Interview: China Miéville
By Cheryl Morgan
1 October 2001
China Miéville electrified the British SF scene in 2000. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards. His second, Perdido Street Station, a dark fantasy with SF undertones, did even better; it was nominated for both the British Science Fiction Association Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and won the Clarke. Had the book been available in the U.S. in its first year of publication it might also have made the Nebula and Hugo ballots. It is that good. Del Rey released Perdido in March 2001, and consequently American readers are now asking, "Who is China Miéville?" Strange Horizons has been to Britain to find out.
The first thing to note is that China is most definitely a "he." The name, he says, is a result of having hippie parents. He had childhood friends with names such as Cascade and India. By now, he's used to people mistaking his gender. Despite the earrings, they won't make that mistake once they've met him. With the unusual name go some unusual interests: China is currently studying for a doctorate at the London School of Economics. His chosen subject is the philosophy of international law. Like fellow British author Ken MacLeod, China has a passion for far-left politics. Unlike Ken, he is prepared to put his convictions on the line. He stood as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance (a grouping of far-left and Trotskyist organisations) in this year's British general election. One London newspaper dubbed him "the sexiest man in politics." He is not your typical fantasy writer.
This interview took place at the 2001 British National Science Fiction Convention. After the interview we spent about an hour discussing our common fascination with role-playing games, but that's another story.
Cheryl Morgan: So, the obvious first question is, how did you get into writing?
China Miéville: I always read. I wasn't a fan as such, I didn't know about conventions. But I always read magazines like Interzone, and SF columns in White Dwarf, and so on. And I used to write, short stories and whatever, all of which got rejected from Interzone, quite rightly. When I went to university I began to get more serious about things, and because my time was fairly flexible I was able to work on a novel. I don't know how people write books and hold down a 9 to 5 job. In writing a novel I learned a lot and there was a qualitative change in my writing, so I got an agent and it all went from there.
Cheryl: You mentioned White Dwarf (Games Workshop's house magazine). That indicates a background in role-playing. Has that been an inspiration to you in your writing?
China: It has. I used to play a lot of games, between the ages of about 10 and 13. I haven't played them for about 12 to 13 years and I have no interest in playing them again, but I have a great interest in them as a cultural phenomenon. I quite often buy and read game manuals because I am interested in the way that people design their worlds, and how they decide to delineate them.
Cheryl: That doesn't come over in your writing. There is no way anyone would read Perdido and think, "this is a D&D adventure write-up."
China: I think the sort of stuff I write is a sort of hybrid between Mike Harrison and role-playing. Harrison's work is definitionally fluid, you can't really grasp the worlds he creates, but I'm doing a sort of Mike Harrison role-playing game. I have tried to write like Harrison, but at the same time I have rigidly defined the secondary world. You could give most of the characters in my world stats.
Cheryl: Have you done a Tolkien on us? Can we expect a series of books detailing the background to the Perdido Street Station world?
China: I would love to do that kind of thing. I've got voluminous notes that go way, way beyond the scope of the book. I know all the history and all the races and all the geography and stuff. If someone were interested in it I would love to see it published.
Cheryl: The look of your books, they way that they are packaged, suggests that they are horror novels. The settings for both King Rat and Perdido Street Station are very much fantasy-oriented. And yet Perdido is also a science fiction book in many ways. Its hero, Isaac, is a scientist and, despite the 19th century feel of the setting, there are cyborgs and an artificial intelligence. Did you deliberately set out to create a new genre?
China: I didn't set out to do anything particularly new, but it is true that I am conscious of writing in a tradition that blurs the boundaries between three fantastic genres: supernatural horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I have always been of the opinion that you can't make firm distinctions between those three.
The writing that I really like is what has been called "weird fiction." If people ask me what I write, that is the label I give them. The weird fiction axis of people like Lovecraft, Lindsay, Clarke Ashton Smith, and William Hope Hodgson exists at the intersection and you really can't say that it is horror not fantasy, or fantasy not science fiction, or whatever. It is about an aesthetic of the fantastic; you alienate and shock the reader. That's what I really like.
