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Spotlight on China Miéville

Despite being the only author to have won the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction three times, it still remains unclear whether Miéville belongs in the sci-fi or fantasy genre. For this reason, his style is often referred to as New Weird, a fantasy genre that shies away from dragons and goblins, instead opting to be more Lovecraftian (if anything,) peering into the grotesque shadows and too-dark cracks that line recognisable worlds.

However, regardless of whether he is New Weird, fantasy or sci-fi; with his latest novel Embassytown out this week he has boldly and firmly stepped in to the alien worlds of the science fiction genre. We have a full review of Embassytown coming to you here on Fantasy-Faction soon, but to warm you up, here’s a look at the man and the books that have garnered him such acclaim.

China MievilleMiéville is not your average author. With his shaven head, muscular build, tattoos and earrings he looks more like a modern James Dean bad-ass than a softly spoken author whose prose will keep you regularly reaching for a dictionary. Having studied in Cambridge, London School of Economics (where he gained his PhD) and obtaining a scholarship to Harvard University he is now a Lecturer for Creative Writing at Warwick University (UK). He has also stood (albeit unsuccessfully) for the Socialist Alliance in the 2001 elections for the House of Commons.

Miéville is often commended for the strength of politics in his novels so it seems obvious that parallels would be drawn between his writing and his personal political opinions. If anything, it often seems as if this political element precedes the author and his novels for if you read (almost) any interview with him the questions will invariably turn towards his personal politics. I was recently at a preview of Embassytown in Warwick Arts Centre where the compère seemed intent on talking about recent politics, to which Miéville obliged but looked visibly uncomfortable.

Y’see, Miéville has always struck me as a guy who keeps his private life out of his books. Okay, so he is an ardent member of the Socialist Workers Party and politics feature heavily in many of his stories but that doesn’t mean he has some underlying motive in his writing. Read his books backwards and you’re not going to hear the voice of the Devil in your head.

For me, Miéville’s novels are filled with politics because a) he knows it well and b) so are our everyday lives, which is why his novels feel so realistic. How could you write a living breathing world without warring factions, societal unrest and shady fat-cat dealings? A great example is how the Vodyanoi use their ‘skill’ to blockade a river shipping route in protest after a trade dispute in Perdido Street Station.

Despite having the lexicon to rival the dictionary, for me, Miéville’s greatest skill lies in his worldbuilding especially his ability to grow huge, living cities. Miéville’s love for his native London shines through in most of his stories from the London bagatelles of Looking For Jake to New Crobuzon (the city in which Perdido Street Station is set), which is arguably what made Miéville’s name. His worlds are living, bubbling things, that seem to be self perpetuating constructs, manifesting their own strangeness. He captures all the right stink and pus of a stagnant city, while also presenting the warmth of community and diverse cultures that a large city can offer its inhabitants.

What is especially beautiful is the faithful use of time and detail Miéville applies meticulously throughout his novels. For example, Iron Council is set almost thirty years after the events of The Scar and you can see how time has affected New Crobuzon as a city in this period. Few authors can boast such a consistently strong back catalogue, especially one that is littered with so many awards and commendations. So here are my brief 200-ish word introductions to the novels of Mr China Miéville. You’ll soon have a new favourite author.

King Rat

King Rat (cover)This is Miéville’s first novel and not part of the Bas-Lag novels which he would later make his name on. King Rat is an urban fantasy novel and if you’re familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin you’ll already have a slight (very slight) idea of what this book is about.

Set to a drum ‘n’ bass beat, we follow Saul as he delves into the stinking underbelly of London and begins to discover just who he is, what this has to do with King Rat and why that jolly Pied Piper from the stories isn’t quite as jolly as he’s made out to be.

Perhaps it is because I read it after reading some of his later novels but King Rat isn’t my favourite of Miéville’s works, because it seems to lack that stamp of China, that je ne sais quoi that says I am Miéville, hear me roar. However, as a first novel it oozes cool and all those individual elements that make a Miéville novel are present. There’s the mystery, the meticulous detail and the love for the darkest parts of a throbbing, dripping London.

Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station (cover)Perdido Street Station is chronologically the first of the ‘unity,’ as Miéville describes it, of the three books set in the world of Bas-Lag which also include The Scar and Iron Council. This novel holds a special place on my bookshelf as I picked it up while travelling and it rapidly became one of the finest book I have ever read.

With Miéville’s now trademark mix of intricately woven politics, adventure, monsters and intrigue, Perdido Street Station moves at a lightening pace. At 867 pages in paperback Perdido Street Station it is a bit of a beast but I devoured it. Much like any masters of their art (I’m thinking of Tarantino here), 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 (which are humans gruesomely altered as punishment, often for minor crimes) are quite possibly the greatest fantasy creation I have ever encountered – they will keep your imagination swirling I promise.

Read this one before The Scar or Iron Council

The Scar

The Scar (cover)I’m a sucker for a pirate story, especially those where the scurvy and sodomy are omitted and replaced with swashbuckling, flagons of ale, high seas and huge monsters. For all of these reasons, The Scar is awesome!

It is set in the fleet city of Armada, which is built from thousands of ships all bolted together into a floating isle. On Armada, all people of all species are treated equally which allows Tanner Sack, a criminal Remade, the chance to become a free man and also one of The Scar’s protagonists. Something’s not quite right though, and the focus of the book is our heroine Bellis as she tries to resist the lure of Armada and figure out an ever deepening mystery.

Although written in the world of Bas-Lag it is not a direct sequel to Perdido Street Station and so The Scar can stand alone as its own adventure story, although I would recommend reading them in order because Bellis is briefly mentioned in Perdido, see if you can spot it.

