Sunday, May 09, 2010

Knowing How The World Isn’t: A Conversation with China Miéville

But look at Marx's argument in Capital: 'What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.' In other words, human productive activity is predicated on a consciousness of the not-real. You have to know how the world isn't in order to transform it.

In the real world, the not-real separates into the possible, not yet possible and never possible, but you can't always be sure of those distinctions in your mind. You might set out to do a task without being certain whether it's possible or not--what you are sure of is that the desired effect is not-real when you start.
                                                                        China Miéville in The Socialist Review
[Issue 88 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 2000 Copyright © International Socialism.]

China Miéville has just won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for a record third time, for The City and the City, the previous two wins being for Perdido Street Station and Iron Council.

Not entirely for that reason, the first few questions are entirely about The City and the City. If you haven’t read it and intend to, you should skip to the later questions, after the End Spoiler alert.

Excerpts from this interview can be found in today’s New Indian Express.

**SPOILER ALERT**               **SPOILER ALERT**                 **SPOILER ALERT**
Sridala Swami:  In The City and the City Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same space. They remind me of an imperfectly silvered mirror, with degrees of visibility and totality – you use the words ‘crosshatching’, ‘totality’ and ‘alterity’ – but what was most intriguing was that these boundaries between the cities seem unchanging and stable, though each city within its own boundaries appears to change shape over time. Could you talk about how you imagined the cities along their borders?

China Miéville:  OK, well, this is tricky because we're somewhat into spoiler territory, so I'll preface this by saying that in my ideal world no one would know anything about any books, especially this one, before starting to read them/it. That warning said, the book is, deliberately of course, somewhat vague about the details, because it's not the kind of thing that Borlu would, on the whole, be interested in mentioning. And any book in which there is an ambiguity is - whatever anyone including the author thinks - structured by that ambiguity.

That is to say that questions along the lines of 'Were there really ghosts in Turn of the Screw?' or some similar attempt to collapse super-positional uncertainties within a text which is structured by those certainties strikes me as a very odd thing to ask. There is no 'real' truth - it's a text. All of which said, I have a very clear idea myself of how the world of Ul Qoma and Beszel work. In my head, the best way to imagine it is to draw a city on a piece of tracing paper, then draw another city of similar dimensions on another piece of tracing paper, then put them both down on top of each other on a map. Where there's only one city visible, that's a total area (alter to the other). Where they overlap, these are crosshatches. And these are juridical, social, ideological, cultural, conceptual categories. No less real for that, but not fuzzy physics or magic.

SS:  In the book the past is allowed no purchase on the present. But the book has two kinds of pasts: the kind that, in crime fiction, leads to explanations at the end; and the other – of the archaeological dig in Ul Qoma and the artefacts found there – that might or might not explain the schism between the cities. This past explicates nothing in the present of the story. We’re left with no neat reasons for why the cities are the way they are. How did this evolve while you were writing the book?

China Miéville:  Because I wanted something that was very defining of the situation in the background - without the odd archaeology, there would be no digs, and therefore no setting and no story - but concretely doesn't impinge on the events at the level of 'meaning', any more than the theft of some Crown Jewels from the Tower of London would necessarily involve an exposition of the history of the Koh-i-Noor in a thriller about that theft. It might, of course, but the narrative doesn't have to go there explicitly, even though that history is shading the setup. It's also because I wanted the idea of a very obvious logic, but a logic that one can't decode, as underlying the cities. Hence the sense, I hope, isn't that it's chaos or random, but that it's impenetrable.

Again I'm always a little taken aback when people ask me 'Why are the cities like they are?' My answers go 
between: 'There are no cities,' to 'I'm not telling you,' to 'Who cares?' 

'There are no cities' in the sense of 'ceci n'est pas un pipe' - it's a story.

SS:  The book is primarily crime fiction; and like all crime fiction it asks: what is the crime and what would justice looks like. Unlike most crime novels,* though, here it’s a question that is still largely unresolved at the end of the book.

China Miéville:  I'm not sure, though I'd love to take credit for staggering originality, that it is 'unlike most crime novels', to be honest. I think these days it's not uncommon to ask whether the 'solution' to the crime and the assertion of justice are, in fact, co-terminous. Lots of 'gritty' crime (stupid adjective, but you know what I mean), from Noir onwards at least, if not before, make quite a lot of play of the still-extant forces that structure the background. Or someone like Patricia Highsmith questioning the whole paradigm from within. There's often a rather hollow feeling to the 'triumph'. I'm very open to being persuaded I'm wrong about that, but I think the idea that at the solution of the crime, 'justice' is asserted only describes one particular, and particularly conservative, iteration of crime fiction.

