China Mieville is a total dude. That’s really all I want to say. That, and the fact that I’m so glad I dragged myself out to hear him speak at the on , after a day looking after a baby and a broken-legged boyfriend (not to mention a bag snap/yogurt splat incident a looooong way from home). I was exhausted; the couch looked inviting . . . but straight after the baby was put to bed and the boyfriend was left sitting comfortably with a glass of water and the remote control within reach, I sprinted out the door, missed the bus and practically hijacked a taxi to get to on time.
I’m going to rewind a little bit. I started reading China Mieville last year, after a long time being intrigued but never quite taking the plunge. If you’re procrastinating too, don’t waste any more time: jump in! I was mesmerised by the stories inand blown away by Mieville’s imagination. Feral streets! A diseases transmitted by speaking a single word! Vampire-like wraiths that live behind mirrors! (And I’ll never look at the ball-room in Ikea quite the same way again.) I quickly followed up with The Scar and was engrossed and overwhelmed. It’s a BIG book, not only in length (which is considerable) but in the sheer scale of its world and the hugeness of its ambition. I’m wary of introducing spoilers, but I will say that Armada stormed my imagination like pirates boarding a ship and hoisting the Jolly Rodger. It excited me so much that I’m unashamed to use a groan-worthy simile like that! Among Mieville’s considerable gifts (not least linguistic inventiveness, a genius for neologisms and a fondness for puns of which I wholly approve), setting and world-building is Mieville’s greatest. In comparison, the setting of any other book by any other author is made of papier-mache. With Mieville, you never see the scenery wobble. His worlds are fully realised.
Kraken, Perdido Street Station, King Rat and UnLunDun followed, and while none of these has thrilled me quite as much as the one-two punch of Looking for Jake and The Scar, I was still hugely impressed by each. Where most authors have one idea, Mieville has a hundred. A thousand. Where another novel might have a single star burning bright, Mieville’s go supernova. I sometimes find that the sheer number of ideas in his books makes them a little scattered: to take an example from The Scar, one subplot, the plight of the female Anophelii, is almost throwaway, touched on but not pursued, whereas I can see it easily forming the basis of a whole book. But that’s because there’s so much else going on, and, frankly, I’d rather a book had a surfeit of ideas than a drought. To be honest, the fecundity of Mieville’s imagination just makes me jealous.
So, to say the least, I was excited to see Mieville at the Book Festival, especially after the disappointment of his cancellation last year. I wasn’t sure what to expect — I tend not to delve too deeply into authors’ lives; I’m interested in their books, not particularly in them — but I was curious. Anyone who’s seen that great Chris Close profile shot that seems to illustrate every article about Mieville would be intrigued. He looks sharp and flinty and has octopus-tentacle hoops dangling from his ear: the poster boy for the New Weird. But in real life, Mieville looks as delicate as his first name suggests, and he is witty, smart, engaging, self-deprecating, opinionated but not rude, and just downright funny.
I wish I could transcribe the whole evening from memory, but like Matthias in Life of Brian, my legs are grey, my ears are gnarled, my eyes are old and bent . . . So I’ll just cover the stand-out moments.
‘So tell me . . . where do you get your ideas?’
Well, not really. Fellow author Patrick Ness (doing a bang-up job as chair: curious, to the point, and amusing) is too much of a class act to come out and ask that question. But when I think about it, he did cleverly steer Mieville into revealing some of his starting points. His YA books start from jokes — Mieville explains Railsea as ‘Moby Dick — with moles! A-HA HA HA!’ [Goofy laughter Mieville’s own.] Other books come from a more cerebral place, like The City and the City, which was founded on a specific set of ideas. More often, he’s struck by an image — like a city with giant ribs poking up, or a bird man whose ‘wings’ are a wooden framework of wood hidden beneath a cloak — and once he has a few of them, he threads those images together into a narrative.
He’s not a fan of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Goaded by Patrick Ness into confessing a dislike of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Mieville gleefully says, ‘There’s a boat in The Scar called The Morning Walker . . . and it totally gets sunk!’
Fifty Shades of Mieville?
There were fascinating discussion of genre and the snobbery surrounding it, and I like Mieville’s egalitarian take on the issue: obviously different genres exist, and there are traditions or protocols that each follow and which can be subverted or played with in many different ways — all of which are fine. But the notion that there’s a hierarchy of genres and some are more valid than others is nonsense. I’ve heard it said that Mieville wants to write a novel in every genre (The Scar is a seafaring novel; The City and the City is crime; Iron Council is a Western), but Patrick Ness took that to its logical conclusion, asking: who’d like to read a China Mieville romance? My hand went up.
Confirmation that The City and the City and Kraken were written concurrently.
One word: HOW?
Ness asked one of the most fabulous final questions I’ve ever heard: ‘So, China, we’ve been delegates at this Writers’ Conference this week . . . Are there any writers you’ve met and really haven’t liked?’ Sadly Mieville was too polite to answer, but the gossipping fishwife in me would really, really like to know.
One of the things I enjoy about going to author events is the renewed realisation that there are really, really smart people all around you who read and think and come up with questions that never even occurred to you. One of my favourite questions was from a guy who asked if Mieville had come up with a lexicon for Language in Embassytown (A: No, Mieville didn’t want to create his version of Elvish — unsurprising given his much-quoted view on Tolkien as ‘the wen on the arse of fantasy literature‘ — he just wanted to make Language plausible; and he’s interested in linguistics rather than languages). Another was the man who asked if Mieville would ever tackle different mediums, like film or video games. We got a brief insight into Mieville’s experience writing for desktop role-playing games, his enthusiasm for writing Dial H for DC, and his curiosity about writing for video games and the narrative possibilities that open-world games present. I’m fascinated by this too, and if China Mieville every does get round to creating a sandbox, I’ll be there with my bucket and spade.
‘Sometimes I write books just so I can create monsters’
The weirdest, and best, reason I’ve ever heard to write a book I’ve ever heard. And with monsters like the avanc, Goss and Subby, handlingers, Weavers, the Tattoo, the Remade and many more, it’s another area in which he excels. Mieville admitted during the event that character wasn’t primary to his novels, but I think his monsters tell otherwise: though many might be Lovecraftian nightmare creatures, befanged and dripping with mucus, others are sympathetic and strangely beautiful (for example, the poor abused Remade of the Bas-Lag novels). But whatever they are, they are all characters in themselves, and Mieville depicts his monsters with such glory and glee that they’re always utterly compelling.
It might just have been the most enjoyable Book Festival event I’ve ever been to, and, whipped up into a Mieville-worshipping fervour, I ran across to the bookshop to scoop up any I hadn’t already read. But only Iron Council was left by the time I got there, so I can only conclude that Mieville is so popular he did the double: selling out both his event and the bookshop! But I grabbed that lone Mieville book on the shelf, as well as The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and Jeanette Winterson’s new Hammer Horror(!) title The Daylight Gate. Then I sat in a deck chair in Charlotte Square for a little while, enjoying the cool, calm, dark night and reading my new books under the stars.
And then I got the bus home, checked no catastrophes had befallen the baby and broken-legged boyfriend, and went to bed, my head full of wonderful monsters.