An Interview with China Miéville

(Warning: Contains Spoilers)

The unending discussion surrounding genre fiction’s place within the literary fiction canon is an all too familiar one. Why can’t a Nebula prize-winning novel get short-listed for the Booker? When will a graphic novel be included in Introduction to the Novel syllabi across the world? How come the pulp writers of the 1920s aren’t considered equally important to the high modernists? When these questions are framed, as they usually are, within the context of canons, academic syllabi, and literary awards, a singular error is being made: that literature is enclosed behind a fortress and that canons, academic syllabi, and literary awards are the building blocks with which that fortress is made. It is my sincere hope that we’re reaching a point where building fortresses is considered silly, moronic, and a dying construct of a failing, white, patriarchal old guard who are on their way out (“don’t let the door hit you…” etc.). Once we realize that the fortress is manufactured out of nothing more than hot air, swollen egos, and warped literary irredentism, we can begin to approach texts within actually useful contexts, be they historical, cultural, or political ones. The result, one would hope, is that texts on both sides of the dissolving high tower will open up in new and wonderful ways, unfettered by the currently contrived meritocracy. Opening texts should be, after all, the first and foremost responsibility of any reader.

And that is partly why Wave Composition wanted to interview China Miéville, three-time Arthur C. Clarke award-winning science-fiction author: To begin opening up texts differently.

Miéville’s early books, especially those set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council), were quickly accepted and lauded in the SF community, winning a number of prizes and nominations. They are “ripping yarns,” chock-full of monsters, the fantastic, thaumaturgy and steam punk. In that time he has become known as a steam punk, weird fiction, and New Weird writer — take your pick. In 2009, Miéville published The City and the City to critical acclaim, reaching a broader audience through the less fantastic crime-noir structural guise of the novel and by setting it in the familiar but fictional Eastern European cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. With a children’s book (Un Lun Dun) published in 2007, and an upcoming, “straight,” science-fiction book (Embassytown) emerging in May, it seems like Miéville can turn his hand to all types of fiction. But it wasn’t solely Miéville’s literary dexterity that made me ask him for an interview to place in WC’s inaugural edition. Rather it was the suspicion that his pulp-proud novels are actually reveling in an avant-garde tradition that manifests itself through the monstrous and the fantastic. And so, on a bitterly cold Saturday morning, I found myself in China Miéville’s kitchen with copious amounts of strong tea and biscuits to discuss monsters, cities, and narrative.

Alexandra Manglis: So I first came to your books while looking for steampunk novels and someone suggested Iron Council. But it occurred to me as I was reading it that this wasn’t just a steampunk novel, even though there were steampunk elements in it. There were golems, perpetual steam trains, thaumaturgy, abolitionism, anti-fascism, a homosexual protagonist, etc. And in retrospect, I realize now that Iron Council was my introduction to the New Weird. And by the time I had figured that out it almost felt like the New Weird had already come and gone. So I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what the New Weird is, where it fits in, what the Old Weird is, and what the tradition is.

China Miéville: Well, in some ways it’s a complicated question because a couple of years ago I wrote an essay on this, which concluded by saying that I wasn’t going to talk about the New Weird anymore.

AM: Oh! I’m sorry.

CM: No, no it’s alright, I can work out ways to meta do this. Part of the reason I wrote that (and it wasn’t a disavowal, it wasn’t about saying that the New Weird was never there, or that I was turning my back on it) was that the nature of that category had shifted and it’s become a marketing category and therefore I wasn’t interested in talking about it anymore. I should be clearer though: this is not that kind of histrionic, authorial whine that “we had this really cool thing and then the money people came along and ruined it, man.” I mean look, all categories, all taxonomic categories, get monetized, that’s the job of the marketing people and I’m not going to piss and moan about them.

What I’m saying is you have a short window, any time you have a movement or a manifesto (which I love, I love manifestos, I think they’re traduced a lot of the time and misrepresented. [Alain] Badiou has a lovely thing where he says “a manifesto is not a contract”) you have a short window during which, if it has a heuristic use, if it has an interesting way of looking at a constellation of texts, it’s short, because after that point it will become a marketing category, a fossil of its own self. That’s fine. That’s the passage of history. It’s melancholic but that’s what happens. So when I said I wasn’t going to talk about it anymore all I meant was I think we’ve reached the end of that short window where it was an interesting and useful way to think about things, so now any discussion about it is inevitably retrospective. And I also think that the passage of time does have a concrete effect on the texts that you’re talking about. There was an argument that something interesting and new was happening (an argument I agreed with) and now I kind of think that even if you’ve got cool weird stuff I don’t think it’s doing the same thing anymore, textually. I think we’re in a different phase, and I genuinely don’t know what that phase is.

