China Miéville was only 26 when his first novel, the dark urban fantasy King Rat, was published in 1998—although it was his second book, 2000’s Perdido Street Station, that introduced his fantasy settings of Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon and catapulted him to cult notoriety in the science-fiction world. At the ripe old age of 37, he now has seven novels under his belt, the latest being the much lighter (yet sporadically horrific) urban fantasy Kraken. Miéville may be too young to start looking back wistfully on his career, but Kraken in many ways feels like a summation of everything he’s done to date: Awash in science fiction, magic, horror, the occult, and plenty of mind-bending metaphysics, the book is a giddy playground fitted with almost every fixture of the fantastic he’s installed in his past work—handled with the touch of a veteran writer who’s somewhat come to grips with his own chaotic imagination.
Fun, funny, and full of puns, Kraken also mitigates Miéville’s somewhat justified reputation as a writer whose baroque tangle of prose, ideas, and ideology sometimes gets the better of him. As such, Kraken is a dramatic departure from last year’s The City & The City, a stunning crime noir set in two fictional European city-states that coexist in the exact same geographical space. Kraken takes place in Miéville’s native London—a city he’s taken great liberties with in King Rat and his bestselling young-adult novel, Un Lun Dun—while staying rooted in pop culture in a way that none of his prior books are; among Kraken’s many geek-chic shoutouts are a working Star Trek phaser and references to famed British sample-punk band Pop Will Eat Itself. The week of Kraken’s release, Miéville spoke with The A.V. Club about self-consciousness, nostalgia, and what it was like toying around with the mack-daddy of all zap-guns.
The A.V. Club: The City & The City came across as a careful, tightly controlled book. Kraken, on the other hand, feels much more like an eruption.
China Miéville: [Laughs.] I was wondering how you might gloss that over. Kraken is a very undisciplined book. That’s a gamble. If it doesn’t come off, it’s disastrous. But there are pleasures, I think, to a meandering lack of discipline that you can’t get the other way, and vice versa. You gain something and you lose something. My second book, Perdido Street Station, was the one that a lot of people really, really liked, and it was tremendously sort of rumbustious and ill-disciplined. I feel like I’ve been getting increasingly disciplined since then, and some readers seem to miss that kind of amiable chaos. What I wanted to do with Kraken is tap into what you’ve kindly called an eruption. I wanted to indulge that. It does have a very different feel than The City & The City. It obviously won’t work for everyone, but I always think about books like—and I don’t mean this hubristically—Gravity’s Rainbow. If Gravity’s Rainbow is anything, it’s kind of this dreamlike meander. The idea of saying to Pynchon, “You know, you need to tighten this up,” it would destroy it. Kraken was an effort to tap into that same kind of pleasurable ramble. In some ways, Kraken is more like Perdido, whereas The City & The City was a departure. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to do a lot more of. In some ways, this was getting back to what I was better known for.
AVC: After the tight discipline of The City & The City, was it a relief to be able to cut loose?
CM: No, not really. It felt strange, because the drive of that kind of rumbustiousness is different from book to book. When I wrote Perdido, I wasn’t really thinking about it in those terms. I was 10 or 11 years younger, and I was splurging. I think that’s why people liked that book. Part of its charm is its uncontrolled splurge. Kraken is actually much, much more controlled and carefully constructed than that. To a certain extent, it was very deliberate and self-conscious. It didn’t feel like a relief. Although it seems very different than The City & The City, it was, believe it or not, quite assiduously constructed in those terms.
AVC: Did it feel like a return to form in any way?
CM: If anything, it felt more nostalgic. It was a return to a kind of prose that I feel I’ve been gently moving away from over the years, almost a “once more with feeling” kind of thing, even slightly melancholic in that way.
AVC: Kraken reads like a mix of almost everything you’ve written before: the London underworld of King Rat, the sea monsters of The Scar, the police procedural of The City & The City, even some of the wordplay of Un Lun Dun. Was it meant as a culmination?
CM: It did feel, for a variety of reasons, like the end of a certain phase of my writing. It was a revisiting, almost a controlled coagulation of all those different things. It wasn’t set in New Crobuzon, but it did have the same sprawly vibe as those books. And Kraken itself is much more chatty than the previous books. The narratorial voice talks a lot to the reader. The book will say things to you. That’s a technique that can be completely unbearable, but if you can get it right, it gives you a certain kind of feeling that you can’t necessarily get any other way. I thought I could do that because Kraken is a kind of revisiting. Like I said, it’s almost melancholic in a certain way, kind of like a punctuation mark, a sort of breathing out or something.
