China Miéville is the bestselling author of many novels, including the Bas-Lag series, consisting of Perdido Street Station, about a grotesque steampunk city teeming with monsters, The Scar, about a floating city built from pirate ships, and Iron Council, about a rebellious train crew who tear up the tracks behind them in order to lay out a new path to freedom. Other novels include Un Lun Dun, King Rat, and Kraken. His novel The City & The City, a police procedural set in a pair of strangely entwined Eastern European cities, won the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He’s also been a finalist for the Nebula Award and Stoker Award. His short fiction has been collected in the volume Looking for Jake. His latest novel is Embassytown.
This interview first appeared in io9’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Visit io9.com/tag/geeksguide to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
It’s about a group of humans who live on a very distant alien planet in the very far future and get involved in a linguistic apocalypse with the local species. And it’s about language and subspace and lots of classic science fictional stuff like that. Hopefully with bringing a bit of interesting linguistic ruminations to the table.
This is your first real “science fiction” novel. Some writers maintain that science fiction is more rigorous and realistic than fantasy while others feel that science fiction is simply one flavor of fantasy. Where do you come down on that?
Basically on the latter. I don’t buy the argument about the scientific rigor of science fiction. I mean, let me be clear, some science fiction is predicated on a relatively rigorous extrapolation from scientific fact, but an awful lot of it isn’t. And the moment one starts trying to police that border, you get into an incredible amount of special pleading and bad faith and exceptionality, and “yeah, but, you know what I mean” and all that kind of thing. So I think it’s much more to do with a certain kind of attitude, a kind of scientific pose. There’s a certain show of rigor, but the show is in many cases completely specious, and we can think of many examples of classic works of science fiction in which the supposedly rigorous extrapolation is completely bogus. And I should add that this is not in any way a criticism. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, it makes for some wonderful books, but I do think the idea that science fiction is based on a kind of rigorous cognitive extrapolation and fantasy is just silly dreaming is completely untrue. And this is an argument that goes back to H.G. Wells versus Jules Verne, and I take Wells’ part in that debate.
You’ve said this book is a tribute to a particular type of science fiction from the sixties and seventies. What do you admire about those books?
Because of the time I grew up, I ended up reading a lot of science fiction that was post-Golden Age, if you like, post-fifties, and still infused with some of that awe and excitement, but with, in many cases, a kind of critical attitude to certain of the elements of that earlier tradition. And also simply some absolutely beautiful writing, so people like [Ursula K.] Le Guin and [Robert] Silverberg loom very large for me. And a little bit later in life, finding the work of people like Cordwainer Smith. These kind of, not classic space operas by any means, or classic planetary romances, but a certain kind of slightly melancholy but nonetheless quite sweeping, sociologically interesting, critical, problematic; toothy SF was incredibly formative for me, and I wanted to write something that nodded and very much paid tribute to that tradition, I think.
What were some of the other big influences on this book, particularly in terms of linguistics or philosophy?
For me the book is not so much about actually existing linguistics necessarily so much as it is to do with a certain kind of more abstract kind of philosophy of language of symbols, and of semiotics, and indeed some of this crosses over into theological debates. There’s a long-running theological argument, from about the seventeenth century on, about what’s sometimes called the “Adamic language,” the language of the Garden of Eden—although one should probably just as equally call it the “Eve language,” but it’s the notion whereby there is no gap of symbolism between the word and the thing.
I do have a kind of minor background in sociolinguistics, so that did come into it to some extent, but for me it was more sort of language philosophy. I mean, I have a kind of Gannett approach to a lot of linguistic philosophy, where I don’t by any means claim to be an expert, but I sort of swoop around and grab what looks interesting, and I guess this was stuff I’d been interested in, some of that philosophy, for some time. So it sort of embedded itself in what I was reading and kind of percolated up until it was ready to go.
You said somewhere that maybe Gulliver’s Travels was also an influence?
