Tag Archives: china mieville

London Gothic

Mystery is the doorway to fantasy. Dark forests, far away galaxies, roads that wind into the distance: any space that allows our imagination to play without the interference of mundane reality can be a portal. And there are few places more expectant with mystery than cities. Every road, building and doorway is a new unknown. So it’s no surprise that writers of fantasy find endless inspiration in cities, and in no city more than London.

The current trend for recasting London through the prism of fantasy metaphors began, arguably, with Neil Gaiman’s television series (and later novel) Neverwhere. Gaiman imagines a fantasy underworld beneath the mundane reality of London, built around the names of stops on the tube map. Blackfriars, Angel Islington and Old Bailey become characters in the underworld. It’s the kind of simple, beautiful idea Gaiman has a knack for; the sort you feel you might have thought of just a moment before he told them to you.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

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My Kitschy Predictions 2012

The Kitschies are among my favourite speculative fiction awards for the simple reason that they give awards to very good books. Last year I nailed A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness as the winner. So this year I’m going to take a wild stab at predicting the whole shortlist (!) How will I do?

  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  • Railsea by China Mieville
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (An outlier as one of the judges keeps saying how much they hate it…)
  • The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
  • Channel SK1N by Jeff Noon
If I get 3 right I will be quite happy. 5 and I will start to wonder if there is something up!

How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark

I spent much of the last weekend live-tweeting from Weird Council, an academic convention on the writing of China Mieville. Many clever people were in attendance, many clever things were said. I only understood about half of them but felt quite good about getting that much. As a good friend of mine says, if more than four other experts in the world understand what you are saying you are not a real academic.

Throughout the day I saw occasional tweets from writers wondering how all these complicated theories about literature combined with the actual act of creative writing. And I believe that is a perfectly valid concern. Most writers recognise that it isn’t the intellectual bit of their brain that writes a great novel or short story. That comes from an imaginative spark. And anyone who writes knows that too much intellectualising can snuff that spark right out.

But nonetheless, all that theory stuff can actually be pretty useful. Science Fiction is sometimes called a conversation. The ideas that writers have developed over the decades are contributions to that conversation. If you don’t know what’s been said before, you risk being the chap walking in to the middle of a discussion and saying what everyone else already said an hour ago. Theory can help bring you up to date with where that conversation is. And this isn’t just true of SF but for any form of creative expression. And theory can also help to spark fantastic and original ideas, if you learn to use it without letting it use you.

When you engage with theory as an artist, you have to resist the powerful temptation to try and be right. Theory often presents itself as an argument, and demands that you take a side. It’s the job of the academic to have that argument, because from the dialectical process of two or more opposing positions debating, new knowledge can be discovered and tested. But that process can be death to the artist. Be curious, ask questions. Enjoy the novel ideas theory can offer. But don’t take a side. Don’t get sucked in to the argument. And don’t try and be right.

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Fantasy must be a struggle with life

The more experienced I become as a writer, the more I realise I was closer to the soul of the art when I started out than after a decade and some lose change years studying its craft. Jonathan Franzen is a writer I discovered through The Corrections some time in the last year or so. In his recent lecture reprinted in The Guardian, Franzen talks about the relationship between fiction and autobiography, by way of Kafka.

Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.

When I began writing I found myself tugged back and forth between two seemingly conflicted urges. One was to write about my life. My first half dozen published stories, all now hidden on my hard drive out of public sight, were very direct explorations of the tough bits of my own life. These stories, recounting for instance the exacting details of watching my mother die of cancer, felt uncomfortably like bludgeoning an emotional response from readers. (I have the same feeling even looking back at that last sentence) In literary terms I’d had the advantage of of a traumatic childhood. I had a lot of dramatic experience to draw upon and wasn’t afraid in my early twenties to beat the shit out of people with it. In fact I enjoyed the sensation and found some needed emotional resolution in it. But I couldn’t avoid the idea that this was an unfair way to treat the reader, and I could see that this was a limited kind of writing.

Fortunately, the other tug on my writing sensibilities was the urge to write fantasy. By which I mean everything from Tolkienesque high fantasy to Gibsonesque cyberpunkian sci-fi fantasy. It’s all fantasy to my way of thinking. These were the writers I’d grown up with, the imaginary worlds I had retreated in to as an escape from all that traumatic childhood stuff. But whenever I tried, or sometimes return to trying, to write fantasy as an escape, I found that what I wrote died on the page. I have half a dozen novels worth of failed fantasy that will remain locked away until and hopefully after the day I die. It all needed to be written, it has all contributed to the million words every writer must write for their apprenticeship. But none of it ever needs to be read. I can’t quite bring myself to burn / delete it all, but I could do so with no great loss.

