Claiming China Miéville

China Miéville is an author who defies classification. Critics, academic, comic fans and genre readers all love his novels, his style is unique and his imagination distinctive, and his novels do not fit neatly into one genre or style.

Miéville himself claims to be a ‘weird fiction’ writer, the same genre in which H.P. Lovecraft wrote. Weird fiction contains elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy, but its use has dropped out of the popular lexicon and it does not fit into our modern, more narrowly-defined, view of literary genres. Having read a number of Miéville's novels. I believe there is sufficient evidence to claim him as a science fiction writer.

Embassytown is Miéville’s most straightforward science fiction novel. It is set on an alien planet, a lot of the plot focuses on interstellar travel and exploration, and there are fantastic alien creatures.

The plot of the novel mostly takes place on the planet Arieka, where the city of Embassytown is located. Arieka is home to an indigenous civilization, the Ariekei, who speak with two mouths. Special sets of twin humans raised from birth and linked into one mind, known as ambassadors, are the only people who can speak to the Arieka using their language (which is called Language). When a new ambassador consisting of two cybernetically linked non-twins arrives and start to speak Language, the effect on the Arieka is like taking a drug. Quickly the Arieka become violently dependent upon this drug, and the future of Embassytown and of all the humans on Arieka is threatened.

The entire universe of Embassytown is a brilliantly constructed sci-fi novel, filled with amazing concepts such as the Immer (a larger Universe outside our own through which you must travel to reach other planets), the organic technology of the Arieka and several future religions, to name but a few.

What makes Embassytown special as a sci-fi novel is the concept of Language itself, the Ariekan. The entire world of Arieka is based around this idea and Miéville has realised all the possibilities of a world which is very alien to our own, a world where an entire species can be enslaved to addiction from someone misspeaking their language. This is the sort of brilliant sci-fi concept which makes classic sci-fi novels like Dune or Foundation so enjoyable to read, and ensures Miéville’s place as a great science fiction writer.

Miéville has not written any other novel that can be so definitely classified as science fiction, but there are cases for some of his other books to be so considered – for example The Scar, book two of his Bas-Lag universe. At first glance, you might think that The Scar is only a fantasy novel, as it contains magic, vampires and giant sea monsters. However, it also has a cast of other strange creatures which have more in common with science fiction than fantasy, such as the insectoid Khepri, the aquatic Grindylow, the mosquito-like Anophelii and of course the remade, humans who have been altered to resemble other species or machines. These races are far from the elves and dwarfs of most fantasy novels, the later being more likely to occur in an Iain M. Banks story than one written by Tolkien.

The Bas-Lag universe, and The Scar in particular, contains many science fiction concepts such as sentiment machines and beings from other dimensions – such as the Slake-Moth, the villains of the first Bas-Lag book Perdido Street Station. The most classic science-fiction concept of the Bas-Lag universe is the alien beings known as the Ghosthead who ruled Bas-Lag three thousand years before the events of the novels. These powerful beings come from a world where the day varies between being warm enough to produce seas of iron and cold enough to freeze the atmosphere. Seeking a more moderate climate, the Ghosthead travelled across the stars in a ‘metal fish’ (read spaceship) and crashed into Bas-Lag. These are clearly aliens and they bring with them the alien technology of ‘possibility mining’, manipulating events in their favour.

There are many strange and wonderful concepts in The Scar and the other Bas-Lag novels, of which some are clearly fantasy (such as the vampires and elementals) and some are clearly science fiction (such as the Ghosthead in The Scar or the sentient machines in Perdido Street Station). The novel is ambiguous in its classification, but I feel there is enough evidence to consider it to be science fiction.

As well as novels set on Bas-Lag and Arieka, Miéville has written several novels set on Earth, but in typical Miéville style this is not Earth as we know it. One such book is The City and the City, which takes place in a modern world that is recognisable as our own. There are mobile phones, and places including London, New York and Istanbul are mentioned. This Earth also hosts two very strange cities, those of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which physically exist in the same space but the inhabitants of one must not see or interact with the other.

Besźel and Ul Qoma are places that could only exist in a China Miéville novel. The twin cities are completely separate, other than the fact that they exist in the same location, and a mysterious organisation known as Breach polices the interactions between the two cities and punishes those who break the rules. An explanation is never given of how this situation came into existence or whether the forces which police it are magical, technologically-advanced or simply good old-fashioned political tyranny.

The City and the City is a novel which plays mind games with the reader. When the reader believes there is a supernatural or science fiction explanation to the strange setting, evidence will appear that there is a more mundane explanation. The case for this book being classified as science fiction (or fantasy) is that the concept of the two cities and the way which Miéville explores their relationship is archetypical science fiction, as sci-fi writers use the medium to explore the real world implications of strange and different ways of living. The fact that this particular strange and different way of living might not be scientific or supernatural in origin does not matter, what matters is how the writer explores this different world with the reader. This is essence of science fiction and it runs through all of Miéville’s work.

China Miéville has written enough science fiction or novels containing sci-fi concepts to be considered a science fiction author, but his work also bears the hallmarks of other genres such as fantasy, horror, crime and political thrillers. Miéville’s work defies classification, and he subverts genres as much as he embraces them. However, his work is a must-read for anyone interested in science fiction as a genre.