SPOILER WARNING: At the request
of various authorities (i.e. The Author) we include this spoiler
warning to WARN YOU that this interview will SPOIL some of your
enjoyment of China Miéville's books, especially Iron
Council. So PLEASE make sure to read his books before reading
this interview. You have been duly warned. Any spoilage from
this point onward is your own responsibility. Perhaps you should
make sure to close the refrigerator door.
China Miéville is the author of four books (count
Street Station, The
Scar, and, most recently, Iron
Council. He has won the Arthur C. Clarke, British Science
Fiction, and British Fantasy awards and, he will be the first
to let you know, is British. Also, he reads Steven Brust. All
those facts combined, it is a small wonder then that he's an
all around nice guy (if sources are to be believed). At 2004's
San Diego International Comic Con he agreed to be interviewed
by a complete stranger. Luckily, I stole that stranger's identity
and bring the resultant interview to you, our wonderful readers.
Andrew Kozma: First off, I'd like to welcome
you to the readers of RevolutionSF. Thank you, China, for . . .
uh . . . well, sitting in front of your computer
and typing halfway across the world to me.
China Miéville: It's entirely a
pleasure. RevolutionSF is one of the Web sites I think is
doing a great job with cutting-edge sf, so I'm very flattered
you all want to chat. And I like typing.
Andrew Kozma: Which, as we planned, leads
into my next question (wait for it). I know you've been on tour
recently, for your new book Iron Council, and I assume
that the tour has interfered with your writing process to some
(probably large) degree. What is your writing . . .
I mean, typing process, normally?
China Miéville: I get asked this
much more often than I'd have imagined, and sadly I don't
have a nice simple answer. When I'm working hard I can write
from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. — I did that for about two months
to finish Iron Council. Then there are other times
when I'll sit at my disk and fart time away. Then there are
days that I'll be enormously productive mentally, but not
actually do any, you know, writing. It just varies hugely.
The only thing I can be sure of is that the earlier I start
writing in the day, the more I'm likely to do per hour.
Andrew Kozma: Well, for the rest of the questions
I'll try to either produce one that you're not asked often,
or that has a nice simple answer. (For those desperately in
need of a nice simple answer, check out RevSF's recent article
on pudding.) Do you like touring?
China Miéville: I do like touring,
yes, but it's hard work. It involves a lot of getting up at
4:30 and 5 a.m., to catch planes and stuff. Having said which,
I don't think it's very dignified for writers to complain
about their tour schedules. My god, we should all have such
Andrew Kozma: In a similar vein of problem,
do you find it strange for writers to have fans? And have you
encountered a fan who seemed to claim more ownership of your
books and characters than you do?
China Miéville: I've had one slightly
odd experience where a reader told me that I'd got Iron
Council all wrong, and that the way it should have gone
was . . . and he proceeded to lay out, in some
considerable detail, the plot that would have worked, which
entailed totally different characters, etc. I was rather nonplussed.
Sounded like a decent book, too. Just not mine. As to the
question of fans more generally, I don't think it's that odd.
It's very flattering, indeed.
I mean, sure, if people become creepily obsessed, and there
are writers who have fans who don't make it very easy to behave
normally, and they deal with that hard situation with varying
degrees of grace.
Andrew Kozma: I guess the question about
oddness comes from the fact that writing is a lone experience,
one that you have with the page directly. So when you, as you
do, have several books out in print, there are a number of people
reading them — ideally — and having some sort of relationship
with the book. A relationship you don't share, of course, until
you meet them in person as fans.
China Miéville: Ah, right. Yes,
that's very odd. I mean I don't really honestly believe anyone
reads my books, except maybe my family, so I'm always astounded
when I meet people who do. And who've thought about them.
And have opinions and everything. Yes, that is all very strange.
Yes. I think it was Betty Friedan who said that when you've
written a book, you want to follow it into the house of everyone
who buys it and stand over their shoulder watching anxiously
while they read, interrupting to make sure they understood
everything. If I could get my head round the fact that people
genuinely read the books, I think I'd feel that way.
Andrew Kozma: That's a great idea, the following
into people's houses, though the making sure they understand
everything is a little . . . controlling? Handholding?
What I think is so great about writing is that each person develops
his or her own experience and understanding of the events. In
a way it's like a play — each reader has his own production
running along inside his head.
China Miéville: Well, absolutely.
It's not so much controlling as wrong-headed. There is no
right way to read a book, and the author's opinion that they
hold the key is often just incorrect. Having said which, I
do think sometimes having a chance to explain yourself would
help readers enjoy the book more. But tough. . . .
Andrew Kozma: True. Besides, that might take
up all your time that could otherwise be spent writing.
