China Miéville: The Hunk of Science Fiction

This is the second in a series of spotlight articles on authors and works of genre fiction.  In the first, I looked at Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and attempted to define genre fiction.  I failed, of course, as all endeavours to define ultimately do.  I promised this article on China Miéville for last month’s issue of SB, but that didn’t happen.  I apologize for that, but here it is, better late than never.  And to deliver on the headline’s promise, here’s a lovely snapshot of China from the back of his latest novel The City and The City.


It’s easy to see why China’s name renders many a fan-girl (and fan-boy) weak in the knees.  But China is far more than a face, a set of hoop earrings, and a chiselled six-foot-something body.  His work has effected a profound change upon the landscape of contemporary science fiction and fantasy.  I’ve often heard him referred to as the god of British steampunk, though China shies away from this label, preferring to call his work “weird fiction,” and I presume he makes no claims to god-hood.

I first discovered China’s work in my final year of high school when, by serendipity alone, I plucked Perdido Street Station off a bookstore shelf.  Perdido Street Station was the first in what has been, so far, a three book cycle of stand-alone novels all set in his “Bas-Lag” universe.  I know what some of you are thinking.  “Oh no.  This is why I can’t take sf/f seriously.  The silly names of made-up places.”  I honestly have no response to that other than get over yourself.  Most names sound rather stupid.


I’m actually hesitant to call China a science fiction author, as his work tends to tread the thin line between science fiction and fantasy, and with a liberal dollop of horror.  His novels are not set in some near or distant future, or on some far-off colonized planet.  There are no spaceships.  The technology tends to be “low-tech”, often pseudo-Industrial Revolution, but so damn strange as to be barely recognizable as such.  His fantasy is “gritty” in the best sense of the word, and his Bas-Lag books are populated with a phantasmagorical array of monsters and “alien” stand-ins, the likes of which I’ve never seen elsewhere.  China does not settle for giant spiders.  But any attempt on my part to describe China’s inventions here would do them a disservice, so I’ll hold off.  A large part of the wonder of China’s work lurks in his adept, raw, visceral prose style.  He is not, at least in his early work, a minimalist.  He is a Brit, after all.

His Bas-Lag novels, while primarily about the cool monsters and the grim atmosphere that his stylized prose evokes, also feature deeply political undercurrents.  In the book Iron Council his Marxist politics almost overshadow the work, but in the other Bas-Lag books, the politics are there more in the form of lingering, open-ended questions for the reader, provoking thought, not dictating it.  It would be a mistake, I think, to divorce China’s work of its politics, and a greater mistake to condemn his work for it, as many have.  All fiction is in some way political, even if those politics are unconscious in the text.  How one’s characters react to certain moral or psychological situations, how the author represents those situations, those characters, their actions, thoughts, and feelings, how good and evil are represented, if they are represented: such choices are always politically tinged.  Nothing is divorced of political meaning.  As a reader, I find that when politics are treated well in a book, the writer seems to be self-conscious of those politics while allowing the reader, if they should so choose, to also become conscious of those politics, but without imposing upon the reader.  The line of imposition is difficult to gauge.  At the same time, it bothers me that so often we read books and watch films that allow us to question the way we see ourselves or our world, yet we do not take that questioning into the world with us when we leave the realm that the narrative constructs.  It is as if we’ve insulated ourselves against the transformative power of art. And is that not the point of art: to make us question our various assumptions and to transform us?

To give you a smattering of background on China, he wears his politics on his sleeves.  In 2001 he unsuccessfully ran for the British House of Commons representing the British Socialist Workers Party.  He is also an academic, with a PhD from the London School of Economics, and has published non-fiction including the book Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law in 2005.  I met China briefly at the end of my second year of undergrad studies at York University, when he visited Toronto for the first North American Historical Materialism conference.  He was an engaging speaker and an all-around cool guy.  Slightly in thrall, I stood there shaking his hand for far too long, just repeating the words “thank you,” over and over again as he indulged my gaping fan-boy wonder.  But moving on...

In no work has China hit such an overtly political chord as in his most recent book, The City and The City, which is not a Bas-Lag novel but set in an alternate version of our world.  The City and The City, however, succeeds in a way that Iron Council largely fails, in my mind, to provoke a political discourse with the reader as opposed to smacking the reader over the head with China’s politics, which only serves to alienate readers who oppose those political views as well as readers who share them.

