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Miéville, China

Entry updated 18 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1972-    ) UK author most of whose early work can be understood in terms of Dark Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] or horror (see Horror in SF), but who has become a central figure in early twenty-first-century Fantastika. Beginning with his first novel, King Rat (1998), his narratives constantly feed upon fierce clashes among genres, but without ever disintegrating into pastiche or Transcendence; he is perhaps the most successful and most muscular exploiter of what has been called Equipoise in this encyclopedia, a term most vividly relevant in times of turmoil and transformation – like the early twenty-first century – when it seems almost inevitable that writers of fantastika who wish to seize the day do so through transgressive assaults on (and tyrannical renderings of) traditional story structures. Miéville is central to the sense that equipoise wrought to its uttermost is a form of transgression.

At the same time, it would be unwise to attempt to designate his work as veiling or manipulating an ultimate sf default. King Rat is an Urban Fantasy as that term was understood before it became a repositioning upgrade for dark paranormal romance [for Urban Fantasy as used here, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; but its marriage of traditional material – "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" in Dramatic Lyrics (coll 1842) by Robert Browning (1812-1889), itself based on a folktale – and an almost Steampunk vision of an Underground realm apparently governing London above is equipoisal. Similar juxtapositions of science (see Science and Sorcery) and the tropes of Urban Fantasy and the Planetary Romance throughout mark and irradiate the New Crobuzon sequence, comprising Perdido Street Station (2000), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, The Scar (2002), which won a Locus Award, and Iron Council (2004), which won a second Arthur C Clarke Award. The first volume in particular – which features the Construct Council, a central Computer reminiscent of the eponymous creature/artefact in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1990), Monsters capable of travel among the Dimensions, various Inventions, humanoids with wings, psychic Vampires, Cyborgs and tortured artists – is a comprehensive demonstration of the eye-opening effect of equipoisal manoeuvres, when deployed by a strong writer. The Scar, set at sea, additionally homages and alludes to numerous nautical fictions including the Ship of Fools, Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville and The Hunting of the Snark (1876 chap) by Lewis Carroll (whose crew members are echoed in such names as Tintinnabulum for Carroll's Bellman). The protagonists of Iron Council, spooked by the incursion into the city of Tesh of a Mysterious Stranger advocating resistance to the government, engage on a quest in territories jaggedly evocative of Westerns. The short-lived New Weird movement seems to have been concocted by Miéville around the turn of the century in order to point, more or less half-seriously, to a sense that to see the world (and New Crobuzon) in such a faceted manner may precede seeing the world bare.

Of Miéville's later works, The Tain (2002 chap), which won a Locus Award, is a horror tale set after an Invasion of the UK by the inhabitants of mirrors; Un Lun Dun (2007), which also won a Locus Award, is a Young Adult London fantasy, again set Underground; Kraken (2010), a very much more exuberant and exorbitant exercise in Equipoise, shares a city and some of its manifestations with the previous work; it is a virtuoso working up of tropes and namechecks – from Steampunk to dynastic fantasy, from Gogmagog to Garrett P Serviss – and although the titular giant squid serves as a McGuffin for much of the tale, the implications of its existence (see Evolution) are argued in sf terms. Kraken won another Locus Award. Written between these London books, The City & the City (2009), set in an estranged but not fantasticated vision of Eastern Europe, is perhaps Miéville's most perfectly poised work to date. The book is structured around the premise that two contrasting cities, dilapidated traditional Beszel and high-tech Westernized market-economy Ul Qoma, can intricately co-inhabit the same overall area, and that each city can be seen only by its inhabitants. It is almost (but not quite) as though the two cites can only be apprehended through the process that governs our Perception of the kind of figure-ground diagrams used by gestalt psychologists to demonstrate the argument that, given more than one choice of figure to focus upon, we must select only one at a time. Miéville's two interwoven Cities are, however, more complicated than anything based on the Rubin Vase and its successors; the action of the tale suggests instead a model seemingly based on cognitive Psychology: that the citizens of his two cities are theoretically capable of seeing both simultaneously, but have undergone profound training to (as it were) dissuade them from double vision, except at junction points. The tale itself, a noirish police procedural in which a genuine crime is deciphered without cheating, interacts with the figure-ground world of the two cities in a manner that allows sf, nonfantastic and fantasy readings to jostle together as intimately as do the cities themselves. As an explanation of how residents of large cities do in fact channel their perception input in order to embrace (and survive) the experience of living in megalopolis, and as a model of how Fantastika provides its readers some not dissimilar advice, The City & the City is an exemplary text for its time. It received widespread recognition, winning the Arthur C Clarke Award, British Science Fiction Association Award, Hugo, Locus Award and World Fantasy Award in 2010.