In a way that's similar to much of Neil Gaiman's work, your
worlds seem dominated by the trappings of city life. Even when
the action and the narrative are clearly placed outside of the
city, in the wilderness, the city follows. Cutter constantly
feels that New Crobuzon is following him. On a related note,
the most dangerous part of the world, the cacotopic stain, is
the only part of the books where there is no city, town, village,
concentrated life whatsoever, and this landscape is only shown
to us through the veil of the Iron Council, a city itself. This
leads to twinned questions: Did you grow up in London? And what
do you find so fascinating about cities?
China Miéville: Yes I did (London).
And I find cities fascinating because they are palimpsests
of culture, architecture, history, ethnicities, politics,
and just about everything else you can think of. I love the
way you walk down a street in London and you are walking down
a discombobulated mess of history, a 17th century building
next to a 1950s towerblock next to a weird glass-and-steel
'90s travesty, etc. And the sheer mass of people means that
the kinds of political and social concerns that interest me
are thrown together into a peculiarly sharp way. And I just
love the sheer cosmopolitan-ness of cities. The best cities,
that is. And the way each is distinctly its own, but that
they also share some kind of citiness thing.
Andrew Kozma: They are such a mess of concentrations,
elements thrown together. Somehow, with Iron Council
I found the political/social elements more clearly than in either
The Scar or Perdido Street Station. Perhaps
because the stories of the Caucus in New Crobuzon alternates
with the Iron Council, what directly results is a clash of different
political values and social possibilites. Was it a concern of
yours to focus more directly on political structures and arrangements
in this novel? Even though these elements were in the other
books, they more seethed in them, like explorations of a model,
rather than a clash between two valid and strong sets of opposing
China Miéville: Yes, absolutely.
I was very conscious that Iron Council was the most
overtly political novel I'd written. I'd been planning it
since I was writing Perdido Street Station, and I
knew that the third in this series would address certain of
the political models and issues I'd been thinking about and
dealing with in the previous two books, but in a much more
overt and concrete way.
As a socialist, it's pretty obvious what my political concerns,
and potential models, and so on, are going to be, and part
of me liked the sheer perversity of trying to write a gripping
fantasy novel about trade union politics. But also, and more
importantly, this stuff is absolutely central to my life and
my approach to the world, and I wanted to see how seriously
I could deal with them without hurting the fiction. Because
it was always very much in my mind that the fiction had to
work as fiction. For readers who either don't give a shit
about politics, or who virulently disagree with me, the book
still had to work as a story, and I hope it does. But I wanted
to have that cake, and eat the politics too.
Andrew Kozma: I think it works. Especially
in that the novel can not be taken as polemical: Who loses?
Which power fails to sustain itself? These questions can't be
answered without ignoring specific elements in the novel. I
was particularly struck with the vision of New Crobuzon as an
imperial power, and how the war against Tesh can be read as
a comment on so much of recent events in the world. I mean to
say, the real reason I'm struck by this is that the world in
the novel is so much its own that it can't be reduced to allegory.
China Miéville: Well, I'm very glad
you thought that. I, like Tolkien, 'cordially dislike' allegory.
It's inevitable that SF/F/H will operate at a metaphorical
level, so readers will read some of the things as 'about'
this or that thing in the real world, and that's all to the
good, but the idea that it 'really is' this or that thing
seems to me to be a betrayal of the fantastic subject matter.
These stories have to believe themselves. If they don't, what's
To be prosaically specific for a minute, the Iraq war wasn't
kicking off when I first started writing this, so the Tesh
War stuff wasn't intended as a direct parallel. But of course
as it went on, inevitably that metaphorical element starting
resonating, so it's not surprising that readers feel that's
partly what's being talked about. But it's not 'really about'
the Iraq War. If I want to talk about that, I'll just fucking
talk about it. It is both something which has certain metaphorical
resonances, and also something which is absolutely and literally
true in the world of this story. Allegory would be to betray
that literalised uncanny that the fantastic genres do so well.
Andrew Kozma: The next couple of questions
touch on that point, the point of a work, a world, living in
and of itself. The question about cities earlier seems central
to your novels. Each city you create has a different personality:
the subdued anarchy of New Crobuzon, the despotism of Armada,
and the full-blooded democratic-socialism of Iron Council. How
did each evolve? It almost seems as though your novels are based
on and around the cities which are their special focus, rather
than the characters or the plot being the starting point.
China Miéville: There's certainly
a truth to that, but it's also the case that New Crobuzon
is the centre of gravity. It's the übercity of my cities.
I don't think of Armada as despotic, so much as a kind of
petri dish in which variously cultured political, um, cultures
coexist uneasily. But yes, your point remains and is valid.