To summarize the concept of The City and The City, it’s a detective novel, set in two fictional cities that are topically and psychologically superimposed somewhere on the edge of Eastern Europe.  The protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú, lives in the dilapidated city of Besźel.  He and every other child of Besźel have been taught to “unsee” the other city, the wealthy Ul Qoma and its residents, just as those of Ul Qoma have been taught to unsee Besźel.  This unseeing penetrates deeper into the psyche than taboo.  There are geographic areas that belong to one city or the other, but there are also areas that “crosshatch”, that is, where the cities share physical terrain but not perceptual terrain.  In order to travel between the cities, an intensive process of psychological reconditioning must be undertaken, but one can never exist psychologically in both cities at once.  To do so would be “Breach,” and Breach protocol is upheld by a mysterious force called... well, Breach.  Naturally, there are also fairy tales of a third city, a secret city called Orciny.  Inspector Borlú begins an investigation into the murder of a young woman who seems to have been tied up in the bizarre political intrigue between the two cities and surrounding this mythical third city.

If you read my article on Michael Chabon, or better yet, read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the fundamentals of this plot should seem familiar.  Yet the particulars of China’s twin cities allow him to take the story in drastically different directions than Chabon takes The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  Yes, there is room for variation even within so-called “formula.”  Infinite room, in fact.  Just as we may journey forever outward we may delve forever inward.  The thing about sf/f, or any fiction for that matter, is that every author can take the same idea and spin it in a completely different direction.  Even the same author can take the same idea and spin it in different directions.  Storytellers only ever retell stories in different ways, in different contexts.  Or as Jim Jarmusch famously put it, and this is quoted way too often, but hell, he says it so well: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination... And don’t bother concealing your thievery -- celebrate it if you feel like it.  In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from -- it’s where you take them to.’”  That’s right, I quoted an over-quoted quote, and I do not feel ashamed!  But I digress.

The concept of the twin cities is pretty fraking cool, and it is the elegance of this concept that makes The City and The City more politically sophisticated and nuanced than any of its predecessors.  One cannot read the book without drawing associations to Berlin or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even to the South African Apartheid.  The connections are numerous, but at the same time, the situation presented in the book is unique and separate from any of these, with its own particular context.  This serves to combat a rather dangerous trend in contemporary discourse in which it has become popular to render all particular situations ideological.  For example, we often compare all genocides to the Holocaust, as if the Holocaust were some sort of template for genocide, thus rendering “Holocaust” synonymous with the word genocide.  This does an injustice to the particular victims of the Holocaust as well as the victims of the genocides we file under the word “Holocaust”.  In our attempt to understand such horrors, we often fall into the trap of rendering them all alike in the abstract and thus overlook the particular cultural situations with which we proceed to engage.  Only by situating his story in a fantastic setting is China able to escape establishing one particularity as a generic template.  No matter what one’s political context in the real world, upon entering The City and The City, the reader faces a cultural history so alien that they cannot wholly relate to it.  The reader of the text can only approach the text with an outsider’s perspective, thus uniting disparate readers as “outsiders”.  In a similar fashion, those “outsiders” within the text, various characters predominantly from Canada and America in the story, cannot quite comprehend the force that separates Besźel from Ul Qoma.  And yet, it is precisely and only this utter separation that unites Besźel and Ul Qoma.  When people visit the cities in the story, they must undergo rigorous conditioning in order to pretend to “unsee” one or the other city, but as Borlú often repeats, these outsiders cannot possibly understand what it really means to “unsee”.  Only those who have grown up in either city understand, and it is this understanding that Besźel and Ul Qoma share.  The conclusion of the story complicates this notion of the outsider, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

The story raises issues of nationalism in an era of corporate and ideological trans-nationalism.  It examines what separates people and the role of collective history in forming identities.  It grapples with the possibility of escaping history versus the inescapability of history, and asks if we should even seek to escape history.  To phrase it in a different way, it looks at the role of cultural and collective memory and asks what we are capable of forgetting, if there are things we should and shouldn’t forget, and if so, what should we forget and what should we remember?

Where the book fails to deliver (for me) is on a more personal emotional level and on the level of narrative flavour.  On the emotional level, the character development just wasn’t quite there.  I didn’t really give a damn about anyone in the book.  Though perhaps China did his job too well here, and I was too much of an outsider to be capable of sympathizing with a cultural history not my own, or perhaps the characters of the twin cities themselves overshadowed the individual human characters inhabiting them.  I don’t know, but I didn’t really connect.  On the narrative level, while intellectually compelling, the book lacks something of the flavour or feel possessed by earlier books like Perdido Street Station or The Scar.  Perhaps this is a result of my expectations as a China fan.  The prose, for one thing, is as stripped down in The City and The City as China’s prose has ever been.  Instead of striking that bare-bones noir feel, though, this attempt at minimalism took some of the flavour out of the work.  That’s not to say it was bland.  I enjoyed the book thoroughly.  But it didn’t quite feel like a book by China Miéville.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  It shows that he is growing as a writer, and there are bound to be some re-birthing pains.  Regardless of those pains, I look forward to what he has in store next.  But for newcomers to China, I would highly recommend starting with either Perdido Street Station or The Scar.

You can read the first chapter of Perdido Street Station here.

For those wanting to tackle The City and The City, allows you to sample the first chapter as well.