Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
The Tain cover The Tain by China Mieville

PS Publishing - copyright 2002
89 pages - cover art by Edward Miller (left)
Introduction by M. John Harrison

Reprinted in the anthology Cities (2004)

Book reviewed July 2004
Rating: 9/10  (Very Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Imagine that the person you see in the mirror is not just a reflection, but is a being in another dimension that has no choice but to form itself into your image and copy everything you do.  Imagine that it hates you for unwittingly forcing it to imitate you.  Imagine that the boundary between dimensions is breached, and your reflection comes through the mirror seeking vengeance.

China Miéville's novella The Tain is a post-apocalypse story set after our world has been devastated by the attack of the "imagos," creatures who used to inhabit that other dimension in the tain behind the mirror.  (A "tain" is the thin layer of metal at the back of a mirror that causes it to reflect.)  Our protagonist Sholl wanders a brutally depopulated London, watching swarms of imagos terrorize the small pockets of human survivors, including a few determined remnants of the British Army.  The imagos are vicious and cruel, perhaps because they have learned to imitate humans too well, but for some reason they leave Sholl alone.  The story alternates between Sholl trying to summon the courage to seek out and confront the leader of the imagos and first-person passages from the point of view of one of the imagos, though not quite a typical one.

Miéville credits Jorge Luis Borges for the concept of the imagos, but he handles the idea and its metaphoric implications absolutely brilliantly.

First, Miéville infuses the concept with his own unique brand of weird imagery, such as swarms of floating lips once caught in a compact mirror puckering for their lipstick and disembodied hands hooking thumbs together and fluttering like vultures over London and the eerily non-reflective Thames River.  Miéville also elaborates cleverly on Borges' original idea, telling us for example that advance scouts from the tain have been among us for centuries, giving rise to the legend of vampires, since naturally they have no reflection.

Even more impressively, Miéville actually gets you to give a damn about it all.  The idea of the world being attacked by the beings on the other side of the mirror is pretty cool, but also pretty goofy.  It has no business in a story any more serious than a Lewis Carroll satire.  But somehow China Miéville is able to pull it into a serious, moody, sometimes frightening drama and compel the reader to care about it, and he seems to do it with about as much ease as the rest of us compel the person in the mirror to mimic us.  Sholl pays a visit to the imagos' lair in an underground tube station that makes for particularly harrowing reading.

The mystery surrounding Sholl - Why is he the only human the imagos won't touch?  And why is there is a single imago who will?  - is intriguing, even if Miéville leaves matters somewhat unresolved.  By the story's end, Sholl suggests a possible answer, but I think Miéville is hinting at an additional reason that is never confirmed in the story.

The symbolism of the imagos is all the more powerful for being grounded in an effective story.  Miéville does a masterful job of suggesting how the imagos may reflect (pardon the pun) the human condition, without ever rubbing the reader's nose in a white-whale-represents-God wet spot.

The imagos remind us how much there is around us all the time that we forget to give any attention.  Quantum theory says that the observer shapes the world around him.  By observing a particle, we can force it to collapse to a particular location, but that doesn't mean we actually give a damn where it is.  Mankind collectively reshapes the world around us, but how rarely do any of us stop to see what we've created.  But what if the world is observing us?  If the man in the mirror could talk, how wanting would he tell me I am?

          Then again, if I look closely at him, what do I see?  He is empty, a shell without substance.  But isn't he just like me?  According to The Tain, he started out free, but was cursed to abandon his own nature to conform to human society.  Which side of the mirror am I on?
Citites (2004) edited by Peter Crowther
anthology containing The Tain

USA Four Walls Eight Windows
trade paperback
292 pages (right)

What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
Cities cover, anthology

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Our book club's web pages for China Miéville books (includes Miéville bibliography):
Perdido Street Station
The Scar  (includes book summary)
The City & The City

Links to webpages about China Miéville and related topics:
The Tain by China Mieville - an infinity plus review
green man review: China Mieville, The Tain
Steven Silver's Reviews: China Miéville:  The Tain
China Mieville The Tain Reviewed by Rick Kleffel
PS Publishing - science fiction, fantasy and horror, UK publishing house

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 12 August 2010