Reveling in Genre: An Interview with China Miéville
China Miéville was born on September 6, 1972, in Norwich, England, but has spent
most of his life in London. King Rat (1998), his first novel, is a coming-of-age
fantasy incorporating folk tales and drum’n’bass music into an action-packed
quest. His second novel, Perdido Street Station (2000), which he wrote
while working on his PhD, received a great deal of critical attention, winning
both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Fantasy Award, and being
short-listed for the World Fantasy Award. The Scar (2002), his third
novel, also very well received, is a stand-alone sequel to Perdido Street Station, taking place in the
same world but with different characters. Miéville is working on a third
stand-alone novel set in that world. He has published several short stories and
novellas, and is presently an editor of
Historical Materialism, serving as
special editor of a recent issue on Marxism and Fantasy (10.4 ). In May
2003, he was Guest of Honor, along with Carol Emshwiller, at WisCon, the
feminist sf convention. A committed Marxist, he ran for British Parliament in
2001 as the Socialist Alliance candidate. The photo of him that appears on both
Perdido Street Station and The Scar fairly represents his strong physical presence—tall, muscular, and brooding. The man himself, however, is soft-spoken,
humorous, and self-deprecating. The interview which follows is based on an email
dialogue conducted between March 2002 and August 2003. It represents the current
interests of a writer already accomplished but still near the beginning of his
Joan Gordon: Would you describe your childhood and education?
China Miéville: There were three of us in my family: my mum, my sister Jemima,
and me, a close-knit single-parent family. I met my father maybe four times, but
never really knew him, and he died about 8 years ago. We lived in north-west
London, in a working-class, ethnically-mixed area called Willesden (where King
My parents were hippies, and the story is that they went through a dictionary
looking for a beautiful word to name me. They nearly called me Banyan, but
flipped a few pages on and reached “China,” thankfully. The other reason they
liked it is that “china” is Cockney rhyming slang for “mate.” People say “my old
china,” meaning “my old mate,” because “china plate” rhymes with “mate.”
We used to go to a lot of museums and art galleries, and we used to watch an
awful lot of TV. We were pretty poor (my mother trained to be a teacher, which
even when she qualified didn’t mean a whole lot of money), but from the age of
eleven, I went to private school on scholarships. I had a great childhood. I was
a bit of a geek and a bit anxious, but I had plenty of friends and interests,
mostly sf-related-RPGs [role-playing games], reading, drawing, writing—and
When I was 16 I went to boarding school for two years, which I loathed. I went
to Cambridge University [in 1991] to read English, but quickly changed to Social
Anthropology, receiving my degree in 1994. Then I worked for a while as
sub-editor on a computer magazine, did a Masters in International Law from the
London School of Economics (receiving the degree in 1995), spent a year at
Harvard, and then received a PhD in Philosophy of International Law in 2001.
My dissertation is entitled A Historical Materialist Analysis of International
Law and the Legal Form. It’s a critical history and theory of international law,
drawing extensively on the work of the Russian legal theorist Yevgeny
Pashukanis. Its direct influence on my novels has been very slight. There’s a
reference to jurisprudence in Perdido Street Station which is drawn from it, and
there’s something about a form of maritime law in The Scar, but that’s about it.
The thesis is really an expression of a much broader theoretical interest and
approach, which in turn informs the fiction, so to that extent, they’re both
infused with a shared outlook.
JG: What cultural influences shaped your writing?
CM: My sister and I watched a hell of a lot of TV, which is partly why I don’t
buy the argument that it stultifies children’s imaginations—I think it depends
almost entirely on the context in which you’re watching it. British children’s
TV in the 1970s and early 1980s was extremely good, and these days I often
realize that something I’m writing is a riff from that early viewing. Programs I
remember vividly include Doctor Who [1963-89], Chorlton and the Wheelies
[1976-79], Blake’s 7 [1978-81], and Battle of the Planets [1978-79]. These days
I’m a flat-out, awe-struck fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997-2003].
We didn’t see many films when I was young, but since my teens I’ve been watching
more. I’m very tolerant of sf bubblegum (though the truly moronic, like
Independence Day [Emmerich 1996] or Burton’s Planet of the Apes , leaves
me frigid). I loved The Matrix [Wachowski brothers 1999] and I’m sure I’m not
the only writer who can feel its influence, especially in fight scenes. I loved
the Alien franchise, particularly Alien [Scott 1979] and Alien3 [Fincher 1992]
(which I think is very under-rated). I like most half-decent (and many
completely un-decent) monster films. I like John Carpenter when he’s on form—I’ve seen
Prince of Darkness  probably more than any other film. In
terms of influences, the aesthetic that I try to filch respectfully comes most
from filmmakers like the Quay Brothers and Jan vankmajer.
Probably one of the most enduring influences on me was a childhood playing RPGs:
Dungeons and Dragons [D&D] and others. I’ve not played for sixteen years and
have absolutely no intention of starting again, but I still buy and read the
manuals occasionally. There were two things about them that particularly
influenced me. One was the mania for cataloguing the fantastic: if you play them
for any length of time, you get to know pretty much all the mythological beasts
of all pantheons out there, along with a fair bit of the theology. I still love
all that—I collect fantastic bestiaries, and one of the main spurs to write a
secondary-world fantasy was to invent a bunch of monsters, half of which I’m
sure I’ll never be able to fit into any books.
The other, more nebulous, but very strong influence of RPGs was the weird fetish
for systematization, the way everything is reduced to “game stats.” If you take
something like Cthulhu in Lovecraft, for example, it is completely
incomprehensible and beyond all human categorization. But in the game Call of Cthulhu, you see Cthulhu’s “strength,” “dexterity,” and so on, carefully
expressed numerically. There’s something superheroically banalifying about that
approach to the fantastic. On one level it misses the point entirely, but I must
admit it appeals to me in its application of some weirdly misplaced rigor onto
the fantastic: it’s a kind of exaggeratedly precise approach to secondary world
I’m conscious of the problems with that: probably my favorite piece of
fantastic-world creation ever is the VIRICONIUM series by M. John Harrison [The
Pastel City (1971), A Storm of Wings (1980), In Viriconium (1982), and
Viriconium Nights (1984; rev. 1985)], which is carefully constructed to avoid
any domestication, and which thereby brilliantly achieves the kind of alienating
atmosphere I’m constantly striving for, so it’s not as if I think that
quantification is the “correct” way to construct a world. But it’s one that
appeals to the anal kid in me. To that extent, though I wouldn’t compare myself
to Harrison in terms of quality, I sometimes feel as if, formally, my stuff is a
cross between Viriconium and D&D.