The stories I have written that pass my internal quality tests, and which I have therefore left lying around for interested people to read, have all satisfied both my urges for biography and fantasy. Star, my latest short story upcoming in Universe magazine in June, is an alternative history of a fascist Britain, and also a memoir of the attempt to escape what seemed an overwhelmingly authoritarian educational system. My Lovesick Zombie Boyband is about a teenage girl with powers of necromancy, and also about having my heart crushed when I was eighteen. Circe’s Bar and Grill is a contemporary retelling of the Odysseus myth, and also my experience of serving rich people in restaurants. Momentum is an complete invention, except I do have boxes of scrawled notes from departed relatives hidden under my bed and I often wonder what they mean.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s idea of autobiography and the fictive dream, I realised how distinctly biography and fantasy, far from being conflicting urges, have actually been aspects of the same urge for me. I can steal Franzen’s words to describe that urge as to ‘create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning’. It’s in the collision of the real and the fantastic that the vividness and and meaning of the dream arise.

Earlier in the same section of the lecture Franzen says:

My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.

Whilst it might seem counter-intuative to some, all the fantasy writing I consider truly great conforms to that conception of the novel. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings struggles with his own story of surviving the trenches of World War One. China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels struggle with his own story of living as an intellectual and marxist in one of the worlds great capitalist cities. William Gibson’s novels from Neuromancer to Zero History struggle with his own story of understanding a world reshaped by the emerging web of media he calls ‘the net’. It’s the thing I find missing in most of the fantasy writing I encounter. However brilliantly it builds a world, tells a story, spinds out remarkable idea…if the author isn’t engaged in the struggle with their own story, it all adds up to little more than a calcified shell, missing the fleshy pulp of life within.

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Who is the wisest Sci-Fi & Fantasy author?

Over on Twitter and Facebook I asked folk to tell me which SF author they would turn to for life advice, for words of wisdom and guidance through the labyrinth of life. And I got quite a response!

[View the story “Wisest of the wise in SF & Fantasy” on Storify]

Popular choices include Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Is it just coincidence that these are also some of our most enduring writers?

It makes me wonder, beyond a good story, great characters, cool ideas and amazing worlds to explore, is what we really value in our writers is the wise guidance they offer us through life?

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Understanding Christopher Priest

Writing can be a cruel game. Not least for those who, to innocent bystanders, might seem like winners in the game of literary life. Take Christopher Priest for instance. With a long and esteemed career in writing, numerous accolades under his belt and a Hollywood adaptation of his novel The Prestige still within living memory, Priest has enjoyed a bigger piece of the pie than most writers will ever know.

So why then would a man held in rather high esteem by the community of Science Fiction writers and readers throw a hissy fit about the recently announced Clarke awards shortlist? The immediate assumption one might make is that Priest is somewhat vexed about his own novel The Islanders being overlooked for this year’s shortlist. And no doubt this is one of many straws piled upon this particular heehawing donkey’s back, but in this case probably not the most significant one.

A more significant reason might be that Christopher Priest has spent most of his professional career not being J G Ballard. The two writers began their professional careers around the same period of the early to mid 1960′s, among a number of writers who would become known as the New Wave, all loosely connected by their shared agenda of making SF a serious and respected literary genre. Priest is not now among the first writers that come to mind in discussions of the New Wave…which is of course the point.

The role of camaraderie and rivalry is sometimes overlooked when we draw up our cultural historic narratives. But they are a powerful force in the lives of writers as with all artists. Yes, there is the pure joy of creation. Yes, there is the need to have your work read by an audience. Yes, there is that other need for a hefty pay cheque now and again to keep body and soul together. But what really drives us is the desire to be…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays. But while this is not literally true, there’s no doubt that these writers pay each other a very great deal of attention, even if sometimes that attention manifests as deliberately ignoring your rivals.

Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down. His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, “extremely clever” is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love. It has all the qualities of someone who has spent decades studying, learning, dedicating every fraction of a considerable intellect to learning the rules and structures of fiction, but never quite managed to get his own soul on the page. Which, in the end, is the only thing we really demand of a novelist.

First the New Wave, then wave after wave of SF writers have swept past Christopher Priest. Many of them far less intelligent. Most of them far less educated in the field of SF. And now, just when Priest might have expected to be acclaimed as an elder statesman of the genre, another wave of writers have taken the limelight instead. The bulk of the criticisms Priest lays at the feet of the current generation of SF writers including Charles Stross and China Mieville are products of his own swollen, bruised and delusional ego, but a few are true. All artists are imperfect, all fail in many, many ways. But then don’t we always in the end love the people we love as much for their imperfections? The rhetorical framework of Christopher Priest’s screed, a rhetoric shared by some other extremely clever writers, seems to pose a kind of Platonic ideal work of fiction, for which they are always striving, and which gives them cause to hurl abuse at those weak, frail, all too human writers who fail to reach it.

