China breaks the wall
LAST year was a significant one for China Mieville. The City And The City won him the Arthur C. Clarke award, science fiction’s most significant prize, for an unprecedented third time, and also brought mainstream critical applause. Kraken was published and his new novel, Embassytown, was in preparation. He marked the year with an armspanning tattoo of a “skulltopus”, a grinning skull swathed in vibrant tentacles, an image developed as a homage to the different traditions of the weird and fantastic from which his imagination springs.
Mieville, 39, has always worn his influences on his sleeve – H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, classic and new wave SF, fantasy, comics and the Dungeons And Dragons role-playing games he played as a kid – but from the start his books combined this love of genre, geeky in its enthusiasm and scholarly in its depth, with an ambitious literary sensibility.
Embassytown, published in August, takes that ambition to a new level. An investigation into culture shock and the links between language and thought, it’s the story of a backwater planet colonised by humans whose attempts to communicate with the alien “hosts”, who have no concept of lying, go very badly wrong. (See review opposite.)
But while the metaphysical implications of creatures for whom there is no gap between a word and its referent reach back to postwar linguistic philosophy, Wittgenstein’s philosophies on language and logic, and beyond, the original idea was of a dual-voiced alien, and it came to Mieville when he was 11.
“I have incredible fidelity to my own obsessions, which is a dignified way of saying arrested development,” he says. “I recently found the exercise book in which I’d written an early draft of what became Embassytown a quarter of a century later. It’s amazing how much these things don’t change.”
Mieville was born in Norwich, eastern England, in 1972, and but moved to the capital as a small child after his parents separated. After a couple of “very unhappy years” at a public school, followed by a gap year in Egypt and Zimbabwe, Mieville took up a place at Cambridge to read English, but finding the teaching “fairly hermetic and abstracted” swiftly switched to anthropology. It was the point at which, intellectually as well as politically, Mieville came into his own. A masters in international law at the London School of Economics followed, along with a year at Harvard. He later worked on a PhD in philosophy of law.
His first novel, King Rat, published in 1998, was a twisted version of the Pied Piper story set in London’s clubland, with drum’n’bass coursing through its prose. Mieville had been mapping out the alternate universe of Bas-Lag for 10 years before Perdido Street Station, a 900page slab of baroque fantasy, was published in 2000. It’s an extraordinary, sprawling world, powered by magic and steampunk technology, populated by humans, cactus-people, insectoid, amphibian and avian races, dripping with myths and monsters and menaced by repressivesive regimes. an author straddles the traditionally divisive gap between literary and genre fiction.
Michael Moorcock today compares it to “The funny thing is that for my least fantastic Peake’s masterpiece, Gormenghast. “What book, it started out of a very generic idea: a city distinguishes China’s invented world is the that was inhabited by two different species, complexity and detail he gives it – and the one a group of giants who were about three believability of its characters, whether they are times the size of everyone else. You would human or giant bugs.” have to have this concatenation of completely
Two more fat tomes followed: The Scar, a different buildings within the same city. That picaresque maritime adventure in which the got me thinking about the political ramificacity at the heart of the book is a floating comtions of two completely different communities munity of ships lashed together by pirates; living together. Slowly the fantastic started to and Iron Council, a politically charged Western bleed out, and the sociopolitical remained.” in which a train hijacked by revolutionaries The novel prompted comparisons with strikes out into the unknown. greats like Kafka and Philip K. Dick for its
The Bas-Lag books put Mieville at the foreexploration of arbitrary authority and indifront of a group of writers who blended science vidual disorientation, and has been read as an fiction and fantasy elements with horror and allegory of divided cities such as Jerusalem and pulp into what was enthusiastically labelled Berlin as well as the quotidian willed blindness the New Weird: dark, politically-aware urban of modern life. visions that explicitly rejected the consolatory, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Margaret escapist strain established by J.R.R. Tolkien and Atwood calls the book “an intricately detailed which typifies fantasy to many. metaphor for how we live today – ignoring
Mieville became “exemplary of a moment”, what is right there in front of us but ‘invisible’ he admits now. “For people who because we choose not to see it”. don’t know the field, I get used as The book had been conceived as a crime shorthand for interesting stuff going novel partly as a gift for his mother, a fan of on. You’d be kidding yourself if you detective fiction. Mieville wrote the first draft thought it was all down to your through her long illness, first with breast caninnate wonderfulness.” cer and then with leukaemia, a rare side effect
Yet from the beginning of his of the chemotherapy used to treat her cancer. career the literary mainstream also Her death in 2007, at the age of 58, hit him sat up and took notice, even if it was very hard. sometimes only to discount him. If The City And The City marked a new direcFor the 2003 Best of Young British tion, with a sparer prose and a more sombre Novelists issue, Granta editor Ian tone, Kraken, published shortly after, “felt like Jack namechecked Mieville as “an the end of something”. Mieville describes the extraordinary writer of dark fanbook, a riotous mixture of London lore, mestasy” but stopped short of including sianic cults and pop-cultural in-jokes, as “an him on the list. attempt to channel a sort of hopefully enjoy
Since Mieville began writing, able ill-disciplined exuberance that I felt I had the snobbery and divisions that been moving away from”. plague discussions of genre have The book opens with the disappearance of begun to weaken, as have the a giant squid from London’s Natural History lines between them. Museum. “There really is a preserved giant
“Although genres can be squid there. When I heard they had it I comfantastically insular, there’s a pletely lost my s***, as a cephalopod-fan. It felt lot of excitement both from to me like a bottled myth in this room. It was just so affecting.” It started with the squid, but soon “felt very much like a homage to everything I could think of. It’s probably the most whimsical book I would write.”
