China breaks the wall

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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.

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