China Miéville – award winning novelist of the new weird

On the sunny afternoon of Monday 20th August, shortly before he was due to take the main stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in conversation with Patrick Ness, acclaimed novelist and three time winner of the Arthur C Clarke award China Miéville was kind enough to sit with Geek Chocolate to discuss the origin of his most recent novel, Railsea, his second aimed at younger readers, his work on the revived Dial H for DC Comics, the streets of London, the footsteps of Lovecraft, the shadow of Tenniel and the lure of videogames, among other matters. At China’s request, we warn that there may be minor spoilers contained herein.

Geek Chocolate – First up, and most immediate, in your last novel we took a trip on the Railsea, which was very well received. The most obvious influence was Moby Dick, but there was a lot more in there. How did it come about, and have you been pleased by the response?

China Miéville – Well, I’ve certainly been pleased by the response. I’m profoundly not indifferent to what people think. I want people to like them. I don’t mind people wrestling with books, and you can enjoy books even if you tussle with them, but the fact that it got quite positively reviewed and people enjoyed it for the most part is lovely.

How it came about was just a silly joke I thought about, because Moby Dick, it’s this monolith, and there are so many riffs on Moby Dick, it’s been done so many times and I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I just imagined Moby Dick only with a mole, and I just thought it was funny because it’s so ridiculous, but you know one of the schticks I like to try and do is think of something ridiculous and then do it with a totally straight face and try and actually make it not ridiculous for the purpose of the book.

And then, following from that was this notion of, if Moby Dick, the analogue is a mole, how are you going to chase him? And so it’s got to be a land vehicle, and I went for trains because it was slightly more counterintuitive because they feel constrained and the whole point is you have to go everywhere, and land carts would have been a bit easier. Then once you’ve done that then you imagine how could you have rails such that a train could go anywhere. And once that resonance had come up I wanted to make it a riff on maritime fiction, and so basically the whole thing is predicated on two gags, mole for a whale and train for a ship. And then, as you say, it’s not just Moby Dick, there’s lots and lots of maritime literature, I just sort of enjoyed throwing in references, so in what I don’t mean in a flip way, it’s based on two jokes.

GC – Although not credited, I recognise the illustration style as yours.

CM – Yeah, that’s me, I did the pictures.

GC – A very technical question would be, if the burrowing creatures were already inhabiting the land, seizing the unwary, how was the railsea actually built?

CM – I have two answers to this. One is, I have my theories, the other is, I don’t really care. I mean, I know there are people for whom that kind of thing pushes them right out of the book and they can‘t enjoy it, fair enough. I don’t really mind. I could spin you an answer, and I hope it would be plausible enough, but part of the pleasure is that I try not to get too bogged down with essentially things that happen off camera, as it were. Also there’s nothing in the book that suggests that, it’s perfectly possible the rails were there before the animals.

I think it’s a particular thing we have in geek culture which is the desire to cross all Ts and dot all Is both on an offstage, and I think it’s actually a real problem. I’m not using it as carte blanche, sometimes, like I say, it pushes you out of a book, but as a generalisation, you don’t have to understand everything that’s going on. How much of everyday life do you understand? There’s plenty of things happen in real life that one doesn’t understand but one knows happen and it’s plausible enough, so I never mind not knowing the reasons for things so long as I’m lost in the book.

GC Railsea is probably one of your more commercial novels, as you are often quite wilfully uncommercial in your writing, and yet have a stack of awards weighing down your shelves.  How do you fit into the publishing industry as it stands at the moment? Is there pressure to be more conformist?

CM – I’m interested that you think Railsea is more commercial. It’s an interesting question, and this is going to sound disingenuous, and I swear to god I just don’t tend to think about that axis of commercialism, because I think I’ve been very lucky because I’ve always been tremendously supported by my publishers. I know it’s traditional to curse and moan about publishers and how they’re only in it for the buck, and I’ve been very lucky. No, I’ve never had any pressure put on me, and I think the people that like the stuff I do enough to buy it like what I do and the way I do it, and if I tried to do something else for more people, there’s every chance I would fuck it up, and I wouldn’t be being me.