After the poise of The City & the City, Embassytown (2011), which is told in discordant sequences, comes as a quite certainly deliberate shock. The novel is narrated within a Space Opera frame that evokes various Genre SF conventions, including Hyperspace, Colonization of Other Worlds, Planetary Romance, Time Abyss (the hyperspatial medium has underwritten and sustained not only our universe but several earlier ones), and sly hints of a traditional Future History background. Within this comforting saddle, Miéville constructs a narrative in two highly dissimilar parts. The first contains a fascinating Linguistic analysis in Xenobiological terms of the Alien species known as the Ariekene, for whom language can only be understood when simultaneously uttered in two voices, a bondage of harmonization that precludes the possibility of telling a lie, or of any deictic language gestures; humans bred from birth to share deep consanguinity, to the point that they can speak together as one entity, serve as Ambassadors. In the second part, a foreign Ambassador – comprising two humans capable of miming consanguinity, but lacking genuine oneness – speak(s) aloud, forcing the Ariekene to understand that which is impossible to understand. The effect on them of this ontological hypocrisy is of Basilisk intensity: they go immediately insane and soon die. Civil war, excruciatingly described by Miéville (see Politics), ensues; the complexities of the infighting as depicted here might be seen as cognate with some aspects of the Russian Revolution brought out in Miéville's nonfiction narrative of the events in 1917, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017). As Embassytown closes, by virtue of a complexly described Conceptual Breakthrough, a few surviving Ariekene begin to understand how to make language point to the world: which they join. But the cost, which the second half of the text unpacks in detail, has been enormous, and the return to space opera in the end is mocking. Like The City & the City, it is a vade mecum for hard times. Railsea (2012), a Young Adult tale, is more comfortably set in what seems to be an Alternate World vision of the Ruined Earth. Across a landscape complexly intersected and shaped by an immensely intricate network of rails (and the trains that ride them), Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) is replayed; the Captain Ahab figure obsessively sets his train off in search of a great white moldywarp, one of a race of giant feral moles, whose intermittent eruptions evoke the sandworms in Frank Herbert's Dune sequence. The sense that this Steampunk-like world may occupy a kind of Pocket Universe becomes pressing, though the tale ends in a primordial ocean that may be endless. This novel won a Locus Award.

The stories assembled in Three Moments of an Explosion (coll 2015) and This Census-Taker (2016), a novella, seem part of an explorative enterprise, not only to tell the tales very competently embedded in a matrix of tellings, but to expose that architectonic of narrative solutions: so that each story here, no matter how thematically disruptive it may be, seems interwoven. This Census-Taker, set in a world some of whose described characteristics evoke early Miéville mises en scene, seems in particular about how it is told, though the unpacking of its (apparent) protagonist's childhood trauma moves storyably into a drama of power and Politics and implied Dystopia. The Last Days of New Paris (2016), though longer, reads almost as a jeu d'esprit, an Alternate History fantasy set in a Hitler-Wins 1950 Paris where the political disruptions inherent in 1920s Surrealism (see Absurdist SF; New Wave) are subversively literalized.

It is a testament to his creative ingenuity that Miéville's works so far signally fail to repeat one another. This heterodoxy is expected to continue. [JC]

see also: Kitschies; New Zealander; Philip K Dick Award.

China Tom Miéville

born Norwich, Norfolk: 6 September 1972



New Crobuzon

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collections and stories


works as editor

about the author


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