Issue #S4 - May 2003
You can always tell an author who produces work that is genuinely innovative and exciting, because of the queue of people asking where they can find "more like this". This Wiscon has a panel on that very subject. I’m on it. But China Miéville has gone further than that. He’s in serious danger of founding a literary movement. The New Weird, they are calling it. The "weird" bit comes from China’s habit of describing his work as "weird fiction". The "new" is a direct reference to the New Wave movement of the 60s and 70s that was led by Michael Moorcock and China’s literary hero, M. John Harrison.
Whether the New Weird is a real literary movement, whether it is simply a bunch of people wanting to write like China, or whether it is a clever marketing gimmick that will allow us to bring a lot of very good writers to the attention of the book-buying public is, as yet, undecided. But there is no doubt that China Miéville is a phenomenon. "Battleship Miéville", as Harrison jokingly refers to him, has taken the notoriously snobbish British literary world by storm and forced them to consider a genre writer seriously. He has had a quicker introduction to the US market than any British writer I can remember. And now he is here at Wiscon. You should, of course, go and listen to him speak — as often as possible. But for those of you who have yet to catch up to the Miéville bandwagon, I have prepared this special collection of my articles about China and his work. Enjoy!
In this issue
Rodent Royalty – China’s first novel, King Rat
Streets of Darkness – The book that made his name, Perdido Street Station
In His Own Words – an interview with China that I did for Strange Horizons
Deep Cuts – One of this year’s Best Novel Hugo nominees, The Scar
London Falling – From PS Publishing’s fine range of novellas, and recently anthologized in Cities, The Tain
Cracks in the Walls – China’s short story, Foundation, appeared in a mainstream venue
Footnote – the end
In a grimy tenement in North London, Saul's father has just died. Well, to be precise, he has just jumped, or been pushed, out of the window and has ended up an ugly mess on the pavement. Saul doesn't know this yet. He is asleep. But one of the neighbours has called the Police and they are already on the way. Being the only plausible suspect, Saul is about to be arrested. But Inspector Crowley and his men are in for a surprise. Saul doesn't know this yet, but he has a surprising benefactor.
I can squeeze between buildings through spaces you can't even see. I can walk behind you so close that my breath raises gooseflesh on your neck and you won't hear me. I can hear the muscles in your eyes contract when your pupils dilate. I can feed off your filth and live in your house and sleep under your bed and you will never know unless I want you to.
Many years ago in a small town in Germany the citizens made a fatal mistake. They made a contract with a madman, and then tried to renege on it. The plague of rats that afflicted them was cured, to be sure, but it was only when they refused payment that they discovered the real power of the musician they had hired to help them.
What kind of maniac will take the life of every child in a town as punishment for their elders' misdeeds? The rats would doubtless say it is the same sort of maniac that would kill hundreds of thousands of their brethren without a qualm. It was the greatest disaster of rat-kind. King Rat has not forgotten. He has skulked and pondered and planned, and now at last he believes that he has the weapon he needs to strike back. But the Piper has not been idle either. He too has learned from the modern world, and he won't be the pushover that the Rat Lord had hoped.
Many people have been recommending Perdido Street Station, China Miéville's latest novel, to me, but I figured that I should read his other book first. For a debut novel, King Rat is hugely impressive. Miéville's liquid prose oozes from the page as dark and suffocating as a London fog, wrapping you in seemingly insubstantial tendrils, creeping upon you in silence, until it is all there is and it has become your world. Boy, this guy is impressive. The book is, perhaps, a cute short story idea that has been padded out, albeit succulently, to make a novel, but it is glorious reading all the same.
Two things occurred to me as I read it. The first Miéville himself acknowledges in the book. King Rat is the character that Batman ought to have been. He is a far better Dark Avenger than anything Frank Miller ever created. He has amazing powers, he is quite mad, and he owns the night streets the way a bat never could.
The other resonance concerns the Piper, and is not acknowledged. There is another character in horror literature who plays the flute. He is a mad god who writhes ceaselessly in the centre of the universe dreaming of formless chaos. Wind City, the music that Miéville's Piper composes, is just the sort of tune he would have loved. Did Miéville have Azathoth's tuneless piping in mind when he created his Piper? Or had he just been listening to too much re-mixed Philip Glass? Maybe one day I will get to ask him, but for now I'm plumping for Azathoth.
