An interview with China Miéville

Photo: Ceridwen (cc)

China Miéville is one of the most important writers working in Britain today. The author of ten novels of "weird fiction"—as well as short stories, comics, non-fiction, a roleplaying game, and academic writing on law and ideology—his 2011 science fiction novel Embassytown was acclaimed by Ursula K le Guin, among others, as "a fully achieved work of art" busy "bringing the craft of science fiction out of the backwaters".

We share the same British publisher, Pan Macmillan, and so—ahead of the publication on May 24 of his newest book, Railsea, a fantastical novel set in a world whose "seas" are an endless web of railway lines—I spent an hour with him discussing fiction, fantasy, giant moles, and the limits of contemporary geekdom.

Tom Chatfield: Perhaps because it's written with a teen audience in mind, Railsea seemed to have elements of a fable to me: a lot of stark, archetypical images, from the vision of this endless tangled sea of railway lines to the layered geography of the planet and the amazing beasts flying, crawling and digging through it: monstrous moles the size of houses, so-called "angels", and so on. It made we wonder what the seed of the book was.

China Miéville: I think you're right about Railsea having a more fabular register, partly because it is a book written for younger readers, albeit older readers than [my 2007 novel for young adults] Un Lun Dun. And while on the whole I'm quite sceptical of fabular logic, it does allow you certain things. If you are telling something which has a fable element, it's always on some level a tale twice told. And in this particular book, there is a narratorial voice which periodically interrupts and is telling a story. That can be mannered and awful and winsome; but it can work, sometimes.

Railsea does also, I hope, have that epic, mythological element, in the way that something like Melville's Moby Dick does, which is obviously a big point of reference. So everything is simultaneously itself but also larger than itself.

In terms of the genesis of the book, I can't remember precisely. I think it had an epiphanic moment. But what I'm aware of is a couple of things. One is the very, very silly joke that I've always liked burrowing monsters—Tremors, Burrowers—and I've always loved Moby Dick, and at some point I was amused by the idea of the ridiculous semiotic pun of thinking of Moby Dick but with giant moles instead of whales.

For a long time, too, I've liked the idea of trains as sort of anti-ships. Because the idea of a ship is that it's unconstrained, whereas a train is so constrained; and so I liked the idea of inverting that traditional notion of the rail as a rigidly determined path.

The funny thing is that there is a tradition of railways fiction that does exactly this. We are so steeped in the tradition of railways as a single line cutting through the wilderness. But if, for example, you read Stefan Grabinski or you read Bruno Schultz, there is this beautiful rumination on the sidings of history. Pynchon also has that thing of thinking of time as a proliferation of lines. So there is a tradition you can tap into that completely inverts what has become the cliché, and focuses instead on branching lines, on sidings, on reversibility and on the breaching of timetables—and you end up with a notion of rails that can be an ineffable symbol of potentiality. I liked the idea of trying to honour that alternative tradition.

But that's all post-facto to the basic gag—and it is a gag—of someone shouting "there she blows!" and it's a mole, not a whale.

Tom: Like the taxonomy of whales in Melville's Moby Dick—or like the bestiaries in Dungeons & Dragons, which I know you played when growing up—you do explicitly give us an itemized book of monsters, complete with pictures, in Railsea. This seems to be of a piece with your fiction, in that it's above all about the concrete: cool monsters; detailed, tactile worlds. There's a kind of imaginative over-fecundity that goes with that, which I love in your writing: part of the aesthetic seems to be having things which are totally extraneous to any conceivable plot, just for their own sake.

So in a different kind of science fiction book to Railsea, it might have been a big "reveal" that the source of much of the technology and nature on this planet is debris left behind by visiting alien races long ago. But for you, all the characters know this already, and it's just part of the background to this crammed imagined world—no big deal.

China: I love that point—and I think that it has more than one response. For one thing, you're absolutely right in terms of the privileging of the concrete. For me, one of the main things about the fantastic is that it portends all kinds of things, but it is also always itself. So the difference between a fantasy novel and a rather heavy-handed magic realist novel is that in the magic realist novel, the dragon represents whatever it may be—hope, despair—while in the fantasy novel it represents whatever it may be and it's also a giant fucking scaly lizard.

So there is partly just the joy of that creation. And I also think that I have tried to instrumentalize a certain lack of aesthetic discipline in my own approach to writing. I like this stuff, and I would rather put it in than not have it in. The whole kind of "kill your darlings" cliché of writing is a very good injunction—but at the same time, sometimes I think, well, actually, let that darling live.

As a writer, my assumption is that my own obsessions are for the most part quite obvious and predictable. And I say this with a melancholy shrug, in the sense that I am a 39-year-old leftist British geek who grew up—just like millions of others—on 2000 AD, Dungeons and Dragons, the anti-apartheid movement, anti-Thatcherite politics, pulp science fiction and Dr Who. It's a combination that's very well-worn, and this means that my assumption is that anything I can think of is probably (a) something lots of other people are thinking of, and (b) not that surprising.

