The author of The Scar talks about his latest novel, major themes like scarring, hunger and his unique “monsters,” his drawings, Quantum physics and its relationship to his work, literary snobbery, science fantasy and political commitment and his future work.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena Ball: You’ve created this massive alternative world. Does it have a kind of reality for you? Do you dream of or think about your characters in their
China Mieville: I’ve twice had dreams set in the world of Bas-Lag, which was the most extraordinary kick for me. And certainly I think about the characters there in that world all the time – I’m constantly imagining it and refining it. But not in a way where it gets to be semi-independent. I’m proud of it, I love it, but it’s very much my creation, and I’m not one of those writers who says they don’t know what their characters are doing.
MB: Many of your characters aren’t “human”. The Cacticae, Anophelii, Kephri and Salkrikor Cray folk all have their own kinds of existence and inner life. Is this just a bit of imaginative fun, or are you also making a larger point about the nature of “personhood” or how we define “persons” in terms of their rights and our judgements about them?
CM: Mainly, I love inventing monsters – that’s why I got into SF and fantasy in the first place. I just love bestiaries and imaginary beasts and whatnot, and inventing them is a huge kick for me. But in addition, I know that the human mind processes things metaphorically, so as soon as you have sentient monsters in your books it’ll raise
issues of the edges of personality, of racism, of ethnic stereotyping, of politics and society and so on.
MB: Talk to me about the metaphor of “scars”. There is the “big scar” in the “Earth”, and the many smaller scars, from the overt ones of the Lovers and the remade, to the more subtle emotional scars of characters like Bellis and
Uther. Is this a significant theme in the book?
CM: For sure. I got very interested in scars because of the fact that scars are _not wounds_. They are ugly and they don’t look like our conception of our healthy, unblemished selves – but they are about healing. We are all a mass of scars. And I like the idea that healing isn’t about smoothing over the traumas that happen but growing _over_ them, so that you’re still shaped by your traumas, by your wounds, but that you are also ok, healed. There is no core ‘I’ to which damage is done – we are all the sum of our damage. Above all, that’s what scars mean to me.
MB: Another strong theme in the book is “hunger”. There is the Anophelii women’s hunger, the Vampir hunger, the statue’s hunger, the lovers’ hunger, even Bellis’ cold hunger for Doul and home. Talk to me a bit more about this concept of hunger and how it fits into the novel.
CM: In a way the hunger is evidence of a wound. It’s a lack, it’s the result of us living as damaged, incomplete people in a world which can be wonderful, but can also be cold and hostile. We hunger, we get damaged, we scar. Plus vampires and giant mosquitos are way cool monsters.
MB: What does Doul hunger for?
CM: Where would be the fun in clearing that up?
MB: Where exactly does the setting of The Scar fit into “our world”? Is it a “possibility” of Earth, say, if other creatures aside from Primates evolved, or if something other than that big meteor hit or visited, etc? Have you mapped this?
CM: I know where I think the world of Bas-Lag is, I know what kind of universe, what kind of setting. But I like the fact that people debate it, and that they aren’t quite sure. For anyone who wants to find them, there are some fairly clear hints as to the shape of this universe in The Scar.
MB: Tell me more about the Ghosthead? We only get hints of it. Is it some sort of evolution myth?
CM: Not exactly. The Ghosthead is a phenomenon, a power, that was very important at an earlier stage of Bas-Lag’s history, but over the intervening millennia, of course, it has become mythologised and rendered more and more arcane.
MB: What about your “monsters?” Most of them are very visual, and all have some redemptive qualities, just as all of your “heroes” have some negative qualities. Was ensuring full characterisation for the monsters important for you?
CM: I want to make the monsters cool and weird, but also believable, and that means making them rounded creatures, with intricacies and complexities and contradictions.
MB: It has been said that you illustrated many of the characters and scenes from Perdido St Station. Did you do the same for the Scar? Are there pictures of Uther Doul, Bellis Coldwine, The Grindylaw, etc?
CM: I tend to draw species rather than specific characters. The faces of characters aren’t what I’m interested in conceptualising, it’s the parameters of the various creatures. So yes, I’ve drawn grindylow, I’ve drawn cactacae, and anophelii.
MB: Tell me more about “possibility theory”. Is this based on the Many-Worlds Quantum Theory of Andrew Gray, and is this whole concept underlying the entire story of the scar, from the macro to the micro?