JG: You mentioned being drawn to the systematization in RPGs. How do you see
that in your writing?
CM: I start with maps, histories, time lines, things like that. I spend a lot of
time working on stuff that may or may not actually find its way into the novel,
but I know a lot more about the world than makes it into the stories. That’s the
“RPG” factor: it’s about systematizing the world.
But though that’s my method, I don’t start with it. I don’t start with a bunch
of graph papers and rulers. When I’m writing a book, generally I start with the
mood and setting, along with a couple of specific images—things that have come
into my head, totally abstracted from any narrative, that I’ve fixated on. After
that, I construct a world, or an area, into which that general setting, that
atmosphere, and the specific images I’ve focused on can fit. It’s at that stage
that the systematization begins for me.
I hope this doesn’t sound pompous, but that’s how I see the best weird fiction
as the intersection of the traditions of Surrealism with those of pulp. I don’t
start with the graph paper and the calculators like a particular kind of D&D dungeonmaster: I start with an image, as unreal and affecting as possible, just
like the Surrealists. But then I systematize it, and move into a different kind
I grew up with a love for the Surrealists which has never faded: in particular,
the works of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Hans Bellmer, and Paul Delvaux, along with
those adopted by or close to the Surrealists, like Edward Burra, James Ensor,
and Frida Kahlo. Graphic artists like Piranesi, Dürer, Escher, Bellmer’s
pen-and-ink work, Mervyn Peake, Tenniell, and so on, are influential. As to
modern comics and graphic art, I admire David Sandlin, Charles Burns, Kim
Dietsch, Julie Doucet, and Chris Ware; from the post-punk comics underground,
Burne Hogarth; and more mainstream British children’s comic artists like Ken
Reid. I draw myself, pen and ink stuff, often illustrating my own stories.
I was always into everything to do with sf, fantasy, horror (as well as things
set under the sea, which, along with dinosaurs, is honorary fantasy). I grew up
on children’s sf by people like Douglas Hill and Nicholas Fisk, as well as
horror comics, which were, in retrospect, deeply odd and unpleasant. Michael de
Larrabeiti’s BORRIBLES books [The Borribles (1976),
The Borribles Go For Broke
(1981), and Across the Dark Metropolis (1986)] were massively influential. When
I was a kid I read pretty much any sf I could get my hands on, so there was a
lot of good pulp along with the classics—people like Lloyd Biggle, Jr. and
Linsday Gutteridge—and that reveling in genre influenced me a lot. I read a
review of Perdido Street Station which said that for a Clarke winner it’s
surprisingly unashamed of its roots, which I take as a massive compliment.
Overall, though, what I liked best was the aesthetic of alienation, of the
macabre and grotesque, so I preferred New Worlds-type stuff to American Golden
Age: Aldiss, Harrison, Moorcock, Disch, Ballard, and the like are all heroes of
I still find myself riffing off books from my past constantly, sometimes without
remembering what I’m basing my writing on. New Crobuzon [the setting of Perdido
Street Station] is highly influenced by Brian Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry
 and Tim Powers’s Anubis Gates , but they’d permeated me so deeply I
was initially less conscious of them than of other influences. The very first
(never-ever-to-see-the-light-of-day) New Crobuzon story I wrote was about the
invention of photography in a fantasy city—which is precisely the plot of
Aldiss’s book. I’d forgotten that I was remembering it. I’m still scared of
inadvertently ripping people off.
I always loved classic ghost stories, like Henry James’s and Robert Aikman’s. I
liked Lovecraft, and then maybe eight years ago I started getting very
interested in early weird fiction: Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers, E.H. Visiak,
William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, David Lindsay (though he’s not in
quite the same tradition, there are shared aesthetics). There were two things I
found particularly compelling about this work. One was the peculiarities of pulp
style. If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft, for example, they
often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s unputdownable.
There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which
completely breaches all rules of “good writing,” but is somehow utterly
compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very
tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it
works. Though I also love much more minimalist writers, it’s that lush approach
that I’m drawn to in terms of my own writing, for good and bad.
The other thing I liked about weird fiction was its location at the intersection
of sf, fantasy, and horror. Lovecraft’s monsters do magic, but they’re
time-traveling aliens with über-science, who do horrific things. Hodgson’s are
similar (though less scientifically savvy). David Lindsay’s “spaceship” travels
back to Arcturus by totally spurious—and not even remotely convincing—science,
but it masquerades as sf. I find that bleeding of genre edges completely
compelling. There’s been a (to my mind rather scholastic and sterile) debate
about whether Perdido Street Station is sf or fantasy (or even horror—it made
the long-list for the Bram Stoker Award). I always say that what I write is
weird fiction, in that it is self-consciously at the intersection.
Some writers loom in my consciousness for single works, some for their whole
oeuvre. M. John Harrison I consider one of the greatest living writers in any
genre, and his influence on me is immense. Mervyn Peake, for his combination of
lush language and aesthetic austerity; Gene Wolfe, for oddly similar reasons;
all of Iain Sinclair’s books, but particularly Downriver ; Alasdair Gray,
especially Lanark ; Russell Hoban, especially Riddley Walker ; a
book called Junglist by people calling themselves “Two Fingers” and “James T.
Kirk” . I find Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre  continually
I love short stories, and there are writers like Borges, Calvino, and Stefan
Grabinski whose short work is a constant reference, but there are others who
loom large for me on the strength of a single piece: Julio Cortazar’s “House
Taken Over,” E.L. White’s “Lukundoo,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow
Wallpaper,” Saki’s “Sredni Vastar.” I just finished Kelly Link’s collection
Stranger Things Happen , and can already feel her influencing me. Writers
I’ve come to more recently include John Crowley, Unica Zürn (Hans Bellmer’s
partner), Jeff VanderMeer, and Jeffrey Thomas.
The biggest recent influence on me, though, is not an sf writer: it’s the
Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, who died fourteen years ago. I first read him a
decade ago, but came back to him recently and read all his published work. He’s
quite astonishing. His influences are radically different from the folklorist
tradition that one often associates with African literature. He writes in the
tradition of the Beats, the Surrealists, the Symbolists, and he marshals their
tools to talk about the freedom struggle, the iniquities of post-independence
Zimbabwe, racism, loneliness, and so on. His poetry and prose are almost
painfully intense and suffer from all the problems you’d imagine—the writing can
be prolix and clunky—but the way he constantly wrestles with English (which
wasn’t his first language) is extraordinary. He demands sustained effort from
the reader, so that the work is almost interactive—reading it is an active
process of collaboration with the writer—and the metaphors are simultaneously so
unclichéd and so apt that he reinvigorates the language. The epigram to The Scar
is taken from his most obscure book, Black Sunlight , and he is a very
strong presence throughout my recent writing.
