Issue 3

Geoff Ryman
Writers Talk with China Miéville

China Miéville is one of the biggest names in fantasy publishing, alongside those other English writers such as Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Susanna Clarke who have had enormous impact both as publishing phenomena and as respected artists.

Miéville can be regarded as representative of British fantasy's emergence from dominant forms of the 60s, 70s and 80s, a young writer for whom drum n' bass was slightly old fashioned and who is more likely to draw on Dungeons and Dragons or Kafka rather than commercial fantasy novels. His first novel King Rat was immediately hailed by Roz Kaveney as being the voice of a new generation of fantasy writers. His next novel Perdido Street Station established him as an important author, and helped create the New Weird movement. It draws on pulp, HP Lovecraft, cyberpunk, Michael Moorcock’s essay ‘Epic Pooh’, the influential novels of Mike Harrison and classic English fantasy such as Titus Groan, to create a fantasy tradition that stands in contradistinction to Tolkien and his imitators.

Miéville has a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a book version of this thesis, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law was published in 2005. He is a committed politician and ran for Parliament in the 2001 General Election as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance.

Among the many awards and nominations for his books, Perdido Street Station won the 2001 Arthur C Clarke Award and the World Fantasy Award, and Iron Council won the 2005 Arthur C Clarke Award and Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. His new novel, The City and The City is just out from Macmillan, and is reviewed, also by Geoff Ryman, on the Manchester Review blog.


The City and the City builds up its world slowly. At first it reads like a generic crime novel; then shows us that we are somewhere else, perhaps a parallel universe, with hints that Breach, the police force might be aliens... but in fact the novel is not a fantasy at all.

Right, that reaction is what I would have hoped. Some people know about China Miéville’s previous books; I tease the people who already know stuff about me; I hint that Breach are supernatural. I know there are some fans who are try to work out the physics that underlie the two overlaid cities but in fact there are no weird physics. The two cities are psychological and political constructs that are kept separate in people’s minds.
I don’t get my knickers in a twist about how people categorize the story, if they see it as fantasy, mainstream or crime. I would offer the novel to anyone who wouldn’t get on with my other books, people who would be pushed out of a novel with a monster or supernatural elements. There is a slight melancholy about the inevitable pigeon-holing and the age-old anxiety that a genre label puts off readers, but it would be ungracious to moan about being identified with a genre that’s been so good to me. The book is being picked up by crime reviewers. I do hope it being marketed as a fantasy doesn’t constrain it, but you don’t have to be in the genre to read it.
The City and the City does come out of a tradition of the fantastic, but an East European tradition. I like thinking in terms of form and prose, and taking different approaches. The City and the City is to do with melancholic modernism: Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Paul Leppin, Alfred Kubin, and others.

I have two ways of looking at your career. Perdido Street Station established your core area of working, and after that you’ve been giving us the Miéville novel crossed with non-fantasy genres. The Scar was a sea/sailing/pirate story and Iron Council seems crossed with both a Western and a romance of revolution. Un Lun Dun was a Miéville children’s book. That would make The City and the City part of a series, this time Miéville crossed with crime novel. Except that it really isn’t a fantasy at all and it also reads differently for me from your other work.

The City and the City does feel like a major departure to me. It’s thematically different; the language is less baroque, more austere. The book was written as a present to my Mum, a great reader of crime novels, and so it’s faithful to the protocols of crime. The whole book is also based on political borders and looks at the logic of borders and their absurdity, and exaggerates them. Unseeing is a slight exaggeration of what we do all the time.

There was a key line for me about the hero going to a conference about policing split cities such as Jerusalem. It confirmed for me that the book was about our world, exaggerated. In some ways it felt like a satire.

A caveat on that line about split cities. I acknowledge that there will be political or metaphoric readings of the book. But the character who speaks next says that those cities (in the quote) are nothing like ours (Beszel and Ul Qoma). I hope that the ramifications are occurring to readers, but I abjure narrowly reductive metaphorical readings. The two overlaid cities have to have a reality of their own or the novel becomes an allegory, which I don’t like. The fantastic in fiction walks a fine line between being reducible to a metaphor and having a belief in its own reality.

What also impressed me was how well it does work as a crime novel, a real murder mystery but set in a fictionalized city.

