- Chris Close
- Mic Cheetham Literary Agency
China Miéville is a science fiction and fantasy writer.
He was born in Norwich in 1972, studying Social Anthropology at Cambridge University and gaining a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics in 2001.
His first novel was King Rat (1998), a dark fantasy relocating the Pied Piper to contemporary London. His second, Perdido Street Station (2000), is the first set in the city of New Crobuzon, and won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction and a 2001 British Fantasy Award. Two further books in this series are the British Fantasy award-winning The Scar (2002) and Iron Council, winner of a further Arthur C. Clarke Award.
His other books include the young adult novel, Un Lun Dun (2007), and three collections of short stories, Looking for Jake (2005), The Apology Chapbook (2013) and Three Moments of an Explosion (2015). The City & The City (2009) is an existential thriller, winner of a further Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hugo Prize and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It was followed by a further four works of fiction, including The Last Days of New Paris (2016).
His non-fiction includes a study of international law, entitled Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, was published in 2005.
China Miéville is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Warwick University and an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College School of Law.
China Mieville’s exuberantly subversive writings seem designed to confound those who defend notion of generic barriers. Aptly hailed by the New York Times as “innovative and protean”, he darts across the porous boundaries of science fiction, fantasy and crime, and his body of work represents contemporary British writing’s most prominent challenge to the idea of ‘literary fiction’.
Famously, however, Mieville has little time for the usual vocabulary of genre, preferring another term for his novels: ‘weird’. His ten wide-ranging novels, short stories and comics and non-fiction all explore the cultural, linguistic and political potential of weirdness, engaging creatively with mavericks of literary history from Herman Melville through H.P. Lovecraft to Doris Lessing and Michael Moorcock. And they have constantly captured the joy in an almost religious experience of the ‘weird sublime’, which Mieville has described in his keynote lecture at the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival as “an expression of something otherwise inexpressible. An ineffability, by which you don't at all have to be a person of faith to have your breath taken away.”
Readers approaching his diverse works for the first time will be struck with three themes that dominate Mieville’s critical reception: this thorny issue of genre; his eagerness to rescue fantasy from the legacy of Tolkien; and the relation of his writings to his outspoken politics.
As many have noted, there’s an insurgent quality to Mieville’s project of genre dismantlement. Ever since Perdido Street Station (2000) won literary prizes in two separate categories, science fiction and fantasy, it has been clear that older modes of classification were not going to be adequate for his blending, revision and twisting of genre elements. His books combine this enthusiastic and scholarly love of genre with an ambitious literary sensibility in often unpredictable ways.
His debut King Rat (1998) mixed gothic, horror and serial killer stories with tales of animals with special powers. The City and the City (2009) imbued the hard-boiled genre with geopolitical concerns that made it read “like a mash-up of George Orwell and Raymond Chandler” (Wall Street Journal). Embassytown (2011) investigated the border between the language games of the post-colonial novel with the dystopic linguistic imagination of political writers such as Doris Lessing and Anthony Burgess. Sometimes, this genre-straddling seems partly parodic, as in 2010’s Kraken, which took aim at the modern London gothic tradition of Neil Gaiman, Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. Together, these books showcase their adherence and affection for the constraints and formalism of genres and explore their creative potential, and in doing so transform readers’ expectations of established literary labels.
This versatility has been seen by many as a strength. In 2011 the Wall Street Journal praised the way Mieville “leapfrogs between literary categories, playing with the narrative conventions of police procedurals, Westerns, sea adventures, urban fantasy and even romance.” But such leapfrogging has also led to a perceived delay in establishment recognition for this achievement. The Telegraph has summed this up by calling him “the poster boy for the vociferous band of readers of sci-fi, fantasy and just plain weird novels who believe that when the shiniest gongs for fiction are dished out, mainstream arbiters habitually dismiss those genres as somehow lacking in literary quality.” (2011)
At various points over the last decade, this issue of ‘genre fiction’ versus ‘literary fiction’ has escalated into fractious debate. In 2009, it came to head with a spat over that year’s Booker Prize shortlist when the head judge John Mullan justified SF’s (and Mieville’s) absence from consideration by dismissing it as a “self-enclosed world” relegated to a “special room in bookshops.” The perceived snobbery and narrow-mindedness at work in this assessment marked a turning point, since which the temperature of a somewhat tired debate has cooled, and cross-genre acceptance has seemed more positive.
Mieville, though, has repeatedly expressed his boredom with such discussions. He recently told the Guardian that he is tired with the "the endlessly arse-achingly expressed complaint from genre that no one takes us seriously." (2012). In 2009 he reflected in Dandelion magazine that “although genres can be fantastically insular, there's a lot of excitement both from within and without when things do bleed,” adding positively that, “we're at a fairly good moment, where there is a lot of borrowing and openmindedness." Or as he put it in his 2012 Edinburgh lecture: “I really, really don't want to talk about genre, because I always really want to, and nerd-whines are boring. But a detente between litfic [literary fiction] and its others is real. It's a cliché to point out that generic tropes are infecting the mainstream.”
