Author Spotlight – China Mieville

China Mieville Books

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Human scientists in love with bug-headed kephri women; alien species who communicate in a language  that doesn’t comprehend abstract concepts; sidekicks who must step in to save the world in place of the Chosen One; trains folk who ride the sea rails in search of harpooning giant moles, and invaders from the other side of the mirror – they’re all part of China Mieville’s imaginarium.

It’s always a little hard to pin China Mieville down. Most commonly described as a New Weird or Weird Fiction author, he once made a throwaway comment about how he planned to write a novel in every genre, a comment which turned out to be almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy because ever since then, it has seems as if that is what Mieville has done, whether or not he intended it so.

“Confusion makes people uncomfortable,” Lenny Kravitz once said. “They can’t put their finger on me.” I don’t know if China Mieville, who seems to be a person of very decided opinions, would relish this comparison to the American rock singer, but to me, these two aren’t too far apart – with both infusing a variety of elements of their art into their work, leaving fans and critics at times confused and uncomfortable and a little dissatisfied at their inability to label the work, yet intrigued and always wanting more.

I first discovered Mieville mainly through his name. China Mieville’s not a particularly common name and at that point, all the bookstores were stocking his books in the fantasy and sci-fi section. I kept coming across it so many times and reading so many positive reviews of the books, though not entirely sure just what they were about, that I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a copy of Perdido Street Station, again mainly because the name of the book was intriguing, and also because I was interested in the jacket blurb hints at an interspecies romance and a couple where both the male and female had their own separate vocations and ambitions. (Though in the end, I did find myself wishing Mieville had spent more time developing Lin and her personal story and career, her perceptions of her work and life as an artist.)

Like their author, Mieville’s characters are hard to pin down. The protagonists are all inherently flawed, from the cold and disdainful Bellis Coldwine to the self-centred, slobbish scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin to Captain Abacat Naphi and her relentless, single-minded hunt of the giant Mocker-Jack mole to the exclusion of everything else, even the safety of her crew. Yet, they are all likeable characters, every one of them. You can’t help but admire even the villains, if only because they are so very villainous in the delicious sense of the word.

Mieville doesn’t pussyfoot around, and the initial weirdness and grotesqueness of his books – from the many strange and grotesque species that inhabit his worlds to the cruel punishments of Remade slaves or the odd cults of mystical London in Kraken – yet it is this very weirdness that eventually draws the readers in and leave them wanting even more. Mieville doesn’t hold back on the reins of his imagination and it is this limitlessness of invention that makes his books so unique, not just character-wise but geographically as well, from the strange geographical and cultural divisions between two Eastern European-esque cities in The City and The City to the rousing, rollicking tale of ‘train-ships’ in Railsea to Armada, the floating city of ships and press-ganged citizens in The Scar.

For me, the crown jewel in Mieville’s bibliography is undoubtedly Embassytown. In typical Mieville receptivity, it was the one book by its author I was least certain about. I returned to the Kindle preview time and time again, reading it, debating whether to buy it, then deciding to put it off to buy another Mieville book. Like The City and The City or Iron Council, you’re not exactly sure what the plot is or what the general culture and norms of the society in these books are or even what some of the main characters actually look like (and by that, we’re not just talking general eye or skin or hair colour here). But I’ve quickly learned that trying to figure out and understand the ways and whys of a Mieville world is part of the enjoyment of reading his books. Mieville doesn’t spend long paragraphs or pages explaining to readers what’s what. Rather, he throws the reader into the deep end and allows that they will be smart enough to eventually figure out just what’s going on (which, as mentioned above, is part of the fun of reading a Mieville book.)

When I finally did go back to Embassytown and began reading the book in its entirety, I gradually began to realise that this would probably be one of my favourite Mieville books of all time. The discussion of linguistics and how language shapes cultures and societies and semantics features heavily through the book as humans attempt to communicate with the Ariekei, an alien species who act as benevolent hosts, rather than colonised indigenes, to the human colony on their planet. It also comes at a time where I had just recently finished reading Peter Dickinson’s The Poison Oracle and it was interesting comparing the two books, both of which attempt to investigate the cultural and linguistic differences between two disparate societies, in particular how the way we speak would affect the way we think or view the world, though Dickinson’s book has a decided air of the English pukka sahib lording over the noble savages/unholy natives that lurches on the edges of racism and definite subalternism (granted, it was written in a different era) while Mieville, to his credit, did attempt to steer clear, inasmuch as he could, of the stereotypical noble savage perspective when writing of the Ariekei (slight spoiler: the book also addresses the noble savage fallacy with certain characters seeking to preserve the Ariekei’s language and ways of thinking versus others who seek to help them evolve, yet knowing this would bring about the inevitable loss of what makes the Ariekei civilisation unique).

Mieville is a staunch socialist and plenty of times, his left-wing political views do end up creeping into his books. Generally, though, this wouldn’t come as a surprise as politics often plays a large part of world-building in in SF, fantasy, and in particular,  utopian/dystopian fiction. At the same time, Mieville has addressed this in an interview saying, “… when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have. But I never let them get in the way of the monsters.”

And you get that. What Mieville does exceptionally well is write about monsters and surreal worlds. He does it so well that the reader has a hard time imagining just exactly what a certain character or species might look like – and yet that’s the beauty of it as he leaves it all to the reader’s scope of imagination. Mieville encourages us to stretch our minds and  imagination, and in doing so, I’ve found myself pretty much buying up all Mieville books and devouring them one after another until there’s nothing left for me to read, even the short stories and the novellas, and like the others, I’ll have to settle down and wait until the next book comes out.

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