It’s a very straight crime novel; it obeys the rules of a police procedural with an almost camp fidelity. It’s in three sections, one in each of the two overlaid cities, and then a third. The first section is straight out of Inspector Lindley with the detective and his female sidekick. The second section is 48 Hours and is a buddy-cop story and the third section is a political conspiracy thriller. It’s still a straight crime novel which some crime readers have read and enjoyed as a crime novel.
There is a generic resentment against people who come in from outside and are clodhopping, bumping into the furniture. But if someone comes in and is respectful, people are delighted. I wanted to be someone who came into the crime genre, knew what had gone before and was respectful. I read a huge number of crime novels before writing this.

A number of Fantasy and SF writers have been going into crime fiction: Mike Marshall, Paul McCauley…

Also Jedediah Barry, Jeff Vandemeer, even the new Pynchon takes the form of a detective novel. I’ve frequently committed manifesto, and I’ve got into a debate with Nick Mamatas about what to call the trend. I want Weird plus Noir to become ‘Noird.’ He wants Hardboiled plus Weird to equal ‘Weird Boiled’. So it’s a battle of the memes to see who can name this burgeoning subgenre.

I’m no stranger to manifestos myself... I came up with Mundane SF.

Someone pointed out to me that The City and the City follows mundane rules.

Ah, but you have to know you are playing the mundane game when you write the story.

Well I’m into retro-causality, I can certainly claim it’s a mundane novel.

Talk a bit about your children’s book Un Lun Dun, where it fits in.

I’d written something after Iron Council. People who read it for me were sceptical about it, and I was a bit concerned about that. It’s as yet unpublished. I wanted to write something that was an unabashed joy. Iron Council is a book I’m immensely proud of, prouder even than the other books in some ways, but it was a hard book to write, it came from quite deep. I wanted to write out of unmediated pleasure, an hommage to kids’ books that I grew up with: Lewis Carroll, Joan Aitken, Michael de Larrabeiti and others. I always wanted to write a book for younger readers. It was an abrupt decision, and the book came very, very quickly, written with immense pleasure. Some of the material I’d been carrying around for quite a long time. For example the ninja dustbins, the Binja, I invented when I was ten. It was a great pleasure accreting all that stuff. Un Lun Dun felt like a continuation of the phantasmagorical tradition of previous books but with different kinds of material. Farah Mendelssohn said that fantasy for younger readers can be based around literalized wordplay. Once you get older it is more often literalized metaphor.

I‘m thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth. When I was a kid, I loved it for the magic, but later, all the wordplay made it seem full of messages and warnings.

For me at times that can come close to leaden allegory. I was not interested in the Spelling Bee as a kind of literalized pun or lesson, but I was very interested in a six-foot bumblebee. The Alice books are the perfect books for that age, predicated on word play but never, never didactic.

Oz doesn’t moralize or teach lessons either.

The Narnia books were a big deal for me when young, but there was a kernel of dissatisfaction. I was aware of another agenda. As you get older, it gets more noticeable. I think Lewis is a very bullying writer, essentially a bully of the Upper Fifth. I find the cruelty in the condescension to children ugly.

I was lucky. My first proper book was the best of the Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew.

My favourite was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In fact some of The Scar is based on it, the boat the Morning Walker is inspired by it. I remember in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a boy is transformed into a dragon as a punishment, but when he reforms, the dragon splits open, and the boy steps out again, rewarded for being good. The point was not that it was cool to be a dragon, but that you must be a good boy. Personally I didn’t care that Aslan was Christ so long as he was a big lion.

I’ve always been impressed both by your practical involvement in radical politics and the fact that I never feel bullied by your books, or even that they have a particularly strong political or moral message.

That’s a question readers are interested in: how do you mediate between fiction and politics? It’s a non-issue to me. Hey, I’m a fanboy, no disingenuousness there. But it does feel thin as a response. I’m a committed socialist, but love SF and fantasy and never see a contradiction. I get great joy riffing off the weird, but I enjoy politics as well. There is a lot of political texture to my books because that’s what I think about. Gene Wolfe is a great fantasy writer and his views saturate his work. They are part of the mix, politics but not recruiting or hectoring. If as a reader I want a polemic, I’ll go and find one. If someone did want to argue or recruit I’m afraid I’d say a bit flippantly that a 600 page fantasy novel was a pretty inefficient way of doing so. However I also find it interesting to see a fantasy informed by political opinion. I don’t like the idea that political fiction should be denigrated as propaganda. Iain Banks’ Complicity is a terrific novel because of its political texture.

