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China Mieville : RevolutionSF Interview
© Andrew Kozma
September 14, 2004

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 'em): King Rat, Perdido 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 problems.

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 values.

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 the point?

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 fuller world.

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 stories?

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. Moby-Dick 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 Miéville? Etc.

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!

Once an (in)frequent contributor to Zealot.com, Andrew Kozma now continues his quest for infinite education at the University of Houston. He has poems published, out there, somewhere, over the rainbow, in magazines such as Caketrain, Clackamas, Borderlands, and Cimarron Review, as well as reviews published in Gulf Coast and here. Or maybe there, depending on where you're reading this from. But who knows, maybe RevolutionSF is published in your back yard. I mean, can you honestly say you've checked?

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