Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: science fiction and fantasy author China Miéville.
China Miéville 101
“I’ve never felt like a nihilistic writer, and I’m always surprised when people describe [my] stuff as bleak,” stated author China Miéville in a 2010 interview with The A.V. Club. “I understand, but it’s not how I feel at all.” “Bleak” may indeed be the wrong word to sum up Miéville’s body of work; then again, no single word could. In his 16-year career as a novelist, he’s written 10 books—not to mention a brief foray into comics—that have sifted through then remixed the genres of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magic realism. He’s steeped in the tropes of geekdom, but his vistas are even more dizzying; everything from linguistics to socialism to urban theory is explored and/or deconstructed in his books, and his stylized prose can veer from stark to baroque. And his tone, while sometimes bleak, is just as often awestruck, swashbuckling, or slyly funny.
Miéville hasn’t published any fiction since his 2012 novel Railsea, except for random short stories that have popped up, usually unannounced, via various websites and publications. (A new short-story collection, as yet untitled, was recently announced for 2015.) One of those platforms is his own blog, Rejectamentalist Manifesto, which is only sporadically updated. Miéville has never maintained much of a web presence, or much of a public presence overall, which has only added to his mystique. When the genres zig, he zags, and the results have been powerfully innovative and influential.
Perdido Street Station, Miéville’s sophomore novel, was his breakout. Published in 2000, it established his imaginary world of Bas-Lag—a vaguely steampunk-ish realm where alchemical mysticism and industrial technology overlap—and the city of New Crobuzon that sits at its heart. Built within the remains of some gargantuan, unknown creature, New Crobuzon is a symbol of the book itself; Miéville sought to create a new kind of fantasy that lived inside the husk of the Tolkien tradition without embodying it. In that, he succeeded. Not only was the heady, generously ornate book a sensation when it was published, it sparked a subgenre called the New Weird, one that acknowledged a debt to transgressive fantasists like H.P. Lovecraft and Mervyn Peake. It also launched a trilogy, which would ultimately include one of his most popular books and one of his most frustrating yet underrated ones.
In almost any conversation about Miéville’s work, the question usually comes up: What’s the best novel of his to start with? Answers vary, but one of the most justifiably common is The City & The City. Perdido Street Station may seem like the logical point of entry to his bibliography, but it’s a lot to chew for someone who is not acclimated to his lush, dense style and extravagant world-building. Published in 2009, The City & The City hits closer to home. Europe, to be exact. And the rules of physical reality operate much as they do in the real world. But the book is set in two fictional, Eastern European cities—Beszel and Ul Qoma—that are superimposed. In essence, almost every street and building belongs to both; however, it’s a crime for the citizens of one city to acknowledge the existence of their counterparts, even if they pass them on the sidewalk. It’s an elaborate metaphor for the way urban dwellers subconsciously filter what and whom they see. It’s also a geopolitical statement that resonantly evokes conflicts such as that between Israel and Palestine. At its heart, though, the book is a police procedural. That familiar framework allows Miéville to more easily smuggle the reader into his strange worlds.
Another contender for the title of Miéville’s most accessible work is The Scar. Strictly speaking, the 2002 novel is the sequel to Perdido Street Station. It departs radically, though, from that earlier book in both setting and tone. It begins not in the New Crobuzon, but 10 miles offshore, in a boat that’s departing the city; from there, the story enters deeper waters. Armada is a makeshift city that floats upon the Swollen Sea, a patchwork of ships seized by force yet held together by more powerful forces, both societal and mystical. Bellis Coldwine, the book’s protagonist, is a linguist given work on Armada as a librarian, and she remains Miéville’s most sympathetic, fully rounded character—and also the center of a nautical-yarn vortex that gave readers the first glimpse of the author’s love for marine monsters that would resurface, so to speak, in Kraken.