I say the same thing about philosophy. Philosophy is a long chain of logic using clean tools to work your way to fresh and unexpected conclusions. That is not what fiction does or can do... unless it has pages of argument or uses sprinklings of philosophical quotations as seasoning.

I have no problem with philosophy in a novel. But I agree that fiction doesn’t have to have an argument or a conclusion, but it can deal with issues that are thought of as being philosophical. The opposite position, that fiction is not concerned with themes or issues, is unconvincing and a bit gor-blimey-ish. I remember seeing Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks on a panel saying something along the lines that they didn’t think about the themes in their fiction, and I just thought ‘bullshit you don’t, you’re fooling no one, you two…’ There is no firewall between political or philosophical ideas and fiction. Benjamin Peret, a French surrealist was a deeply committed political writer, a left dissident, a Trot ... and a beautifully surrealist writer, though he was far more systematically political than other surrealists. He wrote an essay ‘The Dishonour of Poets’ criticising a book of political poetry and how it hobbled itself by being crudely reductive. You can have fidelity to both poetry and politics, but you must avoid a reductive collapse one into another.
There is a certain bloodless liberal criticism that politics and literature are two separate spheres and that one should write about ‘eternal human truths.’ As a political writer that feels very unsatisfying.

For me, this chimes with Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature? Left wing, against compromising the freedom of readers by trespassing on their own responsibility and freedom, but also avoiding the trap of writing for posterity. He said that writing was an act done in such inner freedom and that’s why it’s impossible to imagine a great anti-Semitic novel.

Is it possible to write the great liberal novel now? The very feted liberal modern writers like Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes, the lions of litfic, not to single any one of them out, but there’s a certain sclerosis to soi-disant literary fiction not unrelated to its status as an iteration of liberalism in a state of crisis.
Right now I’m obsessed with McEwan’s novel Saturday. It’s a self-conscious attempt to wrest territory back to liberal litfic, all set around a political milieu. It’s an attempt to re-domesticate the themes that have exploded beyond the drawing room. I don’t like the novel, but I do respect it as an adversary.
I think Amis is slightly different. His trajectory is more militantly contrarian than McEwan. With Amis much less interpretation is necessary in terms of his political agenda; he is actively intervening in debates. I find his pronouncements on Islam reprehensible and sinister. I could go on at great length. He’s a very sophisticated writer and the deliberate crudeness of the attacks: the line that ‘there is a definite urge - don’t you have it? To say the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ It’s a rhetorical masquerade posing as bluff common sense. But that really is a subject for a whole different interview.

OK. We began to talk about how The City and the City was written in a different style from your earlier work? It reads differently.

Definitely. When I go back to Perdido and The Scar, I find what can read to me now as infelicities. Perdido was unmediated baroque. I like that lush writing. To my eyes The Scar is more measured, Iron Council is a more mannered riffing off certain antecedents. The City and the City is a very different thing, I wanted to give it a sense of a book translated from another language. With a first-person narrator you can’t indulge in the same way as with third-person. I wanted someone identifiable, which means someone from a modern European city writing in a different language from ours.
In some fantastic genres there’s a tendency to think that the job of the prose is to be an invisible window to the world, the equivalent of photorealism. Of course some of the greatest prose in the world is minimal and invisible as a formal methodology; the words are just there to tell story. But after decades of modernism, I wonder if that’s really where we are at, that that’s the only option. What about, not just the high modernists, but also modernists in the genre such as Samuel Delany? Even if you don’t love all the experiments you have to honour and respect the attempts to use form and language in new ways. I have a lot of time for Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head, for that reason. Also John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. I’m really surprised that mainstream literary critics haven’t got their hands on that as a precursor to post-modernism. It’s incredibly prescient.

I couldn’t agree more, I love Stand on Zanzibar, I thought I was the only one! For me, translation is a key issue for F&SF. Its English must almost always actually be in translation from something else, either future dialects of English or a compost of languages, or languages from the deep past or even made up ones. I found the naming in Perdido Street Station very rich to the point where I wondered what came first, the names and tone of voice or the visions of what they describe.