However! One thing I like a lot about your question is that it distinguishes between what I might think and what Tyador might think. Tyador is a career policeman. I am not. He lives in Beszel. I do not. He is 
 non-existent. I am not etc.

SS: I ask because there is a very formal structure to the end - the confession elicited etc. that seems to imply a tying up of the knots.

China Miéville:  Yes, it's a highly, highly formalistic book. I know some readers have complained that the crime aspect is 'formulaic' or pedestrian or whatever. And I think few things are less edifying than writers trying to argue back against critics: it may be that I just didn't do a good enough job. I accept that. All I can do is offer up the thinking behind it - which was that I wanted to write an extremely traditional crime novel, a police procedural with complete fidelity to all the tropes and protocols of the procedural, that 'obeyed the rules' and 'didn't cheat' – in the lovely vernacular of crime readers – but that was also part of another literary tradition (weird, spec, sf, whatever).

By 'I accept that' I mean 'I hate and lament that if it's the case' - I just mean I'm not going to say to people 'you haven't understood me'. Even when they don't understand me.

SS:  Some of the most intriguing people I was hoping to see more of in the book but who only got a passing mention were the ‘insiles’. Could you talk about them, about the use and origin of the word?

China Miéville: The origin of the word was simple: it's an inversion of 'exile'. Someone who leaves their country. In the novel these are people who leave their country without leaving the physical space it inhabits, but entering a new space. They get out by going in. Insile. Simple. A new juridical/social space, I mean.

SS:  It's been used in the context of South Africa during apartheid.

China Miéville:  Insile? Has it? I didn't know.

SS:  Yes. Those of the ANC who didn't leave as exiles, but resisted from within.

China Miéville:  Wow. Well, I'm pleased to hear it.

SS:  Returning briefly to Breach: To commit breach knowingly is to commit a profoundly radical act of seeing/awakening that is both political and philosophical. How do you reconcile this with it also being fundamentally an exercise of power?

China Miéville:  I don't think any reconciliation is required, is it? I mean, that's the case with all sorts of acts of seeing etc in the real world. Plus which I think that 'fundamentally' there, while I don't think it's wrong, risks being as obfuscatory as clarificatory without a little more unpacking. I mean, it's an exercise of power - but also a mistake, also a risk. And also, and this was important to me, something that happens all the time

One of the things that I think sometimes isn't talked about enough, in the context of taboos, is how they are often broken in the day-to-day all the time. All the bloody time, in various ways. One of the (many) problems with the traditional anthropological method is that it relies so much on 'informants' ,that cultures are often reduced, or simplified, to their most discursively explicit levels. Rules etc. Those are real and very important - but so is the fact that they are often not honoured, and those transgressions aren't just pathologies, they're constitutive of society, just as much as the rules.

One of my favourite anthropological anecdotes was in a book where the 'informant' (god that's an imperial term, isn't it?) explained to the anthropologist that it was taboo to have sex with a menstruating woman. 'So you'd never do it?' says the anth. 'No,' says informant. 'Never?' 'Absolutely not.' Pause. Long pause. 'I mean,' informant continues in a  more relaxed voice, 'I mean, you can, I mean you sort of shouldn't but it's not the end of the world, I mean, you know, you're only human', etc.

So one thing with TC&TC is that the rules of breach are both absolutely constitutive and defining and so on - and are also (as the text makes clear) broken in little ways all the time. All the time.

SS:  The characters in the book, but most especially Tyador Borlú, negotiate several languages with differing degrees of success. There’s a very strong sense that conversations have been ‘translated’. What strategies did you use to give each language a unique voice and what blocks did you run into?

China Miéville:  I'm very pleased you think so. One of the things I did was read a lot of Eastern European fiction in translation, and I wanted to give the book the slightly odd, not-exactly-stilted but somewhat dissonant linguistic sense that even very good translations have - I wanted it to read like a text translated into English from Besz. Bruno Schulz. Kafka. Alfred Kubin. Jellinek. (Not just 'Eastern' European, obviously).

And for the languages, I just thought about clumps of phonemes that would be common in each language, and gave the grammar a little thought - just enough to make the tenor of the conversations reasonably systematic - in that the mistakes people make will often be shared across different speakers of the same language.

SS:  [Stanislaw] Lem also?

