Toto Funds the Arts arranged for China Miéville to give a reading at the British Council on Monday, the 1st of March, 2010. Of course we went. I was late, to be honest, and so came in at the tail end of the reading – an extract from Kraken. Miéville has a pleasant voice (a tenor? I do not ever ever know how to categorise these things) and I daresay if I had been there from the start I would have found it very fascinating. As it is we shall take it for granted that Miéville’s coolth came through here and it was awesome as awesome can be.
The TFA folks had arranged for some people to ask Miéville a few questions before he was thrown to the slavering audience, which shows an unexpected degree of organisation and general common sense. (I was at Usha K.R’s book launch for Monkey Man today, and the same sort of organisation was evident. My standards, they need adjusting!) One of them – I am assuming the student, had a very young-sounding, high-pitched voice. It set my nerves on edge, and I automatically assumed all her questions were stupid. (They weren’t.) So the rest of this post is going to be a meandering of the questions and answers, with no one but Miéville and myself identified. (I like myself.) This way, I cannot comment on the intelligence of questions. They were all good questions, and Miéville said later he thought he was getting interesting questions in general, in the Indian cities he visited. (Wooo, patriotic pride!)
So. The meat! It was meaty!
I wasted time hunting for a pen and paper, so I am going on gut instinct when I say this was about Kraken, which comes out in June 2010. Kraken apparently began life as a short story, inspired by the magic brooms’ (and Mickey’s, I think) “pitiful working conditions” in Fantasia. What if they’d had a union rep? On the wow-factor note, Kraken is about cephalopods. “I love cephalopods… My favourite cephalopod is the octopus – I don’t have to make a case for that.” (And later: “Now you make it sound silly!” Well, yes. “Cephalopod” is a very silly-sounding word, and “octopus” is no better. These are, in any case, squishy sea-animals with the wrong number of legs and hearts.)
I’ve only read the Bas-Lag novels, so if anything about The City and The City sounds hinky it’s probably because I’ve taken it out of context. tCatC is apparently a novel about two overlapping cities, and they… ignore each other? Miéville spoke extensively over the course of the entire session about fantasy, and the epic, and here he said, “People never know what stories they’re in.” So the protagonist, who is a police officer/detective, never tells us as much as we want to know about the city he lives in – he’s more concerned with the things more immediately apparent to him, and not the things he takes for granted. Apparently the book was a present for his mother (awww!), who likes detective novels. Miéville apparently “auditioned” genres for the novel until he found one that fit, and then proceeded to tell the story according to the protocols of said genre. It was important that the novel not “cheat”.
Someone asked about a connection with King Rat, and Miéville (some silly tall guy was right in front of me, and Miéville was sitting down, so I could not see his face, but he sounded shame-faced, so) shamefacedly admitted: “I only ever have about three ideas. As long as you don’t notice the repetition you’ll be fine.” *(Maybe it was good-humouredly instead. Stupid tall boys.)
Miéville tells us what I’ve suspected for a long time, by the way: he has a rather “combative relationship with readers”, and tries specifically “not to give readers what they want”. (Much is explained about the Bas-Lag novels, yes? I think the Bas-Lag novels were a tangent here.) As Miéville went on writing, he found that he got “more disciplined” as a writer. Not that not being disciplined is a bad thing – Gravity’s Rainbow, he reminded us, was an undisciplined novel. Fantasy and SF tend to have an inordinate amount of info-dumping: the “look at that! and look at that!” – and one does that “hopefully with a certain amount of charm”. tCatC was/is “an argument to those early books.” A lot was said about tCatC‘s structure, and I gathered this much: the narrator/protagonist starts off in this familiar location/geography, and is concerned with the everyday investigations and worries of his job; he moves, finally, to a sense os chaos and via him one has an exploration of cities, both his, the unknown he finds himself in, and I assume, cities in general. The novel, divided into three parts, has some “almost annoying” (I wish I knew the questioner’s name, really) shifts in language tone – my notes are freakishly messy at this point, I’m sorry. Each section of tCatC is “mini-homage” to sub-genres (I hate all these categories, I am confused by them) of Crime Fiction.
A very long question came about whose essence was, “Do you ever create a system that works?” I’m not sure if this was in reference to The Scar, but I vaguely think it was. Miéville talked about SFF, about the vague idea that SFF is meant to be the genre of utopias and dystopias – that they must offer warnings or prophecies (can’t remember his exact phrasing) – he called this a reductive idea, far removed from the simpler, freer concept of “sociological extrapolation”. The Armada, for instance, floats 7 different political systems, and none of them work as wonderfully as a complete optimist would hope they would. Of course this is “narratively more interesting.” “I’m not saying Utopias are boring – that’s attacking progressive thought.” He’d love to live in a utopia, “Bring it on!” (I dunno. I’d always be afraid I’d be Le Guin’s child in a dark basement [if I locate this story online I promise you I will link us there].) Harking back to the question of subverting, or frustrating, readers’ expectations, “The Scar has a very happy ending – a satisfactory ending.” “Being left frustrated is not ipso facto a bad thing.” (So. Many. Bad. Jokes.)
About characters, and authorial control over those characters as he writes them: “You know they don’t exist, right? … They’re not really there.” (You know, this practically begs for [already-written] shorts of characters who step out of the page and proceed to harass their authors bloody. Again, if I find this one online , I’ll link it.)