There is a particular mode of writing among other people that always makes me roll my eyes, particularly in the fantastic, and that's the "ta-da!" reveal of something very obvious. That's why, taking your example, the revelation of the ancient aliens in Railsea is really done in passing.

But I would go further, and would put a little tiny spoiler warning on this: I think that the end of Railsea is fucking obvious too. And not only is it pretty obvious, but one character says to the other, "you knew this was going to happen."

I don't think this is necessarily a crisis or a problem—you can find ways to negotiate it with a certain good humour and narrative élan. The problem comes if you think that, in the revelation, you have done the job.

Tom: It feels to me that the way many of your characters behave encodes this approach. So, in bad writing, there are several false-feeling ways characters can behave. There's the "literary" bad approach, where characters behave like the mindless agents of a beautiful prose style that's more interested in itself than in anything else. And then there's the kind of bad writing you were touching on when you mentioned magical realist fiction, where this twinkly fairy appears in a desert, and it exists only to perform symbolic actions that the author has decided are deeply meaningful.

But then there is the case when the characters seem aware not only of their own situation, but also of your situation, as an author, and they can effectively help you out. So in your writing, in Un Lun Dun for example, there's that moment when Deeba—a character we think is going to be the heroine's sidekick—looks through the index of a fictional book and finds herself listed there under the heading "sidekicks". She's "the funny one"—she isn't even given a proper name—and she complains pretty loudly about this.

Similarly, in Railsea, it feels like some of your characters have themselves read a book very like Moby Dick, and are much more aware than you might expect of the additional layers of meaning being attached to their actions. So they actually talk about having a "philosophy" embodied in the quest to search after huge beasts that they've designated as their special enemies—and they discuss what it means to have a philosophy, its limitations, and so on.

There's a momentum encoded in this kind of character that makes me feel that you, as a writer, can almost trust them to extricate your imagination from predictability and those naff "ta-da!" moments.

China: You're certainly saying the kind of things I would desperately want people to think. I'm not saying that you can never surprise your readers. But I am saying that a lot of the things that writers seem to think of as surprising often aren't.

In a sense, we've all read a lot of narrative, and narrative is quite a simple thing. In fact, the whole "spoiler alert" thing—and I'm pro spoiler alerts—is something we do despite knowing that if, for example, there's a gun on the mantelpiece in a story, someone is either going to get shot or, if the writer is being a bit radical, someone is pointedly not going to get shot. Those are the only choices, and we can guess both of them, so the end is already spoilt.

One of the reasons I like writing books for younger readers is that I feel more licence to explicitly state some of those things, because the meta-level is more playfully engaged. Although in [my 2011 novel] Embassytown there is also a lot of engagement with these questions of narrative, surprise, and this being a story.

Tom: In Embassytown, I think you actually get your own characters to say, "you realise this is impossible?" about the circumstances they're in...

China: Yes, quite. And I'm okay with this. There is a lot of dystopian young adult fiction out at the moment—some of it very good—but a lot of it revolves around some form of the ending of Planet of the Apes: oh my god, you did it, damn you all, etc. And we all know. We all know that, somewhere, the fucking State of Liberty is poking out from the sand. So let's move on from there.

Tom: You could call this a paradox of genre realism. All fiction is ultimately formulaic, so only fiction that's willing to acknowledge that it's formulaic is actually in a position to go through this into being realistic again. Often, literary fiction invites you to collude in this pretence that you don't know exactly what's going to happen, what's going on—and this can get in the way of having some genuine and unaffected emotion, and being honest about enthusiasms and limitations. Instead, both you and the author are busy playing this game that says we're all too marvellous and sophisticated to acknowledge that narrative has rules and formulae.

China: I wouldn't go for the word "formulaic," because I think that's quite harsh. But what I would say is "structured by protocols". The vast majority of fiction certainly is structured like this. Even genuinely, wildly avant garde stuff has its own protocols. So you do have to start from that position.

Then the way you relate to those protocols and that structure is up to you. If you don't want to fall into despair, you have to cheerfully accept it as a norm and move on. But also—and I say this a little more tentatively, because I dislike very much the self-congratulation that can take place within genre fiction—my sense is that, at the moment, there is a little more space for this moving on within the best genre fiction than within the mainstream of "literary" fiction: a bit less anxiety about protocols and structures. And that gives me a certain hope.

Tom: It seems to me that it's about what tools you have at your disposal for engaging with the present—and that a besetting sin for much contemporary writing is a lack of urgency. Which ties in with the question of where urgency comes from, given that each era has its own structural problems, and grappling with the present is a difficult thing. We're a very individualistic age—and perhaps this makes it very useful to be able to tap unashamedly into group and minority obsessions.

