Cities Near, Cities Far
an interview with
Of all the new fantasists to emerge in the
last five years, China Miéville has made the greatest popular
and critical impact. His books are huge, dense, superlatively inventive,
epics of the grotesque imagination without ready parallel. Indeed, he
(together notably with Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, and Kelly Link)
seems deliberately to be revolutionizing the fantasy genre, shaking
it up with radical reforming vigour, bringing it at last to something
approaching its huge literary potential. Imbuing his dark, swarmingly
populous texts with both irresistible narrative drive and acute structures
of philosophical thought and social significance, Miéville is
visibly wresting Fantasy from the conservative, pastoral grip of the
Tolkienians, giving it an altered, decisively urban and contemporary,
Miéville's first novel, King Rat
(1998), mythologized his native London, and its stranger denizens, to
potent effect; but it was overshadowed in 2000 with the appearance of
Perdido Street Station, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award,
a vast, shocking, fuliginous panorama of the imaginary city of New Crobuzon
and the tormented struggles of its human and inhuman inhabitants. Urban
fantasy instantly had a new name, a new face. And in 2002, Miéville
published The Scar, another big book set in the world of Bas-Lag,
the fictional realm that has effloresced from the original conception
of New Crobuzon; pirates, politics, a floating city, and a quest for
the world's end united in a second masterpiece of "weird" yet intensely
immediate science fantasy. The Tain, a new novella, followed
in early 2003.
When I interview Miéville by e-mail in November 2002, I'm interested
first in finding out more about his grounding urban inspiration: what
is it about London that invites his imagination (and others') to transmogrify
the city so, to transmute it into brooding otherworldly metropoli such
as New Crobuzon? Miéville, a dedicated lifelong Londoner, responds,
"I think it's been a combination of London's size, and the peculiar
way it has grown through history. London is big enough that unlike a
lot of smaller cities it has a very large ring that's neither central
nor suburban. That's the zone I grew up in, and it's really the zone
that defines London for me -- not that I don't like the centre, as well,
but it's that Victorian sprawl that is pretty unique, and that gets
into a lot of my fiction. I always enjoy describing it. And in general,
the city landscape is something that constantly inspires me. I don't
know why the physical environment makes such an impact, but obviously
there are plenty of writers for whom it does.
"It's also because London, unlike a lot of other cities, isn't defined
by one historical moment -- it's not like Paris, for example, which
is (at least in the centre) the result of a particular historical moment.
Instead, you walk down a street in London, you're walking from the 16th
to the 21st century, through a patchwork of history. That I love."
And there's literary influence: Miéville works in a tradition
of London Gothic, one that extends back to Dickens and perhaps before,
and that continues through authors such as Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair,
and Peter Ackroyd. "I'm very conscious of it. There's something about
London that makes it filter peculiarly intensely through fiction. In
terms of being influenced by London, I'm at least as influenced by the
literary distillation of London as by the real physical city. There
are other London writers too whose infatuation with the city influences
me -- Arthur Machen, Michael de Larrabeiti's Borribles trilogy,
Two Fingers and James T. Kirk's (sic) Junglist, a great, underrated
book. It's not just Gothic, but a more general hallucinatory, intense
depiction (which includes Gothic)."
Hallucinatory, intense depiction requires prose to match; and Miéville,
like his acknowledged literary heroes, Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison,
is an ambitious stylist: dense reveries and descriptions encrust his
novels. Is he consciously working towards an Ideal Fantastic Style?
He won't go quite that far. "I'm a very different stylist from Harrison,
who is above all about precision. I'm more influenced by people like
Sinclair, and also -- though hopefully in a slightly more restrained
way -- by the High Pulp writers like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.
I certainly work very hard at my prose -- though I know it's not to
everyone's taste -- and I still feel I've work to do. I do think that
sometimes as a genre we are too forgiving of lacklustre prose. I think
it's important to remember that language is more than just a conduit
for information; form matters, as well as content. And though minimalism
in various forms has become very trendy, I don't see that as the only
way of doing 'correct prose'."