I’m often surprised by what is successful and what is not. I suppose I knew that Iron Council was in some ways a “difficult book,” so that’s probably by some way, I would think, the least commercially successful book, but it’s also the one I’m probably proudest of. Railsea, I’ve actually been really delightedly surprised, because I had a lovely time writing it, but I was trying to play around with the language a bit and so on, and I think people are much more accepting of games and language play than sometimes they get credit for.

I think I’ve been really lucky. I don’t tend to worry about commercialism one way or the other because I haven’t had to. I can make a living doing what I do at the moment, and as long as that continues, that’s great, and if it stops, okay, well it was a good run, you know?

GC – In your preceding two novels, Kraken and Embassytown, Billy and Avice are very much passive narrators, observers of events that they are drawn into, only taking actions later in the novels. Was that a conscious dramatic choice, because you felt it suited the mood of the novels, or do you see yourself as a more mellow commentator these days than the man who once stood for Parliament representing the Socialist Alliance?

CM – No, I don’t think I am more mellow, I think I get more and more pissed off the older I get.

I would also make a big distinction between Billy and Avice. I don’t think of Avice as a kind of passive protagonist at all. I’m not trying to police reader’s responses, but for me, she’s someone who for very particular reasons is misleading even to herself about her own actions, and so I would query the terms of the question.

That said, it’s a very common trick to have a fish out of water who spends the first third not really knowing what’s going on, and certainly with Billy in Kraken I couldn’t see any other way to do it. I wanted that sense of being buffeted from pillar to post. You know, it doesn’t work for everyone, but I was much more aware I wanted him to be a little bit of a Hamlet, not really engaging, and then a certain kind of shift later on that I hope is more interesting because of that.

Avice is a very different thing. There are protagonists that I do want to be more observers. It really varies project to project.

GC – A theme that is consistent in all your novels is cooperation – people from different backgrounds pulling together to overcome a threat. I get the feeling that is something close to your heart. Do you feel this is something we could learn to do better in the real world?

CM – I guess. It’s not exactly a very original thought, it’s one of the standards of Sesame Street, they had whole sections about cooperation, and by that name. Actually it depends with whom, cooperating with whom, there are people I have no interest in cooperating with, there are people with whom I think we should cooperate much less. It totally depends on the context. I’m very pro-solidarity rather than cooperation, and solidarity among certain people, but I don’t want to map it too narrowly on the fiction, in the fiction you’re trying to do a different job.

But cooperation in the abstract, in the way that you’re asking it, I think is not something that I find terribly useful because, as I say, it totally depends with whom and for what purpose, and for how long, and all that sort of thing. I don’t have a general line on cooperation.

GC – Reading Railsea, the relationship with technology, the way it is described, made me think of Arieka, that this may have been a failed colony world cut off from the immer, even the word railsea is a compound name like embassy/town. Again, do they coexist in your head, and may you even visit them again in the future, as both finish just as the characters are about to take off in a new direction.

CM – Well, there’s two different questions there, the question of whether they exist in the same universe… No. I mean, I could spin it, but no. As to whether or not I go, back, it’s possible. I thought of Embassytown as, I won’t say the first in a series, but the setting, what I think of as the immerverse, is something that I could definitely go back to many times, and I may. I’m very unlikely to write a narrow sequel. I would need a lot of convincing to write a sequel to anything I do, I’m not saying I never would, but it would say it would take a lot, because to return, the bar has to be higher to make it worthwhile doing.

With Railsea, again, it’s possible, you know there are two different levels of the world we haven’t been to yet, so there are ways. I certainly am not averse to the idea, but I think if you need ten amount of oomph to write a book, my feeling is you should probably have fifteen amount of oomph to write a sequel to that book, and then twenty five, it should get exponentially more to write a threequel, and so on and so forth.