Because the real cruelty of writing is what it makes some writers do to themselves. Christopher Priest is and will continue to be highly respected in the SF community. His next book will likely be more highly publicised than all his others put together after this hissy fit. Let’s just hope he puts his soul on the page this time, rather than another mechanical exercise in platonic perfectionism.

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Why we must reward intelligent fantastic literature

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to direct your attention to the shortlist for the Kitschies, the annual awards organised by the folks at the Pornokitsch blog, which is quickly establishing itself as one of the two or three most relevant awards in fantastic literature. And the nominated novels are:

  • The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (Orbit)
  • Embassytown by China Miéville (Tor)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker Books)
  • The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
  • Osama: A Novel by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

There are two additional categories for best debut and best cover, information here, both strong shortlists but I want to focus attention here on the best novel category. Because not only is this a strong shortlist, but an important one for fantastic literature, because it really asks the question of how seriously we take ourselves, or expect to be taken by others.

This has not been a good year for SF awards. The Hugo and Nebulas both came under criticism for shortlists primarily determined by partisan fan factions rather than quality writing, and the British Fantasy Society awards literally collapsed under the weight of their own nepotism. Earlier comments on this issue lead me in to a protracted argument with John Scalzi through the medium of Twitter. John didn’t seem to think having awards shortlists full of bad books was a problem because, you know, quality is just a subjective issue and people have different tastes and any suggestion that more than a few of these books were were incredibly lightweight was ‘kvetching’.

So the Kitschies shortlist leaps out as actually doing that thing that awards should do, which is awarding the best work in their field. And in those terms I doubt there will be a stronger shortlist in any award for fantastic literature this year.

Jesse Bullington’s work came to prominence after an unusual call for attention through Jeff Vandermeer, and his two novels to date have established him as one of the most talented prose writers out there, shaping incredibly dark worlds of deep moral uncertainty. The Testament of Jessie Lamb became one of the few works of science fiction ever to pick up a Booker prize longlist nomination in 2011. Embassytown is a novel I’ve already heaped praise upon in The Guardian for its treatment of radical political themes through the lens of SF metaphor. Osama : A Novel has placed Lavie Tidhar in the top rank of todays SF writers for its intelligent and complex examination of post-911 politics, filtered through a Philip K Dick influenced alternative reality. But much as I like these books, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd is quite simply a masterpiece, continuing Ness’s powerful exploration of themes of violence and male identity, and probably deserves to win any award shortlist it finds itself on this year.

In different ways all of the books on this shortlist demonstrate what it is that is truly great in fantastic literature. They are all great books by any definition. Books with heart and soul, and also with meaning. Books we can find insight in, and learn about what it is to be human, even in a world as weird and strange as our own, and which use the metaphors of fantastic literature to create that insight. They are intelligent works of fantastic literature, that deserve to be recognised and rewarded as such.

Fantastic literature is a broad church. Many of the congregation are there for a bit zombie apocalypse or steampunk adventure. And that’s OK. Really it is. A world where every novel had the intellectual heft of Mieville would be a hard one to enjoy. Absolutely true. But when it comes to awards, are we really doing ourselves justice by lauding popcorn novels with major prizes? I’m going to fully enjoy John Carter of Mars when it hits our screens, but I would be profoundly disappointed if it took the Oscar for best movie or the Palm d’Or. And I would start to take those awards less seriously, then ignore them all together, if films without any substance won them often. Awards stand or fall on the basis of the quality they reward. Some of SFs major awards may be falling by that measure. But it seems new awards are there to replace them.

Mieville, Embassytown and radical SF

China Mieville
Image by ceridwenn via Flickr

Is SF becoming cool? If it is, as China Miéville claims, then the award-winning author, whose new novel Embassytown hit the shelves yesterday, may have something to do with it. In our current era of austerity, with the largest-ever protest march on the nation’s capital and a previously apathetic youth culture rallying to the UK Uncut banner, Miéville’s homebrew of weird fiction and radical politics seems ever more relevant. Despite the current slew of mindless SF-flavoured Hollywood blockbusters, Miéville reminds us that beneath SF’s skin-deep popular appeal beats a radical heart.

Read more in The Guardian.