London is an intensely political milieu, and Miéville is noted
for his left-wing activism, especially his vigorously controversial
parliamentary candidacy in 2001. I wonder how directly his fantasy embodies
this activist spirit. Are his novels ideological statements, blatantly
or subtly? "The novels aren't propaganda, of course, and if you wrote
a novel that could only be enjoyed by someone of the same politics as
you, it probably wouldn't be a great novel. However, equally, my political
principles and activism strongly influence my fiction (and everything
else I do). I certainly don't write novels as a way of making political
points, I write them to tell stories. However, there are political
ideas embedded in the novels, and political analysis. I like to give
the worlds I create a texture of the real, and that means shoving in
a load of stuff that interests me, such as politics. That lets you do
the paradoxical thing of making fantasy realistic. The point I suppose
is to make it that you don't have to be interested in the politics to
enjoy the novels, but there is stuff there if you are. It means dealing
with ideas like racism, class inequality, economics, governmental power,
and so on. And again, one of the things about working carefully on prose
style is that we need to get away from the idea that politics is embedded
only in the content of prose -- the Surrealists have shown us that it
can also be embedded in the form.
"There is a more limited sense in which the novels are 'activist',
which is that there are a great deal of reactionary ideas implied in
what has come to be taken for 'traditional' fantasy, and I write fantasy
novels consciously in opposition to that."
Apart from their ideological vibrancy, Miéville's novels have
a certain rhythm, an ongoing musical allusiveness. "Music -- Drum 'n'
Bass most obviously, but also Hip Hop -- was absolutely central to King
Rat. The music is important as a backdrop to writing all
the books -- I always have music going in the background -- but of course
it hasn't come to the fore in the later novels in the same way."
Miéville's fantastic secondary world of Bas-Lag is a place the
reader can almost touch, in part because of its compelling atmospherics,
and partly because Bas-Lag exists in such close continuity with Earthly
economic realities. I ask, how was Bas-Lag first conceived and named,
and how did it evolve into its present, complex and populous, state?
"For me the process of world-creation is a combination of many different
urges and influences, and involves being a complete magpie for anything
weird that takes your fancy, but I start off with a particular set of
images, often very disjointed. They kind of expand out, and get intertwined
with other threads. For me the bestiary is very important -- I love
monsters, and creating monsters is one of the key things for this. So
you mix up monsters with these key elements of grotesquerie -- for example,
the notion of giant ribs arcing out over a city -- and a landscape begins
to present itself. Bas-Lag itself came after New Crobuzon, which is
a city I've been working on for the best part of a decade, in various
forms. Truly, I can't remember why I named Bas-Lag as I did. I have
a couple of ideas, but I'm not sure. I started with the city, got a
good sense of that and the emotional tone around it, then conceived
the landscape around it. Often starting with cool-sounding names."
Bas-Lag is fascinatingly polyglot, packed with intelligent, and articulate,
humanoid species. Would it be fair to regard Bas-Lag as a kind of evolutionary
thought-experiment, a version of Earth where tool-using intelligence
is commonplace rather than unique or aberrant? "Well, it wasn't a particularly
conscious thought-experiment. But it is true that I was fascinated by
the idea of an essentially fecund world, where sentience is widespread,
and more important than that, is extremely variegated. Like I say, I
just love monsters, so I wanted to stuff this world full of them."
In Perdido Street Station and The Scar, there is a very
strong atmosphere of Steampunk. It's tempting to see the books as a
sort of alternate history of the Victorian British Empire, Industrialism
and Imperialism anatomized with a surreal exaggeration that emphasizes
historical realities more keenly. Miéville acknowledges this,
but with a key reservation. "That's certainly part of what's going on,
but I don't like the idea of trying to reduce fantastic literature to
being essentially metaphorical. Bas-Lag, New Crobuzon, etc, are their
own ends. That's very important. That said, of course Victoriana is
clearly thrown up by these settings. There is a sense that The Scar,
for example, is a hallucinatory relation to the eighteenth and nineteenth
century maritime imperialism of London, complete with transportation
of convicts. I really don't want to imply that these books are 'about'
British history in any reductive sense, but of course you're right to
see parallels. That's part of the pleasure of fantastic literature --
the fantastic itself is its own end, but also something that gets chewed
up by the human mind's metaphor engine -- and yes, that means political
stuff like empire is easy to examine, without being too heavy-handed.
"There are plenty of other influences -- maritime fantasy, for example.
I wanted to make the relation of the sea-voyagers to their environment
more nuanced than, say, the gung-ho maritime imperialism of Prince Caspian
in his Dawntreader."
Miéville's protagonists, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and Bellis
Coldwine, are both scientists, scholars through whom contemporary theoretical
perspectives can be channeled into his texts. Presumably Miéville
sees this as a necessary forward step for fantasy, the introduction
an advanced Understanding into a genre whose characters are conventionally
prone to uncritical acceptance of the unchanging feudalisms they inhabit.