Bellis Coldwine’s vocation of linguist is an expression of Miéville’s own passion for the field—one that is expressed intricately and profoundly in Embassytown. Published in 2011, it’s one of his knottiest books, and his first foray into hard science fiction; set in the distant future on the planet Arieka, it revolves around the complicated relationship between colonial humans and the native sentient species, a race known as The Hosts. Able to communicate only by speaking two words once in an elaborate system (rendered on the page in split notation that resembles text-fractions), The Hosts ultimately fulfill some of the far-flung philosophical potential that Miéville only hinted at before. It’s difficult in spots, slow in others, but it pays off: This is Miéville throwing everything in his considerable power at a story, a meditation on what it means to be truly alien—and, by extension, human.
Iron Council rounds out the loose-knit Bas-Lag trilogy. Predictably, it’s completely unpredictable. Rather than picking up where either Perdido Street Station or The Scar left off, the 2004 book introduces a new cast of characters and a mind-bending new premise. Miéville, ever the inventor of intriguing new forms of urban organization, imagines a commune of outlaws that traverses the wasteland of Bas-Lag via a locomotive—only that locomotive runs on a finite amount of track, which must be periodically pulled up behind them and laid down in front of them. It’s the closest Miéville has come to the speculative industrialism of steampunk, a subgenre he’s managed to skirt the fringes of his whole career. It’s also generally considered his most difficult book, although it’s gotten an unfair reputation in that regard; it may be bleak and heavy-handedly political in some ways, as many readers have charged, but it’s also profoundly rewarding. Iron Council isn’t Miéville’s only book to ride the rails. 2012’s Railsea, one of his two young-adult novels, proposes a kind of Moby-Dick on train tracks—and while it’s among his least satisfying works, it brims with dreamlike language and imagery.
His other young-adult book, Un Lun Dun, is far more successful. Sprawling and full of odd pockets of wonder and beauty, it’s also illustrated in sketchy black-and-white by the author himself—and more than competently so. As the title spells out, it takes place in an alternate version of London, Miéville’s hometown—a setting that he puts a startling spin on in two other novels, 1998’s King Rat and 2010’s Kraken. Both rank among his lesser works—King Rat is his debut, and the full scope of his ambition had yet to kick in—but Kraken is the closest to a full-out romp that Miéville’s ever put to paper, a mad mashup of almost every quirk, trope, and theme he’s put to paper.
Miéville’s output of short stories has never been steady or strong, but his upcoming collection isn’t his first. In 2005, Looking For Jake gathered over a dozen stories that originally appeared in various publications, including his 2002 novella, The Tain, another evocative fantasy set in London. Another of Looking For Jake’s most distinct stories is “On The Way To The Front,” told entirely in comic-book form (and drawn by Liam Sharp, a veteran of everything from Judge Dredd to X-Men). It’s not Miéville’s only foray into comics. After brief, horror-centric gigs for DC Comics that include a short piece for Hellblazer and an aborted arc for Swamp Thing, he was given his own series: a revamp of the ridiculous Dial H For Hero, retitled Dial H, in which the protagonist, Nelson Jent, periodically enters a magic phone booth never knows what oddball superhero he might be transformed into. It’s exactly the kind of left-of-center property that only Miéville could make work, and his 16-issue run on Dial H from 2012 to 2013 is frequently astounding—but it didn’t sell, and it remains to be seen whether his wordy style can be suitably tailored to comics in the long run. Not that a new novel or three wouldn’t be slightly more welcome. Miéville has spent the entirety of the 21st century to date distorting and synthesizing science fiction and fantasy while tapping into so many of its fundamental roots; at the same time, it feels like he’s just warming up.
1. Perdido Street Station: Miéville’s breakthrough novel feels like a binge; it startles, scares, and stupefies, and its generosity of ideas is breathtaking.
2. The City & The City: Exquisite in its relative simplicity, his most approachable book still requires a big leap of cognitive faith; once that’s taken, it’s gripping.
3. The Scar: Not only does the second Bas-Lag novel spotlight Miéville’s most winning character, it focuses the excess of its predecessor into a tighter, high-seas thriller.
4. Embassytown: The most challenging book in Miéville’s catalog casts the author as a science-fiction philosopher on par with Iain M. Banks and Ursula K. Le Guin.
5. Un Lun Dun: Although ostensibly written for kids, the author’s first young-adult novel is multifaceted, intellectually playful, and wise beyond its years.