The presence of 'Three Moments of an Explosion' on the BSFA's shortlist for the Best Short Story of 2012 may strike some as strange, but consider that this brief piece comes from China Mieville, author of the Association’s choice of Best Novel in 2010, The City & The City, and a shoe-in for subsequent awards if ever there was one.
And it is, despite its succinctness, a searing short, packing more panache in 500 words than most stories ten times its length can conjure. Also more ampersands, per the perplexing example the serial nominee set in Railsea recently.
'Three Moments of an Explosion' starts with... well, what else but a bang? But this is an explosion of ideas inasmuch as actual matter:
The demolition is sponsored by Burger King. Everyone is used, now, to rotvertising, the spelling of company names & reproduction of hip product logos in the mottle & decay of subtly gene-tweaked decomposition—Apple paying for the breakdown of apples, the bitten-fruit sigil becoming visible on mouldy cores. Explosion marketing is new. Stuff the right nanos into squibs & missiles so the blasts of war machines inscribe BAE & Raytheon’s names in fire on the sky above the cities those companies ignite.
All too plausible, isn’t it?
Here, however, China Mieville makes do with a rather more modest illustration of the press push outlined above: instead of some oil-rich nation state, the titular explosion is of “an old warehouse, too unsafe to let stand,” brought to you by BK.
Have it Your Way, eh?
That said, this too comes at a cost—indeed, you might measure the collateral damage in lives—because in the story’s dense second paragraph China Mieville moves from the moment before the explosion to the moment of it, pulling back from one big idea to reveal another. Herein we hear of three demolition-trippers who have taken “tachyon-buggered MDMA” to be excepted, temporarily, from time. Thus, in these stolen seconds the trio mount a frenzied survey of the structure... as it crumbles.
This is extreme squatting. The boisterous, love-filled crew jog through their overlapping stillness together & bundle towards the building. Three make it inside before they slip back into chronology. Theirs are big doses & they have hours—subjectively—to explore the innards of the edifice as it hangs, slumping, its floors now pitched & interrupted mid-eradication, its corridors clogged with the dust of the hesitating explosion.
Come the third and final paragraph of 'Three Moments of an Explosion,' time has passed—this, then, is the moment after—but if you’ll pardon my Metallica, the memory remains. I’ll let you find out how on your own.
As I’ve touched on I don't know how many times here on The Speculative Scotsman, China Mieville is one of my very favourite writers. His Bas-Lag books in particular proved pivotal during my younger years, and ever since The Scar I’ve had a special place in my heart for his weird and wonderful worlds. Also his way with words; his wicked wit; and his specific stylistic signature—ampersands & all, of late.
In terms of character I confess he tends to be less successful, but 'Three Moments of an Explosion' showcases none by name, smartly sidestepping that potential pitfall. Furthermore, the verbosity which characterises China Mieville at his least appealing is also absent, for there are no wasted phrases in this shockingly short story. Every sentence, one senses, serves a purpose.
'Three Moments of an Explosion' may appear to be minor Mieville, but its brevity behoves us to look more closely. Read it once, read it twice, read it thrice. You’ll unpick the puzzle soon enough, and the solution is sublime.