King Rat was China Mieville‘s first novel. Though it doesn’t have the scope and ambition of his subsequent books Perdido Street Station and The Scar, it’s still quite a wonderful book…
Mieville is an urban cartographer, who finds the fantastic and the surreal, not in distant, “exotic” places, but in the very pulse of life of big cities. King Rat is set in mid-1990’s London; its sense of wonderment comes from its exploration of a hidden, alternative city, coterminous with the familiar one, but at the same time altogether different. This alternative London is composed of the sewers, the cracks in the pavement, the nooks and crannies of decaying buildings. The protagonist, Saul Garamond, crosses over from the familiar London, in which he has grown up, to this other, spectral city, one that is not entirely human (although it was constructed by human beings), the London of the rats, the birds, and the spiders. Saul becomes more rat than human being in the course of the story, as he enters and explores the alternative city; King Rat is about hybrids and border zones, about the precarious, yet liberating, state of being in-between.
The novel’s plot is a clever updating and reversal of the story of the Pied Piper. The difference from the traditional story is that this one is told with a certain degree of sympathy for the rats; and that the Pied Piper himself is revealed to be a sadistic, raving psychopath.
The zone in which everything meets–in which the known city confronts the hidden one, and human and non-human come into contact, and the Pied Piper both operates and meets opposition–is the world of Drum and Bass. Mieville explores the subculture, the clubs, and the music–how Jungle, or Drum and Bass, is an expression of vitality and resistance, how it is nonetheless subject to a fascist regimentation and takeover (in the form of the Piper’s music), and how, finally, it is a battlefield, where both human conflicts and more-than-human, or not-quite-human, transformations take place.