China Miéville is one of Britain’s most acclaimed fantasy and sci-fi authors and three-time winner of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award. His fiction, which has drawn comparisons with the works of Kafka, Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft, includes the novels Perdido Street Station, The City & the City, Embassytown and Railsea; he is also the author of Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, based on his PhD thesis. His latest book is London’s Overthrow, a polemic on the state of the nation’s capital in the current climate of austerity. He discusses his genre-defying approach to writing, the banalisation of public space and sci-fi fandom.
MARIA DIMITROVA You said in an interview a few years ago that you are “in this business for the monsters”. How do you navigate your work being positioned between the realms of sci-fi and literary fiction? How do you balance the “monster business” with your heightened awareness of language? I’m thinking about Embassytown, for example, which is based on a linguistic concept.
CHINA MIÉVILLE Well, sometimes those things are perceived because of questions like this – the sense that something needs to be balanced. But a lot of the time I feel there is no balance here; there’s no anxiety or ambiguity for me. I don’t want to be disingenuous, I understand that there are different drives, but they overlap a lot, and for me fiction is very much about the coagulation of those drives. It’s not like: “I’ve done two really good monsters so now I get to fuck about with language.” I’ve always been interested in prose and trying to do things with prose, both as a reader and writer. It’s very telling that the aliens in Embassytown are not concretely described. There’s another point in my writing where I would have lovingly described those aliens and spent several pages itemising them. I do think that is simply a result of being interested in different wings of fiction – the pulp wing, the experimental wing – but also just the tradition that takes prose very seriously. There are plenty of writers within science fiction and fantasy horror whom I love passionately, but I would not say were the greatest stylists in the world; there are also some world-class stylists in the field, so there is nothing new about triangulating between those two tribes.
MD There seems to be an interest in doubling and doublespeak within your work, both thematically – the twin cities of Un Lun Dun and The City & the City – and linguistically. Is that approach conscious, and perhaps consciously meta-narrative?
CM It isn’t. People have pointed it out to me, and I had to go back in and was like: “Er...” Lots of mirrors and that sort of thing, in Perdido Street Station, for example. I’m very interested in the meta-narrative level but I also get twitchy with overly meta-narrative stuff. I don’t have very much patience, for example, with “fourth wall” breaking or the language games of Oulipo; I think they are fantastic but I find them interesting more as an influence than in their pure form. Something like doubling thematically is a way of literalising a very meta concept, so you get to inhabit the story world completely without breaking the walls. Parenthetically, a lot of people have described Railsea as breaking the fourth wall. I don’t think it does because the character who talks across the story to the reader lives in the world of the book and everything the narrator says is about that world; so at best it’s breaking a third-and-a-half wall or something.
MD Your fiction seems to focus more often on landscapes in decline than on shiny futuristic visions. There was a similar approach in your 2011 polemic London’s Overthrow, describing inequality and austerity in London before the Olympics. Where does this interest in revealing the hidden and the discarded come from?
CM It would be lovely to claim to be doing something wildly new or innovative, but I have to say in all humility that the tradition of rejectamental landscapes is not new. Most of the London writers who are of interest to me, right back to Dickens and before, it’s all about piles of waste and trash. I think that sense of the discarded as part of a landscape, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is a kind of repeating concern, and for obvious aesthetic and political reasons. It’s about addressing a certain type of official narrative, a narrative of shiny-clean. I think this took a leap under Blairism, and we are still in the aftermath of Blairism. There was something fantastically degraded and banal and corporate about the Blair vision of the sublime city as this kind of drab, middlebrow shopping precinct. However, I think it has also been quite hegemonic and has shifted the landscape of the city in quite a dramatic way, strengthening the shiny-happy narrative. That narrative is never wholly convincing, though, so I think accentuating the grimy and the disavowed in art and fiction can be kind of a cliché or a truism.
MD The theme of riots and protests and oppressed minorities is at the heart of many of your novels. How do you feel about the protests occurring around the world?
CM Are you thinking of Taksim Square?
MD Yes, especially in relation to your discussion of public spaces being taken over in London’s Overthrow.
CM It won’t surprise you that, generally speaking, I would be excited about and stand in solidarity with those groups. But at the same time things are pretty bad. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, one of the great shocks is not that these movements are happening but that neoliberalism is still so strong. It should be on its fucking knees. Of course, I’m delighted by those movements and I welcome them, but I don’t want to get too ra-ra about them. It seems to me that there are opportunities being missed and there is work to be done. The thing I do find very interesting about Taksim Square is the way relatively contingent political things cause these great eruptions. The specific issue of closing down and reconfiguring the park has very much to do with the banalisation of a publicly owned space. Neoliberalism seems to be entering into a kind of increasingly degraded form aesthetically. Something like Canary Wharf, evil and vile as it is, has a certain kind of hauteur, a fuck-you grandeur to it; now there are these drab, mid-level things of the soul that don’t even have the decency to be spectacularly evil. I’m hoping the closing down of public space, and green space, will also challenge the way we think about ecology, not just as an abstract notion of saving the planet but as a lived experience of space within cities as well as outside cities – one that is massively inflected by class, and indeed race and gender, but particularly class.
MD You quit the Socialist Workers Party earlier this year, amid a controversy over rape allegations against a Party member. How do you feel about left-leaning political structures today?
CM In terms of the meltdown of the SWP, I don’t know what there is to say beyond what I’ve already said. There are plenty of people still within it whom I’m close to politically and whom I have nothing but respect for. But at the same time, it reached a point where I was very angry. The way this whole issue was dealt with made me realise that things had become much worse than I thought, for reasons to do with both the specifics around gender and also very much to do with accountability and democracy. No one should take any pleasure from this, no one on the left anyway. But I’m quite hopeful that this is part of an important self-examination that’s going on around the world. I mean, the way it went down was hideous and ugly and so on, but it does represent an opportunity to engage in some self-examination that I think is incredibly necessary for the left.
MD You are going to be the Master of Ceremonies at the World Fantasy Convention 2013 this autumn. How involved are you in the sci-fi/fantasy subcultures and fandom?
CM Not very, is the short answer. I did not come to science fiction through fandom; I didn’t know fandom existed until I was a professional writer. I knew a lot about science fiction and fantasy, but I wasn’t a fan in the sense of going to conventions. Since becoming a writer, obviously, I’ve become much more closely involved and have been to a reasonable number of conventions; it can be very enjoyable, very fun. I’m often struck by the seriousness of the level of discussion of the books; it puts a lot of the discussions at literary festivals to shame. That’s not a rhetorical trick, it’s absolutely true and I value that hugely. But I’m not involved in the micro-politics of the scenes and all that; I’m a kind of warm-hearted outsider. I have a lot of affection for fandom, I have a lot of respect for it, but it’s not my natural habitat. I don’t think anything else is my natural habitat instead, though. §