I do not know what he was talking about when he used the phrase “pornography of melancholy”. It is a lovely phrase. It might have been during a discussion of Literature with a capital L, whether or not Literature-with-capital-L should be “life-enhancing”. (Nope, it needn’t be.) But it is a lovely phrase, and I want to use it in real life, myself.
We talked – I forget how we got here, but Miéville spoke of “gritty” fantasy as opposed to “epic” fantasy. My notes are still messy, and Miéville did not change the world with what he said, but he was very sensible, so I shall summarise as much as I remember. The Gritty is an attempt to make Fantasy more “real”, which makes it all “both more and less fantastic”. Much later, I have, “the oscillation – to contain the uncontainable” – which really was about things like D&D and Cthulu board games, but I think could grow fairly organically out of a description of Gritty Fantasy too.
Epic fantasy, while not in and of itself a bad thing, is more easily abused. “Any narrative is a lie – epics are bigger lies… they’re more baggagy”. I’ve got, in my notes, in all caps: “The Archetype – Licensed Cliche.” (And, in what I suspect are my own notes and not quotes from Above, “character-plot shortcut”.) The Archetypes (again, this is from later in my notes) that familiarity is in fact “a betrayal of the fantastic”. You know the kitchen boy will be a king. It’s predictable. (and nearing the end:) “Epics lend themselvexs very easily tokitsch. Kitsch is a tool of the fascists.” There’s also the issues of who gets cast as demons? What the hell is up with there being a Chosen One, and why the hell does the Sidekick have to be the Sidekick? (Shout-out to Hufflepuffs, here. The spares.) Miéville says he has “a great libidinal draw to the Sidekick,” which apparently is fairly clear in Un Lun Dun – I’m not sure I want to know.
More sensible talking: Marketing, it makes categories. It establishes “specific aesthetics” – or each genre has specific aesthetics – and as long as we remember that they’re “not hermenutical categories but a useful shorthand”, we’re okay. Literature, with a capital L, or “Lit-fic” as he called it (please someone tell me he made it up, it sounds terrible) – does the grave disservice of “making a hierarchy of compartmentalisation”. “Geeks talk about this all the time,” he said, and I thought, yes we do! (I’m looking at you. Yes I am.) “Should I be a bore or a wuss?” (He did fine, and was neither.)
I am skipping loads of notes here, poor you, and poor me. Miéville does not pronounce “Garuda” right, but then again, his Garuda may be pronounced however he chooses. Miéville gets asked about the Garuda in India a lot, as might be expected. But it’s simple enough: “I love monsters.” It’s all very well, as someone who is interested in anthropology and culture, to see what the Garuda stands for to some people, but for PSS, and for story-telling, “I steal monsters and I don’t care what they really mean… Bird-Man: Cool!” The “radical naivety” of “forgetting what you know they’re about” is “more faithful” than if you stuck to the letter of the myths. “Fidelity can be an act of epistemological violence”.
Again, not sure how we got here: I think it may have been after I asked questions on behalf of Larry – couldn’t take notes while I was listening attentively as he answered my question. (Listening Attentively is freakishly hard work!) In essence: Miéville does intend to do more non-fiction writing, and to continue his political work in the real world. (He stood for Parliament in 2001, and lost, and I told him that was very sad, which it is, but there is no way to tactfully, randomly, bring that up in front of an audience.) But “I cannot multitask,” and so for now there are no tangible, set-in-stone plans to do either. He wants to, intends to, and therefore will.
The Bas-Lag novels, I noted (I really, really like me) form a sort of historical triptych, with Iron Council ended on this really tense note. Events radiate outwards from New Corbuzon and fall back in – Miéville said that he would like to write more Bas-Lag novels, but right now has no plans to. Particularly because of the way Iron Council ends. He’d need to find a way to continue this history, this chronological mapping, without taking away from the suspension of that final event.
I think someone else asked him whether he intended to write political fiction, or whether he deliberately politicised his fiction – I forget the actual question. In essence, though, Miéville has been politically aware since he was pre-pubescent, and politically active since he was nineteen. He grew up reading fantastic fiction and being political. For him, the entire question is a non-issue. Which is good to know. But “realistic fiction can’t handle” the ramifications of a political aesthetic argument, whereas the “tools of the fantastic” can be very effectively deployed to do the same. “Political stories are quite exciting stories!” – he just doesn’t set out for that to be his be all and end all.
After we were all given the green signal to leave or hang around as we saw fit, Miéville spent some time signing things, talking to people, and generally being led outside. When I got my chance, I reminded him of the Wotmania –> RAFO changeover, which is when he remembered Ben. (Ben, China Miéville says you should put up the interview!) I forget what I said to make Miéville worry that Ben thought him mean. Gross misrepresentation of Ben, I suspect. (Sorry, Ben.)
Miéville has been touring India for days, but apparently has had no time to see the sights. This – this is a shame. I suggested he run, he said we wasn’t cool enough. I made mean comments about politicians, but apparently he’s “not that sort of politician”. How’re we supposed to know?
Apparently, TFA invited some people (Aditi was one, I was jealous) to meet Miéville for coffee before the event. You have not lived until you’ve heard a clean-shaven bald author with earrings referred to as “China”. (Sorry, China Miéville . I have watched too much bad tv.)
At this point, the TFA people took him away, hopefully to feed him, and Aditi and I went book shopping.
[Edited to Add (and link and proofread)]: As an aside – I think we never once mentioned The Tain or Looking for Jake. I’d be sadder if I’d actually read them, but it’s still a shame.)