Back with the book, however, King Rat is a fine dark fantasy and an excellent first novel. It is Jeff Noon without the drugs and with plenty of garbage. Miéville, I suspect, can do better, and everything I have been told about his latest work suggests that he has done so. There is a star in the making here. Watch this space, but in the meantime go take a walk in the sewers with King Rat. You won't regret it, and you won't forget him.
King Rat - China Miéville - Pan - softcover
This review was originally published in Emerald City #63For information about buying through Emerald City please click here.
Streets of Darkness
I have managed to avoid Perdido Street Station for quite a while. Lots of people whose judgement I really should listen to have been telling me to buy it. But the cover looked unappealing, and it was this huge fat fantasy thing, and I wondered if I couldn't just wait for the paperback. So I chickened out and read King Rat first, and it was good, but not awesome, so I continued to dither.
Perhaps I should have taken a look at some of the blurb. It might have meant something to me if I had seen that the author, China Miéville, had dedicated the book to Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison. It might have told me something about the sort of thing I could expect. On the other hand I might just have thought it incredibly pretentious. I mean, it is a bit like some young Italian painter dedicating his work to Michaelangelo and Leonardo. It is one thing to admire great craftsmen, it is another to emulate them. Miéville couldn't be that good, could he?
So then I began borrowing books from the local library, and this seemed like a good excuse to get the hardback after all. And I read, and I saw, and my jaw dropped, and I knew that I was in love.
I sleep in old arches under the thundering railtracks.
I eat whatever organic thing I find that will not kill me.
I hide like a parasite in the skin of this old city that snores and farts and rumbles and scratches and swells and grows warty and pugnacious with age.
New Crobuzon is not a pretty place, and it is anything but new. It squats monstrously on the confluence of the rivers Tar and Canker, filling them with effluent from its vast, multi-variant population and pollution from its huge, grinding, smoking thaumaturgical factories. It throbs tunelessly to the rhythm of trains and airships and corruption and crime. It is, I suspect, a lot like London.
Our hero Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is an outcast scientist, a dabbler in obscure disciplines such as vodyanoi watercraeft and Crisis Theory. He is middle-aged, fat, something of a rebel, and could be rather brilliant if only he could apply himself to something for long enough. He is very fond of his beer, and even more fond of Lin.
The lady is a khepri gland artist. The insect-headed females of her race are capable of digesting coloured berries and combining them with various natural secretions to make a fast drying paste with which they create fabulous sculptures. Lin, who is also a bit of a rebel, has forsaken traditional khepri styles and has become quite popular amongst human art lovers. In fact, she is rather too popular for her own good.
Of course Isaac and Lin have to keep their relationship secret. Other than amongst the free-thinking artistic community of Salacus Fields, cross-species relationships are deeply frowned upon. But soon their social embarrassment will become the very least of their problems. A mysterious, bird-headed visitor from the far deserts of Cymek, a terrifying client whom Lin dare not turn down, and accidental involvement in one of the many money-making schemes of the city government place our heroes, New Crobuzon, and all of its inhabitants, in very deadly danger.
If King Rat was a little short on plot, Perdido Street Station shows gloriously that Miéville has no great lack of skill in that department. Complex strands are woven together in the first half of the book, and resolve themselves into a fast-paced adventure in the second half. What the books do have in common is the same dark, grimy view of the world; gazing upwards from the interstices of city life and seeing "normality" for the complacent and/or corrupt mess that it is. Perdido Street Station is grotesque and grand by turns. It is overflowing with imagination and encrusted with centuries of deceit, exploitation and betrayal. It is remorselessly cruel and coldly merciless. It is amazingly fantastical and terrifyingly real.
It has, at times, rather too much to it. Lovers of doorstep fantasy novels will demand 7000 pages rather than the mere 700 they have been given, and even that will not be sufficient to explore the complexities of the world that Miéville has created. Of course exploring it in that way would doubtless burst innumerable bubbles of imagination and leave the setting dull and lifeless, but the pressures of publisher economics may force it to happen anyway.
Lovers of ideas on the other hand will nod happily at the way Miéville uses Isaac and Lin's relationship as a way of introducing the occasional gay character without raising an eyebrow. They will ponder on the nature of the legal system of the garuda from Cymek and consider the possibility of making the book required reading for all Libertarian theorists. They will compare the desperate hopelessness of New Crobuzon's social revolutionaries with the romanticism of Ken MacLeod, and they will wish that Miéville had more time to spend on all of these topics, instead of simply revelling in the joy of beautiful prose.
