An Interview with China Mieville

A few things that geeks enjoy:
Dungeons & Dragons
Trade magazines
Monster chases and gunfights

An Interview with China Mieville

A few things that geeks enjoy:
Dungeons & Dragons
Trade magazines
Monster chases and gunfights

An Interview with China Mieville

Lou Anders
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There is an almost universal human desire to dislike those who accomplish great things. Take China Miéville, for instance. He wrote a novel, Perdido Street Station, that single-handedly changed the rules of the fantasy genre, and he did it before he turned thirty. What’s more, he did it while being tall, devilishly handsome, and cut like an action-figure. What fantasy writer looks like that? It wouldn’t be so unbearable if he had the good taste to be short, fat, or at the very least old. But he is none of those things.

It doesn’t help that Perdido Street Station is a tremendously good book. His world of Bas Lag is the most richly, obsessively imaged realm since J.R.R. Tolkien’s. But unlike that grandfather of the field and his sea of imitators, Perdido Street Station and its follow-ups, The Scar and Iron Council, are socially relevant, politically current, and anything but derivative. Think Middle Earth meets Dickensian London on really good acid.

So, this brilliant young radical quickly amasses a huge reputation, and as with anyone who accomplishes too much too soon and bends the rules effortlessly, we want to despise him. Then you meet him, and find out he is one of the warmest, kindest, and most infuriatingly humble-where-his-colossal-talent-is-concerned individuals in the field. It really is too much. You don’t have any choice but to love the guy.

I caught up with Miéville in his London flat, across a transatlantic phone call that ran well past dinnertime in Alabama and into the wee hours of the morning in merry old England. With a kettle on at both ends, he filled me in on what happens when creatures out of arcane mythologies stand up and say they want a revolution.

—Lou Anders


THE BELIEVER: Are you a geek?

CHINA MIÉVILLE: Yeah, I am completely a geek. I find it very interesting entering my thirties, because the early thirties basically seems to be the era of the revenge of the geek, when those of us who didn’t have particularly exciting teenage years because we were too busy obsessively collecting comics and playing Dungeons & Dragons suddenly start running the world. But geeks are able to use their powers for good and evil, and when I look at people like Rumsfeld I definitely think I’m seeing a fellow geek, just a geek on the dark side. But yes, I feel fantastically geeky. I’m not one of those people who’s enormously proud of being a geek, but nor am I particularly ashamed of it.

BLVR: It fascinates me that Neal Stephenson, for instance, is bending over backwards to associate himself with science fiction when you’d think that from a strictly commercial or marketing standpoint, he should not be doing so. His Baroque Cycle is historical fiction, not SF.

CM: I have so much respect for Neal on that basis. As a kid, you grow up reading SF, fantasy, and horror and you do have that slight sense of literary embattlement. We exaggerate it for the purposes of radical chic, but nonetheless you do get a lot of shit for it. And so many writers perform the Stephenson maneuver in reverse—they perform the Atwood—they write things that are clearly weird or in the fantastic tradition and then bend over backwards to try to distance themselves from genre. Or you have writers like Vonnegut who write science fiction in their early years and then continue to write it but make a big public pronouncement about how they no longer write science fiction. Of course it is their right to do, but it always at least disappoints me and at worst enrages me. I have so much enormous respect for Neal. He’s saying essentially, “Whether or not you think you can see aliens or spaceships in this book and therefore you don’t think it’s science fiction, the sensibility I bring to it is born out of my relationship with genre. Essentially, this is a geek historical novel, and more than that, it’s a science-fiction geek historical novel.” I could kiss him. Another person who does a similar thing is Susanna Clarke. With Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, obviously she’s done so well with that book—

BLVR: Time magazine’s choice for the number one book of last year.

CM: Her publisher and her PR people obviously want to talk about how this is a great literary invention, and one of the things that I love about Susanna is that she says, “Among other things, this is also a fantasy book.” This is a woman who feels unapologetic and unabashed about her generic roots. I feel very grateful to people like that. And similarly, I feel very grateful to someone like Doris Lessing, who comes from outside genre but understands it and respects it. In the middle of a big literary festival, Doris Lessing, one of the great writers of the twentieth century, fêted by the literary establishment, was talking about this great book she’d read by Greg Bear. This is a woman who really keeps up with genre SF and is not embarrassed to say so. And although part of me cringes at the kind of embattlement mentality that this conversation bespeaks, I think it is fantastically dignified of people to not play this distancing game, so I’m a flat-out fan-for-life of Neal for the way he’s been doing this.