JG: I want to turn the discussion from literary influences to your political
involvement. Would you describe that involvement, discussing its effect on your
CM: I was always left-wing, and from the age of about thirteen I’ve been
involved in campaigns against nuclear weapons and apartheid, going on marches
and demonstrations. Later, I became interested in postmodernist philosophy, but
became very dissatisfied with it in my second year of university. I was studying
anthropology, and I felt there was something theoretically disingenuous about
postmodernism’s rejection of “grand narratives.” Specifically, its inability to
deal with the cross-cultural nature of women’s oppression pissed me off, and for
a brief while I turned to feminist theory. But I also felt there were serious
lacunae in that tradition, and, while I continue to identify with feminism as a
political struggle, I was unsatisfied by some of its theoretical blindspots.
At Cambridge there was an organization of Marxist students, and I’d been deeply
impressed with the rigor and scope of their arguments, as well as their
activism. Like most students, I knew that Marxism was teleological, outdated,
and wrong, but I was stunned to find out that it wasn’t really any of those
things, nor did it have the slightest connection with Stalinism. Two things in
particular persuaded me of Marxism’s validity. One was that this theoretical
approach dovetailed perfectly with my pre-existing political instincts and
commitments, and gave them more rigor. The other was that Marxism— historical
materialism—was theoretically all-encompassing: it allowed me to understand the
world in its totality without being dogmatic. I’d felt, for example, that while
feminist theory might have an explanation of gender inequality, it didn’t have
much to offer on, say, international exchange rates. Marxism was able to make
sense of all the various social phenomena from a unified perspective.
Although we revolutionary socialists are always accused of being utopian,
nothing strikes me as more utopian than the reformist belief that with a bit of
tinkering and some good faith, we can systematically improve the world. You have
to ask how many decades of broken promises and failed schemes it will take to
disprove that hope. Marxism isn’t about saying you’ll get a perfect world: it’s
about saying we can get a better world than this one, and it’s hard to imagine,
no matter how many mistakes we make, that it could be much worse than the mass
starvation, war, oppression, and exploitation we have now. In a world where
30,000 to 40,000 children die of malnutrition daily while grain ships are
designed to dump food into the sea if the price dips too low, it’s worth the
For the last five years, I’ve been an activist with the International Socialist
Tendency, and in a broader organization called the Socialist Alliance—as a
member of which I stood for parliament in the recent general elections. I’m not
an activist by predisposition but by conviction. Generally, I’d much rather be
reading sf than being on a picket line, but I simply cannot believe that this
world is the best we can do, and I can’t relax while it’s all we’ve got.
Socialism and sf are the two most fundamental influences in my life.
JG: Let’s turn to more specific discussion about your novels, and I’d like to
begin by asking about your first novel, King Rat. Why did you choose drum’n’bass/jungle music as the musical score for the novel?
CM: I chose it because I love it. It’s rhythmically, thematically, aesthetically
powerful. It’s a music constructed on theft, it’s a mongrel of a hundred
snatches of stolen music. That’s what sampling is. And there are places in King
Rat where I snatched a bunch of real lyrics, and looped them over each other, so
the writing mimicked the music. It wasn’t entirely conscious,
though—consciously, I was trying to mimic the rhythm of the music. Drum’n’bass
is a music born out of the working-class—and unemployed—culture in London.
Obviously it’s politically important to me not to pathologize, demonize, or
fetishize working-class culture, but I didn’t choose to use it for political
reasons so much as because it’s where the music’s at.
JG: The story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin is central to the novel, and the
African trickster Anansi is there as well. Would you expand on your use of folk
tales and myths in King Rat?
CM: All the animal superiors came from various mythic or artistic influences.
The Anansi in the book is more the spider in his West Indian incarnation. The
King of the Cats is mentioned, who’s a fairy tale figure (and also refers to An
Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin ). Kataris, Queen Bitch, is a demon in
charge of dogs from a pantheon I can’t remember. Loplop, Bird Superior, is a
character from Max Ernst’s paintings. Lord of the Flies refers to the novel of
that name [by William Golding 1959], of course. All the animals in the novel
have their own boss, and you’ve got figures from African, European, mythic, and
artistic traditions all mixed up.
JG: The London Underground—what I’d call the subway system in the US—forms a
series of metaphors for much of what goes on in the novel, from the use of
subterranean settings, to its secret (underground) history of London, to the
underground music scene. Would you discuss that?
CM: There’s a whole tradition of “underground London” books, of which Neil
Gaiman’s Neverwhere  is probably the most well-known and successful.
Partly it’s because it’s such an old city, and it’s been constructed on top of
earlier layers. There are rivers that have been covered up by the city, and
tunnels and construction, of which the tube (the subway trains) are a relatively
recent but culturally weighty addition. Of course, the idea of things lurking
around below the surface is such a potent image it’s no surprise that it
features heavily in literature.
There’s something particularly powerful about the underground trains in London.
They’re the oldest subway network in the world, and they are an absolutely
central part of London culture. The tube map has become incredibly iconic. The
very names of stations and train lines loom very large in our culture, so they
were ripe to be pilfered. The details I wrote were right at the time—there’s a
scene set in Mornington Crescent Station, which is particularly well-known in
Britain because it features in a very popular radio comedy show [I’m Sorry I
Haven’t A Clue]. Setting a violent and unpleasant scene there was kind of like
pissing in a cozy bedroom.
JG: “Let’s put the ‘rat’ back into ‘Fraternity’” (317), Saul declaims at the end
of King Rat. And you put fraternity into the novel. How and why is that an
important theme in the novel?
CM: The “revolution” at the end of the novel is structured around the slogans of
the French Revolution, not the Bolshevik revolution, which has been flagged
through references to Lenin earlier in the novel. In other words, for those
who’ve read a bit of Marxist theory, it is a bourgeois revolution, rather than a
socialist one. It’s not a really happy ending, in that the rats, if they follow
through on Saul’s suggestion, won’t usher in any kind of utopia, but will only
get to where we humans are now.
JG: Turning to Perdido Street Station, how is it a London novel?