GC – Similarly, there is a very specific line in Un Lun Dun about a book written in kraken ink, and in the early chapters the animals demonstrate an awareness of the Shwazzy and the events taking place, much as the familiars do in Kraken. Can those two novels be considered as part of a greater whole?

CM – Well, the thing is, I kind of don’t care, in the sense that there are trips and tropes and ideas and images that occur to you and that you like, and you might put them in. Un Lun Dun has a reference to something from one of my adult short stories. I like putting little nods and references and stuff, but the question of “do they exist in the same universe,” as far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of a meaningless question to me. It’s kind of like when people say about Angel or Buffy or whatever, what happened after the end credits on the last episode of Angel, nothing happened, they all went home. They’re actors. The story for me is very much contained within the text. So on the one hand the answer is no, I don’t think of them as in the same universe, but on the other hand that’s not because I think they are not in the same universe, it doesn’t concern me, what I am doing is trying to write something very specific for that book and that particular moment.

The Bas-Lag books are slightly different from that perspective in that they are very self-consciously part of the same universe, but the others, it would never be that hard to tie things in, but I don’t see what the value add would be. So I tend to like the idea of a proliferative fractal of different possibilities. Even when I young, I’m a huge Michael Moorcock fan, but I was always made very anxious by his eternal champion stuff, because I found the idea of all these texts interconnecting quite troublesome in the sense that first of all I could never contain the totality of them – and this is deliberate, it’s not a criticism of him – and secondly I find it very hard, and this is not Moorcock in particular, but I find the sense of everything fitting in in a jigsaw way contains this strange embedded structural moralism that troubles me, so I much prefer the contingent specificity to each book, on the whole.

GC – And speaking of ink, would the man with the best arms in science fiction like to tell us about his tattoo?

CM – I’ve described it before, I don’t mind describing it again, but I fear repeating myself. It’s a double homage to the two traditions of the fantastic that loom structurally very large in my life, which is the ghostly and the weird, so it’s a skull octopus hybrid.

GC – There are a lot of parallels between Un Lun Dun and the two Alice novels, Wonderland and Looking Glass, the distorted worlds and the passages between them, the way that objects and their names becomes twisted, chess pieces as characters, even the style of your line drawings echo the classic Tenniel illustrations. Was that intentional?

CM – Yes, the Alice books are massive books to me, and particularly Looking Glass. I love them both, but I think you’re either a Looking Glass person or a Wonderland person, I’m a Looking Glass person. Definitely I wanted to write a kind of collapsed industrial Alice, very much. The illustrations, you’re much too kind to me. I like the art I do, I want to get better, I’m a strongly aspirational artist, but I’m well aware of my own limitations. I think Tenniel is a searing, outstanding genius. But you’re right to the extent that that tradition of crosshatching looms very large. All of Carroll’s illustrators, actually, there’s the illustrations for his Phantasmogoria and Sylvie and Bruno, I love that kind of fussy, finickity, tight arsed Victorian pen and ink work.

GC – Another theme that runs in your work is divisions in societies, which takes us to the abcities, the hidden things that lie beneath the cities we know, but you had never done it so dramatically as with Beszel and Ul Qoma in The City & The City. How did you conceptualise that division becoming so much more radical?

CM – The story of the creation of that setting in my mind was that, very originally, years ago, I was thinking of writing something set in a fantasy city, fully fantastic with weird animals and magic and all that kind of stuff, about two populations that are radically different sizes, like giants and humans all over, so that their buildings tessellate in complicated ways, so they have these interwoven cities, and they would live perfectly happily together, but you would have three human houses for one giant house, so you have kind of this patchwork city. What basically started to happen is that the explicitly fantastic element bled out and that notion of the superimposed urban environment remained.