What I love is passion. One of my fascinations is trade magazines. I love picking up specialists’ magazines about subjects I know nothing about. For instance, you pick up a magazine that is the house journal of tropical-fish keepers or model-train builders. I have no interest in model trains; I have no interest in tropical fish, but I love reading the magazines, because you get this insight into this world of debate and passion and argument, and then you get two competing magazines with different platforms who are dissing each other because this is a world where the people involved in it are absolutely in love with what they do. What geeks have, geeks in any field, be it a field like science fiction or a field like tropical fish, is that they are moved to do what they do because of a love and passion for the field above all else. No one ever got into science fiction for the sex or prestige. They got into it because they love it.


BLVR: Last summer, lunching in Aqua Blue in San Diego’s Gaslamp, you told me you were concerned about potential reader reaction to Iron Council because you had deliberately crafted certain sections of prose to prevent readers from identifying too strongly with the work. Yet I’ve found Iron Council to be your most accessible and fast-paced book to date. One of us is wrong.

CM: Iron Council has had the most profoundly contradictory response that any of my books have had, and it’s been absolutely fascinating to watch it unfold. If you look at the response to Iron Council, you have people saying, “This is Miéville’s breakthrough book. He’s moved to a different level.” And then you’ve also had it described as “the crushing disappointment of 2004. Completely lost it.” To the extent that I can generalize, the critical reception at the pro level has been quite, quite good; the critical reception at fan level has been troubled. I could fliply and glibly say that if you have that kind of reaction then you’re doing something right, but I don’t want to play fast and loose. There is clearly something going on here and to be honest with you, I don’t know what it is. The prose is very, very different from the previous two books. I think it’s to do with bringing the prose under control. The previous two books were very baroque and meandering.

BLVR: What I saw you doing was streamlining your prose and then peppering that with some deliberately arcane word choices, almost as a concession to the fact that the prose has been reined in by such a tight leash.

CM: Well, I’ll never be a minimalist. The fact that the prose is more tightly controlled doesn’t for a minute mean that it’s minimalist. I very much like arcane words and baroque sentence structure. But, for example, I drew quite a lot on someone like Cormac McCarthy. What impresses me about Cormac McCarthy’s prose is that it achieves a kind of very powerful, very knotted poetry and rhythm but with quite tight structures. And I do understand why people are alienated by this book. At a prose level, it’s broken up by a very large flashback that comprises nearly a third of the book, and some people have hated it. And me, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And there’s also the thematic issues. This is the most overtly political book I’ve ever written. It’s a book that features a lot of sexual politics, which some people won’t necessarily like, not even to mention economic and social politics. What I always try to do in all my books is to make the stories such that if you don’t agree with me politically or you’re not interested in the thematics, the story will still keep you turning the pages. So Iron Council still has plenty of monster chases and gunfights and all that kind of thing. But I do think it’s fair to say that it’s the book I’ve written that asks the most of the reader, and not everyone likes it.

BLVR: How does a self-described “actual, genuine Trotskyist” connect with readers in a market where in our recent presidential election, our left candidate had to tap dance to prove he was sufficiently warmongering and religious?

CM: I think describing Kerry as “left” is sadly inaccurate. Well, you’ve got to remember, I’m not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I’m a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have. But I never let them get in the way of the monsters. Now that was slightly different with Iron Council, because I had the sense for some years that I wanted to write a third book that operates as a culmination, which was overtly political and precisely about my kind of politics in this world that I’ve created. So it was a book that was, if you like, deeply structured with politics, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a manifesto, that doesn’t mean that it’s an argument disguised as a novel, because even though those politics are central, I know that as a novelist I want to tell a story, and that means that I have to have characters that are engaging. Even if you don’t agree with my politics or don’t give a shit about them, the story has to be engaging. And that’s the great thing about big, political radical movements. For instance, if you read about the Paris Commune, whether or not you agree with the position of the Communards, the Paris Commune is a tremendously exciting story. What I tried to do is write something which works as an exciting story but which treats the politics seriously. All of which is a long-winded way of saying I’ve never had any problems with the American market, because I don’t think I’m patronizing or condescending to readers or trying to convince them of a particular political line. I’m trying to say I’ve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that to, that’s fantastic. But if not, isn’t this a cool monster?