China Miéville:  Hmmm, Lem - interesting. I hadn't thought about it - I don't recall being particularly aware of that quality of the translations in the ones I read - it was particularly the Schulz/Kafka/Kubin axis I was aware of. Having said which I think you may well be onto something, because I realised very late, much after I'd finished, that one of the subterranean influences, that I'd forgotten at a conscious level but I'm sure was there, was my favourite Lem book, 'The Investigation', which is, of course, a police procedural. If of a highly odd kind. I know he wasn't sure about it, thought it didn't quite work, but I think it's absolutely amazing.

SS:  He wasn't sure about the success of the book or its translation?

China Miéville:  As I recall (I'm no expert), he didn't think the book was successful in his own terms. He didn't regard it as one of his best. I read it years ago, and wasn't thinking about it at a conscious level as I wrote - but wtf does one's consciousness know?



SS:  Moving away from TC &TC now: One story that I return to often in Looking for Jake and Other Stories is ‘Familiar’. It starts out as a creation story, as a sort-of performance of magic, but it’s really a story of evolution. There’s sentience, then a gradual accumulation of what is useful and the discarding of what is not (it’s also a fantastic idea to have a creature that is made of trash also generate it). How do you create your monsters? And can there be monsters without humans?

China Miéville:  I'm glad you like that story. It's one of my absolute favourites, and it doesn't get as much attention as some of the others. (I don't mean that to sound whining! I'm just glad you noticed it.) 

How do I create my monsters? At its basic, super-simple level, I think the Ur-Monster is the chimera, in the sense that it is a composite creature. The head of X, the body of Y (plus or minus the tail of Z). That's why the game Exquisite Corpse is so important for me (though I always think of it with its cheerfully vulgar English name, Heads Bodies & Legs). So at its simplest, my monsters, like most, are shoved-together composites. But - as with the Familiar - there are others. Teratogenesis is the easiest thing in the world, really - extend, change, tweak, add, subtract, exaggerate some detail or other of an existing thing, and you have a 

And can they exist without humans? I'm not sure I understand the epistemological base of the question! Do you mean, at a conceptual level, is the concept 'monster' indelibly linked to that 'human' (often elided with insider/citizen/goodie, etc)? Absolutely. But one of the joys of the monster is that, at the level of pop culture in particular, they also, with a kind of winning pulp prometheanism, demand a kind of naive literalism, as well as their inevitable (and delightful) metaphoric resonances.

I have no clue if that answers your question, sorry.

SS:  I did mean conceptually. It used to be my big problem reading SFF when I was a kid - the inability to conceive of anything truly inhuman. I guess I made my peace with that.

China Miéville:  Well, to be fair, that's a genuine and I think completely insoluble dilemma. I would say that pretty much if you can think something up, ipso facto its thinkable and therefore not really alien. The best you can do is play games with that, fail and fail better. In the Bas-Lag books the Weaver(s) is/are the only monsters that are in any way 'really' alien - and of course even that's a hedge. You can only imply real alienness - the closer you get to it, the more you're thinking it, the less alien, etc.

SS:  Bas-Lag now. The Remades are tragic and horrifying examples of the abuse of power. I couldn’t help thinking of Serafini’s drawings in the Codex Serafinianus in this context which is a kind of prosthetic aesthetic: it’s violent but fascinating. You’ve said you’re very conflicted about Serafini. How?

China Miéville:  Well there's a couple of things there. First of all, there are, I think, some assumptions bound up in the phrase 'abuse of power' which I'm not sure I'd agree with. Certainly to do that would be a terrible use of certain types of power - but it is also grotesquely apposite for other types of power. What about the power of the slaveholder? I'm sure you've read descriptions of the punishments for slaves in the plantations and in the Caribbean? I don't mean 'just' whipping or death - I mean the utterly incredible breathtaking baroque sadisms of enforced coprophagy, sexual degradation, bestial interventions of an incredible inventiveness. Now, was that 'abuse' of power? It was abuse, certainly, but abuse of people, not of power, which, in that context, depended precisely on such barbarities. 

In other words, I don't really believe in some abstract thing called 'power' - it seems to me unhelpful to think that a four-year-old hitting a three-year-old in a nursery is exercising something meaningfully related, even if mediatedly, to the exploitation of women, or slaves, or whatever.

(sorry, I got carried away)...

SS:  Yes. You're right. I meant just 'abuse'.

China Miéville:  So it seems to me that much social power is predicated precisely on cruelties at least as unspeakable as remaking. My point is that the phrase 'abuse of power' often exonerates power.

Ya, sorry, I'm making a bit of a meal of this.

