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An Evening with China Mieville

China MievilleChina Mieville is arguably the greatest fantasy writer of the modern generation. Gaining literary prominence with his novel Perdido Street Station in 2000 for which he received the Arthur C. Clarke he has since gone on to receive numerous nominations and awards including two more Arthur C. Clarke awards and also the prestigious Hugo award for his 2009 novel The City And The City.

For me, Mieville is a literary rockstar. The worlds he weaves within his stories and novels push my imagination into overdrive when picturing the Remade, the Vodyanoi water sculptures, ‘the ball room’ or the endless intricacies of New Crobuzon itself. I revere Mieville in the way scientists worship Tesla or kids venerate Big Bird. Mieville is what I want to be when I grow up.

So you can imagine my sheer joy when I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity of attending a small preview of his next novel Embassytown which is his first foray into the sci-fi genre and will be released in May.

After a three hour drive up to Warwickshire I found myself standing outside a lecture theatre getting incredibly nervous on the prospect of getting to ask one of my heroes a question during the Q&A section of the evening. Well, you can imagine my terror when while I was talking to some friends their faces slowly began to blur out of focus as I had noticed that standing behind them was the man himself, Mr. China Mieville.

Oh…  My…  WhatdoIdo?!  WhatdoIdo?!

Was this my opportunity to try for an interview? Is it worth risking being turned away by your literary deity for a shot at something truly phenomenal? Well, you’ll be pleased to know that in this moment I became a man. I bit down on the awe that was at that time wracking my core and decided that I would approach him. I swallowed hard, walked up, introduced myself as a writer for Fantasy-Faction and amid an uncontrollable stammer I asked would he have a few minutes after the reading for a short interview?

To my stunned joy, he said yes! He had a table reservation booked with friends so couldn’t be too long but sure, a few minutes would be great. So stay tuned fantasy fans, the interview can be found at the end of the article.

Embassytown

The Preview

The evening was an intimate affair with around forty people filling the small lecture theatre. Soon after we got comfortable in our seats, China Mieville entered the room and sat at a small table in the centre of the theatre along with a fellow Warwick Uni lecturer who acted as host for the evening. After two rounds of applause and a false start, in which he revealed that the book has two beginnings (which we’re told will make sense when we read it), Mr. Mieville gave us a fifteen minute preview of Embassytown.

The preview began with a character called Avice recounting the games she used to play as a child. At first, the story conjured images of a Dickens-esque scene with street urchins flinging coin shaped objects against old walls, nothing too weird except that these walls, tenements and backstreets were topped with neon lights. As the children ran to the edge of town to play their next game the sci-fi element of the novel quickly bled in with talk of “uncanny geometries” as the walls of the buildings turned in to another substance. On this side of town the Host, the alien species who also inhabit the world, “tend the flesh walls of their nests” while “whispering companion animal things,” which are later referred to as ‘engines’, roam around their feet. Here the children play their new game of running “where the airs mixed”, seeing how far into this other world they can venture before needing to breath and scratching marks on posts to tag their best efforts.

Next we meet Yon, another child who must have went too far into this other air and is now struggling to survive having breathed in this new atmosphere. Tending to him is Bren (we are told that to know how to spell his name we need to buy the book) and a Host who sways gracefully and whose eyes hide behind folded skin.

Mieville then goes in to great detail describing the reverence and respect that the human children are taught to show these Host, and again I couldn’t help but draw parallels with a Dickens-esque London where deferential poor children are taught to doff their caps to the well tailored rich folk from the better side of town.

Perhaps most interestingly, Mieville ended the excerpt with the Host having wrapped Bren “in a companionable limb”. Until this point, we had only seen the Host as aliens in the eyes of a child but this final image of the two species hugging suggested a much larger relationship that is sure to impact on the plot and also coupled nicely with Avice’s adult voice hinting at later understanding the Host language.

Once the reading had finished, the host (not the kind with folded skin eyes) of the evening spoke of Mieville’s use of the words “uncanny geometries” and drew a comparison with H. P. Lovecraft. Mieville agreed that this comparison fit but was keen to describe Embassytown as:

“…not [a] particularly Lovecraftian book.” Instead calling it “my sci-fi.”

It may be a new shift in genre towards ray-guns and extraterrestrials but even just this small excerpt we had just been read had Mieville’s style, his sense of societal interaction and his talent to craft epic streets and architecture stamped like a watermark upon it.

This shift in genre to sci-fi sparked many questions during the Q&A element of the evening. When reading other interviews with China Mieville it becomes obvious that he does not want to be known solely as ‘the guy what wrote them Bas Lag books.’ However, based on the questions fired at him this evening, it became clear that we fans are not yet tired of the tales of New Crobuzon, Salkrikaltor et al. As a fan I found his replys encouraging as he told us that he would be very surprised if he never wrote another book set in that universe. However, he went on to say that in geek culture there is a tendency to ruin the things we love. We always want that itch scratched but often scratching only makes the itch worse, so he wants Bas Lag to be a “very effective back scratcher and would never just use it as a default setting” just to sell books.

So where is he going to go next? He’s written pirates in The Scar, the wild west in Iron Council, the Chandler-esque detective in The City and The City and now he has tackled sci-fi. So what could be on the horizon? With a wry smile he told the room that he has some ideas.

Someone asked if this would be a vampire book. Fortunately, the answer was no. He doesn’t have any interest in writing vampires but only because he loves them (and werewolves and zombies too). He explained that for him the terratology is exhausted and unless you can go back and “mine some untapped seam” then the genre won’t break free of the shiny, shiny vampires we see on the TV any time soon.

