tain n. 1. A type of paper-thin tin plate. 2. Tinfoil used as a backing for mirrors. (Source: dictionary.reference.com)
As part of PS Publishing’s line of original novellas (which includes such well known fabulist authors as Graham Joyce, Ramsey Campbell, and Geoff Ryman), China Miéville has contributed The Tain. With an introduction by M. John Harrison that you must read last, and a quote by Jorge Luis Borges at the end that should appear at the beginning, you immediately sense that this story will be about reflections.
The tale takes place in a ravaged, post-apocalyptic London. A man named Sholl survives by knowing the safe parts of town, and those where people go in and never come out. He’s been living on his own for a while, and decides to befriend a makeshift unit of soldiers camped out in the south of Hampstead Heath. They seem to have their wits about them, unlike other units scattered throughout London who will shoot anything that moves. He wants them to join him. Sholl has a plan to deal with the enemy....
After reading Miéville’s massive Bas-Lag novels, it was nice to start something by him that I could finish in a single afternoon. At the beginning, you’re not even sure it’ll be speculative fiction, since the story opens with Sholl lying on a concrete river-wall on the south bank of the Thames, seeming relaxed at first glance. But when he looks into the water and does not see his reflection looking back, you know you’re back in Miéville’s realm of the weird. Rhys Hughes wrote a similar short story called "The Impossible Mirror" in his compound novel Nowhere Near Milkwood, but where Hughes’s tale is comical and ludicrous and just plain impossible, Miéville’s is the slap in the face, the knife in the gut that makes you realize just how much you take your reflection for granted.
Reflection is a motif Miéville has used before, in his novels and in his creepy (if slightly disgusting) contribution to the recent New Wave Fabulists volume of Conjunctions. The protagonist in "Familiar" is a sentient assemblage of used flesh, assorted bodily fluids, eyes, teeth, and whatever matter (both organic and inorganic) that it can absorb to further its survival. As it exists in the substrata of London -- the sewers, the alleys, the forgotten places; scenes familiar from Miéville’s first novel, King Rat -- its maker, an unfortunate male witch, tracks it down and reveals that the creature is somehow metaphysically absorbing sections of his body, that they are linked, like flip sides of a coin, or a mirror.
In Perdido Street Station, our heroes must use mirrors to escape from the slake-moths, since looking directly at them will absorb your soul. Isaac and Lin are ersatz mirror images of each other, both brilliant in their respective fields, both taking on commissions which endanger their lives. In The Scar, Bellis Coldwine must travel to the underwater city of Salkrikaltor, an entire civilization housed under the surface of the Swollen Ocean, which itself is a reflector. That passage conjures the vision of perfectly polarized water, where you can clearly see what is underneath and what is reflected above, one image superimposed on the other.
It’s amazing to see Miéville’s prodigious talent and range increase with each successive publication. The Tain is a remarkable story of survival and coping, of making the best of a horrible situation. It shows the adaptivity of humanity, that we can survive almost anything, and the ending is so unexpected and so fitting that you may feel the top of your head lifting off as you read it. You'll certainly never look in the mirror the same way again.
Find out more about The Tain at the official PS Publishing Web site, and about Miéville himself at the somewhat authorized Runagate Rampant Web site. Also, for more information on the "Tain" -- or Táin Bó Cúalnge, the central epic of the Ulster cycle -- go to the Táin Bó Cúalnge Web site.