Conjuring Weird Worlds: China Miéville

"Part of the appeal of the fantastic is taking ridiculous ideas very seriously and pretending they're not absurd" - China Miéville

With Game of Thrones finishing up their eighth season many recent converts to the fantasy genre may be wondering where to venture next. Part of the appeal of the world built by G. R. R. Martin is that it threw out a fair amount of the genres tropes. Gone was Tolkien's condescending romanticisation of the medieval peasant. The tendency to provide 'plot armour' to key characters even facing insurmountable odds was severed with Sean Bean's head at the end of Season 1 (and book one of A Song of Ice and Fire). As such it seems serendipitous to provide an introduction to another unorthodox fantasy writer.

Associated with New Weird fiction, China Miéville is another extraordinary "world-builder". Well-armed from his misspent youth as a Dungeon Master, Miéville's writing tends to provide merely a glimpse of world that one can sense is much, much larger - and details beyond anything contained in published work exist in diaries, journals, and brain of the author. There is a depth to the suggested lore, mythology, ideology and history to these worlds and civilisations that leaves one with a gnawing fascination at the setting without being disappointed that these gaps in our knowledge negatively impact the story telling. New weird is characterised by urban, secondary-world settings that explore the concept of place while subverting the traditional romanticisation of place, and Miéville's writing is no exception. 

For the voracious reader, Miéville's Bas-Lag trilogy is the best place to start. An entirely fictitious world (contrasting to some of his other works which tend towards urban fantasy) Bas-Lag could perhaps best be described as "grubby". You won't find a world where people just happen to be able to live and ponder, adventure at will, set out to find their fortune. Indeed what strikes the reader is that this is a world of industry - one where the cities and populaces are engaged in that familiar churn of work and leisure. Miéville's heroes tend to be either thoroughly working class, urban subjects through to a middle class of academics, writers and scientists, unwittingly thrust into events that borrow from Lovecraftian horror as much as traditional fantasy. Tropes of destiny, aristocracy, and bloodline are entirely rejected. In Perdido Street Station we are welcomed to New Crobuzon, a city state with its corrupt and corruptible bureaucrats, its wealthy factory owners and working classes, its criminal element often press-ganged back into the service of the wealthy. Racial anxieties (though as is traditional in the genre, made allegorical by having different sentient species) fester, class struggle flares up and is crushed intermittently, and Miéville weaves in something that has proximity to being, while never quite becoming, didactic. 

Indeed if one reads these works as deeply political, that should not come as a huge surprise. Miéville has a doctoral thesis "Between Equal Rights - A Marxist Theory of International Law", and has been a long time member of socialist organisations in the UK. To mark 100 years since the Bolshevik Revolution, Miéville even dabbled in long form non-fiction to cover 1917 in Russia with his book October (subtitled "The Story of the Russian Revolution", and Miéville does his best to bring a compelling narrative format to the work). Never fear, however, if you are not sympathetic to his point of view as - to quote the author - if he wanted to say something specifically political he would write an article, not a book. By the same token, if the political and social commentary of fantasy and science fiction genres interests you then try Red Planets, a selection of essays of which Miéville is a contributing editor. 

Ultimately it is the story and the world-building and the fascinating, compelling characters that keeps you reading. It is these characters you invest in, and with Miéville's probing and critical narrative you find yourself sympathising and then trying to reconcile that sympathy with characters who have done terrible things. GoT fans may find that a familiar feeling.

Of particular interest to Christchurch readers will be the attention given to specifically urban settings. Cities loom large in all of Miéville's writing. The feel of them, the experience of walking their streets, the psychological impact of the experience of dwelling in and moving through urban space - a concept applied in our own Discovery Wall - is always at play. Even the second book in the series, The Scar, which first appears like a seafaring pirate adventure, cannot help but find an urban setting - if an unusual one. In Iron Council we return to follow events both in New Crobuzon, alongside the less orthodox tent city that follows the construction of a new railway (fans of the TV series Hell on Wheels will find the setting familiar). Miéville brings a unique rhythm and atmosphere to cities that are as fantastical as they are vibrant.

While primarily a fantasy writer, science fiction fans will find a lot to love in Miéville's foray into the genre with Embassytown. Shorter than the books in the Bas-Lag trilogy, the depth of universe building in Embassytown remains impressive. It's also closer to “Soft Sci Fi” and concerned with the social and the political - Miéville poses some fun philosophical and linguistic questions - but not at the expense of the main plot which remains, as many of his works do, a well-paced, entertaining story. Fans of Ursula Le Guin will enjoy Embassytown, and Miéville's exploration of language with an horrific, alien interpretation of Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms (the intelligent horse race from Gulliver's Travels) which provides space to ponder larger questions (in this case, semiotics) which are often the hook of the genre.

If secondary-world writing is not your thing, however, Miéville's debut novel King Rat, or the more recent The City & the City (I did say he has a thing about cities), may be more your pace. King Rat is set in contemporary London and shares some similar re-telling of folktales with Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. City and the City is set on Earth, but with a fictional pair of city states in Eastern Europe that occupy the same geographical space. Ongoing political hostility has resulted in the citizens of each city “unseeing” the other, as well as its inhabitants, and any puncturing of this membrane of “unseeing” is severely punished. A detective tale, perhaps for those who enjoy crime novels but are interested in dipping a toe in the fantastic. For younger readers, Un Lun Dun is well deserving of its Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book from 2008.

Beyond being an award-winning novelist, Miéville is an excellent public speaker on topics ranging from looming ecological crisis and the promise of utopia, to the future of the novel, to why he is sick of J. R. R. Tolkien. The Future of the Novel talk in particular may be of interest to writers and those invested in the prospects of literature, as Miéville suggests that rather than a system where a handful of (sometimes good, sometimes not so good) authors become multi-millionaires while others scrape to get anywhere at all, that instead a national stipend for writers be established to help the art flourish – in today’s climate an idea that is weirder than his fiction, but nonetheless compelling.

A thesaurus came in useful for me for a handful of words when reading Miéville, but you soon get used to his lexicon and will chew through his oeuvre in no time and join me in waiting (im)patiently for the next book. On the plus side, it will almost certainly arrive before The Winds of Winter.

Further reading

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