New Weird versus the Legacy of Tolkien
The label most commonly associated with Mieville is that of the ‘new weird’ or ‘weird fiction.’ As he is at pains to point out, a genealogy of such self-consciously outré and fantastical writings can be traced back into the nineteenth century at least. But a recent revival has seen these stylistic and formal qualities coalesce as a recognizable movement. University of London academic Roger Luckhurst points to the creative ferment, a “moment in the 1990s when it became clear that something odd was happening … a space that opened up in Britain as opposed to America which seemed to be fostering an incredible amount of activity.” (Dandelion, 2009). Writers such as K.J. Bishop and Jeff VanderMeer became part of a literary movement that reveled in the exploration of speculative fiction in a pulpy but politically aware hybrid. As Vandermeer puts it in the introduction to the anthology New Weird (2008), the genre is "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy."
Mieville claims that readers should find the term useful for his own works, and defines it as embracing “all fantastic literature - fantasy, SF, horror and all the stuff that won't fit neatly into slots.” (Guardian, 2012). He also argues that is productive to think of this type of writing as reaching back to the ambitions of high modernist fiction of the early twentieth century. To Mieville, this involves the kinds of risks that are too infrequently taken in contemporary writing: modernism and the new weird are simply “differently inflected statement of the same concerns, the same anxieties, the same attempted solutions”.
Another way to understand the critical ambitions of this ‘weirdness’ is its rejection of what Mieville sees as the consolatory, escapist strain of canonical fantasy. As many have argued, established fantasy tropes and properties often involve a subtly conservative or at least politically unreflective worldview. Taking his point of departure from more progressive forebears Mervin Peake and Michael Moorcock, Mieville explicitly sets his works against more conservative forms of generic fantasy, and especially the mythical escapism of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Unlike this conservative mythical world, the speculative worlds of Mieville’s novels possess an often striking and direct political charge. As Christopher Palmer of La Trobe University argues, a radical collectivist humanist thread runs through his plots: “There are abiding interests in the heroism of ordinary people, the possibilities of fundamental change, and the narrative potential, in a given world, of fissures, warps, anomalies in the condition of things. Very often a self-contained loner is put into uneasy relation with a mixed collective that has to collaborate to achieve a project or forestall a menace.” (The Literary Encyclopedia)
Politics and Monsters
As this suggests, Mieville’s opposition to Tolkien is partly dictated by the revolutionary political allegiances that have been central to Mieville’s life and writing. An outspoken activist and campaigner for left-wing and socialist causes, and socialist candidate for British Parliament in 2001, he repeatedly invokes his adherence to Marxist views of the world, and how dialectical ideas provide him with a global and dynamic view of history and society.
These strongly felt beliefs and values have always shaped his renditions of the weird possibilities opened by genre writing. From the elaborate inversions of King Rat onwards, and particularly in the vision of the city of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, his politics are always central to his urban visions. But as he told the US Believer magazine in 2012:
'I’m not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I’m a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have... I’m trying to say I’ve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that’s fantastic. But if not, isn’t this a cool monster?'
Rather than being interested in SF as model or blueprint for society (“a disastrous idea”), he says that he is interested in the power of “alterity” in works of art that make us look at the world in an unfamiliar way, and begin to reflect on how it might be changed for the better. “If you think about the surrealists, the estrangement they were trying to create was a political act. There's some shared soup somewhere in my head from which these two things are ladling." (Guardian, 2011).
One final implication of his political views is that he decisively rejects the term ‘postmodern’ as a concept or a label. The tendency to describe works like his in these terms is lazy, he maintains. “If you come across a text which is anyway interested in interstitiality, or marginality, or subalternity, there's a notion that ipso facto this can be thought of as a 'postmodern' text.” (Dandelion journal, 2009). To Mieville, postmodernism is a relativistic mode of thought that once attracted him, but which he abandoned in favour of a more committed Marxist understanding of the world. As a result, he consciously rejects its relevance as a way of understanding literature.
Bearing in mind these generic, conceptual and political concerns and points of origin for his fiction can help the reader make sense of an exhilarating but sometimes baffling body of work. Above all, Mieville and his critics would be at pains to stress that unlike much of the genres to which he is notionally affiliated, these are strangely positive books, full of hope and the promise of change. In his own words, though he finds “the political conjuncture toxic, vile and really upsetting … I don't think there's any contradiction between being politically optimistic and thinking we live in a really bad moment. Quite the opposite." (Guardian, 2011)