Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

Author Spotlight: China Miéville

Author Spotlight: China Miéville

Fall 2017


“‘I don’t want to be a simile anymore,’ I said. ‘I want to be a metaphor.’” –Embassytown


I like to keep my books organized. I have a shelf for fiction, for nonfiction, for drama, for poetry, for short fiction, and for graphic novels. But there’s one shelf which I reserve for books that mean a lot to me, ones that inspired me as a writer or a reader, that encouraged me to think or feel more deeply than I otherwise would, or merely brought me an inexpressible amount of joy. This is where I keep my favorite editions of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Dante, and Homer, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Dune and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire and A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s where I would keep Animorphs and a few selections from Stephen King if they didn’t take up so much space. These are the stories and authors that have defined me, that I never want to be without.

The works of China Miéville keep finding their way to this shelf. I should be up front: although I’ve read a fair portion of Miéville’s bibliography, I only love one of his books. There’s another that I outright hate. Most left me conflicted. And yet, somehow, almost all of them eventually end up on this shelf devoted to classics and treasures. If you were to ask me which authors you absolutely need to be reading in the early 21st century, I would put Miéville near the top of that list without any hesitation whatsoever. He’s published some bad fiction. He’s published some good fiction. But it’s important fiction either way—Miéville is a pioneer of a genre commonly called “new weird,” a loose blend of fantasy and science-fiction that is often literary in style and nihilistic in implication.

I was first drawn to Miéville’s work shortly after the release of Kraken in 2010, which probably embodies the flavor and texture of new weird better than anything else he has published thus far in his career. It was the same year that saw the arrival of Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans remake; enormous tentacled sea monsters and phrases such as “Release the kraken!” were in the air, and reviewers were throwing around the word “Lovecraftian” in regard to Miéville’s new novel—more than enough to get me interested. It was through Miéville’s other stand-alone books published between 2009 and 2012, however, that I familiarized myself with his style: the genre-bending experimentation of The City & the City, the socio-political allegory of Embassytown, and the crowning achievement that is Railsea.

2009’s The City & the City, while perhaps not his most deeply-loved book, is probably his most widely-loved; although pure speculation on my part, I suspect this is because it contains fewer fantastical elements than his other novels and thus has the broadest appeal. It’s a noir murder-mystery (if it had come out in the ‘40s or ‘50s, I would have no trouble imagining a director such as Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks directing a film adaptation) which takes place in two cities that occupy the same physical space, their residents conditioned to “unsee” anyone and anything belonging to other city lest they risk the wrath of an organization known as Breach. It’s a compelling premise, rich with meaty social commentary, but Miéville fails to bring out its full potential.

2011’s Embassytown is Miéville’s most challenging, most rewarding, most intellectually-stimulating book (I wasn’t entirely enamored with it when I first read it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows on me over time). This one is science-fiction to the core, concerning an alien species which speaks using two words simultaneously and is incapable of lying; of course, there’s no story if there’s no conflict, and you can probably guess what changes in that scenario. Embassytown is almost academic in its style, but the exploration of language and communication (a motif which Miéville will return to in Railsea, albeit with a lighter touch) is singularly thrilling if that’s something which interests you. The way we talk and write defines how we think and what we believe, and Embassytown recognizes this.

I mentioned that I love only one of Miéville’s books, and that one is 2012’s Railsea. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read; it’s my go-to recommendation for people who want a novel that takes them on an adventure, and it’s the book that makes me self-conscious about my attraction to “serious” literature. Railsea is pure magic. Set in a world where railway tracks criss-cross a salvage-strewn waste, trains have become the equivalent of ships, and whales are replaced by gargantuan burrowing mole rats, Miéville draws upon everything from The Odyssey to Moby-Dick to Treasure Island without losing his entirely unique touch. His infatuation with the beauty, the intricacy, and the playfulness of language shines through on every page (I won’t spoil it here, but there’s a reason why the word “and” is always replaced by an ampersand in Railsea). It’s the perfect entry point to Miéville’s bibliography.

Bookending this half-decade of novels are two collections of short fiction, 2005’s Looking for Jake and 2015’s Three Moments of an Explosion. Looking for Jake failed to connect for me, featuring stories which either didn’t amount to much or were so excessively silly that I lost interest (I was reminded of Stephen King during early-career low points such as Night Shift). Miéville’s audacity is certainly on display in Looking for Jake—one story is told in comic format, and Miéville himself features in another. But the pieces here are largely half-hearted attempts at horror, and they’re just that: half-hearted. Three Moments of an Explosion is the work of a more mature and accomplished author; the individual stories I found to be hit-or-miss, but only a few are outright bad. Highlighting the collection are its first three pieces, “Three Moments of an Explosion,” “Polynia,” and “The Condition of the New Death.” These stories showcase not only Miéville’s wild imagination, but his ability to unpack the curiosities of human behavior by amplifying it in the crucible of the surreal.

Preceding Looking for Jake are the Bas-Lag novels, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council. These are Miéville’s most well-known and most divisive books: I’ve heard people tout Perdido Street Station as the best fantasy novel ever written, and I’ve heard people claim that it’s…well, on the opposite end of that spectrum. I’m somewhere in the middle myself. The world of Bas-Lag and the city of New Crobuzon, where most of the action takes place, are reminiscent of the cantina from Star Wars, albeit with a more enthusiastic application of the word “ichor” (the marketplace from Hellboy II might be a more apt comparison); everything is filthy and gritty and gross and sprawling, and every page invites a new exhibit to the grotesquerie. Which, like eating too much candy, ultimately becomes a drawback—Miéville is so wrapped up in his imagination that he sometimes forgets to tell the story. His shorter works are often his better ones, and the Bas-Lag books are almost double the length of Miéville’s other novels. But hey, at least there’s a gigantic inter-dimensional spider involved.

I tend to respond favorably to books that try something new, that take narrative and aesthetic and thematic risks, even if those risks don’t play out successfully. China Miéville writes those books—it’s why, even though I don’t love everything he puts out, he remains one of my favorite authors. I am also attracted to writers who are willing to blur or ignore genre boundaries, both within a single work and across their career. China Miéville delivers this quality in spades. He’s not an author to read if you want a writer from whom you can expect the same thing with every book, if you want narrative and structural and aesthetic consistency. Rather, Miéville is a writer to read if you want to be surprised—if you want to broaden your sense of what is possible in a book, if you want to be scared and thrilled and have your imagination stretched. Most authors may be similes, but Miéville is a true metaphor.


Major & Notable Works (through 2017):


King Rat – 1998

Perdido Street Station (Bas-Lag #1) – 2000

The Scar (Bas-Lag #2) – 2002

Iron Council (Bas-Lag #3) – 2004

Looking for Jake: Stories – 2005

Un Dun Lun – 2007

The City & the City – 2009

Kraken – 2010

Embassytown – 2011

Railsea – 2012

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories – 2015

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution – 2017


Essay by Aaron Larson