AVC: Your work has lightened up considerably since the extreme earnestness of Iron Council. Even The City & The City has touches of humor, and Kraken has a strong comedic undercurrent. Was that a conscious turn?
CM: I think so, very much. I hope it doesn’t read as self-conscious, because I don’t like self-conscious fiction. It’s not a drive for me. But I think it would be impossible for it not to be self-aware. Of course, one is much more self-aware 12 years into something than at the beginning. That’s why there are a lot of, I hope, affectionate jokes about the kind of geek culture that I’m around. Those references are thrown in partly because we geeks love references—what do you spot, what do you get? It’s interesting to hear Iron Council described as earnest, although I wouldn’t dispute it. I hope the book felt serious. It was a very important book to me, and I took it tremendously seriously. I know a lot of people didn’t like it much, but it was a book I stand by very much.
I’ve never felt like a nihilistic writer, and I’m always surprised when people describe the stuff as bleak. I understand, but it’s not how I feel at all. But with Kraken, I did want to do something more relaxed. It’s a shaggy-dog story. Well, a shaggy-god story. [Laughs.] It’s a game. It’s playful. It riffs off London, and it does have some wordplay. It’s a comedy. If you’re riffing off those aspects of geek culture that are so well-established, it’s impossible not to tread paths that have been done before. You can either retain a kind of ingenuous, wide-eyed attitude and pretend you’re doing something new, or you can just acknowledge it and play with it. The end of the world, the apocalypse? Sure, we’ve all seen that a thousand times before. You might as well laugh at that, even as you try to take it seriously and do something new with it, as well. But I do feel that Kraken is a comedy all the way through. A fairly eschatological one.
AVC: You mentioned the geek-culture references in the book, and the most glaring one is the Star Trek phaser. When that idea popped into your head, did you have any second thoughts about putting it in the book?
CM: You mean, “Could you not have restrained yourself?” [Laughs.] I’ll tell you, I’ve never particularly been a Trek person. I feel about Trek the way one feels about known, vaguely liked, but rather distant members of one’s family. I have respect for it, but it was never part of my cultural background the way things like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 were. That said, you don’t spent a certain amount of years in science fiction and not be saturated in Trek. It does have kind of a cultural presence in a way that probably no other piece of science-fiction bric-a-brac does. And I like it fine. I have no bad feelings toward Trek. But to some extent, that whole joke in Kraken—and this is me indulging my own amiable bickering in the field—is about the fact that there’s a whole generation of NASA physicists who were inspired by Star Trek. You hear this all the time, and it’s often used as a piece of evidence by geeks of my tribe to justify science fiction. “Look, it’s okay, we turn into serious and productive members of society.”
I don’t dispute that a lot of physicists really enjoy Star Trek, but I don’t agree with the idea that Trek—or any science fiction—is in some way a serious scientific endeavor. I am of the opinion that science fiction, whatever it thinks of itself, has very little to do with real science. That’s just a fond ideological impertinence we’ve built up over the years. It’s actually completely bogus. There’s nothing wrong with that, though, and to that extent, I wanted to use Kraken to play a kind of game by simply having this argument about Trek. Making it a wizard that activates the Star Trek phaser rather than a scientist was just my way of completely flipping that justification, which is wholly predicated on this slightly neurotic assertion of rationality—of which, of course, magic is the enemy. Fine, let’s just turn it on its head. I’m aware that all these things risk sounding very professorial, but it allows me to literally have a zap-gun in the book.
AVC: Not just a zap-gun—the zap-gun.
CM: Well, quite. The granddaddy, the mack-daddy, of all zap-guns. That noise it makes, that science-fictional noise, is like the noise of the TARDIS. We all know exactly how it sounds, but it’s completely impossible for the human vocal chords to mimic it. There’s a certain set of noises that you have in science fiction that are both absolutely familiar and completely un-representational, and the sound of a phaser is one of them. Unlike the sound of a TIE fighter, which with a bit of practice, you can do pretty well.
AVC: Besides the Star Trek references, there are nods to pop culture of all kinds in Kraken, more so than any of your other books set in the real world. One of the many music groups you mention is Pop Will Eat Itself, which is also name-checked in your acknowledgments alongside more obvious influences like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. How did PWEI rate as an inspiration?
