This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.
Guest post by Annabel Slater, digital volunteer
China Miéville is an award-winning author of books that nonchalantly resist attempts to place them into neat genres and groups. His books have been variously classed as science-fiction, fantasy, steam-punk, and ‘New Weird’, with a more recent smattering of short stories and a young adult adventure. As such, questions about genre often get levelled at him, especially as he has had a range of definitive successes in science-fiction and fantasy territory – his novels have been nominated multiple times for the sci-fi specific Hugo and Nebula awards, he has won the British Fantasy Award twice, and the Arther C Clarke Award three times. This is in addition to various other awards and nominations.
His earlier novels left their mark. He won many of his awards through his trilogy of books containing his vision of Bas-Lag, a fantastical urban world inhabited by humans, insect-headed humanoids, cactus-people, automatons, aquatic water-sculptors, man-sized falcons, and inter-dimensional creatures, to name a few. The capital city of Bas-Lag has echoes of London’s eruption of twisting streets and rich cultures.
So is this science-fiction, then? There are fantastical creatures and technology. But nobody ever fires a phaser or travels into space, and only his most recent novel, Embassytown, is the only story to be specifically about humans and aliens on another planet. Other books have taken place in modern London and pursued the weird there – I for one am not able to think of the Natural History Museum’s giant squid in quite the same way after the novel Kraken’s steps into cephalopod-obsessed underground cults.
In conversation with China, Clarke Award director Tom Hunter queried the surprise some readers showed that The City and the City (2010), winner of the most recent Arthur C Clarke award which is only open to science-fiction books, could actually be classed in this genre. The book is about a murder, set in a single space occupied by two cities whose denizens studiously ignore each other. Some critics have described the book in terms of Kafka absurdities and Raymond Chandler’s noir-ish detective tales, rather than in terms of science-fiction.
China seemed particularly unfussed about whether his books should be classed as science-fiction or not. He remarked on the cycles of popularity for old genres and developing new genres, and on the criticisms that also come with increased interest from the public readers. Criticisms about one genre could easily be levelled at another, and criticisms about the shortcomings of a modern story could also be applied to books that are now considered classics. Nor does China see why anyone should feel self-conscious about science-fiction’s more incredible concepts. The rules for what makes ‘good fiction’ seem as subjective as the rules for what makes ‘true’ science-fiction. What concerns him is not achieving verisimilitude, but suspension of disbelief. Generally, science-fiction requires a degree of estrangement from reality. Some people might be pushed out of a story by too much estrangement. China himself has no ‘God particle theory’ of what fantastic fiction should be. Personally, as long as he feels safe in the hands of the writer, he loves not knowing what’s going on.
His latest book, Embassytown, is an exploration of linguistics. What happens when humans, who can lie, establish contact with another species, who cannot? Some critics have said that the complex alien language system described in Embassytown would not be impossible. China does not disagree. The question he asks is, does that really affect your experience as a reader? I am inclined to agree, as I am more interested to find out what will happen as the aliens pursue lies with a fervent enthusiasm. It’s certainly no harder than accepting the casual wand-waving and broomstick-flying of Harry Potter. China said he intended for his books to be psychologically persuasive, as well as delivering awe. “Why should fiction’s only role be to present amazingly good characters? Why is that the only thing that fiction can do?”
One audience member asked how his background in studying international relations had influenced the central themes of his books. China agreed that the Iron Council was a chance for him to explore opinions about economics and governance in a fantasy setting, but firmly stated that any other political concepts creep into his books naturally, and just out of his own interest in such ideas. Just like the fantastic elements.
Following the conversation, I asked him about ideas, writing, and imagining – click here to listen to his response (mp3).