Cheryl: Is there anything else in the science fantasy field that has inspired you? Moorcock, for example. And I was reminded particularly of two of Mary Gentle's books, Rats and Gargoyles and The Architecture of Desire, both of which have a similar feel to Perdido.
China: The science fantasy which looms largest in my head consciously -- which I think is an important distinction because a lot of this stuff is lurking around subconsciously -- is Gene Wolfe. Rats and Gargoyles I enjoyed very much. I liked the setting and the fact that it didn't whitewash urban life. It has strikes and civil conflict and stuff. Moorcock? I think we are all post-Moorcock. So in a way, yes, but it is so deep and penetrating that I'm not at all conscious of it.
Cheryl: In my humble opinion you can't pick better inspiration than Wolfe.
China: Well yes, he's a god. It is to the mainstream's eternal shame that they haven't recognised him. He is one of the great living authors.
Cheryl: Michael Swanwick said recently that Wolfe is the greatest living writer in the English language.
China: For me it's a toss-up between him and Harrison. Wolfe has an authority and scope that is more sweeping, but Harrison has this wonderful way in which he intersects emotion, loneliness, and language. I wouldn't want to choose between the two.
Cheryl: One of the things I love about Wolfe is the way that he lays little clues. He'll mention something in passing but you won't see the full import of it until several chapters, or maybe even a book or two later. Are you doing that sort of thing with your writing? Will later novels expand on a theme you introduced as a passing idea in Perdido?
China: There is certainly stuff that will be picked up. The scale of Wolfe's operation is enormous and can be quite daunting. There's this puzzle element to it. I don't have the mind to do that. But I am trying to give the impression of a much wider scope that is outside the boundaries of the book. If you don't notice it then it doesn't matter, but if you do it gives this impression of back text which is something that Harrison does very well in his Viriconium books and I think is very powerful. Of course it is also important that the books all stand alone as well.
Cheryl: Yes, that's one of the problems I have with Wolfe. I would love to nominate his books for awards, but each individual book is generally only understandable within the wider context of the series.
China: I'm trying not to do that.
Cheryl: King Rat begins with the hero arriving in London on a train. Perdido is named after a railway station. Are trains something of a passion for you?
China: It is more railway architecture. What it is, basically, is that I spent a lot of my youth at skyline level on a train coming in and out of London. You have the towers and chimneys poking up around you, and that is very, very impressive.
Cheryl: Politics is clearly a very important part of your life.
China: I'm a member of the Socialist Alliance: an actual, genuine Trotskyist.
Cheryl: I noticed that your group of left-wing intellectuals in Perdido had a distinct New Labour feel to them. Lots of concern and posturing but not a lot of commitment: very Tony Blair.
China: Well there's no point in being coy about it. As a writer you are in this Bohemian milieu which has some very wonderful things about it, but does have this very abstract relationship with politics. All leftist writers and artists for the last 150 years have had to mediate that. I think that is why a lot of leftist artists are attracted to anarchism, because it is a more individualist philosophy. For myself, I try to put up something of a firewall between my writing and my political career.
Cheryl: I notice also that in Ken MacLeod's books the revolution is often rather romantic, whereas in Perdido the vodyanoi strike was brutally crushed and people died nastily.
China: Just because you are a leftist writer doesn't mean that you have to be into propaganda. I would never try to convince someone of socialism through my novels. It would probably make a very bad novel, and a very bad case of socialism. Nevertheless, you do want to have some sort of political texture to the books.
I think that if, as a leftist, you write about how the revolution succeeds gloriously then it is extremely hard to not get all Maoist and write stuff like, "Onwards for the Glorious Vodyanoi Strike!", you know. I think there are writers who have done it well -- Banks for example. But I'm not good at it, so what I do is give the books a political texture that is quite realistic, cynical, and brutal. I would love to write an upbeat, positive political novel, and as soon as I think I am up to it I will, but not yet.