CM: In every book I write, I try to name-check the most prominent influences, or the most prominent conscious influences. The Poppies were a big thing in the book for a variety of reasons. It’s impossible for me not to hear their music without feeling nostalgic, and as I said, Kraken feels like a rather nostalgic book. But more overtly, I was influenced by their whole method of syncretic, über-geek coagulation. They used sample technology, only without any of the stripped-down rigor of late-’80s and early-’90s hip-hop. They just kind of threw everything into a dustbin and stirred. It had that incredible enthusiasm of geek culture toward things we love. Kraken in many ways felt the same. It’s a book constructed of samples, and that whole idea was looming as a heuristic. Kraken is very aware of itself and its own ridiculousness, hopefully in an enjoyable way. But part of that was also based on a pun. One of the Poppies’ great songs is “Wise Up! Sucker,” and you know, what defines a squid more than its suckers?
AVC: Oh, man, that’s bad.
CM: [Laughs.] That was almost the epigraph. When we deal with squid and octopi in weird fiction, there’s always this post-Lovecraft, overdetermined sense of awe and majesty. We’ve seen it before, many times. I still want to get that awe, of course I do, but tapping into Pop Will Eat Itself was a way of saying to myself, “Wise up, sucker.”
AVC: With all the pop-culture signposts and London scenery, Kraken is more entrenched in the here-and-now than any of your books since King Rat. Is there something perversely liberating about building a fantasy world within the real one?
CM: Yes, there is. But as with all these things, you gain and you lose. You can make certain things possible that you can’t do in a more overtly fantastic setting, but you also remove certain possibilities. King Rat felt much more consciously, directly embedded in the specificity of London. Kraken is set in London and has a lot of London riffs, but I think it’s more like slightly dreamlike, slightly abstract London. It’s London as a kind of fantasy kingdom. Although Kraken is obviously a very London book, it doesn’t feel grounded in London the way King Rat does. It’s just as negative as it is positive. It isn’t about “What did I gain by setting this book in the real world?” It’s more a question of “This is what I would lose if I set it in Bas-Lag.” Some people really want that. It’s a question I get asked a lot: “When are you going to do a new Bas-Lag book?” It’s a setting I really love, and I almost certainly will do more stuff there. But I think it would be much, much worse to do too many Bas-Lag novels than too few. I worry about that tendency we have to demand more of the thing we love, and in getting it, spoiling it. I don’t want to do that. For the first couple of Bas-Lag books, the pleasure of creation was a big part of it, whereas now, I think it would be lazy for me to use a default setting of Bas-Lag. The Bas-Lag setting would have to be very necessary to the book, and in the absence of that, I would so hate to become a New Crobuzon factory. So I wanted to steer away from that. I couldn’t do the particular kind of religious riffs I used in Kraken if it was set in a world where squid didn’t have the same cultural play they do in our world. In many ways, this is a London Natural History Museum Book. It was born out of the fact that they got a giant squid, and they put it in a tank, and it sits in the middle of the Darwin Centre. That was the spur, more than anything else. I just hope they don’t take objection with the merry hell I played with depicting their working environment.
AVC: The City & The City was marketed as a book with a lot of crossover appeal between fantasy fans and mainstream fiction readers. Kraken, though, is steeped in the fantastic. Do you feel more comfortable in the geek world?
CM: The order in which books appear can be misleading a lot of the time. Kraken and The City & The City were written more or less simultaneously. It wasn’t really a question of The City & The City causing a retreat to Kraken. That said, of course people are aware of the order of their release, and that’s likely how they’re to be perceived. The City & The City is much easier for someone who feels alienated by overt science fiction. I often have people tell me, “I don’t really read that sort of thing, but if I were to read something of yours, which book should I start with?” The City & The City is the book I would give people who don’t have a background in the genre. I was quite pleased with the order in which these two books came out. As I was working on Kraken and preparing it for release, it began to feel more and more like a present for the hardcore fans, the ones who had been reading my stuff since Perdido. Some of them I know felt like, “Why is he dabbling in this kind of mainstream-y stuff like The City & The City?” Now I obviously don’t agree with that description, but that’s still a group of readers to whom I have an enormous loyalty, and I wanted to give them something that was very much an homage and a paean to that kind of geek world. The City & The City looked outward, and Kraken says, “I’m still China from the block.”