China Mieville: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and rage against Tolkien.

19 May

So, what DO you consider exceptional fantasy?

I’m glad you asked. We’ve been talking about pulp fiction, and i’ve made numerous mentions to the idea that as literature it lacks in certain departments. And it does. It’s fun and creative, well written enough, but it lacks depth. It lacks that amazing breadth of impact that moves your very soul. It’s rare to find such work in the fantasy genre (and don’t get me wrong, i love fantasy/sci fi, but there are fewer Les Miserable, Lord Of The Flies or infinite Jests.) Obviously for truly great fantasy, names like Tolkien or even if you know him Olaf Stapledon may come up. But a more current writer occupies my personal top of the fantasy writers list: China Mieville.

His first book, Perdido Street Station was a revelation. in one fell swoop he dismissed the majority of fantasy and started again from scratch. He built another world, an urban one, populated it was astonishingly creative species and intricate social relations, grit, ambiguity, some killer, killer monsters, fresh, fresh ideas one after the other, stirred it all up and let boil. A couple of years later he returned in his book The Scar, same made up world (New Crobuzon) , different area of the planet, and did it all again with an entirely new set of fresh ideas.

Not only is the writing inventive and playful (it may take a few chapters for one to fully get into if you’re not used to reading writers who play a bit with language) but the concepts and ideas, one after the other i found myself staring slack jawed at the books thinking “Holy shit, i’ve actually never read anything like this before.” It made me giddy with the reason i had become attracted to fantastical fiction in the first place and it actually operated

outside of all the clichés that made me weary and even sometimes spiteful of the genre.

In order to describe the books and the other authors writing stuff like this, the label fantasy no longer applies, as it connotes sword and sorcery/medeival oriented settings and this has nothing whatsoever to do with that. It is not QUITE science fiction as it doesn’t care about scientific explanations for the fantastic. It’s goal is to tell immensely imaginative stories in new and fresh settings with depth and more modern forms of social interaction and commentary. It’s often termed New Weird, or Weird Fiction.

Having gushed enough, (you get it right? You want something fresh and infinitely imaginative, complex and delightful, something with the depth to please an actual grown up who wants to read grown up stories but also wants a childlike thrill of exclaiming “OMG that is SO (expletive) COOL!” then pick up either Perdido Street Station or The Scar.)

On Tolkien

Now let’s go a bit further. In his attempts to move fantastical literature away from the clichés that have gripped it, Mr. Mieville has made numerous statements regarding Tolkien and the fantasy genre.

Basically, and this is true, Tolkien wrote the most influential fantasy books of the century, so much so, that 90% of every that came after is derivative and indeed his basic ideas define the very genre that before him was much more open.

Mieville declares that he has set about to be an anti-Tolkien.

In this, i agree. Don’t get me wrong, i love Lord of the Rings and The Simarillion, but i have read them already. I have also read stories with swords and dwarves and warriors on quest after bloody quest. Surely some sound minds can come up with something new?

China Mieville: “When people dis fantasy – mainstream readers and SF readers alike – they are almost always talking about one sub-genre of fantastic literature. They are talking about Tolkien, and Tolkien’s innumerable heirs. Call it ‘epic’, or ‘high’, or ‘genre’ fantasy, this is what fantasy has come to mean. Which is misleading as well as unfortunate.

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously trying to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.”

“If you look at stereotypical ‘epic’ or ‘high’ fantasy, you’re talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they’re likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it’s a bad kingdom…). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters–and often whole races–lining up to fall into pigeonholes with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ written on them.”

“Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly the most influential fantasy book ever written. It is the paradigm for the kind of cod-epic, conservative secondary world fantasies discussed above. Obviously there were writers before Tolkien who were very influential–Robert E Howard’s Conan books, for example, were written in the 1930s and they’re hardly politically radical either–but Tolkien brought various elements to fantasy that made him central. More than previous writers he constructed an elaborate history, geography, linguistics, mythology, etc for his invented world, and fitted his narrative into that. Of course world creation had gone on before–Howard’s Hyboria, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique–but Tolkien saw the building of an internally consistent secondary world as central to the project of what he called ‘fairy’ and what we would now call fantasy.