Literary SF

A friend on Facebook has asked to make a few suggestions of Speculative Fiction that straddles both mass market and literary audiences. I thought the answer might be of more general interest, so here we go…

It’s a good question. As I suggested last week over on The Guardian, while SF is generally perceived as mass market, it’s equally possible for it to be literary. SF is like a set of tools that an author can pick up and use. They might choose to use them to please a mass audience, or to speak to a literary readership.

Why is it difficult to do both? The mass market and the literary readership demand almost polar opposites from fiction:

Mass Market – has expectations it wants fulfilled, hence likes genre. Wants to be entertained, distracted, given an escape from real life.

Literary Readership – wants its expectations to be defeated, dislikes genre. Wants to be challenged, improved, and shown the truth of real life.

Clearly, it’s difficult for one book to give both sets of readers what they want. One of the most popular examples of Literary SF at the moment is China Mieville‘s ‘Perdido Street Station‘. It’s one of the best fantasy novels of recent years. But, many readers of fantasy dislike it. Why? Because PSS is a tough read. Both on the language level, where it frequently departs the ‘transparent’ prose the mass audience enjoys. And as a narrative it is tremendously dark. The stories heroes are deeply flawed. They fail to defeat evil, but instead discover that evil is all powerful and are lucky to escape with their lives. Most works of Literary SF that succeed in appealing to both mass market and literary readers do so in similarly incomplete ways.

This is not a problem unique to SF by any means. All art has to deal with the divide between mass / elite, low / high, popular / critically acclaimed. Its rooted very deeply in how different parts of society engage with and use art and culture. ‘Low’ culture sees art as just another commodified product to be consumed. ‘High’ culture sees art, along with science, as one of humanities great tools of advancement. Its no wonder the two don’t get along! And its no wonder SF writers, readers and critics who believe in its value as part of ‘High’ culture are so determined to make the argument against its continual pigeon holing as ‘genre’ and ‘low culture’.

Its also no surprise that the artists who succeed in being both high and low, mass and elite, are the ones we acclaim as great. So the task of suggesting titles that are both Literary and SF almost becomes the same as listing the classics of SF. So, I have tried to keep to reasonably contemporary authors that both a mainstream SF reader, and a Literary Fiction reader might both read with pleasure:

Light by M John Harrison
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Natural History by Justina Robson
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Air by Geoff Ryman
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Iron Council by China Mieville

This is a necessarily incomplete and subjective list. Objections? Tell me why. Suggestions? Let us know your thinking.

Kraken by China Mieville

China Miéville has a passion for London. The multi-award winning author has reflected the city’s surreal side in Un Lun Dun, set it to a drum’n’bass beat in King Rat, and inundated it with vampire imagoes in The Tain. Now, in his new novel, Miéville threatens to destroy the nation’s capital entirely in the tentacled embrace of a giant squid. And while Miéville is far from the first novelist to threaten to obliterate London, he may win the prize for having the most fun along the way.

Read more at The Guardian

Tell the Truth

Two things happened over my Easter weekend. I went to Eastercon and had a bloody good time with members of The Speculators writing group as well as a number of friends old and new. And I read On Writing by Stephen King.

I don’t think On Writing is a flawless essay on the art and craft of fiction. Firstly, there is no such thing and secondly, King is a particular kind of writer. An animist, a writer who creates from the raw stuff of life and imagination. Much of King’s advice could be phrased as ‘how to release and channel your inner animist’. With that in mind, it is a guide I would highly recommend to anyone who has recently been through the mill of an English Literature course of study or has otherwise lost the original creative spark of their writing through over examination.

The phrase that has absolutely lodged in the front of my brain from On Writing is ‘Tell the Truth’. This is King’s take on the old adage ‘Write what you know’, advice that King sees as limiting(especially for science fiction writers wanting to describe alien worlds!) Telling the truth means finding the truth in the story you are writing, whatever it may be. Look at what you are writing and ask, is this true? Why write at all, if not to tell the truth?

I like the idea so much that I’ve written it across the upper edge of my laptop, so its the first thing I see whenever I start to write.

A few true things:

The Shine anthology is available to buy. It has a quote from me on the back, so it must be good.

China Mieville may be about to make a clean sweep of almost every major award in SF. What are the odds do you think?

Guardian Books Podcast – SF Special

I have the pleasure of being a guest on this week’s Guardian Books Podcast. This was my second time on the show, but this time around the whole episode is dedicated  to speculative fiction. Hurrah! We discuss the new John Wyndham novel (yes, you heard that right) and the reasons why there are so many sub-genres in SF. Michelle Pauli interviews China Mieville, and I give my SF picks for 2010.

Listen to the Guardian Books Podcast – SF Special