Embassytown is a much cleaner, more streamlined beast: Mieville knew he wanted to create a science-fictional universe this time, to carry the ideas about linguistics. He has also moved towards building up a sense of culture shock through withholding information rather than lathering on baroque descriptions.
“One of the things I like about SF is not knowing what’s going on. Nothing will ever breach my teratophilia, and I don’t want to seem to be moving away from the monsters, but it’s quite deliberate that in this book the descriptions of the aliens are very nebulous. It is about going into the words themselves, given that the whole book is about language and signification.”
As well as being “neurotically about language”, throwing in plenty of jokes about academics and linguistics, Embassytown is a sincere homage to its SF forebears. Mieville insists that “I would never disavow my generic tradition. Occasionally people say, ‘but you’re not really science fiction, you’re escaping the genre’. Not really! I know it’s meant nicely, but I would much rather operate as a conduit than an outlier.”
For Mieville, as for fans and critics in the SF field, genre is where the pulse of literature – the ideas, the excitement – is to be found. “The project of realism, the very name, shows it to be not merely hubristic, it’s absurd, it’s preposterous. Which bit? Which bit are you being realistic about?”
Increasingly, Mieville is a locus of critical hopes, and SF master Ursula K. Le Guin is quietly confident: “When he wins the Booker (the 2011 winner will be announced in London today – though Mieville was not nominated), the whole silly hierarchy will collapse, and literature will be much the better for it.” – Guardian News & Media 2011 within and without when things do bleed. It happened with cyberpunk, and in the early 1970s with New Worlds. We’re at a fairly good moment, where there is a lot of borrowing and openmindedness.” But although Mieville is frustrated by “the endlessly ar**-achingly expressed complaint from genre that no one takes us seriously”, he admits that slights from the mainstream continue. “‘When are you going to start writing proper literature, reading proper literature’.... When did the LRB (the venerable London Review Of Books) last do an article on the amazing cutting-edge stuff going on in SF?”
One recent development in the debate around genres is an increasing discussion of “litfic” as a genre in itself. As M. John Harrison, another of Mieville’s literary heroes, recently wrote in his blog, “The sooner literary fiction recognises and accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help.” Mieville heartily concurs: “I love genres; I think they are fascinating. My issue with litfic is not that it is a genre but that (a) it doesn’t think it is and (b) it thinks it’s ipso facto better than all the ones that are genres.
“Literary fiction of that ilk – insular, socially and psychologically hermetic, neurotically backslapping and self-congratulatory about a certain milieu, disaggregated from any estrangement or rubbing of aesthetics against the grain – is in poor shape.”
Mieville identifies Ian McEwan’s Saturday,Saturday set around the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq war, as a “paradigmatic moment in the social crisis of litfic”.
“In the early 2000s there was this incredible efflorescence of anger and excitement. ...It seemed to me that Saturday quite Bolshily said, ‘Okay, you accuse us of a neurotic obsession with insularity and a certain milieu. I’m going to take the most extraordinary political event that has happened in Britain for however many years and I am going to doggedly interiorise it and depoliticise it with a certain type of limpid prose. ...It was a combative novel that met that sense of there being a crisis and de-crisised it through its absolute fidelity to a set of generic tropes.”
Following a children’s novel, Un Lun Dun, based in a fantastic alternative London, 2010’s The City And The CityCity, an existential murder mystery set across two opposing eastern European cities that occupy the same physical space, played with a new generic tradition: crime.