I had the phrase ‘Perdido Street Station’ for a long time. But then visions came next and more names for the city coagulated out of those visions. I go through old notes, get a clue from where a name came from that I’d forgotten. ‘Perdido’ was there before ‘New Crobuzon’ (The name of the city) which comes from a book called Voodoo in New Orleans and is I think the name of a family.
The sound of the names very important to me and I come up with them in two quite different ways. One way is the creation of names for places that come from an Iain-Sinclair-ish London. The place names are almost plausible as being real London names, very English. The second distinct source of names is actually existing, non-English words like ‘perdido’. So, does that mean Spanish is actually spoken in that world? Or is there another language that relates to the language spoken in New Crobuzon in a similar way that Spanish relates to English? The answer depends on my mood. There’s a danger in literalism. It becomes an uninteresting technical issue.

I loved the ending of Perdido Street Station. You keep playing with expectation. We expect Lin to escape the moth unharmed. When the wingless garuda climbs to the top of the building, we expect him to fling himself off in one last flight... instead you have him tear off all his feathers. There’s been some controversy over the ending, as if you deliberately planned things, but it reads much more like it was driven by the characters, as if what the garuda did took you by surprise, going back down the building as a man. The lovely long final description of the City is you and the three main characters saying goodbye to the City just as the garuda....

Just as the garuda is saying hello to it as a man, yes. You can’t disallow individual readers’ readings... but it’s tremendously nice when someone repeats what you hoped and intended.

I meant to talk to you about the influence of Mike Harrison.

M John Harrison a huge influence. Actually I think we’re very different but he is a hugely influential writer to me. His own particular agon against fantasy is more unremitting than my own. I think his punitive kind of anti-fantasy is less mitigated by a sort of pulp-friendly, geeky fanboyism than my own, though I respect and share many of those critiques. I also grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I think that’s visible in some of the fiction. Whereas the idea of translating Viriconium into a D and D model would be almost painfully funny.

There’s a kind of Puritanism of modernism in Mike’s work for me.

It’s necessary and brilliant for the field and fiction in general even if you don’t agree with every word. It’s like William Burroughs, you can’t imagine fiction without him.

Amen. You were talking about the frozen ending of Angel. In Iron Council, the revolutionary train is bearing down on New Crobuzon and gets frozen in time, and stays outside the city poised, as a kind of monument to revolution?

No, it’s a quantum moment of indecision. Objectively Iron Council may have more flaws than, say, The City and The City, but I think it means the most to me partly because it’s the book in which, having previously been quite careful not to push politics into my work, in Iron Council I wanted to write overtly about the kind of politics that interest me. I wanted quite unashamedly to write an adventure story about radical politics. It’s part of my Pascalian wager that there are things you can do with the fantastic in terms of examining and considering aspects of modernity that you cannot do with mimetic fiction, or certainly can’t do as well. There’s a moment in which Adorno says that Kafka is the only writer capable of writing about 20th century.
Iron Council pictures the conundrum that interests a writer like me for whom revolutionary change is part of a real political horizon, but for whom that revolution is uniquely unrepresentable. If you take revolution seriously as a moment of total change, it follows that it is, concretely, beyond our conceptual horizon.

It’s the left wing version of the Singularity! (Vernor Vinge’s term for a moment of change in technology so overwhelming that we will be unable to imagine the consequences.)

I thought fantastic tools could examine that and that’s Iron Council. The love story is very important to me as well. I think it’s my most sentimental book, and I don’t say that as criticism.

I’m not sure I’m convinced that the fantastic can do things that mimetic fiction can’t. High modernism may not be mimetic entirely, but I wouldn’t count a lot of it as fantastical. We were talking about John Brunner earlier, but Stand on Zanzibar adopts the techniques of John Dos Passos to explore a future rather than modernity.

Well modernity is itself unrepresentable, a contradictory totality, you’re only going to represent one facet, not the contradictions, always omitting, or even lying. But I was talking specifically about revolution. Revolution is more specific, which is that for a radical writer, if you take revolution seriously, it will result in something radically new, including ourselves and if the result is so different and we are so different that we can’t think of it now.

OK, it’s like trying to imagine aliens. They end up being either cuttlefish or American Indians.

You can’t solve, but you can examine the problematic...

And your best book?

Objectively speaking, probably The City and The City, but it’s Iron Council that I’m proudest of.