Is it the best book of the year? I don't know. Ash runs it pretty close, and in a way I'm rather relieved that neither is likely to make the final Hugo ballot so that I don't have to choose between them. But they are right there at the top of my list, and hopefully they will find their way onto yours as well. Perdido Street Station is not a book that will ever be a best seller. It is not Terry Pratchett, who manages to be clever as well as entertaining and populist. And it is most definitely not David Eddings or Anne McCaffrey. It makes no concessions to politeness and comfort reading and reinforcing the smug, self-satisfied preconceptions of its readers. Like one of Lin's sculptures, it cares little for convention, but it is darkly beautiful all the same.
From the other side of the cabin they saw the spectacularly darkening sky, made even more astonishing by a day in the reeking dun below New Crobuzon. The sun was gone, but only just. The sky was bisected by the skyrail that threaded through Flyside militia tower. The city was a layered silhouette, an intricate fading chimneyscape, slate roofs bracing each other obliquely before the plaited towers of churches to obscure gods, the huge priapic vents of factories spewing dirty smoke and burning off excess energy, monolithic tower blocks like vast concrete gravestones, the rough down of parkland.
Mervyn Peake, M. John Harrison, and now China Miéville. Long may he write! From now on, I get his books the moment they hit the shelves. American readers - there will be a trade paperback edition available from Del Rey in March. Don't miss it.
Perdido Street Station - China Miéville - Macmillan - hardcover
This review was originally published in Emerald City #65For information about buying through Emerald City please click here.
In His Own Words
China Miéville has electrified the British SF scene. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards. The 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. That's not bad for a new kid on the block. Had the book been available in the US in its first year of publication it might also have made the Nebula and Hugo ballots (the book did get a Hugo nomination in 2002 – Ed.). 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 product of having hippy parents. He had childhood friends with names like Cascade and India. By now he has got used to people mistaking his gender. Despite the earrings, they won't make that mistake once they have 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 is standing as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance (a grouping of far-left and Trotskyist organizations) in this year's British general election. London's Evening Standard 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 Cheryl and China spent about an hour discussing their common fascination with role-playing games. But that is another story.
Cheryl Morgan: So, the obvious question, 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 - Ed.). 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. Have 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 the three fantastic genres: supernatural horror, fantasy and SF. 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 SF, 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 recognized 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 is 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.
China: 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: Trains. 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 Workers Party: an actual, genuine Trotskyist.
Cheryl: I noticed that your 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 I do want to have some sort of political texture to the books.
China: 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 of…", 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 SF 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 behavior 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-an-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 of 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 skeptical 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 side-step 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. If you look at King Rat for example, the characters in that 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 favorites for Britain's two premier SF book awards and won one of them. 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 UK?
China: Yes, but I think it is coming out pretty much the same time in the USA.
Cheryl: And 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 Miéville, thank you for talking to Strange Horizons.
This interview originally appeared on Strange Horizons.
Around the time of last year's Eastercon I began hearing rumours about China Miéville's new novel. "It is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station", the story went, "but it takes place a long way away from New Crobuzon. In fact the whole book takes place on a ship. That's not going to work, is it? I mean, the best thing about Perdido is the city". Boy, were those rumours wrong.
OK, so they were right about the ship —well, ships anyway. The Scar does indeed take place entirely at sea. And why not? The sea, after all, has a long tradition of being the source of nameless horrors. Did I hear someone say "tentacles"? Yes, The Scar has horrors of the deep a-plenty, and of course it has so much more, including a fabulous city, and some wonderful characters.
The vessel called the Terpsichoria is newly out of New Crobuzon, bound for the far off colony of Nova Esperium. The passengers, such as they are, are all fleeing something. There are bankrupt businessmen, pregnant nuns, even former associates of the now notorious terrorist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin. But by far the bulk of its human cargo (not to mention khepri, cacatae and other sentient beings) cannot fairly be described as passengers, and they cannot flee anything. They are transportees, living effluent that New Crobuzon has chosen to use to fertilise a new land.
Bellis Coldwine is a passenger. She keeps her reasons for leaving New Crobuzon close to her chest, as she does everything else about her. It is generally the sweeter wines that are served cold, but Bellis is nothing but bitter. Nevertheless, fleeing though she may be, she loves her city with a passion, and when it seems it may be denied to her forever the prospect wounds her deeply and that wound does not heal.