SS:  No no, it was a badly thought-out phrase.

China Miéville:  Well it's very common, and it pressed a button, because at its most vulgar level that conception underlies much of the talk about 'human nature' and 'natural human cruelty' as 'explaining' specifics of social oppression etc. At its more theoretically trendy level, you could see it in much Foucauldian conceptions of 'power'. WTF is 'power'??

Anyway. Serafini...I guess for me my hesitation is put very well by the writer Shelley Jackson, who said, “I've always been a bit suspicious of it. I guess because I love what it’s based on—the old alchemical etchings—and though I understand them no better than I understand this, I admire their earnestness. I love how a thing that looks so fantastical and poetic arises out of quotidian impulses. The Codex just seems so much more self-conscious, and artsy and illustratory. There’s something coy about it.”

When I read it I think I gasped, because she'd expressed perfectly something that had been evading my language, a hesitation in my own reaction.

SS: Buñuel said to Jean-Claude Carrière once: ‘the imagination is a muscle that needs to be exercised.’ In this context, could you talk about the use, reuse/recasting and discarding of ideas? (You use – or re-use – ideas in different ways in your books: the Familiar from Jake is seen in both the binjas and the unbrellas of Un Lun Dun. The moving streets of ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ might be found in The City and The City.)

China Miéville:  You're quite right. This is a hard question to answer. Give me 30 seconds to compose my thoughts.

Well, here's the thing. Certain of my ideas and predilections change over time - others are remarkably consistent. (I mean utterly. I have pictures I drew when I was 4, and they are of exactly what I draw now.) The problem is as a writer, you can't just keep saying the same thing, or investigating the same things, but at the same time you have to talk about the stuff that genuinely moves and intrigues you, and you can't manufacture false fascinations. That creates a bind. I will never, ever tire of: octopuses; underwater monsters; monsters in general; rubbish/garbage/rejectamenta; people on roofs; people under cities; cities; etc etc. 

Now, what do you do with that? Well, one thing you can and should do, I think, is try to tweak them and investigate them differently in different books. But another thing you can - and, to my chagrin, should - do is retire certain fascinations (also words, linguistic tics, etc), because they can with incredible ease become kitsch. Our own fascinations teeter on the edge of kitsch - or, if you just don't care and keep indulging them despite knowing you're becoming a parody of yourself, camp. I don't want that to happen. The title 'The City & The City' was almost camp - so I'm a 'city writer', am I? Try this. But it's a risky joke and I wouldn't want to do it too often.

So you have to know when to shut up about things, even if you want not to. I guess it's the same as knowing when to shut up about your stamp collection or early LP fascination or whatever in real life, even if you still love it.

My partner helps with this. There is a category of Things You Can't Have Any More. Some are obvious - moonlight, stars - or in a genre iteration, vampires, steampunk, zombies. It doesn't mean you don't like them - quite the opposite! Because you like them you need to know when to rein it in. And sometimes we'll chat and she might say, 'you can't have X any more' about one of my preferred Things. Or I might. Or both.
Maybe in a few years one might be able to have it again. When the dust has cleared. I don't know. 

I think we all teeter on the edge of being parodies of ourselves all the time.

SS:  In your Marxism 07 talk on ‘Marxism and Rubbish’, you ended by saying, “It is precisely because we so abhor the reality of the world as a rubbish tip that socialists should import the insurgent rubbish of art. And that is my Rejectamentalist Manifesto.”  It's been three years since then. Has anything changed in your formulation?

China Miéville: Well, the 'rejectamentalist manifesto' is several things - it was, as you say, the conclusion to a talk I gave at Marxism 07, it's the name of my online scrapbook (I pusillanimously abjure the name 'blog', not out of despite, but because the rm isn't really worthy of it), and it's a project taking shape in my head that may or may not - I hope will - be born one day. 

So - that formulation stands, not because that's my final word on rejectamenta or rubbish or anything else, but because in and of itself it's a formulation I'm perfectly happy with. 

SS:  Ursula le Guin once said that she returned to Earthsea after a long time and found the place changed, so she had to write Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. Does that happen with you? If you returned to Bas-Lag now, would you find it different?

China Miéville:  Well I have to be honest - I am not a writer who likes the formulation like 'finds it changed', or 'discovered that my characters were this or that' - I don't like, and don't identify with, that 'shamanic' conception of the writer that underpins it, that you are a mere channel or conduit for something outside your control. I'm not casting aspersions on those who experience it that way - but that's not at all how it is for me (I have certain issues with it that would take a long time to expand on).