CM: In a very straightforward way, the city of New Crobuzon is clearly analogous
to a chaos-fucked Victorian London. But it’s more than just the geography (river
straddling, near the coast) and the industry (heavy, riddled with class
conflict). It’s the way the city intersects with the literature that chronicles
it. London is a trope for literature in an incredibly strong way: “Hell is a
city much like London,” Shelley says, and through Blake and de Quincey, and Iain
Sinclair, and Chesterton, and Machen, and Ackroyd, and Gaiman, and all the
others, London is a neurotic tic for literature. Take those ideas—the danger,
the intricacy, the mystery, the rich fecundity, the semi-autonomous
architecture—and magic/surreal/acid it up a bit: that’s New Crobuzon. Though New
Crobuzon contains other cities—Cairo in particular—it’s London at heart.
JG: John Clute talks about British sf being about ruins, expressing a pessimism
about expansionism gone wrong (at the International Conference on the Fantastic
in the Arts, March 2002). Can you speak to that in terms of Perdido Street
CM: Post-New Worlds sf is partly pessimistic, but it’s more melancholic than
miserable. It rather likes being in the ruins. I love that aesthetic, and it’s
what I grew up on. I think, though, that Perdido Street Station is a little more
muscular than that. It’s more pulpy, in what I hope are good as well as bad
ways. Where the characters of New Worlds writers—who are my heroes—had
“breakfast among the ruins,” the people in New Crobuzon busily build some other
piece of shit using parts of the ruins. The ruins are still there, but I think
that there’s more dynamism towards the environment. This is emphatically not a
criticism of the earlier writers—it’s just an observation about a distinction of
JG: Is Perdido Street Station in some way a child of Thatcherite, or Majorite,
or Blairite England?
CM: I think you have to disaggregate them. Very crudely, I think that the
Worlds writers are writers of social collapse, of a political downturn, of the
closing down of possibilities, and of worsening tensions without much of a sense
of alternative, though I think their pessimism isn’t as straightforward as it
may appear to be. I think that what’s happened recently is that we still have
the same aggressive, neoliberal, profit-driven, and anti-human agenda at the
top, but there’s been an amazingly exciting sense of alternatives (the protests
against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 2000 form a useful watershed)
which was missing in the 1980s, and even through the 1990s. In the cultural
milieu, that doesn’t translate into obviously political or “optimistic” sf, but
it does inform it with what is perhaps a more powerful sense of social agency
and interaction with both real and fictional landscapes. I don’t think my
writing’s terribly optimistic, though I am.
JG: In what ways does the novel reflect or respond to the contemporary situation
politically, aesthetically, personally, or otherwise?
CM: There are certain deliberate references: the dock strike by Vodyanoi dockers
is a direct reference to the long-running labor dispute in Liverpool. There are
general points about the depiction of social tensions and so on. But I don’t
write fiction to comment on the day-to-day situation, so I think the bulk of the
response or reflection is in that generalized way I spoke of in the last answer.
I think it’s to do with coming to terms with a new sense of social agency.
JG: In what ways does the novel develop or explore Marxism? How does it bring
Marxism into a contemporary perspective? Is there a kind of postmodern Marxism
and, if so, is it at work in Perdido Street Station?
CM: I don’t really accept the term “postmodern” as explaining very much in the
real world—I’d use it as a description for certain schools of theory, and
certain schools of art. I don’t consider myself a postmodernist in any real
sense. Postmodernism has done quite a good job of colonizing lots of techniques
and implying that anything like those techniques is therefore “postmodernist.”
You can use certain deconstructive techniques, for example, without being a
postmodernist—still being a classical Marxist. I realize that to some extent
this is a semantic quibble, and if someone finds it useful to describe my stuff
in that way, that’s up to them, but I’d resist it, because I don’t think it’s
fair that hybridity, uncertainty, blurring identities, fracturing, formal
experimentation, or the blurring of high and low culture should be ceded to
postmodernism! I want all that, and I’m a classical Marxist. For me, much of
that list is about dialectics, which is something that underpins a lot of what I
think about. The novel isn’t “about” Marxism. When I want to explore Marxism, I
write non-fiction. However, I represent certain concerns in fictional form
because they fascinate me. There are direct political topics, such as the
arguments over union organization, over the class basis of fascism, over the
internal contradictions of racist consciousness, and so on, in the book. There
are also slightly more abstruse ones. The model of consciousness explored in the
book—where human consciousness is apparently ego plus subconscious, but is in
fact the dialectical interrelation of the two, rather than an arithmetic
addition, is a playful exploration not only of dialectics. It also explores the
models of consciousness that I think explain social agency and the relationship
between intuition and knowledge, which is something that Gramsci, for example,
talks about a great deal.
I write the novel because I love writing books about weird shit and monsters,
but I fill it with the concerns and fascinations that are in my head, and it’s
no surprise that Marxism features large in there.
JG: You resist the “postmodern” label that people like myself are so eager to
use. Would you expand on your statement that “much of that list is about
dialectics which is something that underpins a lot of what I think about”?
CM: I’ve resisted the notion or label of postmodernism for some years, and to
understand why you have to understand the academic culture in the early 1990s,
when I was at university. The long and short of it is that “postmodernism” was
often—way too often—used as a stick with which to beat Marxism. That meant that
when I became a Marxist, there was a certain polemical importance to pointing
out that many of the critical tools associated with postmodernism could also be
used by those of us cheerfully hanging on to “meta-narratives” and the like. To
that extent, my refusal of the term is particularly regarding postmodernism as
an academic movement. Deconstruction, for example—fine, useful method. But
anti-totality? Anti-Marxist? Well, much as I admire Derrida (which I most
sincerely do), certainly his rather wan liberalism and ultimately idealist
underpinnings don’t sit well with Marxism, but much of the project of uncovering
internal contradictions, and seeing how they cannibalize each other, and so on,
is perfectly compatible with Marxism, and has been applied by Marxist theorists.
It’s the big claims of postmodernism—and to be fair, generally what I consider
the vulgar end of postmodernism-lite, Baudrillard and his epigones—that I wanted
to dissociate myself from. It was particularly sharp in social anthropology,
where the cultural relativism led to some (to my mind) terrible capitulations to
I reject postmodernity as a description of the world; we live, I would argue, in
late capitalism, and the “post” label adds nothing particularly useful. Plenty
of people I respect massively, like Jameson, have used it: I know that, but
still. I reject postmodernism as a philosophical position (though God knows it
covers too many bases—are we talking Rorty? Lacan? Derrida? Baudrillard?). If
people want to describe a particular art movement that way, then that’s up to
them. I’m still not convinced—take my stuff, for example—what do you learn about
my work by applying postmodernist theory?