The New Weird started in the early noughties and it was this notion of a sudden efflorescence of a certain kind of grotesquery, a certain kind of generic slippage between different branches of the fantastic aesthetic, between fantastic, science fiction, horror. I think also it had something to do with a relationship to history – what the New Weird was doing was having a certain kind of granular, textured relationship to historicity in its texts, which meant often a self-conscious political sense, sensibility, and texture. And it was contrarian – in the sense that there are a lot of clichéd notions of what the fantastic is and what its furniture is and the New Weird was, quite consciously I think, a turning of the back on that or a repudiation of that.

As with any movement/moment it becomes a moment of historical reclamation, so every moment changes its own history. So all of a sudden, writers or artists who had been known about for years but hadn’t been necessarily fated in different ways suddenly get picked up. Like the surrealists did with [Giuseppe] Arcimboldo or [Hieronymus] Bosch; so that now when we see Arcimboldo we see the post-surrealist Arcimboldo even though he was around many, many years before the surrealists. And similarly, what we [the New Weird] did, was look at different tap-root texts, trying to forge out a counter-tradition. So retrospectively it was a rude act of historical mining. And obviously it was riffing off Weird Fiction in its title, you know, in the tradition of weird tales, H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, from the 1920s.

My own sense of it, (the name, to the best of my knowledge having been come up with by M. John Harrison), is that it was a triangulation between the Weird Fiction tradition and the New World tradition, which is avant-garde science-fiction and fantasy from the early 1970s around the journal New Worlds, which was people like Mike Moorcock, Pamela Zoline, M. John Harrison, J. G. Ballard… So my sense is that the New Weird was a certain kind of modernism within the genre of New World combined with a certain kind of generically slippery grotesquery, a teratological, organic tradition of Weird Fiction.

AM: I think that what you say about forging a counter-tradition is really interesting. It’s partly that counter-tradition that makes the works read like they’re New. I was wondering whether that changing of tradition comes from a sense of responsibility on your part to the genre, whether you feel responsibility as a writer to constantly push the genre into its new directions.

CM: I do feel a great responsibility to genre. But I would be very uncomfortable of that messianic sense that I’m meant to push the genre in a certain direction. It seems to me that the genre can look after itself in terms of its movement, it’s a house of many rooms, there will always be different directions within the field. It would be aggrandizing to think that I or any one person is in a singular position to push it. I’m interested in pushing in a certain way, but never conceived of in terms of “To me, science fiction and fantasy!”

The responsibility lies for me in a sense of respect, of courtesy toward the tradition. In other words, not to disavow the tradition I come out of, a responsibility more in terms of orientation to readers and critics outside of the genre. So for example, many people write to me and say, “I never read science fiction and fantasy but I really like your books,” which is a compliment, and I’m touched, but I always try to say that I hope my work will operate as a gateway into the genre. People say, “Oh, you’ve transcended the genre” and I know they’re trying to say they admire the books which is lovely, but I don’t think I have transcended the genre, I don’t think genre is a muck to be kicked off, I think it’s a set of protocols you can do wonderful things with. Now obviously certain sets of dominant traditions within the genre might be something you want to shuck off but I’m uncomfortable of this idea of coming out of but superseding genre. So that’s where my responsibility lies.

AM: I wanted to talk about monsters. In Perdido Street Station there are characters or monsters which are quite different. The slake-moth and Mr. Motley, say. One is alien and the other is a horribly mutated, disfigured human. It might be a bit too much to ask “Where do they come from?” but I was wondering if they’re improvisations of a musical scale you know extremely well, that comes out of an encyclopedic knowledge of monsters that you’ve been reading all your life; that you know them so well you can compose them like knowing all the musical notes to compose a song. But then at the same time, Mr. Motley felt to me like a fantastic reimagining of socio-political trauma, which might be what the monsters are. Or, do your monsters just work as narrative turning points?

CM: Yes.

