Why you should read China Miéville
By Luke Frostick
I’m a big fan of fantasy and fantastical stories: Sandman, Earthsea, Gormenghast, Diskworld, Realm of the Elderlings, Middle Earth; I love them all. But one writer above all keeps drawing me back and that is China Miéville.
I realize that other people don't feel the same about fantasy as I do. It can seem like an intimidating genre and also one that can be easily ignored as childish or artless. Even I sometimes gag when I see another Game of Thrones knockoff with a teenagers idea of gritty running through it, or a Tolkien clone featuring orks, elves and dark lords -- that, while reading you start to suspect began its life as a particularly good game of D&D.
China is a fantasist who is simply not satisfied with the rather narrow perimeters of what fantasy should and could be. He draws from a deep well of imagination and creates stories that include: Cactus people, a floating pirate city, humans who as punishment for crimes have had their bodies reworked with machines components and parts from animals (he doesn’t shy away from the complex sex lives between them), a race of giant scholarly mosquitos who have been banished to a remote island for fear of another malarial queen rising, a warrior with a porcelain sword powered by possibility, and so much more, all in one book, The Scar.
It’s that wonderful range of worlds and creatures that keeps bringing me back to China, when you pick up one of his books you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. He displays a remarkable flexibility when it comes to genre; he has said in the past that he’s trying to write in every genre, from noir to sci-fi to detective novels all with healthy disregard for their rules and tropes.
Another area I feel raises China above quite a few of his contemporaries is his political awareness. Although, science fiction has always had a political nature running through it, from Bradbury to Ballad, fantasy has been, traditionally, less interested in political messages. Tolkien was famously apolitical. China, however, is very interested in the political potential of fantasy and works in themes of gender, sexuality and socialism throughout his work. He uses the distancing effect of fantasy to raise and discuss these issues. He walks on a fine line as, though these themes are present, they never overpower his stories and world-building. He’s on record saying that although he is interested in writing about political themes, first and foremost he wanted to write about monsters.
What you should read first.
If you’re not a fantasy fan then I suggest you start with The City and the City. A detective story set in a fictional Eastern European country, two cities overlap on two different planes of reality sometimes merging in and out of each other. If that is screwing with your head, imagine trying to solve a murder there. It's a compelling story with a strong narrative, an interesting concept for a world, and some wry political observations. It has much less fantastical elements than his other stories.
If, on the other hand, you’re like me and the words ‘magic sword’ make you feel all special inside you should read Perdio Street Station: the first of his sequence of books set in the world of Bas Lag. Follow his characters down the grimy streets of New Crobazond as they navigate a twisted world of corruption, mad science, gangsters, bohemian artists, more cactus people (some of whom are bohemian artists), a giant inter-dimensional spider, and industrial urban sprawl. New Crobazond isn’t a nice place, but I wish I could visit it nonetheless.
Like all writers he’s not without his flaws. A few of his endings aren’t as satisfying as you might wish, but they are all entertaining nonetheless and the ride is always worth it. The other thing to keep in mind is that Miéville is a creature of London and it comes across in his stories. Particularly, the ones set in the real world are very London centric, not that it's a problem. But it means that unless you're familiar with the city and the British cultural touch points, his dark inversions of it could be quite difficult to follow.
One final point, his stories can be very adult in nature, so possibly not suitable for kids.
I love China Miéville, the king of weird fiction. Even if fantasy isn’t your bag, I still think that there are things that you can enjoy. And if you’re the kind of person who regularly day dreams about riding into battle on top of a gigantic train, like me, then you owe it to yourself to check this guy out.