So it's not a question of 'finding' things different - but it is perfectly true that I notice things about the stuff I've done before, the settings, the world, the books, that look different in a different light, and sometimes that means coming back and answering yourself. (Le Guin did it to extraordinary effect and with amazing and impressive politics and rigour with Earthsea, of course).

That's already happened, and I'm sure it'll happen again. I like Perdido Street Station very much - but I realised that though Remaking was obviously 'bad' in that book, and that though my sympathy was clearly 'with' the Remade, I hadn't given any of them any voice. So the following book involved going into the head of one Remade in particular, and Iron Council tried to talk about a collectivity, a politics, of those voices and subjectivities. It's not in any way a repudiation of what goes before, but it's an argument with, a development of, oneself. And at the level of the depiction of culture it was always important to me that Bas-Lag wasn't a static world. 25-30 years have passed between PSS and IC, and the city of New Crobuzon is very different. For specific reasons. Its politics have shifted.

If/when I go back, both its politics, and my own relation to that setting, will have developed again.

SS: You wrote Between Equal Rights several years ago. Will you return, at some point, to non-fiction - theoretical and book-length?

China Miéville: I sincerely hope so. It's something I intend to do, and I'm working on two ideas now. The problem is finding time. I'm dreadful, dreadful, at doing more than one thing at once. To my everlasting, growing regret. But yes. The spirit is willing and eager. 

SS:  About your forthcoming book**, Kraken: It isn’t in any way a response to Margaret Atwood’s accusation that all sci-fi is about ‘talking squids in outer space’, is it?

China Miéville:  It predates my awareness of the remark! Plus there's no space. Plus it's already been done. By many writers. Ken Macleod et al. Plus I was already rude about that in The Nation. Having said all of which - yeah, why not?

SS:  What did you enjoy most about writing Kraken?

China Miéville:  What I most enjoyed writing in the novel - from various candidates - was the section describing the afterworld life and radicalisation of a magic servant. For various reasons, some of this book was very hard to write - that chapter was a delight, and came very easily.

Kraken  wasn't my original title, but it ties in unexpectedly and humorously with the release of Clash of the Titans - which is, btw, an astoundingly terrible, incoherent and misogynist film, which also apropos of bugger all imports what appears to be a Sadhu and his followers largely so as to riff off the racist visual cliché of jabbering & threatening 'natives'. But anyway, I hope you enjoy the book. If you like giant squid and eschatological cults it might be to your taste. It also, for anyone hunting out specific India references, has some mentions of Kerala in it and to kalaripayattu, and the Urumi, the world's most amazing weapon. Which FTW, and for which thank you.'
*I see how this could be confusing. To my mind, there’s a very clear distinction between the whodunit/procedural, noir and spy stories that come under the broad rubric of ‘crime fiction’. TC&TC is a procedural, no matter how noir-ish and atmospheric it seems. To the extent that it’s faithful to the genre – and it is, right up to the dénouement – the finding of the criminal is synonymous with justice being done. But the story doesn’t end with the dénouement and to say why I think there is no resolution, much ambiguity and many, many unanswered questions would be a spoiler of at least a 7.8 magnitude. Either that, or I have only read very, very conservative crime fiction.*** Go read the book and decide.

**At the time of the conversation. Right now, of course, the book's out in the UK

***This also reminds me that I owe (some of) you guys a post on P.D. James and John le Carré.


neeraj said...

fabulous dala! both you and cm. felt a bit voyeuristic to be in on the chat, but i guess both of you were aware its public.

literary discussions/ critique are pleasantly nuanced nowadays is it? maybe i'm just old hat, but it was very pleasant to read this chat.

that opening from marx is in his book, or your article?

didn't know you'd gone thru capital!! ;)

i've only ever managed to do chunks from here and there.

hmmm... i'm getting quite tempted to take to reading literature again... nice.

neeraj said...

oops! sorry about the last ques. just saw its from cm in the isj of 2k.

Aishwarya said...

This is fantastic - huge quantities of respect for both of you.

??! said...

So much jealousy. Wonderful, wonderful interview.

JP said...


Subashini said...

Eek! I skimmed through bits of what appears to be a fabulous interview, but refrained from reading too much because of the spoiler alerts. :)

I've always wanted to read Mieville; am ashamed to say I never have. And it looks like I'll have to start with The City and the City. (If anything, just so I can come back and read the entire interview in peace. ;) The Marxist perspective discussed here just made the book that much more attractive.