The point about dialectics is that the postmodern fascination with hybridity and
miscegenation too often blurs into a fetishistic and sometimes quite
self-indulgent celebration of marginality for its own sake. Obviously, the best
stuff doesn’t do this, but you see it, for example, in a lot of the “subaltern
studies” canon. Now, dialectics are centrally important to me, as they focus on
much the same stuff—blurred interstices, gray areas, hard cases—but as part of a
social and historical totality. The conception of totality is absolutely central
to my political and theoretical life. Of course it has a bad reputation, what
with postmodernist assault on one side, and the grotesque legacy of Stalinism on
the other. But the point of dialectics as about movement, dynamism, tendencies
within an overall, comprehensible, and total system is incredibly illuminating
to me. In terms of historical change—the tensions that drive it being
simultaneously within the system, and overthrowing it—and in terms of
This is obvious in my fiction in that the social tensions and contradictions
that drive plot are generally endogenous—I try to avoid the sense of a static
system. Modernity, history, is always-already-in-transition. That’s what
dialectics is about, to me.
JG: If you see sf as a political act, an exploration of the relationship of
power and powerlessness, how do you use sf to make that exploration in Perdido
CM: I think sf can be a political act, but generally in a fairly mediated, not
to say attenuated, way. Politically speaking, the most important things I do are
political: demonstrations, discussions, going to support picket lines. But power
relations are very important to the novel, and inform it in what I think is a
fairly simple way. If you look at the Surrealists, for example, they examine
questions of power and oppression in the very form of their work, which is
something very radical, and something that necessarily makes their work less
than straightforward: it’s not sloganeering. On the other hand, I examine such
things more in the content than in the form (though I’m trying to go beyond
that, particularly in The Scar, which has a contrary relationship with its
readers). The depiction of relations between the government and the citizenry in
Perdido Street Station allows me to polemicize and exaggerate certain tendencies
in reality. The obvious example is the “suffrage lottery.” This obviously
relates to the limits of reformism in terms of whose vote counts, as well as to
earlier debates about expanding voting rights. But what makes the book sf,
rather than the somewhat lumpen kind of pseudo-magical realism that mainstream
writers like Paul Theroux and Margaret Atwood tend to write when they want to
extrapolate to make political points, is that the symbolism of that does not
ride roughshod over the trope’s internal consistency. It is possible that a vote
lottery could have sprung up in the novel’s world, and be more or less accepted
(anyone doubting that it is possible should read the debates around expanding
suffrage in the nineteenth century). That’s the sf concern for internal
cognitive rigor, and to my mind that makes the polemical point more, not less
strong. Mainstream writers don’t trust their readers to make connections. Sf
understands that the human mind is an intrinsically metaphorizing machine, and
that therefore you do not have to labor the connections to make your point.
That’s why Suzy McKee Charnas’s work or Le Guin’s better novels are better and
more intelligent and persuasive about women’s oppression than, say, The
Handmaid’s Tale . The polemics and satire in Perdido Street Station don’t
undermine the secondary world I create, I hope.
JG: What other theoretical explorations are you making in Perdido Street
CM: There’s a lot about philosophical materialism: how to have magic, but to
explain it in terms that are scientific (or pseudo-scientific but materialist).
There’s also exploration of something else that fascinates me: what happens when
you’re put in a position where any choice is morally “bad.” There are a couple
of points in the book where people make moral choices, and I’ve been criticized
for the choices “I” have made. Of course, I don’t make those choices, the
characters do, and I’m not convinced the other choice in those situations would
have been any less right. This is the sort of thing I thought Philip Pullman was
doing with the HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy [Northern Lights;
The Golden Compass
in USA (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)], until
the third volume let us down.
The characters are not necessarily my mouthpieces. I particularly found that
with the ending of the novel, Isaac’s dilemma. I’ve read various criticisms of
Isaac’s choice as if it were my idea of what was right. I was trying to
construct a genuine moral dilemma, to which there was not really a right answer.
If you read the ending, you realize that though Isaac ostensibly did what
Kar’uchai, Yagharek’s “victim” (though, crucially, she wouldn’t accept that
description) asked him, he may well have done it precisely because he did not
understand what she was saying to him. He was unable to apply any standards
other than his own cultural ones, and, more precisely, the standards of a man
who believes his own lover has just suffered rape, like Kar’uchai, so he is a
man in thrall to his own outrage, even though Kar’uchai has told him that rape
is not what happened to her, not as he understands it. In other words, Isaac is
congenitally incapable of dealing with the dilemma—its criteria are unthinkable
to him—and I don’t have the right answer. His decision is largely a refusal to
make a decision; this appears to take sides against Yagharek, but that’s more or
less by default.
I didn’t want to make a judgmental, moralistic ending. I tried to make the
ending about judgmentalism, constructed around a deep moral dilemma, and a query
about our culture’s faintly fetishistic critique of rape. Not, I hope it goes
without saying, that rape doesn’t need critiquing: it’s just the particulars of
the general critique that rather trouble me. That’s what the whole conversation
Isaac has with Kar’uchai is about. And I wish more people had caught that. I
don’t know what the right thing to do was—I suspect there wasn’t a right thing
in that circumstance. I was very proud of the ending (I worried at it hard), but
if you read it as a manifesto, then it must suck.
JG: At the 2002 ICFA, you described yourself as an “unapologetic pulp kid.”
Would you characterize that essence of genre that you glory in? How do you
express it in Perdido Street Station? In what ways do you see yourself as moving
away from or altering or pushing the edges of genre as well?
CM: I think for me genre—sf and fantasy and horror—is not about science, or even
about extrapolation. I think “cognitive estrangement” [Darko Suvin’s definition
of sf] obscures as much as it explains. There’s simultaneously something
rigorous and something playful in genre. It’s about the positing of something
impossible—whether not-yet-possible or never-possible—and then taking that
impossibility and granting it its own terms and systematicity. It’s
carnivalesque in its impossibility and overturning of reality, but it’s
rationalist in that it pretends it is real. And it’s that second element which I
think those who dip their toes in the sf pond so often forget. They think sf is
“about” analogies, and metaphors, and so on. I refute that—I think that those
are inevitable components, but it’s the surrendering to the impossible, the
weird, that characterizes genre. Those flirting with sf don’t surrender to it;
they distance themselves from it, and have a neon sub-text saying, “It’s okay,
this isn’t really about spaceships or aliens, it’s about real life,” not
understanding that it can be both, and would do the latter better if it was
serious about the former. They are embarrassed and confused by the weird, and so
they have neither the Bakhtinian side nor the Newtonian—neither the carnival nor
the internal rigor. Look at something like Gulliver’s Travels , on the
other hand. Never for a second diluting the satire, Swift also very much enjoys
describing giant wasps, and surrendering to the logic of his secondary worlds.