So you heard it here first ladies and gents, we won’t be seeing a steampunk Edward Cullen quite yet.

Following much rapturous applause, he rounded the evening off by signing a long line of fans books, personalising each and every one.

The Interview

Afterwards he met me outside for a few questions.

– – –

First of all, thank you so much for tonight, it was truly fantastic!

I’m glad you enjoyed it.

So, Embassytown will be your first foray in to the science fiction genre. How would you sum it up in two or three sentences?

It’s a science fiction novel with aliens and spaceships and ray guns and stuff. It’s about colonialism and it’s a lot to do with language but I don’t really want to say much else and risk spoiling it.

I was particularly interested this evening in your talk on only ever returning to Bas Lag and specifically New Crobuzon if you had an idea that would do the series justice. Without spoiling anything for anyone reading this, the characters Toro from Iron Council and Bella from The Scar were both briefly mentioned in Perdido Street Station. I was wondering, did you write Perdido Street Station knowing that you wanted to come back to them to expand the series or were they ideas that fit the other books when you were later writing them?

No, I did genuinely know. I have in my folders at home a kind of summary of the three books that I wrote before I wrote Perdido Street Station. They were always perceived as a kind of unity and so I put down breadcrumbs for myself in the earlier books that I knew I would pick up later. I’m not above cheating, I’m not above thinking that I’m going to kind of retrofit. That I’m going to get an early idea and sort of jury-rig it into something but all the references you mentioned were quite specific and deliberate. Those three books, although, all stand alone, were always conceived of as a kind of unity so I don’t want to go back in, in a way that would undermine those books.

Inquisitive colleagues often ask me what it is I am reading. And when I answer fantasy and begin describing the beetle headed Khepri or the human/bird Garuda they give me a skewed look that says, “back away slowly, this guy likes talking animals.” Have you ever encountered this attitude when you tell people you like Dungeons and Dragons or that you write fantasy?

You mean have I come across this prejudice?

Yeah.

Well of course. You can’t possibly avoid it, and of course I’ve come across it many, many times and to be honest I’m bored of being outraged. It’s not necessarily a fight that I kind of have the stomach to battle anymore because it just seems so silly to me. I would never distance myself from the genre and I am always very happy to defend the genre but I find that there are other things to argue about. I feel if people want to be so dumb what can I do? And don’t forget, there’s a difference between people who are open minded and ignorant and people who are actually just ignorant.

I’m not sure whether you know but each month Fantasy-Faction runs a book club where the community votes for, reads and discusses the same book. Sadly, Kraken: An Anatomy came second to Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. If you could pick four fantasy books for the community to vote on next month what would you suggest?

Four? Are we talking mainstream or any other genres? You can’t just ask me for four and just put me on the spot. There are just too many fantastic books.

Okay, well earlier in the evening you said that when you want to write a new genre the first thing you do is find a fan of that genre and ask what you should be reading. If someone who had never read fantasy before asked you what they should be reading what would you suggest?

Kelly Link. Magic for Beginners. Alright…no, wait. Stranger Things Happen, her first one.

Fantastic. Thank you so much Mr. Mieville. I really appreciate it.

Not a problem. Cheers.

– – –

I then shook the hand of one of my heroes and didn’t stop grinning for the rest of the evening.

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6 Comments

  1. Khaldun says:

    Pretty neat that you were able to get a brief interview. Haven’t read any of Mieville’s stuff yet, but I suppose eventually I’ll have to give in. Is Perdido Street Station the place to start?

    • Paul Wiseall says:

      King Rat came first but yeah, I would say that you have to start with Perdido Street Station as this novel and New Crobuzon (the city in which the novel is set) is arguably what made Mieville’s name. It is also chronologically the first of the ‘unity,’ as Mieville described it, of the three books set in the world of Bas Lag which also include The Scar and Iron Council. What is especially beautiful is the faithful use of time as Iron Council is set almost 30 years after the events of The Scar and you can see how time has affected New Crobuzon as a city in this period.

      At 867 pages in paperback Perdido Street Station it is a bit of a beast but I devoured it. The intertwining stories arcs are things we’ve read a thousand times. There’s the inquisitive scientist that releases a monster and there’s the naive innocent who falls in with the wrong people but what makes it so compelling is not only the fantastic pace but also the mountain of imagination on every page that truly is unlike anything I have read before. For instance, the Remade are quite possibly the greatest fantasy creation I have ever encountered – they will keep your imagination swirling.

      Meiville’s ability to create a living and breathing city in New Crobuzon is remarkable. Not only does he manage to fill your head with new and wonderful creations but he also has a rare talent in making it seem human with the right touches of politics and societal unrest. A great example is how the Vodyanoi use their ‘skill’ to blockade a river shipping route in protest.

      UnLunDun, The City and The City and Kraken: An Anatomy are also all incredible but I would definitely recommend that you start with Perdido.

      When you’ve read it, let me know what you think. I have a feeling you’ll love it.

      Does this answer your question mon frère?

      Paul

  2. Beautiful article and interview!!! I will definitely go pick up my own copy of those books! I always try to find new authors or new books to help me expend my own concept of fantasy. Keep those coming! 🙂

  3. Emma says:

    Wow what a great article and interview! He is a lovely man in the flesh – so genuine and willing to talk to anyone! I’m currently reading Embassytown – it’s unlike anything I’ve read before but I find myself enjoying it a lot! 🙂 Thanks for posting this for everyone to read!

  4. […] of genre writers (two excellent Fantasy-Faction articles about his career so far can be found here and here). Although he is the author of fewer than ten novels, he is highly decorated; his works […]

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