By Evan Dahm
More China Miéville, more more more. This following is from notes I took while at a talk/Q&A session with Miéville. Very little here is verbatim, and there’s every possibility I’ve misconstrued what he’s trying to say.
For those not familiar with his work: there’s some mentions here of Embassytown, his new novel, which is more straight-science-fiction than his other work, and which I have not read. Also there’s the Bas-Lag “trilogy:” Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council, which were published from 2000 to 2005. These take place in a bizarre, jumbled fantasy world, deal at length with ideas of science and philosophy and language and politics, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. No spoilers here.
Setting and Story
He’s aware of different narrative approaches to his different settings: Bas-Lag is fairly explicitly explained within the books set there; it’s Mieville working in “Dungeons and Dragons mode.” The setting of Embassytown, however, is dealt with more abstractly, partly because it’s a memoir from a world-internal character. To approach it with the specificity used in the Bas-Lag setting would almost “break” the nature of the place as it relates to its story.
Relatedly, he answered a question on how his relationship to setting has developed throughout his career. Bas-Lag, he says, is what he thinks of as his D&D campaign (not literally, he stresses), in that it’s a setting that seems preexisting. It’s a “secondary world” in which stories are set, not a world that is itself made for one story. He appreciates this approach but sees it as being a bit flawed, as well, and limiting: there’s a difference between enjoying fiction and wanting to live there… wanting to live in a fictional place is, in his words, “fucked up.” Miéville’s approach now, with Embassytown in particular, is more interested in the “specificities of narrative,” and he wants the setting to feel tightly specific to this book… The setting should feel “vivid and embedded,” even if only one story is set there. Though to say that a story is “set” there suggests that the setting is an external place for which stories are tailored, which is the opposite of this approach. His article on Tolkien I linked to recently has more discussion of this idea.
I’m interested in this divide between approaches: essentially between making a world in which stories can be set, and making a world as a tool to tell a particular story. I’d like to write some more on this in the future, and welcome your thoughts!
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Speaking a bit about his perception of the difference between “science fiction” and “fantasy:” The presence of magic, and indeed any fundamental aspect that fans point to as crucial and specific to one genre or the other, is hardly a signifier: “Faster than light travel is magic, let’s be clear about this.” In science fiction, the “magic” has a tendency to be dealt with “with emphasis heavily on the handwaving.” This is a pretty interesting subject to me, but it gets pretty pointless to debate where the dividing line is after a while.
On the state of modern fantasy literature, which is widely seen to be in a pretty unprecedented state of creativity and flux (a blurb on one of his books names Miéville and Martin as the main vanguards of this “movement”): what appears to be innovation is often just the “eruption” of trends or ideas that have already been there. Different models of fantasy, or anything, have always existed, but we’re seeing them more now because they’re more commercially viable— that viability might be, fundamentally, the only aspect of this that is truly new.
Lastly, some thoughts on writing in general. He expresses a problem with the idea that “writers are the repositories of knowledge about their own books,” and specifically refers to a novel as a collaboration between writer and reader… In talking about his experience teaching writing, he says he tries to inspire some criticism in a few commonly-accepted ideas young writers are given: he says you should not understand your characters, you should not start a story with the “theme,” and you should not wait for inspiration. Yes, yes, yes.