Tanner Sack, on the other hand, is a transportee. He has already been punished once; a pair of tentacles was grafted to his chest in the punishment factories of New Crobuzon. But perhaps transportation is the kindest thing that could be done to the remade. A new world, a possibility of a new life, and of course the sea, which is the only place that Tanner can now feel at home.
Silas Fennec joined the Terpsichoria late, but more than anyone else aboard he is fleeing for his life, not to mention the lives of millions of others. Fennec is a spy, a secret agent in the pay of the government of New Crobuzon. He bears with him news of vital import to his masters, news of an impending invasion. Fennec is a highly trained, finely honed weapon, but even the best of blades cannot always act alone. Those who encounter Fennec will be marked by the experience forever.
Far out to sea, the Terpsichoria encounters a very different weapon. Uther Doul is no delicate stiletto like Fennec; he is the flashing cutlass of a pirate kingdom, an unstoppable blade that cuts the links between the Terpsichoria and New Crobuzon in an instant. Doul is a one-man killing machine. From the moment that they encountered him, the passengers, crew and cargo of the Terpsichoria were sundered from the world they knew and grafted into a very different one.
Chief amongst the rulers of that world are The Lovers. Pirates are a fractious bunch, and to rise to the top in such company requires ferocious intelligence, a weapon such as Uther Doul, and above all an unbridled passion for power. The Lovers have all of these things, but they are also a team, and teams can be broken, set against each other. Not these two, however, for their mutual devotion is plain to see, on their faces, their chests, their backs arms and legs. Newly, with each challenge, they confirm their fierce loyalty to each other and their cause by cutting each other. Their scars form chains of devotion and zeal.
The great pirate city of Armada sails before no winds; it is too heavy, and the legion of vessels that comprises it could never be co-ordinated to run a consistent course. Instead it drifts, part at the mercy of the currents, part in response to the gentle nudging of steamships and clockwork ships within its body. But always, now, it moves according to the whims of The Lovers. The Terpsichoria and its passengers are, for the most part, an annoying inconvenience encountered along the road to an ultimate goal that encompasses a mighty drilling rig, the greatest beast in the seas, and the legacy of the mighty and mysterious Ghosthead Empire.
Yet pirates, as I have said, are a fractious lot. The Lovers may direct Armada, but they do not control it utterly. Other forces are at work. A city of criminals, Armada throws the social order on its head. Peasants and servants can become captains; the remade are made free and equal; and even the undead may become kings. Brooding in his dark vessel, the vampir Brucolac watches the plans of The Lovers with unease. For him, Armada is a place of freedom, a city on which he is not just safe to roam the streets, but able to rise into the ranks of respected politicians. For him the indescribable powers of the long-dead Ghosthead hold little attraction if they mean risking the un-life that he enjoys. The vessels that make up Armada are lashed together with ropes and chains, but no such ties bind the city's leaders.
As you may have guessed by now, The Scar is another fantasy novel of stunning complexity and power. China, poor dear, is still coming to terms with the praise being heaped upon him, and was worried that his latest effort would disappoint. Not in this little corner of fandom, dear boy. The sense of awe is perhaps a little dimmed. I now have an idea of what to expect. But that expectation is far and above what I would anticipate from most other authors. I judge China against the likes of Gene Wolfe and M. John Harrison, and I do not find him wanting.
One criticism that many people had of Perdido Street Station was that it was too dense and difficult to get into. You can’t say that about The Scar. The writing is much tighter, the pacing faster at the beginning. With this one the action sucks you in quickly even if you are not one of those people who are seduced by elegant prose.
I think too in literary terms. As you may have noticed, the imagery of wounds and scars runs deeply throughout the book. So too do the references. From the intelligent crayfish to the great sea snails to a restaurant called Unrealised Time that is named after a famous plaza in Viriconium. It occurs to me too that the whole idea of a mysterious floating pirate city existing unknown to the rest of the world is just the sort of concept that Jules Verne might have produced. (I know, by the way, that many other books, including Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, have used the motif of a city of ships, but I'm sure that no one has used it as well as China.) As for the Island of the Mosquito People, it might have come straight out of Homer or the Arabian Nights.