The sometimes obsessive focus on the secondary world is typical of post-1960s fantasy. It’s easy to mock, but I think it can be a very interesting kind of project. It often involves great creativity and inventiveness, and it’s a very powerful way for effecting the particularly strong kind of suspension of disbelief that fantasy involves. That’s why fantasy fans are often so neurotic about the maintenance of consistency–authors who lose track of their own world and contradict themselves can’t get away with it. (It’s what I think of as ‘geek critique’: ‘In book two of the Elfmoon Quintilogy you said the Redfang mountains were two days ride north of the city, but in book four it takes Bronmor threedays to get there…’)

Tolkien’s worldview was resolutely rural, petty bourgeois, conservative, anti-modernist, misanthropically Christian and anti-intellectual. That comes across very strongly in his fiction and his non-fiction. Michael Moorcock has written brilliantly on this in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987):

The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire [where the protagonist ‘hobbits’ live], are ‘safe’ but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are ‘dangerous’… Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class… If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron [the ‘evil’ dark lord] and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the mob–mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence–the worst aspect of modern urban society represented as the whole by the a fearful, backward-yearning class.

In opposing what he called the Robot Age, Tolkien counterposes it with a past that of course never existed. He has no systematic opposition to modernity–just a terrified wittering about ‘better days’. He opposes chaos with moderation, which is why his ‘revolt’ against modernity is in fact just a grumbling quiescence.

For Tolkien, the function of his fantasy fiction is ‘consolation’. If you read his essay ‘On Fairy Tales’ you find that, for him, central to fantasy is ‘the consolation of the happy ending’. He pretends that such a happy ending is something that occurs ‘miraculously’, ‘never to be counted on to recur’. But that pretence of contingency is idiotic, in that immediately previously he claims that ‘all complete fairy stories must have it [the happy ending]. It is its highest function.’ In other words, far from ‘never being counted to recur’, the writer and reader know that to qualify as fantasy, a ‘consolatory’ happy ending will recur in every story, and you have a theory of fantasy in which ‘consolation’ is a matter ofpolicy. It’s no surprise that this kind of fantasy is conservative. Tolkien’s essay is as close as it gets to most modern fantasy’s charter, and he’s defined fantasy as literature which mollycoddles the reader rather than challenging them.”

In Tolkien, the reader is intended to be consoled by the idea that systemic problems come from outside agitators, and that decent people happy with the way things were will win in the end. This is fantasy as literary comfort food. Unfortunately, a lot of Tolkien’s heirs–who may not share his politics at all–have taken on many tropes that embed a lot of those notions in their fantasy.”

I know, right? I just love it. Why? Look, really, i adore Tolkien, i do. I swear. But when you’ve read the same ideas (with new variations, okay)  over and over and someone comes along and says “Screw this. Screw these stories, let’s hear something NEW” then you have my undivided interest. And Mieville puts out what he promises.

I didn’t know anything about him, i was living in Prague and wen to the ONE english languae book store i knew about, there was this very interesting book, kind of sci fi.fantasy-ish, and also important it was long, which was ideal since i wanted it to last awhile (it didn’t, i read it in a frenzy) called Perdido Street Station.

Anyway, with geeks exploding all over the fantasy landscape in reaction to his spearing of Tolkien and  the assumption that Mieville has nothing but contmept for The Great One, Mieville a few years later added some warmth and praise to his critiques, in 5 Reasons Tolkien Rocks:

1) Norse Magic

For too long the Greco-Roman stories have been the Big Pantheons on Campus. Zeus this, Persephone that, Scylla-and-Charybdis the other, the noise is endless, and anyone smitten by the mythic has to work hard to hear any other voices. For some of us, there’s always been something about this tradition–and it’s hard to put your finger on–vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were ‘as cold as their marble’.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies–Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

For those of us who regret the hegemony of the Classicists’ Classics, the chewy Anglo-Saxonisms of Mirkwood and its surrounds are a vindication. We always knew these other gods and monsters were cooler.