That is what I see as at the core of the pulp aesthetic: the surrender to the
weird. It’s bizarre that it’s seen as inimical to literature.
I don’t think I’d be claiming to push the edges of genre. The most I’d claim is
that I’m staking out remembered territory. Most of what I do has been done
before. The things that may seem to be radical—blurring the boundaries of sf and
fantasy, in particular, and bringing pulp back in, unashamed of the roots, while
striving to write like the greats—I’m not the first to do.
JG: I was very interested in the “model of consciousness” explored in [Perdido
Street Station] as “the dialectical interrelation of [ego plus subconscious]”
that explains “social agency and the relationship between intuition and
knowledge.” I’m thinking that this is connected also to the idea of the porousness between reality and unreality that seems to metaphorize that model of
consciousness. Would you discuss these ideas in terms of Perdido Street Station
and The Scar?
CM: It ultimately stems from a sense of the transformative agency of humans.
It’s a consideration of Marx’s point that men (read people) make history, but
not in the circumstances of their own choosing. What is the model of the world
that makes sense of how we are both constrained and enabled by the society
around us, which we can transform in turn, sometimes? And what model of
consciousness makes sense of that?
The impulse to the fantastic is central to human consciousness, in that we can
and constantly do imagine things that aren’t really there. More than that (and
what distinguishes us from tool-using animals), we can imagine things that can’t
possibly be there. We can imagine the impossible. Now, within that you have to
distinguish the “never-possible” and the “might-be-possible-sometime.” Crudely,
this looks like the distinction between fantasy and science fiction, but I
maintain that there’s no such hard distinction and that the differences between
the “never-” and the “not-yet-possible” are less important than their shared
“impossibleness.” That’s not to say in some dippy hippy way that everything is
possible, but that there’s no obvious line between what is and what isn’t. In
fact, that underlines many of the most tenacious political fights around us—the
neo-liberal claim that There is No Alternative is all about trying to draw the
line of the “never-possible” at a place which strips humans of any meaningful
Lenin said that dreaming was a profoundly revolutionary act. He meant it, I
think, in a relatively narrow sense of defending utopianism—which does, indeed,
need defending. But I get uncomfortable when the left defense of fantasy starts
and ends with utopia. To me, utopia is a subset of the fantastic, along with sf
and fantasy, and what they share is their impossibleness, and therefore an
alienating dynamic from actually-existing reality. (It’s in this sense that
various Situationist slogans and Seattle stuff like “Demand the Impossible” are
The specific content of a fantastic setting seems to me less important than the
impossibility of it—which is why I think the often-cited Marxist critique of
fantasy, that it’s anti-rational, unlike sf, is far too simplistic. The content
may be never-possible, but you wouldn’t read Bulgakov or Kafka as simply
“presenting anti-rational impossibilities;” you’d uncover the political economy
of their dreams, and crucially, I think, you’d celebrate the subversion of their
impossibilities. Anyway, much of the putatively rationalist/scientific stuff in
sf is no more than point-and-wave, abracadabra! Plus a few equations. The point
for me is that the construction of a paranoid, impossible totality is at least
potentially a subversive, radical act, in that it celebrates the most unique and
human aspect of our consciousness.
I like to make my radical points a bit more overt, so I often put some more or
less obvious leftist content in there, too, but I emphatically deny the idea
that it’s the only place where the “radicalness” of radical fantasy resides, in
the content. There’s nothing intrinsically reactionary about secondary worlds,
even ones with dragons in them. Post-Lukácsians might see this as
“mystification;” for me it can be (though obviously it isn’t always) a kind of
mental assault course, a workout for your human consciousness, an exercise for
the extraordinary human moment at the dialectic interface of instrumentalism and
impossibility/dreaming. In that sense, the point might be to be both as
incredible/impossible and as rigorous/scientific as possible. In which case, the
cardinal sin isn’t to be a “fantasist” and use magic, but to be internally
inconsistent, or to use either magic or “sf-nal” technology as a
Get-Out-of-Plot-Difficulty-Free card. In Perdido Street Station and The Scar, I
try hard to be internally rigorous (though obviously it’s a rigor that wouldn’t
work in our world). There are other levels than the straight narrative, of
course, in which these questions become more complex: the structure of The Scar,
for example, can’t really be understood except as a conversation with generic
quest fantasy: it is also internally consistent, however, and works within its
defined terms. That way, the book avoids being a conversation among a particular
cognoscenti, and at least tries to be both such a conversation and a piece of
art with a general resonance.
I refuse to play the wink-wink-nudge-nudge game with readers. I don’t like
whimsy because it doesn’t treat the fantastic seriously, and treating the
fantastic seriously is one of the best ways of celebrating dialectical human
consciousness there is. The one-sided celebration of the ego-driven contextually
constrained instrumentally rational (as opposed to rational in a broader sense)
is bureaucratic: the one-sided celebration of the subconscious, desire/fantasy
driven is at best utopian, at worst sociopathic. The best fantasies—which
include sf and horror—are constructed with a careful dialectic between conscious
JG: It has been said of sf that setting is often its major character, in terms
of its importance in steering plot and developing themes, in terms of its
energizing centrality to the works. Setting is one of the glories of both
Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Would you discuss how and why you use
setting as you do?
CM: For me, setting is absolutely crucial, but largely as a function of mood.
Writers often talk about how they go about constructing books. I start with
mood. There’s a particular mood I want to communicate, and that mood is often
accompanied by and manifested in certain scenes that I have in mind—not yet any
narrative to link them, but the scenes are clear. The characters and the
narrative then come in to fill in the vast gaps between those scenes and the
I’m also very interested in the whole “secondary world” aspect of fantasy. It
has a dreadful reputation because of the Tolkienian epigones, but I’m
continually fascinated by the project of secondary world creation. I hugely
respect the rigor and fascinated seriousness and systematicity with which these
worlds get created, so the pulp map-making tradition is how my world gets
systematized. But it’s contingent on the mood I’m after.
