China Mieville exclusive interview – monsters, method, Bas-Lag and Kraken

IN a small, dark room, hidden away in Liverpool, China Mieville stands and talks and a small group of us sit and listen.

It sounds straightforward doesn’t it, but the difference between those words and the evening itself is so vast as to almost defy description.

Somehow that’s apt though as the man himself looked like he could be an off-duty nightclub bouncer, but spoke with a gentle, yet fierce intelligence on an incredible range and breadth of ideas, riffs and references – from having dinner with Robby the Robot, to drawing picture of squids, to his critique of Will and Grace, to loving Stanislaw Lem, to being inspired by genre protocols, to whether he would write pornography to …. well, you see what I mean.

He was in Liverpool as part of the Writing on the Wall festival,  and read passages from the Arthur C Clarke award-winning The City and The City and his new novel Kraken, as well as a short story The Rope Is The World, before answering the audience’s questions (occasionally sounding like Christopher Walken, a note in my pad says) and signing anything anyone wanted him to sign.

Listening to him alongside a surprisingly small group of fellow fans in a back room of the Liverpool Students Guild, it felt like we were in an exclusive club, or transported to somewhere off the beaten track in Mieville’s imagined city of New Crobuzon, as the underground newspaper Runagate Rampant was secretly assembled in front of us.

It is an apt feeling because just as those journalists beavered away while their world struggled to control the terrifying slake moths, our world was changing too with the political system wrestling with the uncertainties of a hung parliament.

Mieville said he recognised the parallels between fiction and reality of the established order failing in the face of something new . (As I write this, I can also see parallels between brain sucking monsters that devour your spirit  – and the slake moths  – as well as politicians making a deal with the devil!)

“Yes, that’s true,” he said. “Science fiction and fantasy can resonate with everyday life reasonably well and in interesting ways, although I’ve been out of news touch for a few hours now too, so anything could have happened.

“A few years ago the overriding sense was one of fear and an attempt at creating fear, but that’s been replaced by a sense of what the fuck, a really interesting uncertainty, as people try to make sense of what is happening.”

WTF is pretty much the permanent mental state of Billy Harrow, the protagonist of Mieville’s new book, Kraken. He’s a curator at the Natural History Museum when their prize exhibit – a giant squid – mysteriously and impossibly disappears, along with the tank it is kept in.

From then on Billy is plunged into a London of magical and dangerous cults, living tattoos and horrific assassins.

As with all his work it is a cracking story, but touches on big ideas as well including the effects of religious mania, Darwinism and union rights (albeit a union headed by a spirit called Wati).

Given that his work is known for its depth and myriad possible readings, Mieville is keen that readers don’t miss what is in front of them too.

“It seems sometimes that monsters are only considered valid if they are supported by some deeper meaning, but they can be enjoyed for what they are too,” he said. “When I was a kid I drew squids and robots because I loved them and I still feel that way now.

“Fantasy and science fiction can be literal as well as allegorical and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a monster like a giant squid for what it is, as well as searching for metaphor.”

Mieville was similarly exercised when an audience member asked him about the importance of science in his science fiction.

“I couldn’t care less,” he replied. “I mean, I like some aspects of science, but as an organising paradyme for story-telling, it’s cobblers. In fact I’m astounded that over a century into this genre we can perpetuate this drivel about science fiction should be based on the possible.

“Famously there was an argument between Jules Verne and HG Wells, who both wrote books about going to the moon. Verne spent a long time working out the ballistics of a trip and by the science of the time he was very accurate.

“Wells on the other hand came up with an anti-gravity material which somebody made a spaceship out of and Verne was so angry about that, saying it wasn’t true. But in terms of longevity it is Wells’ story we remember as it is much more concerned with narrative shape and themes.”

He added: “Wells said his job as a writer of scientific romance (or whatever the contemporary term was) is to help re-domesticate the impossible.

“Domestication is the key and it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not. Think of how many laboratories you’ve seen in films with silver balls that have electricity flashing off them. What is that for? I don’t care – it just looks cool!”

In case you haven’t got it yet, Mieville is a passionate man with strong beliefs and a voracious appetite for knowledge and life.

I was left wondering how he finds time to write given the range of references and interests he revealed in his conversation, be that politics, pouring over old horror novels by  HP Lovecraft or chaotically catching up with modern writers – Nick Mamatas and Helen Oyeyemi were two he mentioned as well worth a look.

However he revealed his next book is already with his editor – ‘science fiction, aliens and spaceships, but I don’t want to give too much away’ – and should be out next year, while adding he has a bunch of books in mind that he wants to write in the future.

Could a return to Bas-Lag be among them?

“I’m certainly not bored of Bas-Lag or anything like that and it would be easy for me to go back there,” he said. “But the books I wrote about Bas Lag had an arc to them and matter a lot to me.

“I don’t want to undermine that, so my argument would be it would have to be a story that really needed to be in that setting.

“We can all think of franchises that milked themselves dry too and can end up killing the thing you love by doing that. So I will be staying away for a while yet, although I do have a long term idea in mind,” he added, with just the right air of mystery.

“I’d certainly like to write for comics and graphic novels in the future, although writing for TV and film is less of a draw for me as a writer. It’s not my mileau and you have to do so much stuff that doesn’t get made which would be depressing.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be Scyfi Love if I didn’t ask him about getting involved in one particular part of TV, involving a blue box – would he write for Doctor Who?

“If they ask me,” he replied, “I’d be delighted.”

You heard it here first (and that sound you can hear is my geek alarm going into overdrive).

* Thanks to China for being so generous with his time, in the QnA (which some of his quotes are from) and in our chat, and to Writing on the Wall festival director Madeleine Heneghan for setting it all up. The Writing on the Wall festival runs until May 22 2010.

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