2) Tragedy

Unlike so many of those he begat, Tolkien’s vision, never mind any Hail-fellow-well-met-ery, no matter the coziness of the shire, despite even the remorseless sylvan bonheur of Tom Bombadil, is tragic. The final tears in characters’ and readers’ eyes are not uncomplicatedly of happiness. On the one hand, yay, the goodies win: on the other, shame that the entire epoch is slipping from Glory. The magic goes west, of course, but there’s also the peculiar abjuring of narrative form, in the strange echo after the final battle, the Lord of the Rings’s post-end end, the Harrowing of the Shire–so criminally neglected by Jackson. In an alternate reality, this piece of scripting would have earned talented young tattooed hipster video-game designer Johnno Tolkien a slapped wrist from his studio: since when do you put a lesser villain straight after the final Boss Battle? But that’s the point. The episode concludes ‘well’, of course, so far as it goes, but in its very pettiness relative to what’s just been, it is brilliantly unsatisfying, ushering in an era of degraded parodies of epics, where it’s not just the elves that are going: you can’t even get a proper Dark Lord any more. Whatever we see as the drive behind Tolkien’s tragic vision, and however we relate to its politics and aesthetics, the tragedy of the creeping tawdry quotidian gives Middle Earth a powerful melancholia lamentably missing from too much of what followed. It deserves celebrating and reclaiming.

3) The Watcher in the Water

Dude. That totally was cool. I mean, say what you like about him, Tolk gives good monster. Shelob, Smaug, the Balrog…in their astounding names, the fearful verve of their descriptions, their various

undomesticated malevolence, these creatures are utterly embedded in our world-view. No one can write giant spiders except through Shelob: all dragons are sidekicks now. And so on.

But the thing about the Watcher in the Water is WTF? Here the technique of under-describing, withholding, comes startlingly to the fore, that other great technique for communicating balefulness. We know almost nothing about the many-limbed thing in the water outside Moria. Some think it’s a giant squid: me, I say not, given that it lives in fresh water, has too many tentacles, and that those tentacles have fingers. Which squids don’t have. But we know three things. It is tentacular; it is badass; and it is weird. And that uncertainty is what makes it rock.

4) Allegory

Tolkien explains that he has a ‘cordial dislike of allegory’. Amen! Amen! And just to be clear, there is no contradiction at all between this fact, and the certain truth that his world throws off metaphors, can and should be read as doing all sorts of things, wittingly or unwittingly, with ideas of society, of class, the war, etc. But here is precisely the difference between allegory and metaphor: the latter is fecund, polysemic, generative of meanings but evasive of stability; the former is fecund and interesting largely to the extent that it fails. In his abjuring of allegory, Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really ‘about’ something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and ‘solve’ the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code. His dissatisfaction with the Narnia books was in part precisely because they veered too close to allegory, and therefore did not believe in their own landscape. A similar problem is visible now, in the various tentative ventures into u- or dystopia by writers uncomfortable with the genre they find themselves in and therefore the worlds they create, eager to stress that these worlds are ‘about’ real and serious things–and thereby bleeding them of the specificity they need to be worth inhabiting, or capable of ‘meaning’, at all.

This is not a plea for naivety, for evading ramifications or analysis, for some impossible and pointless return to ‘just-a-story’. The problem is not that allegory unhelpfully exaggerates the ‘meaning’ of a ‘pure’ story, but that it criminally reduces it.

Whether Tolkien himself would follow all the way with this argument is not the point here: the point is that his ‘cordial dislike’ is utterly key for the project of creating a fantastic fiction that both means and is vividly and irreducibly itself, and is thereby fiction worthy of the name.

5) Subcreation

Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison’s, Leiber’s, Ashton Smith’s and many others’, the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that’s a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen–stories occur–within it.

So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it’s difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented. And it is so mocked and denigrated–often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’–that it’s hard to insist that it brings aesthetic and epistemological possibilities to the table that may be valuable and impossible any other way.

This is a debate that needs to be had. These are stories contingent to a world the reader inhabits–full of ‘ideal creations’ that the writer has given, in Tolkien’s words, ‘the inner consistency of reality’. Whatever else it is, that is a strange and unique kind of reading. Tolkien not only performs the trick, indeed arguably inaugurates it, but considers and theorises this process that he calls ‘subcreation’, in his extraordinary essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. It is astounding, and testimony to him, that his ruminations on what is probably now the default ‘fantasy’ mode remain not only seminal but lonely. Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it is an incredibly powerful literary approach, and the lack of systematic, philosophical and critical attention paid not to this or that example but to ‘subcreation’, world-building, overall, as a technique, is amazing. To my knowledge–and I would be grateful for correction–there is not one book-length theoretical critical work, or collection, investigating the fantastic technique of secondary-world-building–subcreation. This is astounding. In Tolkien, fully 70 years ago, by contrast, we have not only the method’s great vanguard, but still one of its most important and pioneering scholars.

