it. All the children had a favourite inhabitant of the Natural History Museum’s first hall, and the glyptodon, that half-globe armadillo giant, had been Billy’s.

Billy smiled at the woman who dispensed tickets, and the guard behind her. ‘This them?’ he said. ‘Right then everyone. Shall we do this thing?’

He cleaned his glasses and blinked while he was doing it, replicating a look and motion an ex had once told him was adorable. He was a little shy of thirty and looked younger: he had freckles, and not enough stubble to justify ‘Bill’. As he got older, Billy suspected, he would, Di Caprio-like, simply become like an increasingly wizened child.

Billy’s black hair was tousled in half-heartedly fashionable style. He wore a not-too hopeless top, cheap jeans. When he had first started at the centre, he had liked to think that he was unexpectedly cool-looking for such a job. Now he knew that he surprised no one, that no one expected scientists to look like scientists any more.

‘So you’re all here for the tour of the Darwin Centre,’ he said. He was acting as if he thought they were present to investigate a whole research site, to look at the laboratories and offices, the filing, the cabinets of paperwork. Rather than to see one and only the one thing within the building.

‘I’m Billy,’ he said. ‘I’m a curator. What that means is I do a lot of the cataloguing and preserving, stuff like that. I’ve been here a while. When I first came here I wanted to specialise in marine molluscs – know what a mollusc is?’ he asked the boy, who nodded and hid. ‘Snails, that’s right.’ Mollusca had been the subject of his Masters thesis.

‘Alright folks.’ He put his glasses on. ‘Follow me. This is a working environment, so please keep the noise down, and I beg you not to touch anything. We’ve got caustics, toxins, all manner of horrible stuff all over the place.’

One of the young men started to say, ‘When do we see…’ Billy raised his hand.

‘Can I just . . .’ he said. ‘Let me explain about what’ll happen when we’re in there.’ Billy had evolved his own pointless idio-superstitions. According to one of which it was bad luck for anyone to speak the name of what they were all there for, before they reached it.

‘I’m going to show you a bunch of the places we work,’ he said lamely. ‘Any questions, you can ask me at the end: we’re a little bit time constrained. Let’s get the tour done first.’

No curator or researcher was obliged to perform this guide-work. But many did. Billy did not any more perform a grumble when it was his turn.

They went out and through the garden, approaching the Darwin with a building site on one side and the brick filigrees of the Natural History Museum on the other.

‘No photos please,’ Billy said. He did not care if they obeyed: his obligation was to repeat the rule. ‘This place opened in 2002,’ he said. ‘And you can see we’re expanding. We’ll have a new building in 2008. We’ve got seven floors of wet specimens here. That means stuff in formalin.’

Everyday hallways led to a stench. ‘Jesus,’ someone muttered.

‘Indeed,’ said Billy. ‘This is called the dermestarium.’ Through interior windows there were steel containers like little coffins. ‘This is where we clean up skeletons. Get rid of all the gunk on them. Dermestes maculatus.’

A computer screen by the boxes was showing some disgusting salty-looking fish being eaten by insect swarms. ‘Eeurgh,’ someone said.

‘There’s a camera in the box,’ said Billy. ‘Hide beetles is their English name. They go through everything, just leave bones behind.’

The boy grinned and tugged his father’s hand. The rest of the group smiled, embarrassed. Flesh-eating bugs: sometimes life really was a B-movie.

Billy noticed one of the young men. He wore a past-it suit, a shabby-genteel outfit odd for someone young. He wore a pin on his lapel, a design like a long-armed asterisk, two of the spokes ending in curls. The man was taking notes. He was filling the pad he carried at a great rate.

A taxonomiser by inclination as well as profession, Billy had decided there were not so many kinds of people who took this tour. There were children: mostly young boys, shy and beside themselves with excitement, and vastly knowledgeable about what they saw. There were their parents. There were sheepish people in their twenties, as geeky-eager as the kids. There were their girlfriends and boyfriends, performing patience. A few tourists on an unusual byway. And obsessives.

They were the only people who knew more than the young children. Sometimes they did not speak: sometimes they would interrupt Billy’s explanations with too-loud questions, or correct him on scientific detail with exhausting fussy anxiety. He had noticed more of such visitors than usual in the last several weeks.

PS: This is a partial from the excerpt. Go to Pan Macmillan for the rest.


Murf61 said...

I am so looking forward to reading this book, especially as I am so familiar with the Natural History Museum and saw the giant squid while it was still being prepared for display! Very scary creature...

One little quibble - which I hope will be corrected in the final released version - the term is "Taxonomist" not taxonomiser. Some of my colleagues would be very miffed at this mistake!

Harry Markov said...

I can imagine. I have watched this movie about Percy Jackson, based on the books, and what bugged me so much was that there was a daughter of Athena, when in fact she is a virgin goddess. Gah. Freaks me out.

wendyleilei said...

I think you make an interesting post. It is always good to be alert on this figure to get prepared for what is going to come next.
I am so looking forward to reading this book, especially as I am so familiar with the Natural History Museum and saw the giant squid while it was still being prepared for display!
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