China: One has to tread cautiously, because what we are partly doing is the usual geek trick of self-validation: of validating the geekocracy by stressing that our own fascinations are what make everything work. Having said which, I don't disagree with you, and I think that obsession and passion—any kind of passion, really, meaning seeing the world through a particular prism—are invaluable and one of the most interesting, if fraught and dangerous, ways to live.

Do you remember, years ago, Channel 4 had a programme that Jon Ronson used to present that was on really late at night, called "For the Love Of…," and all he would do is sit down at a table with a group of enthusiasts, and they would just talk for a couple of hours? One week, it was model train enthusiasts, the next week tropical fish. He would just be this ingénue, and he would get them to talk, get into arguments, the micro-politics. And it was intoxicating to watch—even/especially if you didn't know anything about the particular obsession.

The other thing I remember is that, me and my mum, one of the things we used to talk about was a love of specialist magazines. You'd go to a really big newsagent or whatever, where they had a huge selection, and you'd pick up a couple of specialist magazines from an area about which you knew nothing—hiking, model railways, whatever it might be—and very, very quickly you would start to pick up the fact that there are dissidents and mainstreams, all of that. It gave you this extremely passionate window into the "now".

Tom: Today, of course, you go online, and you can see that the Wikipedia entries for something like Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes are higher quality, better-referenced, longer and better-researched than many entries about the Second World War. You have this strange inversion in collective belief and emphasis, which ends up generating a lot more material a lot more confidently around the small stuff than the big stuff.

China: This is one of the bad things about the geekocratic moment. Even speaking as someone who loves geek culture at its best, nevertheless I think the sense of priorities is often skewed to the point of being demented.

Tom: Passion is very distorting. If the only reference you have is the strength of your own feeling, and you don't temper it with something like a sense of social good or importance...

China: Yes, if you don't contextualize it, it becomes disaggregated from totality—and ultimately it's totality that one is interested in, social totality.

Tom: Do you worry about solipsism as a trap for the kind of writing you're doing, the kind of things you're interested in?

China: I certainly do. For myself, it's an ongoing struggle, in the sense that I'm very, very aware of it, and I have a constant anxiety about, you know, the fear that none of this really matters. I think that is a function for me of the fact that I have a political approach to the world, and although I love the stuff that I do and the stuff that I'm into, I also think it's small potatoes in terms of what really matters.

You can negotiate that, you can metabolize it. I do fear my own ability to negotiate my loves and drives on the one hand, and what I think is socially necessary and important on the other. But I don't have an anxiety about solipsism in terms of forgetting and contextualizing stuff, because I'm steeped in a particular kind of political tradition. Seeing the world politically, which is what I'm talking about here, is integral for me, and becomes part of the work.

It's not just geek culture that has this problem, of course. But I certainly think that we are particularly prone to it in the geek world. As manifested by, for example, the preposterously hyper-exaggerated flame wars that grow up over points of aesthetic interpretation or predilection for moments of geek culture or, as you say, the disproportionate effort put into parsing a passable piece of geek culture.

I would read a lot of this symptomatically. This stuff acts as a solace for a lot of people, and I feel that myself. Given my druthers, all I would want to do all day is read books about monsters and draw pictures of them and so on and so forth, that's my drive. The other stuff I do, I tend to do out of a sense of necessity and urgency, not out of a sense of desire.

Tom: I know that you've published your doctoral thesis and stood for election in Britain. Do you have any concrete sense of what you want to do in the future in the political domain?

China: I love writing non-fiction and I would love to do more of it: it feels urgent to me. I certainly don't want to give the impression that I'm saying, you know, my fiction is all just a frippery and I don't care—I really, really work at the fiction, and it matters to me. But there's no question that the relationship between the concreteness of the world and fiction feels to me more mediated than when it comes to non-fiction and description and analysis. So I would like to do a lot more of that, partly because I enjoy it, partly because I think it's urgent, and partly because I want to get better at it.

If you're a fiction writer, you tend to get paid for your fiction, and also I find non-fiction much harder to do. But I have a couple of book projects I am hoping to pursue that are non-fiction, and I would like to spend the rest of my life bouncing between fiction and non-fiction. Although I think fiction will always take the lion's share. It's my main love.

Tom: Do you have a favourite among your books?

China: It will sound like a hedge, because generally I think my answer oscillates between three—can you oscillate between three things?—anyway, it does that. As a quick and dirty answer, the book that I think is probably the most seamless, the one that I think works best in its own terms, is The City and the City. The one that I think is in some ways the most ambitious, and that I've worked at the hardest over the longest time, is probably Embassytown. But the one that feels most kind of like an unmediated expression of my core, and that means the most to me for all its flaws, is Iron Council.