As I’ve said before, one of the most interesting things to me is to try
genuinely to create a kind of culture-shock in readers, and that means not
explaining everything. There are plenty of things that never get spelled out,
because you can’t possibly explain everything in a world. Some of those things I
know the truth about offstage, but some I don’t.
JG: Your names—of places, people, etc.—are very evocative, Dickensian. Would you
discuss that aspect of your world-building in Perdido Street Station and
CM: They’re probably more Peakeian than Dickensian, really. I triangulate
cheerfully and unstably between out-and-out grotesquerie, tell-tale
finger-wagging, and simple aesthetic cadence. For example, in Perdido Street
Station, when I decided to have an unlikeable character, the name “Vermishank”
appealed to me, because of the worm reference. Generally, I don’t like the
moralism of a lot of Dickens, but the sheer preposterousness of his names is
quite appealing: characters called Little Johnny Poorbutgood and Master
Brutalboss. What I like about Peake is that he twists the names so that the
moralism goes, and you have the same idiotically overdone portmanteau
referentiality, but stripped of obvious moral signposts. “Prunesquallor:” a
goody? A baddy? Steerpike: the same. Who knows?
I can’t quite resist pointing fingers with the names—they’re perhaps not quite
so contingent as Peake’s. It would be difficult to imagine Vermishank as a
goody. Then look at The Scar: “Fennec” tells you quite a lot about the
character, if you look it up [it’s a small African fox with big ears]. I needed
a grotesque name (though not too grotesque, as I wanted him to be quite cool),
and one with a terse cadence. I liked “Oh” sounds, and I liked the rhythm
one-two-THREE, so when I realized that the best character in the book is the
stock figure, The Knight of the Doleful Countenance, I named him “Uther Doul.”
Many, many of the names are references. Cumbershum is from William Golding.
Tintinnabulum and his companions on the ship Castor have stepped absolutely
wholesale out of another story and the names tell you that with vulgar
obviousness. But no one has mentioned it yet. I (recently) discovered that there
is a real person called Bellis, to my astonishment. I thought I’d invented that
name. But then I thought I’d invented the name “Crobuzon,” which is actually
taken (stolen, forgotten, resurfacing, stripped of lineage) from the book Voodoo
in New Orleans [Robert Tallant 1983]—it’s a street name. I’ve read the book, and
I don’t think that’s coincidence. God knows what else I’ve filched.
JG: The Scar seems more tightly constructed than Perdido Street Station. What
did you learn from writing The Scar?
CM: I learnt a huge amount from writing that book, by far the most of anything
I’ve written. I’ve never been so self-conscious about writing, about
construction, about structure and language. I think I really turned a corner,
and I’m hoping The Scar will be a hinge-point for me, something I can look back
on always and see how I moved on as a writer.
I became acutely conscious of structure, for one thing. I also realized that my
tendencies to overwriting (of which I’m very conscious) can be reined in: I
learnt to control myself. I’m not sure whether I learnt it in time to get
everything in The Scar right, but I promise to try hard from now on. When
Stephen King releases “special editions” of his books, they’re always about
50,000 words longer. If I ever release the definitive, special, improved Perdido
Street Station, it’ll be shorter than the original.
I think I’m getting much better as a writer, and it was the complexity of
Scar’s structure and narrative that got me there.
JG: The leitmotifs of The Scar include scars (duh), language, and storytelling.
Would you discuss these motifs in the novel? What other motifs are important?
CM: Scarification, obviously, is the most important motif. Scars are memory. The
epigram from Dambudzo Marechera is completely central to the book: “Yet the
memory would not set into the setting sun, that green and frozen glance to the
wide blue sea where broken hearts are wrecked out of their wounds. A blind sky
bleached white the intellect of human bone, skinning the emotions from the
fracture to reveal the grief underneath. And the mirror reveals me, a naked and
vulnerable fact” (from Black Sunlight). The mirror reveals us, naked and
vulnerable facts. We are our scars; they are not marks that spoil us, they
constitute us. Again, it’s very much the idea of being constrained and enabled
by history, history marking us but us marking it right back. Taking scars
seriously is about trying to take seriously the historicity of social agency.
But in The Scar, it’s at a much more interior, emotional level than the more
obvious politics of Perdido Street Station. I wanted to see if I could write
something that was both political and historic, but moving at an individual
level. I wanted Bellis’s own scarification (in all senses) to matter to the
I wasn’t nearly so conscious of storytelling and language as I wrote, but I
realized that they were emerging as themes. Language and translation have
featured quite a bit in my writing.
Another motif is blood, which is obviously related to The Scars. Blood features
heavily all the way through, as sustenance, as security, as armor. Blood isn’t
safe, at all, in the book. It’s The Scars, ultimately, that make it safe.
JG: Would you talk about the character of Bellis Coldwine, who was the main
character of the novel?
CM: When I wrote The Scar, I was expecting lots of comments about the fact that
the main protagonist is a woman. I was delighted not to get many. A male author
today is less likely to be owlishly asked how he wrote a female protagonist. Of
course, had I got it howlingly, embarrassingly wrong, I’m sure I would have
heard about it.
Bellis was the character above all others whom I thought of when I was writing,
not only as a woman but as a woman who has experienced sexism all her life. Of
course, the other female characters have also, but it doesn’t impact them or the
story so directly. Bellis’s relationship to other characters, her relationship
to her work, to her sexuality, all seem to be a particular response to a
gendered and oppressive world. And that is by no means to see her as a
victim—she’s not, and she’s not damaged in any straightforward way by the
sexism—but it’s a reality she lives in and through. In her minor deceptions
(publishing books under her initial), in her perhaps surprising use of make-up
as a mask, in her coldness and self-control, I wanted her to be a very tough,
impressive person who’s had to face a bunch of shit and has dealt with it.
Funnily enough, many people have said to me, “It’s very brave that you wrote
such an unlikeable character as Bellis.” I love Bellis! I think she’s brilliant.
JG: Bellis is, as you say, a very strong character who’s had to put up with
sexism her whole life. Maybe she’s one reason WisCon chose you as its 2003 Guest
of Honor, along with Carol Emshwiller. How would you describe your feminism?
What are its sources?
CM: Feminism and feminist concerns have been central to my politics for a long
time. I used to say unequivocally that I was a feminist—or perhaps a
“pro-feminist,” whatever the appropriate term is. These days I would describe
myself as a socialist, and insist that, in order for socialism to be meaningful,
it must address structures of gender oppression and inequality. Unfortunately,
historically, there have been socialist movements which have failed in that
task, but for me that’s not just a political and moral imperative but a
Obviously, growing up the son of a single mother must have had a lot to do with
my views. Also, I spent a lot of my youth in movements such as the campaign for
nuclear disarmament, the anti-apartheid movement, and so on. I was dealing with
leftism and critical thinking of various stripes, and sexism was not acceptable
(though it went on all over the place).
