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CHINA MIÉVILLE
Making His Name with a Darkly Brilliant Debut

October 1999
By Paula Guran

China Mieville As a special Halloween treat for HorrorOnline readers, we'd like to introduce a new name in the world of dark fiction: China Miéville Although Miéville 's debut novel, KING RAT, came out last year in the U.K. (and is now available there in tradepaper addition as well as hardcover) -- it's just been published here in the states by Tor. A dark urban fantasy that weaves the legend of the Pied Piper with the Drum 'n' Bass subculture of modern London, KING RAT is fascinating, multifaceted and eloquent -- and its author is, well, fascinating, multifaceted and eloquent himself. Graduated from Cambridge in 1994, Miéville is currently going for a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. A politically active socialist who listens to HipHop and Jungle (and musically messes about with Drum'n'Bass some himself), he grew up reading sf, fantasy and horror, sports five earrings in his left ear and also draws comics -- and, trust me, all of that (except maybe the earrings) is relevant to the fantastic way he writes.

China Miéville is his real name. (Evidently, when early word of the hot new author drifted across the Atlantic, some folks on this side of the pond assumed the definitely masculine Miéville, due to his first name, to be female.) "I'm 26, born in 1972 to hippie parents," he explains. "The story is that they looked through the dictionary for 'a beautiful word.' They liked the sound of China, and also the fact that it means 'friend' in Cockney rhyming slang -- you still sometimes hear people call each other 'my old china', meaning 'my mate'."

"Basically, in Cockney Rhyming Slang," says Miéville, "a phrase that rhymes with the word in question comes to take its place, but then you get rid of the bit that actually rhymes. That's how come my name means friend: 'my old china' means 'my old mate' because 'china plate' rhymes with 'mate'. 'Apples' means 'stairs', because 'Apples and Pears' rhymes with 'stairs'. But you drop the 'Pears' bit. It constantly changes. Some of the phrases have been around since the last century, but now you hear people say 'I was talking on the Sharon...' because Sharon Stone -- phone."

In fact, Miéville's use of Cockney slang in his novel is one of the elements that makes the character of King Rat -- "the Duce of the sewers" -- darkly distinct. Will this prove a challenge to American readers? "It's not just Cockney slang in the book: although it's mostly that, it's also a mess of historical slang, like 17th-18th century 'thieves argot'. A lot of it will be a bit opaque to British readers as well. I think and hope that even where the specific meaning of a word is unclear, the sense of the whole comes through. That sense of dislocation and alienation from what King Rat says is deliberate. But yeah, I'm sure it'll be a bit more problematic for American readers and I just hope it stays the right side of the line. There was some talk of providing a glossary but I really didn't want to: I think that would domesticate it a bit much"

book cover The author's knowledge and understanding of the city of London -- and his imaginative take on the world of its underground -- is another important facet of KING RAT. He's lived in London all his life and the genesis of the novel came partially from his fascination with the city. "Originally -- four-ish years ago -- I was going to write a werewolf novel (which still might happen...), and London loomed very heavily across it. Then gradually the werewolf thing ebbed away and I replaced it with King Rat. He was based on a baddy from a children's pantomime I saw when I was very small. I'd been playing around with him as a character for years in my head, I'd drawn a comic of him when I was in my late teens, and I started developing him again. So King Rat's been a character for me for ages, but he came to the novel after London." Althoug

h he'd like to, he's never explored the city's sewers, however. "I read a lot about London's underground, hidden rivers, sewers, abandoned railway tunnels and so on, and I've seen a couple of very good documentaries about them -- I did a fair bit of research. Also, I've always liked books where sewers -- especially London sewers -- feature as a setting, like Michael de Larrabeiti's THE BORRIBLES, which I read many times as a child and still think is brilliant."

"I grew up on sf and fantasy and horror, and I always wrote short stories and had them rejected from places like [British sf magazine] INTERZONE. Then in about 1995 I started working on the novel, but I found it very hard to write while I was working in an office, and I have a lot of admiration for people who do. It was only when I did a Masters degree that I could get a lot of work done on the book. That doesn't mean I wasn't doing any studying, it's just that your time is more flexible, so you can catch up with late nights or whatever. I finished the book in Harvard while I was on this scholarship thing."