Tom: So Iron Council is the favourite child: it may not be the highest achieving, but you look at it and it's dearest to you?

China: I'm massively, massively proud of Iron Council. I know it has flaws, but I think it does certain things really, really well, and I think it's very ambitious formally. I'm not saying it's necessarily an unqualified success. I'm always more interested in honourable failures than in dishonourable successes.

Sometimes when you hear athletes say something about their own performance, and they say things that sound egocentric, but they don't come across like that because they are just relating to themselves as a machine. And I notice that sometimes, very occasionally, if you write something and you look in on it, you say almost dispassionately with a sense of surprise, "that's it, that's it, that works." I feel like that more with Iron Council than with any of the others.

Tom: This may be the wrong way of putting it, but I read you as a writer who is prepared to be flawed, by which I mean you are prepared to put something out that hasn't quite been pared down to perfect smoothness—because you'd rather be just that bit more ambitious, and keep pushing at boundaries. And I wonder if that's related to your willingness to put things into your books which are literally impossible, or which are deliberately not fully explained and tied up with a bow for readers...

China: For me those are two distinct questions. There's the question of putting things out which are flawed. On that I would say, basically, that I desperately want the books to be as good as possible. But what is true is that—partly as a function of the fact that I'm ongoingly conscious of my own inadequacies as a writer—there is this sense that everything you do is failing. And so the question, in an obvious Beckettian way, is: how well can you fail?

The bet, the wager, is that it is a lesser sin to have failures in the pursuit of an aspiration than to downgrade the aspiration and have fewer failures. I'm not cavalier about putting things out that are flawed; I think I'm more melancholically certain that I'm putting out things that are flawed, and I would rather really, really try at something, even at the risk of more flaws, if the trying matters.

Then there's the question of impossibility, which to me feels like a different thing: essentially the question of rigorous plausibility/possibility in a constructed universe. And I'm for the most part tremendously relaxed about all of that.

Now it is obviously true that there are certain moments for some reader where suspension of disbelief fails, and you get pulled out of the story—you know, YMMV, your mileage may vary—but for myself, I'm really quite forgiving, for two reasons.

One, because when it comes to nuts and bolts, physical stuff, I don't really care about hand-wavium. This is something we deal with a lot in the fantastic. I don't really care that HG Wells gets his sphere to the moon with gravity-repellent paint, I don't give a shit. Some readers really do give a shit—like Jules Vernes did—and it spoils it for them. To me it just doesn't. I don't care: I'm much more likely to be infuriated by psychological implausibility.

Then there is a second thing, which is for me one of the baleful aspects of a particular kind of geek mentality: this desperate desire to dot all i's and cross all t's. In the case of The City and The City, for example, one of the criticisms that some people levelled at it was, how could these two cities possibly have been like this, what was the history? If that pushes you out of the book as a reader, fair enough. When I am reading books that have things I don't understand in them, though, sometimes that mystery is completely part of the point. It's the desideratum, you know. And that disinclination to explain can, if done well, be part of what makes a book feel fucking great for me.

Tom: I glad you mentioned The City and The City again, because for me it feels like the decision not to explain the story behind its setup—you have these two cities that overlap physically, and living in one means being compelled to "unsee" everything in the other city—is an example of a dreamlike or paranoid logic that's important in your work. With the Eastern European setting, it makes me feel that what you're doing is aligned with writing like Kafka's—where what's important is not how things came to be this way, but rather what it feels like to try to live coherently within utterly bizarre conditions.

China: I like that description, and I think this notion of paranoia is a good one. It implies that this is not a totally new invented logic: it's simply an everyday logic that has been exaggerated, which is what paranoia does. It is essentially like cancerously rational behaviour. You extrapolate a general social or aesthetic logic to a point at which it becomes pathological.

Also, I'm very interested in radical aesthetics in general, and one of my loving complaints about the field of fantastic fiction is that there is often an excessive lack of interest in technique. We have had our great innovators—Samuel Delany; Michael Cisco more recently—but for the mainstream of the field, there is at best a lack of interest and at worst a genuine suspicion of experimentalism at the level of prose and form.

You see this very much in science fiction art. It's not to say that you want a book that is like Finnegan's Wake in space. But I think it would be a good thing for the field if there was more of an engagement with the potentiality of experimental and formal avant-garde approaches.

If the reader is having to work a bit, so is the writer. All books are a collaboration between reader and writer—and, as a reader, I don't mind having to work if I feel it's worth it. It's exciting.

Tom Chatfield is a British writer and commentator. His most recent book, "How to Thrive in the Digital Age" (Pan Macmillan), is out now. He blogs at tomchatfield.net and tweets at @TomChatfield