BLVR: You’ve spoken about the disparate urges that war within your fiction. There is a quote from crookedtimber.org’s online seminar where you say, “These values are several—the avant-garde sensibility, of depicting realistic social structures, of the ripping yarn—and it’s unclear the extent to which each can fruitfully coexist with others in a single text.” I feel that these values very fruitfully coexist. It’s my contention that you are treading on the same ground as Herman Melville in Moby Dick, with its Nantucket sailors speaking in Shakespearean verse as they chase a big, albino monster through a tale fraught with mystical symbolism and sublimated homosexuality.

CM: Good god, man, I feel a Ph.D. coming on! Well, I’m very, very flattered. People have compared me to Melville before, which, of course, is monumental praise, and there is the name thing. Turn my “i” into an “l” and change the place and we have the same name. I’m glad you think the values coexist. Several of the people on that symposium have said, “Look, I admire your work, but you’re pulled in a pulp direction as a storyteller, and you’re also pulled in a more avant-garde ‘literary direction,’ and these are fundamentally pulling against each other.” I’m not sure that I agree with it. I feel very confused about it, but it does seem to me to be a very interesting take. This has given me pause for thought. But I do retain this hope that you can actually have it both ways. And if you can have it both ways at all, fantasy is a uniquely powerful arena that would allow you to do that. So my aim would be precisely to write the ripping yarn that is also sociologically serious and stylistically avant-garde. I mean, that’s the Holy Grail right there.

BLVR: I think it is precisely those opposing tensions that make your work so compelling. We have a wonderful monster fight in Iron Council and you follow it by “When Cutter understood that there sex would only ever be an act of patrician friendship, profane and saintly generosity would only ever be a gift from Judah, he tried to bring it to a close, but could not sustain the abstinence.” I found that to be the most painful understanding of human longing.

CM: Thank you, that means a lot. Of all the politics in Iron Council—the big politics, the trade union stuff, the revolution—it hasn’t been talked about very much as a love story. I don’t mean this in a self-aggrandizing way, but I will say that the love story between Cutter and Judah, I will go to my grave being proud of that. I think of Iron Council as much as anything else as a love story. And that element is not an added extra, it absolutely structures it. The depiction of what’s going on with Cutter and the way he loves Judah… I was trying to express something that’s really, really painful and hard and loving. This is a man desperately in love, who knows that it’s not reciprocated in the way he wants it to be, but can’t stop loving anyway. I was expecting people to talk a lot about the gay theme in Iron Council. The main character of Iron Council is gay, and almost no one has talked about it. It hasn’t been the source of controversy or congratulation. And I’m quite pleased with that. I feel like I owe the field and readers an apology, because maybe at some unspoken level, I was thinking, “Ha, now, I’ve written this book and it will challenge you because it is about gay people.” In fact, I think that the genre and readers are much more mature than some of us self-styled radicals and dissidents make them out to be.

BLVR: The only reason it blips on my radar at all is the fact that you did it in the context of a western.

CM: Although, westerns are one of the least subtly-homoerotic genres out there. You know, in terms of homoeroticized male bonding, the western is hard to beat. And there are westerns with more overt gay subtext. But you’re right. The book, what I wanted it to be, was a kind of chimera of several different things, and trying to be absolutely true to each of those things. So I wanted it to be a love story, and a revolutionary romance, and a fantasy, and a political thriller, and a western. I knew for some years that I wanted to write this book as a western, and I really didn’t want to be seen to be one of these pissants playing a game. I wanted to take it seriously. I had to go away and read a lot of westerns so I didn’t seem to be patronizing this genre that was relatively new to me. If I’ve done my job well, Iron Council is not a kind of postmodern, ironic wink at the western. It’s a fucking western. It’s got cowboys in it, for fuck’s sake.


BLVR: Judah Low is a golemist. Golems are only ever clay. The only place I’m aware of them being comprised of other substances is in the old AD&D Monster Manual. The original Monster Manual. They had a picture of a flesh golem with bolts in his neck—

CM: I know the picture very well.

BLVR: It’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That implied subtext—that Frankenstein was a type of golem—made my pre-teen mind vibrate with a promise of special insight.