There are plenty of other reasons to be grateful to Tolkien, of course–and reasonable reasons to be ticked off at him, too: critique, after all has its place. But so does admiration. Tolkien never lacks for encomia, but that’s no reason not to repeat those most deserved, or, even more, to stress neglected reasons for justified and fervent praise.”

One last note from your blogger: PLEASE DEAR GD SOMEONE SEND ME CHINA’S NEW BOOK: EMBASSYTOWN. IT WAS RELEASED ON MAY 17th! (it’s May 19th as of this writing_ I LIVE IN EASTERN EUROPE AND NO ONE and i mean NO ONE delivers here. Not Amazon, not ANYONE. The only way i will ever  read Embassytown is if someone buys it and mails it to me. PLEASE. PLEASE! PLEASE!!!!  WILL NO ONE HELP THE WIDOW’S SON? (heh heh. little inside j… oh never mind. Look, someone just help a brother out here)



Posted by on May 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


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7 responses to “China Mieville: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and rage against Tolkien.

  1. Redhead

    May 19, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    uughh, I do not care for Tolkien. Don’t care for elves, dwarves, dragons, villages, fuedal stuff, flowerly overly ornamented language, just don’t care for it one bit.

    but Mieville? I love that man. The Scar is one of my all time favorite books, and I’ve got a copy of Embassytown at home that I can’t wait to dive into.

    Mieville’s fantasy is dark, deep, disturbing and magnificent.

  2. Alan

    July 7, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Another Mieville fan here.
    As much as I do love Tolkien it is definitely great to see a move away from that sort of formulaic fantasy.
    Mieville just hits you with something completely different and unexpected all the time.
    You never know what he’s going to pull out next.

    As much as I enjoyed “The City and The City” and Embassytown I do hope we’ll see a return to Bas-lag one day soon.

  3. dreamtyger

    September 16, 2011 at 6:02 am

    I love Tolkein and Mieville – I also love H.P.Lovecraft, who is the bastard uncle of both. Why didn’t you mention him? We probably wouldn’t have Buffy either if it weren’t for the Cthulu mythos (OK, slight exaggeration, but Whedon and Mieville both admit they owe the man). My other undervalued SciFi fantasy hero is George Alec Effinger – he is cooler than Phillip K Dick and William Gibson put together, partly because (of course) hardly anyone knows his work. But I digress…

    I’ve read all of Mieville’s work except “King Rat”, “The Iron Council” and his short stories – I’ve just started “The Scar” after finishing “Perdido Street Station” two days ago. It strikes me that “Embassytown”‘s protagonist is a mashup of Isaac Van Der Gimnebulin and Bellis Coldwine, but either way, Mieville can’t put a foot wrong – except for dialogue. His is universally APPALLING at writing dialogue, as if he went 180 degrees from Tolkein’s beautifully lyrical Elvish prose (he was an Anglo Saxon and Old Norse linguist, after all) to the kind of degraded Cockney you might hear in a Guy Ritchie movie. Which is sad, given Mieville’s fascination for and insights into language (NB: “Embasstown” reads like a SciFi novel written by Roland Barthes as a longform explanation of semiotics).

    On the plus side, I agree with all you have to say here about fantasy literature, but what makes Mieville such a genius (apart from his crazy imagination and the political commitment of his fiction) is the brilliant way he bases his fantasy on the quotidien rather than the strange. Miyazaki does this in his best anime, BTW (cf: the train to Swamp Bottom in “Spirited Away”). Like Freud, he knows that the uncanny is at home, at home (the “heimlich” in the “un”). Like some Remade engineer he takes London trash cans (“bins” as we Anglophiles call them) and marries them to ninjas to create Binjas (see his brilliant YA novel, “Un Lun Dun”). My favourite of all his novels for the way the whole narrative does this is “Kraken”. Imagine Lovecraft, Tolkein and Raymond Chandler grafted onto the BBC TV series “Life on Mars”. Brilliant.


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