China Mieville, Author of The City & The City: Guest-Blogging This Week at Omnivoracious
Omnivoracious is proud to welcome China Mieville as a guest blogger this week. Arguably one of the most important fantasists of the last decade, Mieville made his mark with the insanely imaginative Perdido Street Station. The novel single-handedly reconfigured the landscape of genre fiction with its combination of pulp and the surreal, the political and the personal. In Perdido Street Station and subsequent novels The Scar, Iron Council, and the New York Times bestseller Un Lun Dun, Mieville also remade the idea of city as character. For these efforts, Mieville has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. (As a side note, I can say that in addition to the mad talent China also just happens to be an incredibly nice and self-effacing person.)
Now, in his latest novel, The City & The City, Mieville turns his attention to strangeness set in our world. Part police procedural and part exploration of what it means to live both together and apart, The City & The City is set in the city of Beszel on the edge of Europe. Inspector Tyador Borlu must solve the murder of a woman that may be part of a larger conspiracy.
The novel is an Amazon featured book for June, and has garnered wide praise from, among others, Walter Mosley, who calls The City & The City "daring and disturbing. Mieville illuminates fundamental and unsettling questions about culture, governance, and the shadowy differences that keep us apart." And, unless you've been away from the internet for the last month, you'll have encountered any number of glowing reviews of the novel.
So this week, in addition to Mieville's posts, written while on his recent book tour and covering everything from Tolkien to preemptive literary movements, Omnivoracious will be featuring a video interview with the author. Related posts will cover topics like the work of Alfred Kubin, a major influence on Mieville's book, and much more. Check back daily for an intriguing week of the literary and the fantastical.
To get started, here's a snippet of instant messenger interview I originally did with China for the print magazine Weird Tales, in which he talks about his definition of "weird fiction" and tells us which he likes better--reptiles or mammals...
Jeff VanderMeer: What does the word "weird" mean to you?"
China Mieville: I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I'm teaching a course in Weird Fiction at the University of Warwick, so this has come up a lot. Obviously it's kind of impossible to come to anything like a final answer, so I approach this in a Beckettian way--try to define/understand it, fail, try again, fail again, fail better...I think the whole "sense of cosmic awe" thing that we hear a lot about in the Weird tradition is to do with the sense of the numinous, whether in a horrific iteration (or, more occasionally, a kind of joyous one), as being completely embedded in the everyday, rather than an intrusion. To that extent the Weird to me is about the sense that reality is always Weird.
I've been thinking about the traditional notion of the "sublime," which was always (by Kant, Schopenhauer, et al) distinguished from the "Beautiful," as containing a kind of horror at the immeasurable scale of it. I think what the Weird can do is question the arbitrary distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime, and operate as a kind of Sublime Backwash, so that the numinous incomparable awesome slips back from "mountains" and "forests," into the everyday. So...the Weird as radicalised quotidian Sublime.
VanderMeer: So theoretically people should see "the weird" in every day like. But most don't see it--or aren't prepared to see it, possibly because they're too inward-turning, not really experiencing the world moment-to-moment? Is that what you mean? Or is that too New Age-y for what you're talking about?
Mieville: I'm talking about it as a literary/aesthetic effect--my impression is that a lot of us do experience it quite a lot, in everyday life. But given that part of its differentia specifica is that it is AWEsome, beyond language, expressing it is very difficult. I think a lot of what we admire in Weird Fictioneers is not that they see, but that they make a decent fist of expressing.
VanderMeer: That's the theory side, in a sense, but expressed on a more personal level, what appeals to you most about the weird tale?
Mieville: The awe, the ecstasy. I was reading Blackwood's "The Wendigo" the other day, and the moment when Defago is taken by the Wendigo and wails from above the trees this astonishing moment of unrealistic speech, "oh, oh, my burning feet of fire! This height and fiery speed!", the strange poetry of it, I found very affecting. Of course we all have our favourite iterations of Weird, and for me it dovetails a lot with a love of teratology, so I also hugely love when the Weird is expressed by radical monster-making, the strangeness of strange creatures, but some of my favourite Weird Tales contain no monsters at all. It's the awe and ecstasy that gets me.
VanderMeer: But not necessarily epiphany? I.e., this awe and ecstasy is a cumulative effect of the story or it's what it culminates in?
Mieville: I don't think I can distinguish [between] the two. I think for me the best Weird fiction is an expression of that awe, which permeates the whole thing, but because you can't structure a story as a continual shout of ecstasy (at least not and expect many readers to stick with you) it sort of pretends to be an epiphany. But I think it's the epiphany of realisation--that the real is Weird--rather than change or irruption--that something Weird occurs. Lovecraft for example is always back-projecting his mythos into history. We don't know it, unless we're one of the select unlucky few in his story, but it's not that these things have suddenly arrived to mess about with previously stable reality, but that we're forced to realise--there's the epiphany, it's epistemological, rather than an ontological break--that it was always Awesome.