CM: You are absolutely right. I use AD&D-type fascination with teratology in a lot of my books, and I have the original Monster Manual, and the Monster Manual 2, and the Fiend Folio. I still collect role-playing game bestiaries, because I find that kind of fascination with the creation of the monstrous tremendously inspiring, basically. And the golem that you’re talking about in AD&D, it’s very perspicacious of you, because that is directly an influence. There is a scene in Iron Council where Judah creates a golem of corpses. He shoves his hand into a pile of corpses and makes them into this huge, lumbering golem of dead people, and that is a riff on the flesh golem. One of the things that I love so much about fantasy and science fiction is that the weirdness that it creates is always at its best completely its own end and also metaphorically and symbolically laden. I get very frustrated when I read certain types of magical realism and you end up saying, “Okay, I understand this figure of this golden elf is symbolizing such and such.” The thing about genre fantasy is that it is its own end, but it also does that job of symbolizing. I think about something like Gulliver’s Travels. The figures of the Lilliputians are partly a way for Gulliver to overlook society from a godlike height and to make satirical, symbolic comments, but it’s also, “Hey look, little tiny people! How cool!” I love the idea of golems. It strikes me as a very powerful, imaginative, weird idea. But it’s also an idea that is symbolically fraught and laden, and particularly in a book which is partially about people, politically speaking, people taking control of the fruits of their own labor. So, the golems are both just really cool monsters but also something that functions as part of the political texture of the book.

BLVR: When the golems go up against the elementals, you talk about the battle between conscious intrusion and elemental desire. That’s the heart of this book, isn’t it?

CM: Yeah, in the context of this book. I mean, I love elementals too. It’s not like I disagree with elementals as a monster. But in the context of this book, there’s this line that keeps coming up that golems are an intervention, golems are a way of making an argument in the world. It is essentially an attempt to vindicate humans’ creative power of agency in intervening in the world and making history. We make history, but not in the circumstances of our choosing, as the great quote goes. I didn’t originally set out thinking, “Let’s now have a really big symbolically powerful battle,” but as the story was moving on, I realized that there was going to be this big battle, and thinking that it was between elementals and golems struck me as symbolically powerful. You essentially have the manifestation of the human attempts to control and exert and intervene against something that is defined by the fact that humans aren’t controlling it. It’s a difficult thing to talk about in a way, because human intervention and control over the world have quite a bad rap at the moment. People immediately think about global warming and scientific hubris and so on. But one of the things that I think as a socialist is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with humans wanting to intervene in the world, wanting to exploit the world, wanting to change the world, wanting to bend the world to their will. What goes wrong for me is not that people want to do that, but that they do it under conditions of capitalism, which they don’t control. So I don’t have anything against that golem desire to intervene in the world. In fact, I’d go further and say, I don’t think humans have any choice. I think that’s how we act in the world. What the golem represents is less a different way of doing it than a realization about how we always do it.

BLVR: Which is why Weather Wrightby of the TRT recognizes the kindred impulse of the Iron Council.

CM: Exactly! The golem won’t attack Weather Wrightby. It’s the only time in the book where a golem disobeys Judah. And it could be simply that Weather Wrightby has more powerful magic at his disposal. Whatever, who knows? But it’s also partly an intimation of the fact that the kind of intervention that Weather Wrightby does is not unrelated to the type of intervention that the golem is attempting to vindicate. Weather Wrightby, for all that he’s a bastard, and a murderer, and a capitalist, and an exploiter, he’s also a visionary who understands what it is to be a human intervening in the world.


BLVR: You tend to leave your villains unpunished and more or less intact at the end of your narratives.

CM: The whole good-versus-bad morality thing, you have to be very careful or else you end up sounding incredibly trite. People have criticized me for being too morally simplistic and for depicting the government as wholly evil and my goodies as wholly good. I don’t think it’s fair to say that my goodies are wholly good. As for the government being wholly evil, I can see that there’s maybe a sort of pantomime element to some of the government in, say, Perdido Street Station. I don’t think it’s the case with The Scar or Iron Council. Particularly with the figure of Weather Wrightby, but also with the figure of the Lovers in The Scar, there’s an attempt to say this is not about this person being a bastard, this is about this person being a representation of social forces that for the purposes of this book represent the enemy of the protagonist. What I don’t necessarily do is spend a long time getting into their psychology, and that’s partly because the book is from the protagonists’ opposing point of view. It is a book about the depiction of revolutionary fervor, and therefore the book relates to Weather Wrightby and the Mayor as enemies because so do the protagonists. It doesn’t mean that they are snarling, Dickensian pantomime villains. But it’s also the case, as you say, that they don’t necessarily get punished any more than the good get rewarded. Nor necessarily do they get rewarded. The abstract schema of morality fits very imperfectly over what I think of as a kind of concrete morality of political and social circumstances.