Cheryl: Then of course you have the problem of what happens after the workers have won.
China: I have had some long conversations with a friend about this. You know in Star Wars there were originally supposed to be nine films, but they dropped the plans for the three sequels. What do you write about after the rebels have won? Are you going to have three films about running crèches?
Cheryl: Or in which Luke Skywalker becomes a dictator?
China: Very few of the great socialist writers have spent a lot of time writing about the post-revolutionary state, and they have got a lot of flak for that, but I do think it is very hard to do.
Cheryl: One aspect of Perdido that is very clearly painted is the difference in culture between the various races that inhabit New Crobuzon. You describe how the cactus-people have created a ghetto to live in, and how the mingling of races has affected the cultures of the khepri and the city-dwelling garuda.
China: One of the things about genre fantasy that I loathe is that race becomes a pigeonhole for a character type. Your elf is kind of deft and mysterious, and your dwarf is always grumpy but the salt of the earth, and it becomes a way of defining character rather than actually dealing with culture.
What I wanted to do with Perdido was have a book in which the characters were much more malleable and culturally mediated. And what that meant was that cultures would not be distinct hermetic balloons, they were going to taint each other. And also, very importantly, that individuals of all races, not just humans, could reject their culture, could feel at odds with their culture, but are still going be to defined by it in some way.
Cheryl: Which is just what happens to your heroine, Lin.
China: Lin's relationship with her culture is very important in the book. She doesn't fit in with traditional khepri culture that she has abandoned, but she can't fit in with human culture either because of her khepri upbringing. She is discomforted in both of them. And that's an attempt to write a bit more realistically about culture than some other genre writers.
Cheryl: I think that is something that is long overdue.
China: Another thing that is very important here is stereotyping. One of the things that is dangerous about genre fantasy and science fiction is that ethnic stereotyping is true. It is absolutely the case that trolls are stupid and bad and like to smash things up. What I have tried to do in Perdido is have an idea of culture that is both constraining and enabling, but doesn't describe you in cold genetic terms.
I have also tried to show that when expected cultural behaviour breaks down the ideology of stereotyping tries to maintain itself. That's what racism does. The vodyanoi in the book have a culture that tends to make them quite surly and grumpy to the outside eye. But that isn't a necessary part of their genetic make-up, and when the humans find a vodyanoi who is not like that they tend to say, "all vodyanoi are grumpy except my mate so-and-so." That is a standard racist line. The way that stereotyping tries to negotiate its own patent untruth fascinates me.
Cheryl: One thing that particularly fascinated me about the book, and I was disappointed that you didn't spend more time on it, was the garuda philosophy. The free garuda in the Cymek desert have this militant attitude to personal responsibility to go along with their personal freedom. It sounded like something that libertarians should read.
China: It was very important to me. One of the things that angers me about politics is the way that the individual has been claimed for the right. I accept that the right has this notion of the individual as an abstract political entity, and I accept that some leftists have a quite vulgar notion of the individual being unimportant. But I think that individuals are very important. And by individuals I mean real people that understand their own nature, not as an abstract, but as something that exists within a social matrix. With the garuda I tried to come up with a society that was radically communist, and because of its communism treats the individual with great seriousness and respect. I didn't write a lot about it at the time because, as I have said, it is very difficult to write about radically different societies, but I hope to come back to it at a later time.
Cheryl: I hope you do come back to it. I find that sort of imaginative approach to political thought very refreshing.
China: When I first started the book the core of it was not the narrative arc that you see now, but the political arc created by the garuda character, Yagharek. I was interested in the notion of a crime that was unthinkable to a member of another society. That Isaac could just not get his head round what Yagharek had done wrong. What could possibly be so bad that they would cut off his wings?
Cheryl: The area of politics in the book where I didn't quite follow the argument was the cyborgization. You have two areas there: the cyborg cult, and the cyborgization of criminals.