I ask whether this is the essential mission of radical science fantasy
such as Miéville writes. "Part of the debate (scholastic, to
my mind) over whether Perdido Street Station is SF or fantasy
revolves around this. In my world, magic works -- but it's not a Get-Out-Of-Plot-Difficulty-Free
card. Magic has rigorous rules, and more crucially, it is integrated
into the world so that it is part of a total science. Physics, chemistry,
and magic -- which in this world is called thaumaturgy -- are all part
of science. That allows you to have fantasy which is not 'irrationalist'.
And your question is very interesting -- because yes, I think that the
rather facile politics embedded in much fantasy is very much related
to this kind of thing -- but I find it hard to express exactly how.
I think Magic which bypasses the rules of any society, science, or narrative
coherence is essentially a denial of history -- it allows Nietzschean
characters to stamp their will on the world in an idealist way. By constraining
magic, you can still use it -- to express creativity and power -- but
simultaneously respect history.
"There is another 'radical' fantasy strategy which in some ways is
very different, which would be to tip towards the Surrealist tradition.
I try to draw from that, but come from a more pulpy background. In a
After the massive exercise of the imagination that crafted New
Crobuzon for Perdido Street Station, Miéville determinedly
sallied in The Scar into different regions, different elements.
His more cerebral characters make a distinction between the urban causal
logic of Perdido's Isaac, which seems closed and Newtonian, and
the quantum marine logic of The Scar's Uther Doul, which is all
uncertainty and branching outcomes. Firm land and turbulent sea, fixed
city and wandering ship: are these necessary polarities?
"Well, these were all ideas I was interested in playing with, but I
certainly wouldn't make any claim for their eternal, overall validity
or anything like that. But you're quite right regarding the important
distinctions in the books. For me, it was crucial that The Scar
was as different as possible from Perdido Street Station; partly
because Perdido got such wonderful reviews and feedback, I knew
it would be a mistake to try to write Perdido 2. And because
in The Scar I was trying to question and critique the structure
of quest fantasy, that meant trying to do something different with narrative
structure, which dovetailed perfectly with the quantum stuff I was looking
"The Scientist is a very useful figure for examining these issues in
varying ways. You get to play with different types of science, which
obviously means different sets of ideas."
From the Governed state of New Crobuzon, The Scar proceeds to
the Anarchy of the ever-changing, ever-accreting floating city Armada.
I wonder whether The Scar is a utopian novel, concerned with
the promise and threat of anarchistic political experimentation. Perhaps,
Miéville responds, but there's a lot more to it than that. "I'm
interested in the utopian tradition in SF and fantasy, but I'm not a
big fan of the straightforwardly Utopian (or dystopian) novel, where
the fiction serves essentially to describe a society that is a hope
or a warning. The struggle between political systems in Armada is a
great backdrop for investigating various different political ideas and
making certain political points, but Armada is hardly a utopia. The
Scar's an exploratory novel, I think."
Armada, simply as an imaginative construct, is enormously vivid, like
New Crobuzon. In portraying cities on (and, in the case of Salkrikaltor,
under) the sea, Miéville is suggesting the universality of the
urban phenomenon and urban experience. "I wanted in The Scar
simultaneously to provide what I love to do -- Cities -- and to deliberately
withhold that which a lot of the readers had been particularly asking
for: a return to New Crobuzon. I wanted to do a completely new
city, a city which was highly counterintuitive, which was in a strange
setting. And yes, you're right, the catalogue of cities which is being
presented is designed to create a notion of a land of astonishing, fecund
cities, in all places. Thus far it's been a series that implies an Urban
Land. (But watch this space for developments on this issue -- I don't
want to fall into a rut.)"
has a particular gift for visceral narration: for instance, the account
of the island of the mosquito people in The Scar is like a nightmare
experienced waking. Is this technique conscious or spontaneous? "That
particular example was consciously and deliberately an attempt to create
intense, hallucinatory, nightmare narration. You notice, for example,
that the tense structure changes suddenly, and goes from past into present,
to bring everything suddenly up close. There are other places, often
fight scenes, where I just get caught up in things and the writing flows
Miéville's next novel will be a continuation and a departure.
"The novel I'm writing now is set in the same world of Bas-Lag, but
again, I'm trying to do something very different, both structurally
and in content. I have various ideas for future novels there too. There
are loads of other settings -- particularly cities -- that I've mentioned
in passing in the existing books, and that could work as the backdrops
to a novel. But I think that after the next (Bas-Lag) novel, I'll probably
take a break and do stuff in a different setting for a while. I don't
want it to get stale as a locale."
© Nick Gevers 2003.
This interview appears here for the first
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