CM: I’d be embarrassed to have any physicist examine my witterings about
possibility! It’s _loosely_, so loosely derived from quantum theory, but mostly as filtered through science fiction than in its purest form. I have pilfered stuff from quantum physics but I play very fast and loose with the parameters of science. As it’s presented in the book, it’s certainly not a manifesto for a particular theory of the universe or space-time: it’s a very useful way of presenting certain paradoxical narrative situations which raise interesting dilemmas, and interrogating certain ethical questions. Plus it’s in a very cool, old fashioned SF tradition.
MB: In an earlier interview, you said “I would love to get the chance to get into mainstream books publications and make the case for fantastic
literature.” By fantastic, I assume you mean speculative or what you call “wierd fiction” as opposed to the Borgesian type “literature of the fantastic”, but I also imagine that the lines tend to blur. What would your case be?
CM: All I really mean is the common complaint that there ‘mainstream’ literary scene is still very snobby and close-minded about fantastic literature, in most of its forms. Of course there are exceptions – Borges and Bulgakov are allowed into the canon – but anything with literalises its fantasy, which surrenders to it, rather than stressing its allegorical components (which will of course be there in all specimens) tends to get written out of polite literature. That’s a terrible shame. I get very frustrated when genre readers only ever read stuff from within the genre – but no more so than the
much more common literary snobbery which treats anything in a science fiction or fantasy tradition as pap. It’s also historically purblind – it’s only since the late 19th century that that privileging has been so hegemonic, and I like to think it might be overturned. That’s _not_ to argue that there aren’t specificities to fantastic literature and mimetic literature – I’m not someone who thinks we should ‘get rid of all the genre labels’ (which is often demanded). I think that’s disingenuous – I just want i) to admit that there will always be hard cases and grey areas, and ii) to insist that these are working distinctions, _not_ hierarchical ones.
MB: Tell me a bit more (in brief) about “Science Fantasy and Political Commitment” – your Marxism 2002 topic. In what way do you see the these two, very separate topics, as aligning?
CM: In brief, I’d never claim that there’s any kind of systematic link between the two, nor between radical politics and SF or fantasy. That would be ridiculous. But I was saying that for some of us, the fantasy project is derived from a Surrealist project, though given a kind of pulp gloss – it’s a project of estrangement, alienation, grotesquerie and destabilisation, and it’s predicated on the idea that the world of reality is to be undermined and subverted and questioned, rather than ‘escaped’ or bypassed. It’s that thread that relates the surrealists to the radical fantasists and to the political tradition. Of course there’s also the utopian tradition, but I think it’s a mistake to see that as being the sole root of what radicalism sf and fantasy do sometimes show.
MB: In the latest Booker debate, chairwoman Lisa Jardine has passed a “fatwa on pompous, portentous and pretentious fiction, vowing to cast their net wider to more plebeian literary forms, and even into the lower depths of genre and popular fiction.” You’ve spoken on this topic yourself. Do you think this could be the start of more widespread acceptance of fantasy/speculative genres like your own, or is it just lip service?
CM: I’d love to be wrong, but I suspect it won’t see a permanent payoff in the world of genre. The entrenched suspicion is so strong. We do sometimes see historical moments where ‘the establishment’ becomes momentarily more open-minded – during the late 60s, with New Worlds, during the 80s with cyberpunk – but they tend to close down again. Still, I do get the sense that we’re at the start of one of those moments – certainly this is a very exciting time to be writing fantastic literature in Britain at the moment, and it’s probably less hard to get mainstream coverage than for some years. I hope it stays that way. I doubt it will, but you never know.
Of course, we’ll know it really happens when a fantasy or sf work makes the Booker shortlist, or preferably wins.
MB: You’ve stated that your next book is also going to be set in Bas Lag. Will we be hearing more from the Lovers? Any plans in the future to write a novel set elsewhere? Perhaps political non-fiction or something related to your thesis topic?
CM: I’ll certainly write novels that are non Bas-Lag in the future. I think I might take a break from the world of Bas-Lag after the next novel, in fact. But I don’t see myself writing anything other than sf, fantasy or horror for a while yet. I can’t sustain interest in writing things without fantastic elements. And there are still a whole lot of stories to be done in Bas-Lag, so even if I leave it after the next book, I’d be very surprised if I don’t come back.
I do some non-fiction, most the occasional political column. I’d like to do more, and yes, I’m hoping to publish my PhD in amended form as an academic book. I’d also like to write less specialist political non-fiction at some time, but my timetable is kind of booked up for the foreseeable future.