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Cities Near, Cities Far

an interview with China Miéville

by Nick Gevers


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, slant ...

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 cover scan: perdido street stationof 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 good way..."

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 at.

"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."cover scan: the scar

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.)"

cover scan: the scarMiéville 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 very quickly."

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 time.

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