Then too we cannot have a China Miéville book that does not include politics in some shape or form. Armada provides an excellent opportunity for China to display his understanding of political processes and mechanisms. Each district of the city has its own form of governance, from the Brucolac's enforced autocracy through The Lovers’ populist demagogy to the impotent democracy of Curhouse, all political life is there. And it goes without saying that China understands the dynamics of coups and revolutions.
But I have gone on for long enough. It should be enough to say that The Scar is a wonderful book but, as one of my friends wrote to me about it, "there is wonderful, and then there is China". My Hugo nominees list for 2003 has just been started. What more can I say?
The Scar - China Miéville - Macmillan - publishers' proof
This review was originally published in Emerald City #79For information about buying through Emerald City please click here.
China Miéville is better known for lengthy novels than for short fiction, but a writer of his class is likely to be a success regardless of what he tries his hand at, and so it has proved with novellas.
The latest offering from PS Publishing, The Tain, is nothing to do with cattle-raiding Irishmen. In this particular case the word means something entirely different. You can look the word up in a dictionary, but I advise you not to because it will tell you rather more about the background to the story than you might want to know at the start. What I can tell you is that Miéville based his story around an idea from one of those fabulous fragments that Borges produced. It is, of course, a considerable challenge to take an idea from the master of the world’s shortest fiction and turn it into a story, but Miéville manages magnificently as usual.
The story, such as I can tell you without spoilers, is about a London that has been invaded by fantastical creatures. Humanity has nothing that can stand against them, but one man appears to be immune to their attacks. There is one man in the whole of London that they are afraid of. The story will perhaps mean more to those of us who have lived in London and recognize the places that Miéville describes with such affection, but hopefully the emotion will get through to others as well. And remember, with Miéville you will not get anything like the expected ending.
The Tain - China Miéville - PS Publishing - softcover
This review was originally published in Emerald City #88For information about buying through Emerald City please click here.
Cracks in the Walls
British society has come a long way since the days in which all posh houses had a "tradesman’s entrance" around the side or back where working persons could enter the property without soiling the front door. Nevertheless, there are still places where the lower classes, for the most part, cannot go. One particular species of lower class persons is that group known as "genre writers". You know, those terrible science fiction and fantasy people whose books are full of spaceships and ray guns and elves and dragons. It is tripe, all of it. You would not allow one of them into a respectable literary venue. Well, not through the front door anyway.
Yet no longer, it appears: the fortress of Britain’s broadsheet newspapers has been breached. Jon Courtenay Grimwood has been chipping away at the fortifications for some time, getting quality reviews of SF works published in places like The Guardian. But it is a big step up from there to actually having a short story published. Newspapers, of course, don’t normally publish fiction. But the recently launched "metropolitan" supplement to The Independent on Sunday has taken the bold step of including short stories. And the even more bold step of accepting a tale from China Miéville.
The story, Foundation, is centered on a building inspector with a rare genius for listening to and diagnosing buildings. Got a crack in your wall? Call this guy in and he can tell you whether you should fill it and forget it, or whether you should start moving out now. He is never wrong, and the question of course is, how can he do this? As you might expect from a fantasy writer, the answer is not to be found in engineering.
I think this is the most Harrison-like piece of work that I have seen Miéville produce. In particular the lead character is most definitely a person who is afraid of what he knows, and becomes irrational because of it. That is a very Harrisonian theme.
I should also say that, as printed, this is not one of Miéville’s best pieces. Thanks to some rushed production schedules, Miéville’s final version of the story did not make it into the magazine. The version that was printed is a bit flabby. Miéville has kindly send me his final version, which is about 800 words shorter and much tighter. I hope it sees publication somewhere. However, wrong version or not, the publication of this story represents another huge crack in the curtain wall of the British literary establishment. Battleship Miéville strikes again.
By the way, the story is based on an actual event from the first Gulf War in which the American forces dealt with the enemy by the simple expedient of attaching ploughs to their tanks, rolling up the trenches, and burying the enemy alive. You can read more about the story here. As per the interview above, Miéville’s other life is as an expert in international law. He has seen academic papers debating whether or not this classes as "cruel and unusual punishment". Who needs horror stories when you have real life?
— We are full but hungry
— We eat only sand
Foundation - China Miéville – The Independent on Sunday - softcover
An abbreviated version of this review will appear in Emerald City #93
This has been Special Issue #04 of Emerald City, the official publication of the Send a Hugo to China Campaign. Vote China, you know it makes sense.
Love ‘n’ hugs,
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Cheryl Morgan - email@example.com