The Scar is arguably the first time we truly see the huge scope of Miéville’s imagination with huge monsters and epic peril. And what is The Scar anyway? It could be…but then it could relate to…ah, just give it a read and find out.

Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun (cover)Have you ever wondered where all the rubbish and detritus that litters the London streets goes? Is it swept up by council workers or does it fall through the cracks in to Un Lun Dun, the parallel London that lives somewhere below our own?

Un Lun Dun is written for the young adult market but has gained a strong following amongst Miéville’s adult fans too. Set in a twisted mirror version of London the story follows Zanna (or possibly Deeba…) as she embarks on her role as Shwazzy, the saviour of Un Lun Dun, against Smog a now sentient smog cloud that has filtered down from our London into this mirror world. Un Lun Dun introduces some of the most ostentatious characters Miéville has ever created. The Binja and BrokkenBroll – king of broken umbrellas – are particular favourites and the UnGun is simply genius.

The arachnophobic should take note – after the popularity of Weaver in Perdido Street Station, Miéville brings back giant spiders as the Shwazzy ventures to Webminster Abbey. You will shit yourselves. You have been warned.

The novel is rather explicit in its warnings against pollution and the damage it causes but, much like the Captain Planet cartoon, it does not detract from the enjoyment and the adventure of the awesome story. A fantastic read.

Iron Council

Iron Council (cover)Miéville himself has said before that Iron Council is one of his favourite books that he has written. It is his homage to the wild west and is also the most overtly political of any of his previous books.

In Iron Council we return to New Crobuzon roughly thirty years after the events of Perdido Street Station and without giving anything away, politics have been whirring and the city is a new place where revolution is a-brewin’. Told in three narratives, with two voices in the present and rather interestingly, one voice in the past, it follows the pursuit of change against violent oppression amidst a backdrop of war and the consequences of this act twenty years later.

You will twist with characters like Uri as they battle their inner demons and the perils of politics when talk no longer seems effective. If you’re worrying that now on his third book, Miéville might be running out of ideas for New Crobuzon than have no fear, the Elementals alone will keep you hooked. Also, doesn’t the extremist character Toro seem familiar? Was he not briefly mentioned in Perdido Street Station as well?

Looking For Jake And Other Stories

Looking For Jake (cover)When I want to show someone the kind of fantasy literature I’m interested in, I either hand them a copy of American Gods by Gaiman or this perfect collection of twisted dark fantasy stories. “Details” is by far the greatest short story I have ever read. It is told from the perspective of a little boy who regularly takes bland looking food to a lady who can never leave her house, despite the constant raging of some of the locals at her door. The monster is never truly seen but oh my, it is one of the most terrifying creatures ever pieced together.

Another cracker is “The Ball Room”, placing us in a familiar IKEA-like store where children are acting strangely in the ball pit of the play area. Some stories like “The Go Between” and “Reports Of Certain Events In London” leave you thinking, while “Familiar” and “Foundation” may just leave you feeling a little uneasy and even nauseous. “Jack” is rather interesting as it takes us back to Bas-Lag to take a glimpse at Jack Half-a-Prayer, the infamous criminal occasionally mentioned in the other New Crobuzon novels.

This collections of stories will keep you reading, keep you thinking and keep you up at night. This is my favourite kind of dark fantasy.

The City and The City

The City and The City (cover)While in college I read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and since then I’ve been a huge fan of the noir-style detective genre. Reading The City And The City it was no surprise to see Chandler’s name in the acknowledgments.

Set in the fictional Eastern European town of Beszel, it is Miéville’s homage to the noir detective and is unlike anything he has written before, which with a lot of authors I would be apprehensive about but with Miéville it created nothing but excitement.

We follow Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad as he investigates the death of a girl and finds that it links to his city of Beszel, its twin city Ul Qoma and possibly also to Orciny the legendary city that inhabits the space between Beszel and Ul Qoma. The Eastern Bloc setting feels authentic and idea of the ‘unseen’ city alone will tell you why, among numerous other awards, The City And The City won the prestigious Hugo Award 2010.

Kraken: An Anatomy

Kraken (cover)Miéville regularly says that what excites him most about stories are the monsters. And with the relatively tame fantasy elements of the excellent The City And The City, Kraken: An Anatomy almost feels like Miéville sat at his desk, cracked his knuckles and thought, “Right, I’m writing this for me.” So cue the huge monsters and meanies, multiple intricate story arcs and of course, his much loved city of London.

A giant specimen has been squid-napped and museum curator Billy Harrow must brave squid cults, magical assassins and the Knuckleheads who are led by Tattoo, a mob boss who appears in the ink on some poor chap’s back. It’s a riot.

Kraken has a much lighter tone than most of Miéville’s previous work and while it is still a highly intelligent and furiously action-filled novel you might find it just a little too shallow in terms of depth especially when compared to his previous novels. It is still a brilliant read though.

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And there we end for now. Hopefully I’ve persuaded you to pick up at least one of China Miéville’s fantastic books. If you’re unsure of where to start then let me recommend Perdido Street Station. Also keep an eye out for the Embassytown review coming in the next few days.

This article was first published 2011.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Absolutely fantastic article Paul – your admiration for China’s work really shines through and I hope he gets to see this 🙂 Good work!

    • Avatar Jamie Catto says:

      I loved your article and have just finished Embassytown. It feels so wonderful to savour the excitement of someone who appreciates China’s work to this degree and has been as touched and propelled by it as I. I have yet to read Kraken and City in City, I keep being sidetracked by Alastair Reynolds novels which I have recently discovered. Thanks so much for writing this, I hope everyone goes and buys Perdido today!

  2. […] 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 have won […]

  3. […] of Mieville’s left-wing politics are sprinkled throughout. You can see China Mieville spotlighted here on […]

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