I don’t want to seem to say that I’m the only person who’s ever thought of superimposed cities, because I’m not, and I know there are various precursors to this, some of which I found out about afterwards, and I don’t mean that to sound defensive, these things are in the air, you pick stuff up, and I’m okay with that. There are, for example, a C J Cherryh novel, there’s a short story by Jack Vance, there’s a short novel by Gordon Dickson, which have similar notions. Each of them does something specific, obviously. And there are places in the real world where this is a thing.

For me, what was exciting, as someone who normally writes quite overt fantastic stuff, was to have something that comes very much out of the fantastic tradition, to bleed as much of the fantastic out as I could, and some readers did not like that, some readers were annoyed by the overt lack of the fantastic. For me that was what made that book exciting at that point. So that was the genealogy of that book emerging in my head.

GC – A question you are no doubt asked often, but one the site always asks of any writer who graces us with their presence, if you were to recommend one of your books to someone, either as best representative of your style, or the easiest place to start, which would it, or they, be?

CM – It completely depends on who, because, for example, I do get asked, people who write books do get asked this, so my question is always, do you read science fiction? And if they don’t, I would always say The City & The City, or possibly the short story collection. If they do, I would say what kind, and if they say Ursula Le Guin and Robert Silverberg, I would say Embassytown. If they say Lovecraft, then I might say Perdido Street Station.

As a general rule, it seems to me that the book of mine that most people who like the stuff I do from within the fantastic field like the most is The Scar. So that’s probably the one I recommend. But increasingly I’m asked to recommend to people who don’t normally read the genre at all, and to them I would always recommend The City & The City, and then maybe Embassytown. If I had to choose it would be The Scar or The City & The City, but it totally depends who I’m talking to. And I also think it’s a really bad question to ask a writer. I really do. I think if someone wants to ask that, you’re much better to ask someone who likes that writers work. I think writers are often questionable judges of their own stuff.

GC – You had dabbled with illustrations and but you had with the exception of On The Way to the Front and a short story in Hellblazer, comics weren’t a focus for you, and then suddenly, out of the blue, as superheroes do, came Dial H. I’ve not read it, but one of my colleagues on the site has described it as frenetic, paced like a film, but said while it’s obvious you’re having a lot of fun, he wasn’t sure if comics were ready for you.

CM – I am having a lot of fun. Some people love it, it’s had some lovely reviews. Some people really don’t like it. A lot of people online say “I really like this, it’s a shame it’s going to be cancelled.” It’s one of those things where everyone says everyone else doesn’t like it enough. And I don’t know. I am loving it. I wanted to restart Dial H for Hero for years. I had pitched it at DC for years, so this is a fucking dream come true for me, and I have my eighteen issue arc in mind, I really want to be able get to it.

I will be sad if they cancel it, but I’m not a child, these things happen. So, really hopeful, but we shall see. If it turns out that comics aren’t ready for it, then I will be very sad. I mean, comics are ready for anything, it’s just a question of what numbers are you selling. If you’re a small indie comic, we would be doing great numbers. I really hope it finds enough of a readership to continue. It’s never going to sell numbers like Batman, of course not, and I think because it’s going to come out in trade paperback, and that might pick up some more readers, for people who don’t like reading monthlies, and I will be very sad if it’s cancelled, but you would be a fool if you assumed it’s never going to happen, so I live in hope.

GC – It is becoming more common for writers to branch out into other media, Ian Rankin’s Hellblazer graphic novel, Neil Gaiman writing Doctor Who, and in games, Richard Morgan on Syndicate and Chris Brookmyre’s Bedlam is due next year. Many science fiction writers have commented it’s easier to get a game project greenlit than a movie. Do you ever get the urge to try something new, or do you feel that prose is where you can be truest to your intention?

CM – No, I’m very happy to try something new, I’m very interested in videogames. I’m a terrible gamer, but I love them, I’m very interested. I don’t game, but I watch a lot of games, and I invent settings a lot, and I would love to write for videogames. I’m open to the idea of writing for movies although I don’t know if I could do it. It’s a very specific skill that you don’t necessarily have if you’re a prose writer.