Yeah, very much so. Gulliver’s Travels is a huge book for me, and one of the taproot texts of the here-be-monsters/strange travels book. But in the case of Gulliver’s Travels, that’s particularly so because there are also these questions of—and again, I wouldn’t necessarily say “language” in a concrete sense, but symbology. The Houyhnhms, obviously, the incredibly noble horses who are unable to lie and find the whole idea of lying extremely strange. But there’s also, in the neglected third book, a group of people who are trying to dispense with the necessity of words by carrying around everything they might need to refer to so they can just put it forward, rather than saying the word. And obviously in Gulliver’s Travels that’s played for his usual acidic laughs, and in my case I wanted to take those two elements of the book, which as I say is an immensely important book for me, and combine them and do what I think SF and fantasy does well—can do well, anyway, I hope it works—is to take something which is prima facie absurd and then have a very straight face about it and then take it very seriously and respectfully, and extrapolate it out as if it were not absurd and hopefully make it not absurd in the process.
You’ve said that you played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. Were you usually the Dungeon Master [i.e., the person who creates the story and runs the game – eds.]?
No, I didn’t tend to DM. Partly I guess it was probably laziness. To DM well is a lot of work. I had endless notebooks full of invented continents and invented races and invented this and invented that—I was starting to codify them with the notion that I was going to do this as a game, but the process of inventing them simply became its own end. And it wasn’t that I had a disinclination to let people play in them, it was just a question of “why bother?” I was getting the kick out of it by doing the creation, and to go the step from the basic creation to actually writing or running a scenario is a very different thing, and that kind of concretization of the world creation for a scenario was something that didn’t have a huge amount of appeal to me.
It’s been seven years since your last Bas-Lag novel. Looking back on those books, what do you think are their respective strengths and weaknesses and is there anything you wish you could change?
I wouldn’t say that I wish I could do anything differently. I mean, I’m sure I can think of a few exceptions, but on the whole each book feels very much to me embedded in a moment and is almost a kind of historical record for me of that moment, so the idea of changing it isn’t really the point, because even though there may be things I would do very differently now, I recognize that that was the way that it was at the time. So for example I’m very aware that Perdido Street Station is an ill-disciplined book. It is not a tightly structured book. And I think I was vaguely aware of that at the time, but I’ve become much more self-critically aware of it later on. But I don’t wish I could change it, because I think that what the people that like that book like about it is not unrelated to that kind of rumbustious ill-discipline and shagginess, which—if you’re lucky—can have a certain charm, but it’s not the kind of thing I would necessarily do now. So I’m very aware that that book is not terribly disciplined.
I think in The Scar—and this is very cruel to make me go through self-criticism—that I was striving very hard to do a certain thing with the prose, and I’m very proud of that book, but I certainly don’t think I had always cracked what I was trying to do. It feels like part of a process to me of which Iron Council was the culmination. And Iron Council is the book of those three that a large number of readers are very dissatisfied with and did not like nearly as much, and I can only say that it is not purely, I promise, in the spirit of contrarianism that I say that to me it’s by some ways my favorite of those three books. And I don’t mean that just to be kind of pissy and ornery. It’s by no means a perfect book, I know that very well, but it does certain things. I think it’s much more ambitious at a prose level, and it’s really striving to do things with the tools of the fantastic that I feel like I came as close to achieving as I’ve ever done.
So there are certainly bits and pieces of that book that I can recognize—this bit is not necessarily well-written, I wouldn’t use that adjective here, and so on. I think in terms of its overall shape and so on that book is the one that I feel proudest of. And I’m not indifferent to reader reaction. I want people to like the books, but equally, I do think that just because a book is not necessarily as popular as another book doesn’t mean you’ve failed within your own terms. And I’ll always try to hold up my hands if I think I’ve fucked something up. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, because of course these books matter to you; of course they do, and you do the best you can, but Iron Council is a book that I’m well aware not everyone loved, but which I feel very, very committed to, very passionate about, and not just defensive.
I’ve heard you say that a majority of readers seem to think that The Scar is the best novel of yours to start with. What do you think it is about that novel that makes it a good place to start?
I have no idea. I genuinely don’t. When I’ve said that, I’ve said that it’s my impression of the crowdsourced wisdom. And I mean that quite literally. People say to me, “Which of yours should I read to start with?” and I always say, “Well, if you don’t read much science fiction and you really want to read some, I would read The City & The City. If you’re open to fantasy and science fiction—you know, you’re not put off by secondary worlds—my impression is that the majority of people—not an overwhelming majority, but a majority—would think The Scar is the best one.” I can hypothesize as to why. I think it is more disciplined than Perdido Street Station; the language is not quite as estranging as it is in Iron Council. I know some people didn’t like the political aspects of Iron Council, which are still there in The Scar, but perhaps a little more muted … it has pirates in it, you know, these are hypotheses, but I guess that possibly it’s that.