There’s no contradiction. It’s fiction, you can have it both ways. Something can be a highly resonant metaphor, and a cool plot point, and a homage, and a socio-political critique, it can be all of those things. Motley, incidentally, I wouldn’t call disfigured, I would use the word figured if anything. Part of the pleasure of the grotesque is the notion, and obviously there’s a level in which these things are figures for trauma and catastrophe, but part of the great pleasure of teratology is the extent to which that pathology is also the norm and in fact there is no abstract norm from which these monsters are deviations and so part of the pleasure of the grotesque is a structural acknowledgement that actually there’s a great libidinal draw to this, this is what we want, this pathologized figure is something we can’t leave alone.

I love your figure of the musical scale – and the short answer is yes. It’s a kind of incredibly fecund, promethean philistinism, whereby you read anything you can on monsters whether it is [Thomas] Bulfinch’s mythology, the AD&D bestiary, the collection of monsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a serious recherché tome on Polynesian gods and demons and you read them all in the same way – which, sociologically, is gibberish. But it creates an interesting aesthetic where you are relating to all of these impossible figures as in some way related. I have an insatiable love for the monstrous and the fabulous (I have a big collection of these books upstairs), and they’re always there in my work. Sometimes it’s quite explicit. Like the Khepri in Perdido Street Station and those books. There is an Egyptian god called Khepri who is a man with a beetle for a head, so I took this name and this morphology and literalized it and quite deliberately did not concern myself with the symbolism of the scarab god in Egyptian mythology: that’s not the point. The point is to miss the point and to literalize. So sometimes it’s quite an explicit riff.

Sometimes the pleasure is the exact opposite, which is to try to create something as new as possible – you’ll fail, because there’s no such thing as new, but you can try and fail better. And some of the monsters are attempts to do that instead. And that basic teratological engine is essentially chimerism: this bit of one, this bit of another, and this bit of a third cobbled together. That’s the basic engine of monster creation.

AM: Might that also be a basic method of narrative creation?

CM: Do you think so? That’s interesting.

AM: You don’t think so?

CM: I’ve never thought of it in those terms before. It’s a surrealist method: the method of the exquisite corpse.

AM: A lot of narrative structures can be the rewriting of a story and pulling it into something slightly different, changing it, disfiguring it, mutating it.

CM: I hope you’re right. My concern is that actually a lot of narrative, particularly post-Hollywood, does the opposite. And takes something like [Joseph] Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and treats it as an ur-text which is not to be deviated from. So what you get is a certain set of narrative shapes that are programmatically made: “This is the way the story works.”

Whereas chimerism is all about the counterintuitive juxtaposition that forces you into a new constellation (and that’s not the same as mere surprise, like in a thriller) and there are narratives that do what you’re saying. But there’s not nearly enough strongly counterintuitive juxtaposition.

AM: I’m not saying everybody does it, but don’t you? Isn’t there a connection to the way you make your narratives and the way you construct your monsters?

CM: Well… I hope you’re right! If you are right, then among the reasons for that is probably a fascination with and a love for surrealism as a set of methods. It’s the Lautréamont thing: “the chance meeting on a dissection-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” the flash of that image of counterintuitive juxtaposition. And if you cross-fertilize that idea with the pulp tradition, then you pin the surrealist method to a “ripping-yarn” shaped narrative.

I am interested in modernism and narrative experimentation and so on and I’m not an experimental writer, not in an overt sense, like, say Samuel Delaney, he is much more formally experimentalist than I am. But my text is not an avant-garde text in the shape of the text necessarily…


CM: I love your hesitation because you’re implying that it is. Which I’d be very happy about. I think I come as much out of pulp as I do out of the avant-garde and hopefully that’s a conversation you can have within a book.

AM: I’ll return to narrative structures in a bit, but just to return to monsters, I noticed Un Lun Dun is also illustrated by you, which made me wonder if you draw all your monsters.

CM: A fair number of them. The two things I like drawing the most are monsters and buildings. I do a lot of doodling.

AM: Do you draw a lot of monsters that don’t make it into your books?

CM: Yes I do actually. And you store them up for the next book or for the Bas-Lag bestiary, for which one lives in hope.

AM: [Spoiler Alert] I read in an interview with you that you wanted to write ripping yarns and sad stories and Un Lun Dun ends happily, unlike a lot of your other books. And I was wondering if it was difficult to write a book for kids, like the ones you used to read, which ends well.

CM: Well, I don’t think of myself as a miserablist. I mean I do like melancholy, but it’s not programmatic. It never felt like I’m going to have to do a happy ending now in contradistinction to the adult books. But I never considered a bleak ending for Un Lun Dun. What I wanted to tap into was a breathless joy that I remember from when I was a young reader, books like The Phantom Tollbooth, and Alice. So it never came up as though it would be anything else. The ending is joyful. But it wasn’t something I struggled with.