Harvard? Miéville "went to Cambridge to do English Lit in 1991, changed very quickly to Social Anthropology, worked for a year as a sub-editor on a magazine, did an M.Sc. in International Relations at LSE, then did a year's sort of general studies on this funny scholarship at Harvard (I tried to learn Arabic, and failed). Then I went back to LSE to do a Ph.D. in International Relations." Miéville hopes to complete a Ph.D. in International Relations on the Philosophy of International Law by September 2001.

International Relations on the Philosophy of International Law? "No it doesn't mean I'm going to be an international lawyer. This is jurisprudence, not practical. My thing is social theory/philosophy...Basically if you want to work in those fields you end up being an academic, which was my original plan. I'm still very interested in publishing academic essays and books...Being an academic is hard work. I like the writing and research, but I don't know how well I could teach." (If you want a sample of his academic writing, try "The Conspiracy of Architecture: Notes on a Modern Anxiety'" in the journal HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, Vol. 2, 1998).

What did the lifelong Londoner he think of the U.S.? "I'd been to the U.S. a couple of times before on holiday or whatever, but that was the first time I'd been there for more than a couple of weeks. I loved New York, which is somewhere I'd like to live for a while. I'm sure I've got a skewed vision of it, because I was mostly in Manhattan, but I was a big fan. But I didn't like Harvard, and I found Cambridge, Massachusetts incredibly dull and frighteningly preppy. I made good friends there, but the institution as a whole and an awful lot of the students were incredibly straight-laced. I'd love to come back and live in the U.S. again, but I think it'd have to be a big city next time."

Drum 'n' Bass music is also an important part of KING RAT. Even for those unaware of the music or its subcultural scene, Miéville manages to use it expressively and effectively in his novel. For those who have no idea what D&B is, Mieville explains, "Drum'n'Bass -- and Jungle in general -- is a kind of dance music that uses lots of samples, which is based around the use of the breakbeat. That's a rhythmic pattern made by stretching short snatches of music -- breaks -- from source-records and looping them. It tends to take its basslines from Reggae or Reggae-influenced music, and it takes a lot of its beats and samples from funk and HipHop, but is much faster than either. What distinguishes it from most dance music like Techno is that its beats and basslines are much funkier."

"It's often seen as a black subculture, and its probably true that more black people are into D&B than other forms of dance, and that black musicians have always been at the forefront of the genre, but it's always been a multicultural scene."

"D&B's got into a bit of a rut recently. The high point was probably around 1994-95, when there was some fantastic cross-fertilization and experimentation going on. I don't think there's been anything really exciting for a couple of years now. There's still good stuff being made, but it's not cutting edge like it was. I think people are kind of waiting to see what happens with D&B now. There was a move, a couple of years ago, to make it all much more 'intellectual', and the beats got much more messy and broken up and samples started appearing from Steve Reich and so on. Some of that was quite interesting, but it meant that you couldn't *dance* to it any more, and for me that's the bottom line of D&B. It's sophisticated and intelligent and fierce and all that, but you react to it physically.

book cover Miéville also loves "Hip Hop, especially harder stuff, like Busta Rymes and the Roots. I like bands like Asian Dub Foundation that take the D&B influence and fuzz it up a bit...Old Blues. I used to be a real fan of Industrial and post-punk stuff like Oxbow and the Minister of Noise, and I've still got affection and respect for some of it, though I don't listen to it very much these days."

"I'm very ignorant about classical music," he admits, "but I like some of the avant-garde stuff, like Schoenberg and Berg. I like Berio, especially the folk-songs he scored for Cathy Berberian. I'd like to know more about orchestral music but I just don't even know where to start."

Miéville's been involved in socialist politics for some years, as a member of the International Socialist tendency. Politics is central to Meiville's life and therefore inevitably spills into his writing, "But if you say that people always think you write sort of awful Stalinist agit-prop, which is something I shy from carefully. Honest!"

"Anyone interested In The International Socialist Organization can find out about it at http://www.internationalsocialist.org. I'd always been left-wing, and then I got interested in Marxism when I was about 20, and started reading a lot of socialist and Marxist literature. I realized to my amazement that what I was reading explained the world better than anything else I'd ever come across. And -- just to avoid a common misunderstanding -- the group to which I belong do not and have never idolized the USSR or China as a desirable alternative model."