In all the books, there is some kind of moral or political resolution, but it always comes at a cost. The story is not about the good getting their rewards and the bad getting punished. The story is about something different from that. I remember someone saying once that they really hated my books because they weren’t “inspiring,” but I just can’t get with this idea that literature is a twelve-step program. If someone wants to read a book to feel better, and the way they want to feel better is to see that the good people get rewarded and the bad people get punished, that’s fine, but essentially what they want then is a fairy tale. I don’t mean this in really kind of a denigrating fashion, but I don’t think that’s what fiction should necessarily be about. This is in part my reaction against a tendency that has been reasonably strong in fantasy, which is precisely the attempt to depict narratives like fairy tales. Abstract morality has had a fairly strong position in genre fantasy, and so there is still a certain necessity to react against that, and to say that things don’t all necessarily work out well, and the attempt to create a more realistic, more nuanced world is precisely manifested in a world in which you can’t take nice moral lessens for granted.

BLVR: One of my favorite aspects of Perdido Street Station is the fact that Mr. Motley is left intact and in place.

CM: Well, quite. Pinochet is very likely to die in his bed surrounded by a grieving family. That’s not fair. Pinochet should be held to account. Kissinger should not be able to eat pâté de foie gras. You know, the worst thing that seems to have happened to Kissinger in the last few years is that his travel plans have become a little bit more complicated because he’s worried about being tried, but the fact is he’s likely to die in his bed. This is not a fair, moral world. Sometimes the guilty do get punished and the good do get rewarded, and that’s fantastic and I’m always delighted when that happens, but I do want to try to make Bas Lag as socially realistic a world as I can and as morally realistic a world as I can. And the fact that I reject abstract morality doesn’t mean that I’m immoral or amoral—I feel very moral—but it means that the morality is concrete and is related to politics rather than being a kind of schema that you slap on top of the world and then judge the world according to. I should say that I feel there is a danger in all this, in that I think there is sometimes a cheap gravitas to be accrued by being cruel to your characters. That there is a certain tendency in some kinds of fiction to say, “Look, I haven’t rewarded the good and I haven’t punished the bad. This must be gritty, realistic hard fiction.” In fact, it can degenerate into a kind of aesthetic sadism. I am mindful that there is a line to be walked between really, really pat and fairy tale and trite, and being sadistic and willfully unpleasant to your characters, and I don’t want to get into a position of being spiteful to the characters just to appear to be unflinching.

BLVR: You always have to dig to find out what your characters look like physically. Cutter is described as being big, muscular, a young political activist. Judah: tall, thin, charismatic, slightly aloof, long grey hair. This isn’t you and M. John Harrison at all, is it?

CM: [Laughs] Well, not consciously. But I’m not so naïve as to think one’s always in control of the ideas. You’re probably in a better position to judge than me. I certainly wasn’t consciously saying I’m Cutter and Judah is M. John Harrison. I do think that M. John Harrison looks—he’s a man who holds himself in his body with tremendous presence. But no, I wasn’t trying to riff off anyone there, but like I say, I do think a lot of times the interesting things are precisely what one’s not intending to do but does anyway.

BLVR: As always, I am in awe at the scale of your world building. You need that obsessive fan to come along and write the Bas Lag Companion.

CM: I know there are people playing home-brewed RPGs set in Bas Lag and there is no higher compliment. I am enormously pleased. I had a conversation with someone about this the other day, and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to write the Bas Lag encyclopedia.” And they said, “That’s really bad though, because you’re a socialist. You shouldn’t be writing these books that are just a kind of naked, cynical attempt to cash in on the sad obsessions of the geeks.” And I said, “No, no, no, you don’t understand at all! I can’t imagine anything I’d love to do more than write an encyclopedia of my imaginary world, with the possible exception of writing the bestiary.” I’m in this fucking business for the monsters. The monsters are the main thing that I love about the fantastic. And unfortunately, you can’t really sell books of monsters to publishers. They insist on stories linking them.

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