VanderMeer: Yeah, but you are talking about visionary fiction to some extent--some of it is hardwired with ecstasy, and that's why the best examples are short stories, no? Because you can't sustain that "reverie"?
Mieville: I think that's true--it's much harder to maintain Weird, or, certainly, ecstasy, over a longer form. Which is why these stories are about the revelation--not because it's a surprise (we expect it) but because it's a necessary kind of bleak Damascene moment. There are Weird novels and some brilliant ones, but they're harder to sustain.
VanderMeer: What do you think most surprises your students studying weird tales?
Mieville: I think for a lot of people who don't read pulp growing up, there's a real surprise that the particular kind of Pulp Modernism of a certain kind of lush purple prose isn't necessarily a failure or a mistake, but is part of the fabric of the story and what makes it weird. There's a big default notion that "spare," or "precise" prose is somehow better. I keep insisting to them that while such prose is completely legitimate, it's in no way intrinsically more accurate, more relevant, or better than lush prose. That adjective "precise," for example, needs unpicking. If a "minimalist" writer describes a table, and a metaphor-ridden adjective-heavy weird fictioneer describes a table, they are very different, but the former is in absolutely no way closer to the material reality than the latter. Both of them are radically different from that reality. They're just words. A table is a big wooden thing with my tea on it.
I think they also are surprised by how much they enjoy making up monsters.
VanderMeer: Who doesn't? But you say they're surprised? They think that's too childish to start?
Mieville: Yes, to some extent. It's something you need to grow out of. Or your monsters are only legitimate to the extent that they 'really mean' something else. I spend a lot of time arguing for literalism of fantastic, rather than its reduction to allegory. Metaphor is inevitable but it escapes our intent, so we should relax about it. Our monsters are about themselves, and they can get on with being about all sorts of other stuff too, but if we want them to be primarily that, and don't enjoy their monstrousness, they're dead and nothing.
VanderMeer: Right--nobody likes a monster piñata.
Mieville: Yeah--it's what Toby Litt brilliantly called the "Scooby Doo Impasse"--that people always-already know that they'll pull the mask off the monster and see what it "really" is/means. The notion that that is what makes it legitimate is a very drab kind of heavy-handedness.
VanderMeer: Do you think a lot of writers create monsters, though, that they don't mean literally? I mean, do you think writers sit down and go, when writing the rough draft, "This is going to be a metaphor for 9-11?" Or is it just that readers and academics think they do?
Mieville: Well I think this is one of the big distinctions between genre and non-genre traditions. I think, for example, that when Margaret Atwood invents the "pigoons" for Oryx & Crake, part of the problem with them for me is I think they are primarily a vehicle for considering genetic manipulation, and only distantly secondarily scary pig monsters. I think plenty of monsters get hobbled by their "meaning". The Coppola Bram Stoker's Dracula vampire had to shuffle along, so weighed down was he by bloated historical import. None of this is to say that monsters don't mean things other than themselves--of course they do--but that to me they do so best when they believe in themselves.
VanderMeer: On that note, let's wrap things up with a "weird" speed round or two. I'm going to list two "weird" writers at a time and you'll tell me which you like better with maybe a sentence on why, if you want. Ready?
Mieville: Ok, cool. I LOVE the either/or game. People who say "ooh can't I have both" are terrible cheats.
VanderMeer: Here goes. Jack Vance or Robert E. Howard?
Mieville: Vance because of DYING EARTH. Dying. Earth. And big dying sun.
VanderMeer: Vance or Lovecraft?
Mieville: Lovecraft: (also damn you for making me choose!) Because i) the monsters are revolutionary, and ii) the prose is totally weird. And Weird.
VanderMeer: Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith?
Mieville: Lovecraft. Because CAS, to whom all honour and respect, has a post-Dunsanian sort of slightly sentimental archaic singsongism that doesn't freak me out as much as Lovecraft's hysteria.
VanderMeer: Surprise! Lovecraft or Ursula K. LeGuin OR Ray Bradbury?
Mieville: A Troika? That's cheating surely! Lovecraft. Sorry sorry Le Guin and Bradbury. Because he reshaped a form more radically than either of them (to whom infinite burnt offerings and love)
VanderMeer: Lovecraft or Tennessee Williams? (Both of whom appeared in Weird Tales.)
Mieville: (NO! REALLY???) Lovecraft. Though TW closes up close for that weird play where the guy gets eaten by children--Suddenly Last Summer. Also, William Hope Hodgson is pulling ahead of Lovecraft in my head, increasingly recently, workmanlike prose or not. But that's another discussion.
VanderMeer: And, finally, mammals or reptiles?
Mieville: Please. PLEASE. Mammals Schmammals. In ascending order, it goes Mammals and birds equally, Reptiles, Amphibians, Insects, Fish, Cephalopods...