When you published Perdido Street Station steampunk was still relatively obscure whereas today it’s a massive cultural phenomenon. What’s your take on the current state of steampunk?
In recent years, I know there’s been a lot of debate about the political aspects of steampunk. Charlie Stross wrote his controversial article about steampunk as an exoneration of Victorian Imperialism, a nostalgia for a certain type of neglected empire, kind of “once more with feeling.” And then a lot of people responded to that and felt he was being unfair. I think the fact that that argument is now out there and there are a lot of people writing, if you like, a kind of altermandialiste steampunk is very exciting. You know, I think that kind of argument can really rejuvenate and spark rethinkings of movements. And I hope that that happens. I hope we get the steampunk version of the Belgian Congo and the steampunk version of the 1857 Indian Uprising and all those things, to really interrogate some of the aesthetic assumptions in that field.
Because of the incredibly fast, voracious cycles of cultural production and consumption in which we all partake, any interesting moment or movement becomes a cliché and then a self-parody very, very quickly. And I do think it is the case that a lot of steampunk has become so much focused on the cool stuff, on the endless replication of corsets and zeppelins and strange steampunky eyeglasses and typewriter laptops. That kind of thing does not interest me very much in itself. It feels like a completely deracinated aesthetic, but if it’s part of an interrogation, and something new is done with it, then that’s great. And it’s like any of these things when they become very culturally prevalent, like zombies or vampires or so on, I think my argument is not that one shouldn’t do them, but just that the bar gets higher and higher and higher. It’s exactly the same for any cultural set of tropes and memes that reach a certain level of saturation.
Tell us about your new tattoo.
It’s a skull with octopus tentacles, or what I tend to shorthand as a “skulltopus.”
When Lev Grossman interviewed you in New York, you said that there was a big whole explanation for the tattoo that you didn’t have time to go into just then.
Well, it’s partly that I didn’t have time and partly because I’m very self-conscious about becoming incredibly boring about it. The very short version is that it’s a simultaneous homage to two, I think, contradictory traditions of the fantastic, which is the “hauntological,” the ghostly tradition, and the “weird” —the what I think of, rather than the “uncanny,” as the “abcanny,” and it feels to me like those have always pulled in very different directions. One to do with the return of the oppressed, and one to do with the eruption of the utterly unknown and unthinkable, and these are symbolized to me by the skull on the one hand and the octopus on the other, and by the different traditions of the ghost story tradition and the weird fiction tradition.
And to steal a term from philosophy—I can’t remember which philosopher it was that used it—I think of the tentacled skull as an “incompossiblity,” and a kind of coagulation of these two non-sublatable traditions. And you can probably now see why I didn’t want to go into it with Lev. Like with a lot of tattoos, I think, it’s tremendously meaningful to me but may very well raise nothing but an eyebrow, or uninterest, in anyone else. But I wrote an article for a journal called Collapse a couple of years ago called “M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire,” which is all about this and has a big section in the back all about the skulltopus and the symbolism of the skulltopus, which basically explains this. It’s available online if you google it and that basically explains my position and my love for this figure in as much detail as I’m sure anyone can bear.
Had you had that in mind for a long time, to get that tattoo, or was it something that sort of came to you and you went and did it?
No. I had been intending for a long time to get an octopus tattoo, because I’m very committed to octopuses. But there was something just slightly holding me back, and then I was writing this essay, and I was thinking about these two different traditions. And then this kind of coagulation of the two occurred to me because of a film by a French marine biologist and filmmaker Jean Painlevé. He has a film called Le Vampire, which has a scene of an octopus crawling over a skull and trying to enter it and become part of it. And I was tremendously excited because I realized what had been the missing element, why I had been holding back—because it was only half the story. And so the moment I thought of that I knew immediately and I never looked back from that. So fifty percent of its quiddity I had already thought of, fifty percent came in an epiphanic moment.
You’ve lived in London and you’ve studied international relations. What do you think about the uprisings we’ve seen recently in London and in the Middle East?