China: I wasn't particularly conscious of playing with themes in those sections. With the Remade, the punishment by cyborgization, that was partially to do with my love of grotesquerie. I was trying to think of a really horrible punishment. The political edge to it was about the way that in our society criminals are violently pathologized. I was trying to show how we make criminals into creatures of horror, regardless of what they have done or why they did it.
Cheryl: And the crime lord, Motley, who really is evil, has made himself into a monster.
China: As for the cyborg cult, I'm very sceptical about religion so I tried to create a religion that seemed plausible but was actually kind of mad.
Cheryl: The one area of the book that is quite mystical is the vodyanoi watercraeft. That actually sounds like they are doing magic, whereas everything else seems at best alchemical, if not plainly scientific.
China: There is no distinction between science and magic in the Perdido world. There is, categorically, by our standards, magic. What the vodyanoi do is magic, and the academic discipline called Thaumaturgy in the book is magic as we would understand it. But what I was trying to do was scientize magic so that within this world magic is basically another kind of energy. Magic has strange rules, but they are as exact and quantifiable as physical rules. So if you are a scientist in this world you might be a biologist, a physicist, or a thaumaturgist. Isaac dabbles in everything.
Cheryl: That sounds like a role-player's view of magic. It is magic as a game system rather than a mystical force.
China: Well, maybe. I don't have any problem with magic as a real force in my world. I would have trouble writing fantasy if I did. But I do have trouble with magic when it is just used to sidestep the narrative. You know, when you don't know what to do you just throw in a bit of magic.
Cheryl: Does that mean that you don't approve of the mythic style of fantasy writing?
China: Not entirely. In King Rat, for example, the characters are very much mythic. They are animal archetypes. I have no problem with that at all, though I find it hard to write that way. What I don't like is when narrative is mythically structured. I think Neil Gaiman at his best undermines that very well. But it is one reason why I don't like Lord of the Rings or the Narnia books. They have no sense of narrative as being an organic thing created by the actions of individual people. It is all predetermined.
Cheryl: Perdido Street Station has received a lot of praise. It has been one of the hot favourites for Britain's two premier SF book awards . That's quite an achievement for your second novel. That must be a bit scary.
China: I have been really stunned by the reaction, and very, very moved by it. It has been very literally beyond my wildest dreams. It has been a fantastic year, but it is frightening and it has made me very nervous about writing the new book.
Cheryl: Are you afraid that there will be some sort of backlash?
China: Ultimately one's job as a writer is to keep readers turning the pages. I would be sad if people say, "oh he's really lost it," with the new one. But if they say, "well, it wasn't as good as Perdido but I really enjoyed it all the same," that's OK.
Cheryl: The new book is called The Scar, and it is due out when?
China: I think it is due out February 2002.
Cheryl: In the U.K.?
China: Yes, but I think it is coming out pretty much the same time in the U.S.
Cheryl: Where do you see your career going from here?
China: There are specific books I want to write, and other projects I would like to pursue. One day I would very much like to draw a comic. I am a very slow artist, so it will take a long time, but I would like to do it. I would like to do more music too. But as long as I can make a living writing novels, there's nothing I'd rather do.
Cheryl: The world of Perdido struck me very much as something that you might find in a comic strip in Heavy Metal.
China: I tend to think visually, and when I am writing something like Perdido, I tend to veer between graphic novel and film. The action scenes I tend to see very filmically. Descriptive scenes I tend to think of as long, bleak panels in a comic strip.
Cheryl: Do you have an interest in movies?
China: I would dearly love someone to turn King Rat into a film. Perdido would be much harder, but I think King Rat would work very well and without too much difficulty. I would love to act in film, but then who wouldn't? I'm holding out for a part in Buffy.
Cheryl: China, thank you for talking to Strange Horizons.
Cheryl Morgan is the editor of the online science fiction and fantasy book review magazine Emerald City.
Read the Strange Horizons review of Perdido Street Station.