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Interview with China Miéville

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.

 

Q

The White Review

— … Does it bore you to have to answer questions about genre? The very notion of a critically-acclaimed fantasy writer is sometimes treated as exotic by the literary establishment – is that frustrating? I lapse into it because it is exciting and also slightly mortifying, for a reader like me, to read your works because they have to some degree penetrated the critical mainstream, and then to investigate further, and realise there is this whole field of great writing about which I know relatively little.

A

China Miéville

— No, having someone say what you just said is really moving, it means a huge amount. There are some questions that you resent having to answer, but generally what I do fear is becoming boring. One has to retire particular riffs. When I was younger I said various things about Tolkien, explaining in a swaggering, young, punky way why I disliked his work. Then, when I would go to conventions people began to say, ‘China, do the Tolkien thing!’ so you have to stop. It’s the same with some of the recurring themes in my fiction. I’m fanatically interested in rubbish, and I’m fanatically interested in cephalopods and houses and things like that, so I have to police myself. ‘No more cephalopods for three books, no more garbage until 2016,’ that sort of thing, because otherwise you risk self-parody.

Q

The White Review

— The influence of London on your work is another recurring theme. It’s always loomed large, from your debut novel King Rat, through many of the short stories collected in Looking For Jake, and most explicitly in London’s Overthrow. There seems to be a lot of London in the city-state of New Crobuzon, too, the setting for Perdido Street Station, the first of your Bas-Lag novels. Do you consider yourself to be a writer of London, in the same way that, say, Iain Sinclair could be considered a writer of London?

A

China Miéville

— I think so. London looms extremely large in society, it feels formative in the way that I neither can nor wish to escape from, and writers like Sinclair are hugely important to me. London’s one of those cities that filters a particularly intense and hallucinatory aesthetic and I feel very formed by that, I suspect I am very much a London writer. Writing London’s Overthrow was quite moving, quite affecting, because it was the first time I had explicitly addressed London in non-fiction.

 

I’m particularly interested in the city’s inclusions and its exclusions, in who gets left out of London. One thing about the tradition you’ve touched upon is that it is very gendered. The names that always crop up are Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Thomas de Quincey, Alan Moore… They are interesting and important writers, but where are Emma Tennant, Jane Gaskell, Mary Butts?

Q

The White Review

— Laura Oldfield Ford?
A

China Miéville

— Yes, I feel like her star is waxing, which is terrific, and I wonder if she’s going to start being mentioned in the same breath as those writers. It feels to me like a tradition that has been gendered for a long time, so I hope that the next phase of that lineage of London visionaries is to reclaim voices that should never have been left out….
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


China Mieville lives and works in London. He is three-time winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award and has also won the British Fantasy Award twice.

Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review