Well, it’s interesting you make the connection between the two, because a lot of people don’t want to do that. And I think you’re right to do so, although I do think obviously there’s very distinct differences. With the uprisings in the Middle East, I don’t think one can generalize too much. For example, with what’s going on in Libya at the moment. While I shed absolutely no tears at all for Gaddafi and his regime, it’s very, very different from what happened in Tahirir Square in Egypt, which was much more of a genuinely grass-roots driven revolution. I think there were strong elements of that in the early days of the Libyan uprising, but as things changed there was a certain amount of inevitable co-opting and steering. And so while I’m very happy to see the back of Gaddafi, I don’t raise a cheer for NATO’s involvement.
So as a generalization I think that what is sometimes being called the Arab Spring is one of the most profoundly important, moving political events of my lifetime. And I find, partly because I used to live in Egypt, but also just because of its world historic importance, I find the scenes in Egypt almost unbearably moving, and I’m kind of on concerned tenterhooks because of the way the revolution has been hijacked by certain elements within the military and so on. Different countries, different situations, but there’s no question that they’ve acted as inspirations for each other. So count me as a big fan.
As to the question of what went on in London, I think you’re right that the shadow of the Middle East was cast over it, and I don’t know that it would necessarily have occurred the way it did otherwise, did but obviously it’s a very different situation. The accusations that it’s simply a kind of outbreak of mindless criminality are sociologically dunderheaded and absurd, and I suspect a lot of the people putting those explanations forward know that. The situation in Britain is pretty bad, our economy is bad, and the people taking the brunt of that, because of very deliberate policies, are the poor and particularly the young; youth services are being destroyed all across the country. Plus in Britain we have a culture of great antipathy to the young; we have had for a long time. It’s very common in mainstream culture and media and so on. It’s very ugly the way young people are talked about in the British media. The phrase “feral kids” is used a lot, which is a phrase that essentially disgraces any mouth out of which it comes, but it’s very, very normal in Britain. And then you combine that with the sense of alienation and exhaustion, and being treated like an animal, and you combine that with a large amount of police harassment and so on in London, which as you probably know was the flash point. Plenty of people, including the deputy prime minister, Clegg, predicted riots for some time. These things are always surprising when they emerge, but it’s not in the slightest bit surprising that it was going to happen at some point, and the idea that you can punish your way out of these social problems is crass, vindictive, and won’t work.
You’re a self-described Marxist. What do you find are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about you when they hear that you’re a Marxist?
That I’m a big fan of the Soviet Union, as was. That I only like books by left-wing writers. And I do get frustrated when people say, for example, “How can you say this? Look at the Soviet Union. It didn’t work.” And it’s like, the tradition of socialism out of which I come has been utterly critical of the Soviet Union for decades, and sees it as no kind of desirable outcome. And similarly I get very frustrated when, if I ever do any kind of political reading or criticism of a book or work of fiction, there will always be some people who’ll say, “Oh well, you’re just saying that because the writer’s right-wing,” and that, I must admit, frustrates me, because I want to say, “Come look at my bookshelves. Come and look at the writers I love whose politics I don’t share. Come and look at the books by Gene Wolfe, by H.P. Lovecraft, by Céline.” That’s just absolutely untrue, and I do get frustrated at that. Those two are the ones that jump to mind.
Tor just re-released your books with a new set of matching covers. How did that come about, and what do you think of the new covers?
There’s been a growth of readers who aren’t necessarily people who come out of a traditional science fiction or fantasy background. And one can decry this as stupid, but it’s simply a fact that some readers are very put off by certain types of covers that they feel are associated very strongly with a certain type of book or literary tradition. And this is why things like Harry Potter and the Phillip Pullman books have “adult covers” and “kids’ covers.” Partly it was a unified look thing; they wanted them all to have the same aesthetic. And partly it was as a way of, I think, trying to encourage people that wouldn’t necessarily pick up a more traditional SF or fantasy-looking book to pick it up, maybe particularly on the back of The City & The City and Embassytown, which had readers who were not necessarily just genre readers.
Have you seen the website Could They Beat Up China Miéville?
What did you think of that?
I think it’s awesome. I mean, what can I possibly say? It’s very sweet; it’s very well-written; it’s very funny; it’s very flattering. It made me laugh on more than one occasion. I like to think there are some people who I would have taken quicker. But, you know, I’m certainly not going to quibble. I was extremely touched that someone went to the effort, and I thought it was fantastic.
Okay, and finally: Are there any new or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
There’s a short story in the Guardian called “Covehithe,” which, I think, if readers haven’t seen that and they like some of the short stories, it might appeal.