Miéville points out that many excellent writers of fantasy and sf come from a left -- sometimes a very radical left -- ploitical perspective mentioning Michael Moorcock, Kim Stanley Robinson, Steven Brust, Ken Macleod, and Iain Banks. "But I make no grand claims about that: after all, M. R. James wrote some of the best ghost stories ever, and he was a high-church Tory."

Miéville, whose black and white comics have been published in fanzines and semi-prozines, is also interested in doing illustrations, both for his stories and those of others. "I'd also like to do illustrations of things like Lovecraft monsters for rulebooks for role-playing games, that sort of thing. There are two things I love drawing: monsters and buildings. Most of my comic strips tend to be very low-key, melancholy. A bit surreal. Lots of alienated people walking slowly through cities. I take a lot of monochrome pictures of cities for reference."

"My pictures of monstrous creatures are usually separate, in standalone pictures, because if you put them in strips they tend to make for a more 'dramatic' narrative, which undermines the weirdness of the city itself in the strips. But I'm still interested in integrating the two sides."

"I'm a very very slow artist, which is what stops me trying to develop that side of things professionally. Even if I was good enough (which I don't know) I'd never do things fast enough to make a living."

His next novel, PERDIDO STREET STATION, will be out from Macmillan (U.K.) in March 2000. "It is a dark book, and I hope that readers of horror and dark fantasy will still consider it something for them. It's urban gothic dark fantasy again, only set in another world. It' a fantasy novel -- in that it's set in a secondary world inhabited by humans alongside other races, and there's magic, and so on -- but I've always hated Tolkien: this is very far from 'epic' or 'heroic' fantasy. It's sort of unheroic, unepic fantasy. I'm interested in the Weird Fiction tradition, as well as the tradition of fantasy that binds people like Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison, a much lusher, more grotesque, and at the same time bleaker aesthetic and emotional landscape.

"Fantasy's a frustrating genre in that so much that's published in it is so derivative and formulaic, and yet it has the potential to be -- and sometimes is -- the most radical literary form out there. I've tried to write a fantasy novel without stereotypes. No elves, no dwarfs. Too often, that sort of thing is used as a shorthand for characterization, just a quickhand way of letting the reader know that a character is noble, or stolid, or whatever. And I hate the tendency towards moral absolutism in fantasy, the idea that orcs/trolls/whatever are bad, as a kind of racial characteristic. I know we've moved a long way from there recently, and there's a lot of very good fantasy that really avoids that kind of laziness, but there's still a lot out there that doesn't, unfortunately. I'm not saying, incidentally, that you can't write good, imaginative fantasy with elves in it, just that I can't. I also dislike Destiny and Fate a whole lot, and it features heavily in a lot of fantasy. If I discover that some character is fulfilling an Ancient Prophecy I tend to lose interest. I'm interested in the opposite of That Which Has Been Foretold, which is that which people make happen."

As for his own writing influences, "There are a lot of writers I think are astonishingly good, but who I don't think I draw on except in an indirect way. Like Philip K. Dick, for example, who's probably my single favorite author, but who I could never and would never try to write like. So the people I'm conscious of as influences are only a subset of my favorite writers (talking here about writers of fiction)."

"I'm very influenced by Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison, as I said. The whole 'other London' tradition is a strong presence for me: Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair, Neil Gaiman, Thomas de Quincey et al. I love the Surrealists and their precursors like Lautreamont, and the dark Modernist stuff from people like Kafka and Bulgakov."

"A few years ago I got into a lot of late 19th/early 20th century 'Weird Fiction' thing. I like Lovecraft, but I prefer William Hope Hodgson, and I like people like E.H. Visiak, Robert Chambers and David Lindsay, and precursors like Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, H. G. Wells mainly for THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU."

"Some writers have a great influence on me on the basis of one or two short stories, like Julio Cortazar for 'House Taken Over' or E.L.White for 'Lukundoo'."

"Making a living from writing is all I could want, and I sincerely hope that it carries on," the multi-talented Méiville says of his future. "Writing is what I think I'm best at, and what I enjoy the most. want to do the non-fiction and the art as well, but I hope it's always fiction that'll be central to my professional life. At some point I'd like to go and live in Cairo, and maybe elsewhere for a year or so at a time, but I don't have any vast life-plans to be fulfilled by a certain time. I'm very happy with how things are going for me, and I hope they keep on this trajectory."


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