AM: Hm, I didn’t mean to imply that you’re a miserablist. I mean that the happy ending is the result of writing a certain book that was different to what you had written before. So the difficulty I’m asking about is not if it’s difficult for you to be a happy writer but was it difficult for you to write that kind of a book.

CM: If anything, Un Lun Dun was joyful to write. I knew the kind of pace and the kind of inversions and the kind of grotesquery I wanted to evoke. I spent about two weeks writing it really quickly and then stopped, put it away, and came back to it. But it came easily. It is true that different books are differently hard to write. Iron Council was the most difficult book to write, and also (perhaps coincidentally perhaps not) probably the book that means the most to me. The book that I’m most proud of.

AM: You’re known for writing a lot about cities (New Crobuzon, London, El Qoma and Besźel etc). The cities seem to me to be places that collapse the traditional narratives that your books might pretend to start out with.

CM: I love that! Can you expand on that?

AM: Well, your stories often abruptly change, turn in on themselves, and don’t deliver the plot that you’re expecting. And I wanted to know if the cities in some of your books help you perform these narrative collapses of these familiar structures, if you use the unknowability of cities, their own topographic complexities to pull your narrative forms into new shapes.

CM: Not on a conscious level. All I can say is that I really like cities and the representation of cities. I’m as influenced by the represented London ([Thomas] De Quincey’s London and Alan Moore’s London) as I am by London. I have no doubt that what you’re saying is true because of what cities are, particularly what London is. Which is, a messy palimpsest of stuff, an unplanned patchwork of chronology and politics and aesthetics and so on. There’s no reason why one couldn’t play narrative games in a non-city setting, but there’s definitely something about the cultural chaos of cities which lends themselves to it. I’m theorizing post-facto though. You’ve put together a certain structural game with tropes and urban setting and both of those things people have talked about before, and I’ve talked about before, but I’ve never put them together before.

There’s always the question about lines of causality. What trope causes what other trope, what setting causes what structural shape and so on. And ultimately it’s a fool’s game to try and answer that.

AM: Well, I was thinking about Kraken, and how a lot of the story happens in these unknown locations in London. In a way those locations help make the book fantastic.

CM: Kraken is very self-consciously a book about cities. Although I don’t think it’s as concretely about London as King Rat is. Kraken is as much about an abstract notion of city-ness. It is specific in terms of its setting but it’s as much to do with a book-mediated notion of city-ness as it is to do with London. And whatever happens in those books (King Rat, Kraken, Un Lun Dun) is inextricable from London-ness. Some of the books are less consciously thinking about the urban-ness of the setting. Kraken is probably the one that’s the most over-determinedly neurotic about city location of all the stuff I’ve written in.

My sense of Kraken is that it is an always-mediated dream of London. The way the prose operates, there’s a sense of the book dreaming itself. In that sense, Kraken is inspired by [Thomas] Pynchon: a ruminative daydreaming of London. The book is chatty, the book will swear, the book will describe aspects of London with world-weary wonder. The quotidian focus of the book, the gutter focus, is a gentle ribbing of the “hidden London” tradition, although also with fidelity to it.

AM: Kraken came out soon after The City and the City, which was the book that changed the way people responded to your work. The City and the City, it seems to me, does something entirely opposite to your previous books, in that it has a very rigid narrative framework – the crime noir framework holds the story together – the characters are familiar to us from other books and so on. And so within that solid frame you can start to play a game with the cities themselves.

CM: Yeah. It was very deliberate. There was a task I wanted to do. And partly it was a homage to a certain kind of noir police procedural, but a homage (unlike Iron Council which is an homage to the Western by deviating and riffing from the Western) by absolute fidelity to the protocols. I wanted to write something that had complete, sincere, ingenuous, fidelity to generic protocols. I wanted very much to write a book that someone who reads straight crime novels could read and that they would not consider themselves cheated in any way.

I’m interested in generic protocols and obviously one way you can play with them is to stretch their limits, but another way is to not – to take them as absolutely rigid but try and do something interesting with them anyway. Particularly with crime, which has such a strong sense of structure. The structure of the book is a rumination on the crime [genre] in general. So the three parts of the book move through three different models of crime novels: you start off with the world-weary protagonist and his young, female sidekick; then you have the odd-buddy movie, two cops from different traditions who don’t trust each other and end up with begrudging respect; and then in the third one you have the political conspiracy thriller. And I wanted to be faithful to those all the way through.