I’m enjoying writing for comics a huge amount, but it’s tough, as it should be, it’s hard work, and I think it’s absolutely true that prose will always be my home. But I’d love to try that stuff, sure. If it happens, it happens, but I think you would be crazy to make it the be all an end all of your life. To be disappointed that you’re not being offered films, for example, I think would be foolish. I would love to do games, and if someone comes knocking, I’m very open to that, but we’ll see.

GC – Speaking of films, even with modern effects technology, anything from Bas-Lag of Embassytown, not only would there be the complete environment to be created, but they are very complicated stories, which doesn’t lend itself to a filmic medium, maybe a miniseries, but I remember when I read ‘Tis the Season in Looking for Jake, I thought that, I could picture Channel Four doing a production of that after the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day.

CM – Well, that’s lovely to hear. What can I say, I agree with you. It’s funny you say that, because I’ve thought that about that specific story, I think that would work well, and I tend to think short stories work better than novels. If I were not me, and I were looking through my stuff for stuff to turn to films, I would probably find eighty percent of what I would zero in on would be short stories and then maybe a couple of the novels. It is also a question of being persuadable.

I would not pre-emptively say no to anything, I’m open to anything, but I would have a really high bar for the Bas-Lag books, because if you deal with movies, there is a very high chance, leaving aside the very high chance that it won’t happen, there is a very high chance that it will happen and it will be shit, and there are books for which that would particularly hurt you for whatever reason, whether it’s your favourite, or whether it’s the one that was written at a certain time, or whether it’s the one that you were really holding out for. I’ve turned down offers because I am unsure about the direction. I would love it to happen, but I’m certainly not going to say yes willy-nillly.

GC – It seemed appropriate on 20th August, which would have been Howard Philip Lovecraft’s 122nd birthday, that we should talk about Covehithe, from the opening in Dunwich to the description of “shaggy benthic growth now become gelatinous bunting,” is absolute pure Lovecraft. I presume that was intentional?

CM – Well, Lovecraft looms over a lot of what I do, and if you’re a Lovecraft fan you don’t write a story about big things walking out of the sea and not have Lovecraft in your head, so, yeah. But one can’t have an uncomplicated relationship to Lovecraft these days, and Lovecraft would not have written about modern technology in that way, and it’s very important that this is oil rig fiction, so yes it’s pretty Lovecraftian and I would be pretty mortified if it was a pastiche or a straight homage or whatever. I’m very glad that you mentioned that story, I think it’s probably the single short story that I’m proudest of, and I like my short stories but I love that story, and I worked really fucking hard on it, and it does what I wanted it to do in a way that I am really happy about, and it’s a landscape I know well. All the places described are real, that Suffolk coast is an area I know very well, and Covehithe is a real place, and it is exactly as described, so yes, Lovecraft is clearly there, but I hope it’s not just reduceable to Lovecraft.

GC – Like the music industry before it, publishing is undergoing a radical change of the business model through e-readers and self-publishing. Denise Mina, on winning the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, commented “I think the class divide is going to change. I think a lot more working class people are going to get published. It is really class ridden, literature.” Obviously more avenues to publish and to be distributed is good for both readers and writers, but the flipside is concerns over quality control, copyright, piracy, and so on.

CM – For one thing, there’s an elision between different categories there, and I think when people talk about the problem of proliferation of the different channels being a problem of quality, I always say, yeah, because we’ve been putting out such good stuff in traditional publishing. Traditional old fucking school publishing has never had a problem publishing shit, okay, so let’s not get too precious about the whole quality argument. Yes, of course there’s going to be huge amounts of crap published in these new online forms, just like there’s always been a lot of crap. Will there be a slightly higher proportion of crap? I don’t know. It’s certainly possible. There will also be some amazing gems of unfiltered works of genius, so yeah, I think that argument can be overstated.

The arguments about stuff like e-readers in general, I’m very pro, I think it’s great, it’s very exciting, makes books much easier to get hold of internationally. Each of the issues you mentioned, I would want to take on separately. The whole copyright thing is a huge debate, but for me, traditional copyright is both pernicious and broken, and so the fact that traditional copyright is being broken, I’m fine with it.

