It is a cliché to say that a writer’s work resists classification. It is ironic then that China Miéville, among the most ambitious, imaginative and unconventional novelists at work in the world today, should so actively endorse his own writing’s categorisation by genre.
A three-time winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, Miéville has since the publication of his début novel King Rat in 1998 achieved a level of critical and commercial success that the literary establishment is apt to characterise as an ascent from the ghetto of genre fiction. Yet he remains avowedly a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and one among an increasingly influential group of authors operating outside the parameters of ‘literary fiction’, that most tautological and self-denying of styles. The energy, experimentalism and intellectual radicalism of novels such as Iron Council – described by the Washington Post as an ‘elegiac paean to utopian socialism, romantic revolutionaries and the European radical tradition’ – reminds us of the artificiality of any distinction between historic ‘genre’ writers such as Philip K. Dick, M. John Harrison or H. P. Lovecraft and those equally nonconformist fabulists such as Jonathan Swift, Jorge Luis Borges and J. G. Ballard who have been afforded the recognition of the canon.
The author of ten novels, including three works in the Bas-Lag series that takes its name from the fictional world in which it is set, Miéville’s recent masterpiece Embassytown typifies his ability to marry the construction of a fantastic universe to the exploration of an idea. This is a story about the dangerously intoxicating capacities of language, expressed in the prose of a writer himself in thrall to the possibilities offered by vocabulary, metaphor and simile. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote of the book that it ‘works on every level, providing compulsive narrative, splendid intellectual rigour and risk, moral sophistication, fine verbal fireworks and sideshows, and even the old-fashioned satisfaction of watching a protagonist become more of a person than she gave promise of being’. The same qualities are evident in The City and the City, which presents the reader with an urban landscape inhabited by two independent populations, each forced to ‘unsee’ the other or risk punishment by Breach. Its noir prose is allied to the narrative structure of a police procedural, while the atmosphere is of an Eastern European capital under occupation. Yet the work transcends these referents and frameworks to achieve a moral and intellectual complexity that renders most ‘realist’ fiction (another unhelpful term) lazy and insular by comparison.
A left-wing activist, Miéville ran unsuccessfully for parliament on behalf of the Socialist Alliance in London in 2001 and five years later published the self-explanatorily titled Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. In 2012 he published London’s Overthrow, an expanded, illustrated version of ‘Oh, London, you Drama Queen’, an editorial written in advance of the London Olympics for the New York Times. In person he is both patient and excitable, exhibiting the same generosity of spirit and wide flung intellectual curiosity that makes his writing so exhilarating.