Partly because I was really interested in this setting, and I wanted to make the book about the setting while completely back-grounding the setting. Not in anyway foregrounding it. One of the obvious ways to do that is to have a narrative which is described by someone from the setting who doesn’t think to explain things. And I decided early on that if I did experimental stuff with the structure, then that would be what the book would become about; it would become about the story. What I wanted to do was to write a story to the extent where you wanted to find out who-done-it, classic crime-novel stuff, and why. But that the book was fused by the fantastic element.

The Pascalian wager was that I could do that and still do something interesting despite within three pages you knowing that this book is “that kind” of noir. The hope was that nothing about that surprises you and yet you were still really gripped.

So yeah, you’re absolutely right, that structure is very self-conscious. Even down to its fantastic elements [and here we’re into HUGE SPOILER territory]. The book contains a lot of, I wouldn’t say teasing because that sounds combative, but a loving and affectionate and insider conversation with the fantastic. It’s a book that you don’t have to be interested in the fantastic to read, but I also knew that a lot of people who would read it would have read my other stuff, and that they would have certain expectations.

So when Breach is first described, there’s a lot of deliberate attempts to insinuate that they’re some kind of supernatural, demonic power. How do you contact them? You invoke them. Their powers seem supernatural. But you know – they’re people in an office. And similarly with Orciny. The point where Orciny starts to come in, that is the point at which the reader of the fantastic is going to think “Ah, here’s the locus of the magic, finally we get it, here’s where this is going to open out beyond the everyday” and to me – it’s so much more interesting to not have that. To make it about that desire, that drive, that recognition than to simply surrender to it.

AM: That’s interesting. The City and the City is very different to your other books because it lacks that kind of brash, indulgent imagination of creating alien monsters and figures and instead, these elements of Orciny and Breach, are the imaginings of the characters in the book instead.

CM: Yeah. Which doesn’t mean that they don’t have material value, especially Breach. This is the nature of ideology. Ideology is an idea but it can still kill you. It’s about that OCD desire to surrender to a secondary world with its maps and its fantasia, which is not unrelated to the comfort of a conspiracy thriller. The notion that there is something beyond there that makes sense of it all.

One of the key things that the fantastic does is it estranges you. But there’s all sorts of ways you can do that. And the way I’ve tended to do estrangement has been unsubtle, radical estrangement—nothing you think you know is what you know, surrender all your preconceptions, this is a different world. And that has a set of political and aesthetic corollaries. But the other way you can do it, and this way has a much stronger tradition within self-consciously theoretically-inclined fiction, would be the uneasy half-familiarity form of estrangement.

With The City and the City I was interested in writers like Bruno Schulz and [Franz] Kafka – the way you feel estranged isn’t with a feeling of “I don’t know where I am” but thinking “I kind of half-recognize this but it’s wrong enough that I’m uneasy. And I keep thinking that I know where I am.” And that’s more subtle, it’s just a different kind of alienation. And there are certain things you can do with that. I’d been reading Schulz and Alfred Kubin, writers like that, and wanted to get into that, to get a sense that you know this place, but also uneasy because there’s things you should be making sense of and you’re not.

AM: Tell me a bit about your new book.

CM: It’s called Embassytown. It’s a science fiction novel in a more straight sense. It’s set on an alien planet with spaceships in the far future, and it’s about language. Hopefully it is also a gripping story about societal crisis but it’s very much about language and consciousness. It’s the first straight science fiction I’ve written: “straight” in the sense that it’s set in the far future with space ships and stuff. It’s homage by inversion to Ursula Le Guin’s ansible universe. What unites a lot her books is this thing called the “ansible” which allows instantaneous communication across the universe. And Embassytown is the opposite of that, a universe in which communication is excruciatingly slow. The quickest way to communicate interstellar is to fling these things out, to go between worlds. So that’s part of the basis.

AM: Did you go to the San Diego Comic-Con over the summer?

CM: Yes, I did.

AM: Are you thinking of shifting mediums?

CM: I love comics, and I’ve been talking to a lot of comics people, and it’s something I’d like to do, and I’ve drawn my own for a while. There was a possible thing that was going to happen and that fell through, but it’s something I’m interested in. We’ll see what happens.

China Mieville’s book Embassytown is out now. He’s also written a short web-comic, entitled “London Intrusion” which you can find on his webpage, or here: