About The Author
China Miéville is one of Britain's most acclaimed and bestselling fantasy authors, the only three-time winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award and twice winner of the British Fantasy Award, as well as other major accolades including the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. He was raised in London where he continues to live.
His first novel, King Rat, was published in 1998, but it was his second, pubioshed two years later that saw his first major prize, The Arthur C Clarke Award. Perdido Street Station was his first to be set in his imaginary world, Bas-Lag, within which the city-state of New Crobuzon features prominently.
A collection of his shorter fiction, Looking for Jake, was released in 2005. Also pubished that year was Un Lun Dun, which was aimed at a younger readership, as is most recent fiction, Railsea. Embassytown, published in 2011, is his most overtly science fiction work to date.
His latest book is London's Overthrow, a 10,000 word polemic on the state of the nation's capital in the current atmosphere of austerity. Dismissing the vague and idealistic pronouncements of politicians, he presents a view of ordinary London and its people, of the inequality, oppression and indignity and the hidden, subversive sentiment pervading London society.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, he discusses the freedom this new form of writing allowed him, his concerns about how little long-term development the 2012 Olympic Games have provided and his vision for which experimental avenues fiction may take next.
Author photo: © Katie Cooke
Questions & Answers
What appealed to you about the polemical essay form as a vehicle for London's Overthrow?
The book was born out of a commission from the New York Times Magazine, and it made me consider this form in a way that I'm not used to. As a reader, I've always read and loved essays (from Thomas de Quincey through to Jacqueline Rose and countless others), but had not particularly considered I had a way into them myself until I was encouraged to write one. It's a way of writing of which I've still not done much, and I started quite shyly and carefully. The truth is I found it very difficult, especially at first, but as I wrote more it I felt to me like I relaxed into the form, into a voice I wasn't, initially, for whatever reason, quite sure I was allowed to use. Then when it was done, I felt extremely excited by it. Pleased, and eager to do more. Obviously it is, as you say, polemical, but also obviously it has to stand up as writing in and of itself, formally and stylistically. It has to succeed in keeping readers interested, however much of the content they agree with (after all, we can all enjoy reading essays by writers with whom we disagree, and not only as a kind of diagnosis). It isn't a pamphlet, it isn't obligated to propose alternative solutions, for example (though an essay might) - it can be a snapshot, or a riff, or whatever. Trying to square that (those?) circle(s?) was and is pretty new to me, and I found it freeing, and something of which I hope to do much more. At its best I suppose the hope is that that such pieces can spark ideas or strive towards the matter of their subjects in ways that more grounded and precise reportage, which has a different task, doesn't.
In this particular case, it was also very important to the publishers and to me that, especially given that the text was and is available online, we made the physical object as attractive as possible, a little art-piece itself. There are many photos, for example, in full colour. The text itself is not, in fact, regular black. You'd have to have a sharp eye to notice it off the bat, but it makes a great difference to the look of the thing. That does, inevitably, mean it's not cheap for a very short book, but the hope is that it justifies itself.
Now that the Olympics are over, have the widespread reservations about London's preparation for them, shared by London's Overthrow, been borne out?
I think it's too early to say, but I don't think the auguries are good. My argument was never 'No one will enjoy watching the Olympics', but that the way the Games were being set up and run, the, well, Olympian project to reconfigure London, of monumental-scale urban banalising, of ruthless local control, social engineering, corporatisation and militarisation was not going to - and was not, indeed, fundamentally designed to - benefit local people. This isn't to say no one involved has the best intentions - I know some do. The argument is that the driving priorities were other and that therefore it's no surprise that things like social housing or grassroots democratic input into, let alone control of, these resources is not generally even an afterthought. This is inextricable, in my opinion, from the particular kind of vast scale aesthetic of the reshaping, a bureaucratised anodyne sublime, utterly antipathetic to urban contingency, to the kind of organic unplannedness that, yes, can of course go wrong, but that also leads to the intoxicating specificity of London, its coagulated nature. All of which is to say the question about whether or not the reservations were legitimate can't be answered now - the question is the shape of east London, what is being done, for whom, how, under whose control, in five, ten, fifteen years. If those resources are benefiting the local communities - if, say, the Arcelor-Mittal Orbit is, say, a community library and playground, cheerfully reconfigured - I will be glad to say I was wrong. But I fear that's not going to be the case. I fear either more ongoing aggressive gentrification at the expense of longer-term local residents, or a charnel zone of dead architectural monoliths, or some combination.
Turning from pessimism to optimism, at the Edinburgh World Writers' conference earlier this year you suggested that the novel could take innovative and collaborative future forms in a digital world. Are there particular writers or places where you see these experiments already being attempted? And could such future novels have commercial as well as experimental value and appeal?
Absolutely they're being attempted, and what's more there's nothing new about them - retellings are as old as tellings - it's just, I think, that they particularly fit the current epoch, especially with regard to ebooks and the internet and so forth, in terms of the ease of obtaining, fussing with and distributing tinkered-with texts. Let me stress again that I'm not saying that I think such experiments will be a dominant form, nor (of course) that they will all, or even mostly, be any good, nor that in many, probably even the vast majority of cases, the 'original' mix will not be the best and/or desired. But it would be ridiculous to rule out of court that this kind of thing could sometimes lead to fascinating new texts.
Here's an example of an unusually 'pure' form of remix, for example: the writer James Stoddard has 'retold' William Hope Hodgson's incredible but difficult apocalyptic masterwork The Night Land. (Again, whether you prefer the original or his version is not the point here.) Look at the absolute explosion of fanfic - a term a very few people even knew a few years ago - is a related phenomenon - again, not new, but suddenly impacting bestseller charts. Such phenomena are already, in other words, 'having a commercial value and appeal', though it would be very depressing if those were our sole criteria - there should be plenty of room for avant-garde and experimental recutting of unlikely fictional source material that will never sell huge numbers, but that might do something interesting.
For myself, there are various books I love the idea of remixing. I've long, for example, been completely fascinated by the story of the radical utopian 19th Century submariner Narcis Monturiol, told in 2003's Monturiol's Dream, by Matthew Stewart. But - and speaking as an admirer of the book who owns several copies - I was anguished by what was, for my taste, a relative paucity of visionary and ecstatic underwaterism: p286 of Monturiol's Dream, where the vessel Ictineo II goes on its first proper maiden voyage underwater in a single matter-of-fact paragraph, remains a crushing blow to me. I compare that to the extended and astounding subcanny ruminations of William Beebe, the bathysphere pioneer, in 1936's Half Mile Down, and I've long fantasised about remixing the former in the style of the latter, or mashing them up, to belabour the music analogy. Certainly it would be artistic licence, but who cares?
You've also advocated a minimum-wage salary for writers. In the absence of this, do you have any advice for those trying to combine writing with other full-time employment?
In a terribly quotidian way, to pre-plan out fiction in much more detail, especially when you're starting out, down to individual chapters and 2000-word chunks, if you can, than you think you need to. That way when it comes to actually writing, all you need to do on a given day is focus on the few hundred or thousand words you have predecided will go there. I know it sounds horribly plodding, but I think it actually, paradoxically, frees one up to be creative in the moments of writing, to not be transfixed by the basilisk stare of a whole unwritten novel. I think the easiest way to do that is to frontload the planning.
But mostly I have to say I am cowed by people who combine writing with other employment - it is incredibly hard, especially if the non-writing is full-time. I feel signally ill-equipped to offer advice - I can only offer admiration for people who manage it.
In your last appearance at Foyles, you mentioned your interest in writing novels in other genres, including a Regency romance. Is that still part of the plan?
Certainly. In a nebulous sort of way. But then my plan, such as it is, includes all sorts of things I wistfully fear I'll never succeed in doing.