China Miéville writes urban fantasy just the way you like it
What does one say about a fantasy author who once called JRR Tolkien “the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”? Well, after one has looked up wen in the dictionary (a benign encysted tumor of the skin, esp. on the scalp, containing sebaceous matter; a sebaceous cyst – dictionary.com), one calls said author a genius.
China Miéville is the hottest urban fantasy author around. He hails from jolly old England and labels his writing "weird fiction". His attack on Tolkien aside (which he sort of retracted by way of an article on Omnivoracious titled There and Back Again: Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks), Miéville is winning fantasy lovers’ hearts and racking up literary awards faster than one can say hobbit feet.
My first foray into the Miéville kingdom came via Perdido Street Station. It’s a mammoth book that I read with a dictionary by my side because the man’s vocabulary is formidable. I was hooked from the first page. A lot of people say that about a lot of books, but after half an hour’s reading I knew I had found my new favourite author. Perdido Street Station is set in the fantasy universe Bas Lag and centres on a handful of citizens of New Crobuzon, a sprawling, mostly decaying city filled with different humanoid and not at all humanoid creatures. The imagination with which Miéville tackles the city’s residents is ... awesome, the manner in which he weaves several stories into one and keeps the reader guessing all the time is ... awesome. His gritty writing sugar coats nothing and a tone of morbidity, perhaps even pessimism underlines everything.
Before you think I’m getting too hyperbolic, you should know that Perdido Street Station won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2001 British Fantasy Award and was nominated for a string of others, including the World Fantasy, Hugo and Nebula awards.
Miéville’s style could be compared to Neil Gaiman, but in truth (and I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan), Miéville is better. His characters, for all their strangeness, are more real, his writing more hypnotic, his stories more compelling and his understated horror depicted in everyday life scarier.
What happened to all the dragons?
Fantasy is no longer limited to magic, dragons and epic quests. A new wave of authors, with Miéville leading the way, are transforming the genre, twisting it to suit their needs and making it adapt to their styles. Many writers, including Miéville, cross genres so often that they can’t be categorised, unless you want to call them New Weird.
Perdido Street Station is Miéville’s second novel. I’m not terribly fond of his first, King Rat, but his third, The Scar, is tremendous. The Scar is also a Bas Lag novel, and while it references New Crovuzon and borrows some of its inhabitants, the story is set almost entirely on a city made of pirate ships. The manner in which the ships (which range from dinghies to tankers) are roped together to form suburbs and parks and everything a real city is, is ... awesome. Once again, a dictionary was necessary to help me translate the dictionary in Miéville’s mind.
The Scar also won its fair share of awards: the 2003 British Fantasy Award and the 2003 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was nominated for the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, World Fantasy, Philip K. Dick, and British Science Fiction awards. It also received a Philip K. Dick Award special citation.
In fact, over the last few years Miéville has dominated the awards scene. King Rat is the only one of his novels so far not to win anything, but it was honoured with a couple of nominations.
It’s difficult not to like a self-proclaimed weird fiction author who cites Beatrix Potter as one of his influencers, especially as he also credits HP Lovecraft and Evgeny Pashukanis’ The General Theory of Law and Marxism.
With such an eclectic reading background to fall back on, it’s not surprising that he has trouble staying within traditionally boxed genres. But those of us who wait with baited breath for his next offering aren’t complaining.
Image courtesy of Ceridwen.