I knew that I wanted each book to focus around a city, and
I wanted each city to have a very different feeling, but even
in The Scar where you don't see New Crobuzon at all, it's
very much the absent centre. In Iron Council, we actually
permeate the membrane between New Crobuzon and the world it's
in, which has remained unbroken in the previous two books
(one we were hermetically sealed inside, the other we were
kept out). In Iron Council I wanted to embed New Crobuzon
in the world, and having the story move in and out of the
city, along with certain characters, was a way to do that.
But in each case, I'm conscious of each city or setting being
an important character.
And in each case, yes, I started with a sense of the setting.
Before narrative, before specific characters.
Andrew Kozma: First, before the next question,
a compliment: I feel like you are a master at creating worlds.
My theory is that it has to do with a confidence in details,
always fragmentary, that don't worry about complete explanations.
For example, the evocative richness of the Teshian monks of
the Moments, each sect hinted at in a name and a detail that
lets the imagination fill in the rest. How do you go about creating
a world both believable and engaging?
China Miéville: Well thank you.
I think you've put your finger on something very important,
which is the confidence to not feel you have to explain everything.
You can never, possibly, depict a whole world, so you shouldn't
bother trying. And the hinted-at detail, which then isn't
fleshed out, can be enormously useful as a way of instilling
a kind of culture shock in the reader, which is a technique
I like very much. I often mention things in passing. They
may get fleshed out later, but it's not to be expected. Partly
that's because in some cases I don't know the answers myself.
Usually though I do, but I just don't want to lay it out,
because it would be banal to spell it out. I think that refusal
to explain everything ironically gives you a feeling of a
Andrew Kozma: In Perdido Street Station
there is definitely a judgment made in criticism of 'adventurers,'
the traditional heroes of most fantasy. In that book they are
portrayed as highly skilled mercenaries that have no real concern
for anything but themselves and getting the job done. How do
you see your novels working inside and around stereotypes and
expectations of fantasy?
China Miéville: That's actually
more specifically a cheerful and affectionate critique of
the 'adventurers' of role-playing games, who, when one thinks
about it, are mercenary grave-robbers and psychopaths. But
certainly, the more general critique of the stereotypes of
fantasy is something I'm very fond of. I think we risk exaggerating
the radicalism of that critique at our peril, though — there's
always been plenty of fantasy that didn't replicate the third-fourth-fifth-sixth-hand
riffs on Kings n Dragons n Maidens n Barbarians that one associates
with fantasy. The fact that there's still loads of fantasy
that unquestioningly takes that shape is a shame, but there's
masses of much better stuff too. But yes, I admit, when I
wrote Perdido Street Station, I set out to write
a fantasy that was still a fantasy, but that inverted many
of the clichés — urban not rural, capitalist not
feudal, dirty not noble, etc.
Andrew Kozma: Actually, I was thinking of
role-playing games but, somehow, kept myself from mentioning
them because I thought, you know, as a fantasy writer, you might
be . . . um, removed from that? Silly me. Anyway,
as we wrap up I have two more questions. The first deals more
with your career as a writer. You have four novels, the last
three of which are based in the same world — even if concerned
with vastly different places and times. Are you afraid of being
caught by your own creation, the demand for (and success of)
your novels discouraging your from experimentation with other
China Miéville: Yes I am, which
is partly why, though I dearly love the world of Bas-Lag,
the next book I'm writing isn't set there. I feel like I need
to take a couple of books off it. I'll go back again later.
And hopefully do all sorts of tie-in stuff. The bestiary,
the encyclopedia, etc. But also more novels. But I don't want
to become a Bas-Lag/New Crobuzon machine, so I'm doing something
different for a while.
Andrew Kozma: I'm excited to see where your
creativity leads you. And, now, for the ultimate question I'm
going to follow in the tradition of RevolutionSF's hard-hitting,
revelatory journalism. Have you ever given thought to the relationship
between the names Miéville and Melville?
China Miéville: For damn sure yes.
changed my world when I was 18. Bartleby
the Scrivener rocked me hard when I was 29. Man's
a genius, and we're one letter apart. Coincidence? I think
not. Have we ever been seen in the same room at the same time?
Nuh uh. What is the secret of mild-mannered reporter China
Andrew Kozma: Well, thank you for your time.
I know you've got to get back into writing or, you know, partying.
Whatever it is you do at this time in England. Any final words
for the reading public, Mr. ahem Miéville?
China Miéville: At this time in
England we tuck our little selves up in bed and sleep the
sleep of the just. Final words for the reading public? Go
out and buy The Course
of the Heart by M. John Harrison, soon to be republished
in the U.S. by Night Shade Books. It is a shamed bookshelf
that doesn't have a copy on it. And thank you!