Now, what we put in its place is a completely legitimate debate. I make my living writing fiction. I am not someone who thinks the best thing in the world is if no-one ever pays for fiction, absolutely not, I would lose my house, and I would have to do something else, and that’s not the worst thing in the world, but I would love to be able to keep writing fiction professionally. My argument has always been that the punitive model is a disastrous model. I won’t work. Piracy… I can name you books that have had a new lease of life, and in one case been published in a new edition, because of piracy. Piracy can sometimes help books, sometimes it hurts them. It’s really complicated, we can’t make generalisations.

I think we’re intelligent people, I think as long as we don’t act like dicks, we can work out a way in which most readers understand that the writers they like, if they never get paid, are not going to be able to do the things they do, so we’ll find new models, we’ll work it out. Yes, there’s always going to be people who are going to grab stuff free, probably a slightly higher proportion than previously, a lot of us might have to take a pay cut. I don’t relish a pay cut, but alright, we have to find a new way of doing it. Basically my feeling is there’s going to be a lot of changes, some of them are going to be negative, some of them are going to be positive, some of them are going to be weird, but in aggregate, I’m definitely excited. I think it is better than it is bad.

GC – Your love for London is always clear, walking the streets of Kilburn in Un Lun Dun, the Gaumont State in the opening chapter of King Rat and on the cover of Looking for Jake. Last year the streets of London had riots, this year they had the Olympics. How has the city coped, what is yet to come, and do you see that filtering into your work?

CM – Well, it filters into the work all the time, in fact I’ve got a new book just coming out, it’s a non-fiction work, a long essay about London. You can’t not be influenced by that stuff. The riots were extraordinary. They were invigorating, strange, shocking. I know someone who was really badly hurt in them, I know an awful lot of people who were not badly hurt in them, though they were affected. It reconfigured the city. Of course that stuff finds its way in, and it will continue to do so. And the Olympics, in a very different way, is ongoingly reconfiguring the shape of London.

There’s two levels. There’s the level of whether you deliberately and consciously riff off the stuff, and then there’s the level at which it sort of sinks into your cells, and on the latter level I can’t comment, because it’s sinking. On the former, as I said, I wrote this long non-fiction essay which was originally for the New York Times, London’s Overthrow. That was a short version, then there was a long version online, which is now being published. It’s the same essay as is on the website, but we’ve put some more pictures in.

Will I write more about that? There will undoubtedly be a spate of riot fiction. Whether I will be one of the people participating, I don’t know. I don’t have plans to now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested and I’m not fascinated, it just means that that’s not something of which I’m consciously mediating right now.

GC – The connecting theme that runs through your work is the urban, the clutter, the culture clashes between the districts and the working and ruling classes, those who enforce the laws and those who break them, and what sets them apart is your determination to write in different genres. So to finish off, the big question – what is next for China Miéville?

CM – Well, I’m going to be really annoying and not answer, because I’m very superstitious about talking about work in progress. I think it’s just a terrible hostage to fortune. I’ll talk in generalities. I want to do more non-fiction, I want to do a lot more short stories, I’m working on several at the moment, but I write short stories very slowly. I love my short stories, I’m really proud of them, but I write them very slowly. So I hope to put together, to cluster some short stories in the next year. And I have a big novel that I’m working on, that I’ve been working on in my head and notebooks for five, six years, so I have plenty projects that I’m kind of enjoying letting proceed at their own pace.

GC – Thank you so much.

CM – Not at all, thank you.

Special thanks to China for his time, Frances of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Chloe of Macmillan for their kind assistance in organising this interview

China’s most recent novel, Railsea, is now available from Macmillan and reviewed here; we have also reviewed his novels The City & The City, Kraken and Embassytown

London’s Overthrow is now available from Westbourne Press, and Dial H is ongoing from DC Comics




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