Theoretically speaking, my socialism is in a very direct way a product of my
concerns over gender inequality. I was a left-postmodernist for a couple of
years, but I was studying social anthropology and I became very disenchanted
with the way postmodernism’s dislike of grand narratives was segueing into a
cultural relativism which ran a real risk of minimizing exploitive and/or
oppressive cultural practices, or rendering them immune to critique. It was
gender that broke me from postmodern theory. Faced with the overwhelming and
consistent oppression of women in different cultures, too many postmodernists
abdicated the necessity of a systematic explanation: in other words, we needed a
grand narrative to make sense of this oppression.
I turned to feminist theory and learned a lot from it, but I had two major
problems. One was that if it could do what I wanted, which was to provide a
general, systematic theory, it tended to essentialize about gender. The other
was the limits of feminist theory. Much of it could provide a coherent,
systematic theory of women’s oppression (whether you agreed with it or not) but
it couldn’t provide such a theory of, say, French-US relations in the 1970s. At
this point I went back to Marxism and began to examine it seriously. Yes, much
of the socialist and labor movement has been execrable on the question of women
and gender, but I discovered the vein of writing that stretches right back to
Engels (in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State ),
through later socialists including Eleanor Burke Leacock, and realized that
there was a Marxism that grounded its understanding of women’s oppression
precisely in the systematic theory I was looking for, that made total sense of
it not just on its own but as part of the exploitive totality of relations in
class society. It doesn’t minimize or ignore gender inequality.
I would say that my empathic, gut feelings about gender inequality are to do
with my youth and upbringing, and my theoretical relationship to feminism(s) and
the question of gender is informed by my theoretical-political trajectory since
my late teens.
JG: In what ways did you consciously or unconsciously use feminist ideas in your
CM: Very consciously. I’m sure people would be able to find passages to
excoriate me with, but I really try to deal with these notions quite consciously
and carefully. I take it seriously as a duty. In The Scar, a book all about
ships, no ship is ever once referred to as “she.” For another (rather banal)
example, there is a passage in The Scar where the characters face voracious
female mosquito-women. They are female simply because it’s only female mosquitos
that suck blood. I was, however, conscious of the trope of voracious/monstrous/
vampiric women, so a couple of chapters later I wrote: “Some of [his] companions
made nervous jokes .... ‘Women,’ they said, and laughed shakily about females of
all species being bloodsuckers, and so on. [He] tried, for the sake of
conviviality, but he could not bring himself to laugh at their idiocies.” The
point is, I try to take sexism seriously as a factor in people’s
consciousnesses, but to be sensitive to gendered assumptions.
The most careful and conscious exploration of feminist ideas comes at the end of
Perdido Street Station. I had been very affected by an article that Germaine
Greer wrote in which she provocatively argued that the specific configurations
of the horror that we culturally feel at rape is sexist, casting the woman as
“despoiled,” as having suffered a “fate worse than death.” This is obviously
very tricky ground. What I wanted to do in Perdido Street Station was absolutely
not to minimize rape, to treat it as the monumentally vile act it is, but to do
so in a way that did not sacralize or sexualize women, both of which I think are
embedded in the particular fetishism of horror our culture places on rape. The
degree of anger is obviously perfectly legitimate. I wanted to write about rape
in an absolutely serious way, but showing it as something women suffer, and
overcome, rather than it ruining them or driving them mad. I wanted to think
about the victim and the crime in social terms rather than in essentialist
religious/sexual terms. If there was a non-gendered word for this, I’d say our
culture’s relationship with rape is “hysterical”—it’s certainly neurotic.
I would be horrified for anyone to think I was minimizing rape. That’s why it
was quite liberating dealing with this very tricky stuff in fiction rather than
in theory, because I could nudge at these questions, nose up to them without
tying myself down.
JG: You object to the “consolatory” nature (as Tolkien puts it) of
The Lord of
the Rings [1954-1955] and try to avoid it in your own work. Could you explain
what you mean by the term, why you object to it, how you avoid it?
CM: It doesn’t mean, necessarily, a Happy Ending, although it often manifests
itself in that way. That’s why the counterclaim that the ending of The Lord of
the Rings is quite tragic is true, but beside the point. To me, consolation is
about an aesthetic which eases the relationship of the reader to reality, which
smooths over contradictions. Walter Benjamin said somewhere that the purpose of
historical materialism should be to rub history “against the grain.” It seems to
me that consolation does the opposite—it smooths away. If you have a big happy
ending you might be saying “The status quo was benevolent, and has been
restored.” The idea here is that social contradiction comes from outside and has
been vanquished. Alternatively, though, you might take Tolkien’s approach, and
rather wistfully argue that the world is post-lapsarian, and that therefore it
is Tragic, and a Vale of Sorrows. In other words, the fucked-up mess and
intrinsic tensions have been explained away. It’s tragic, sad, yes, but it still
consoles in that it smooths over everyday tensions. We got kicked out of the
garden, the elves left—what do you expect?
I try to avoid it with various techniques. One is to undercut narrative
security—I would claim that the endings of my books aren’t downbeat, but they
certainly try to undermine straightforward closure. There is closure, but it’s
often emotional or thematic rather than narrative. That way the desire for
comfort may be indulged (there’s nothing wrong with wanting comfort, God knows),
but to get at it you might have to engage in a slightly unexpected way with the
text, and that encourages a kind of engaged and critical reading.
The other thing, of course, is a continuing refusal to posit societies as
internally coherent, consistent, bounded, and essentially safe. They are
fractured and dangerous. The dynamics tearing them apart (the dynamics that lead
to narrative) are intrinsic.
JG: You’ve spoken very seriously about your writing. As we end this interview,
I’d like you to address their “ripping yarn” dynamic as well.
CM: It’s very important to me that these are books which are good stories, which
keep people turning pages, which move people emotionally, and excite them, as
well as being about something. It’s one of the major catastrophic failings of
the mainstream writers that try their hand at fantastic stuff, that they don’t
trust the story: they make their work “about” things, but are embarrassed to
grant also its internal narrative integrity. Which is why they read like
I’m not resistant to interpretation. I love it, I find it incredibly
illuminating. But as long as my books are also ripping yarns. And sad stories.
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