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Saturday, 6 April 2013

Rat Tales


David Howe talks to author China Miéville

China Miéville strikes an imposing sight as he strides into view. Shaved of head, ear bedecked with silver rings, combat trousers … but I needn’t be concerned for behind this distinctive look is a quick mind and a talented writer. Twenty-seven year old China is a Londoner born and bred, and has a first class degree from Cambridge and a Masters with Distinction from the London School of Economics. He combines writing with further study: currently a PhD in International Relations.

China’s first novel was published in 1998 to instant acclaim. King Rat is the story of Saul, who finds a friend in the shadowy figure of King Rat when his father is murdered. Set among the slums and sewers of London, Saul must try and find the killer in what the Times described as a ‘twisted urban fairytale and modern gothic horror’.

‘I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid,’ explained the quietly-spoken China when I asked about how he got into writing. ‘I wrote short stories all the time, sent some of them off to Interzone in my teens and early twenties, from where they were rejected with varying degrees of encouragement. But I’d always planned to write a novel, and I started work on King Rat in about 1996. Originally it was going to be a werewolf novel set in London, but then the character of King Rat sort of crept in. He’s based ultimately on a pantomime baddie who scared the bejeezus out of me when I was about seven; I drew a couple of comics using him in my teens, and he’d stuck in my mind. I kept the London element in the book, and the drum ‘n’ bass music themes which had featured in the earlier drafts, lost the werewolves and brought in King Rat.

‘When I finally finished it – which took about a year and a half, part-time – I was actually in America, finishing off a year’s scholarship in Harvard, so I sent chapters to several UK agents, one of which, Mic Cheetham, picked me up. Quite quickly, she placed a short story of mine in an anthology (Neonlit Vol. 1) and Macmillan picked up King Rat for publication.’ China smiles, ‘Makes it all sound easy, really, but I was very lucky.’

China’s luck seems to be continuing as his second novel has also been snapped up by Macmillan. Perdido Street Station is set in a sprawling urban metropolis, not dissimilar to the London underbelly of King Rat. China explained where the concepts came from. ‘I wanted to write a book that was set in a believable alternative world. It was a world – a city, particularly – which I’d been playing with and creating for some years, and the development involved evaluating a lot of the stuff I’d already worked out for it, discarding some, reshaping some, that sort of thing.

‘There are various aspects to creating a believable world. The most important for me is atmosphere – depending on what the feelings you want to communicate are, the world you create will have a different shape. There were other inspirations. I haven’t played Role Playing Games for years, but I quite enjoy browsing their rulebooks. I like the kind of obsessive, detailed world-creation the best of them involve. I love bestiaries: a lot of the pleasure is in trying to create original, plausible, interesting fantastic creatures. Related to that is the aesthetic of books like Baum’s Oz books and Burroughs’ Martian books, or A Splendid Chaos by John Shirley, which revel in the creation of the grotesque. But obviously that’s not enough. You have to have a story, and you’ve got to be careful not to make it like a guidebook with a story in it, but a story which happens to take place in another world. And ideally both the story and the world should keep you surprised.

Perdido Street Station is about a huge, violent city, and the clumsy unfolding of a nightmare inside it. I’ve always hated Tolkien: this is very far from ‘epic’ or ‘heroic’ fantasy. It’s sort of unheroic, unepic fantasy. I’m trying to build on the Weird Fiction tradition, as well as the tradition of fantasy that binds people like Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison, a much lusher, more grotesque, and at the same time bleaker aesthetic and emotional landscape than most ‘epic’ fantasy.

‘I’ve tried to write a fantasy novel without stereotypes. No elves, no dwarfs. I hate the tendency towards trite moral absolutism in fantasy, the idea that orcs/trolls/whatever are bad, as a kind of racial characteristic. Obviously the best fantasy avoids that, but there’s still a lot out there that doesn’t, unfortunately.

‘A lot of fantasy makes the fantastic safe by trying to cosy up to the reader, tidying up complicated things and smoothing sharp edges: hence fantasy’s traditional obsession with rural idylls and never-never-lands of happy feudalism. But fantastic literature can be the most radical kind of writing out there, which is why it’s so frustrating when it defuses itself. I hope my books retain those sharp, cutting edges, and that I’m able to keep fantasy dangerous and unpredictable.’

Macmillan have already bought a sequel to Perdido Street Station so for the moment at least, readers can expect to enjoy more of China Miéville’s particular brand of unepic, unheroic urban grotesquerie.

David J Howe