Feb 09

SF Writers: China Mieville

FT10 comments • 656 views

I haven’t read all that many new writers within this genre in recent years, and I’ve been impressed by even fewer, but China Mieville is exceptional. His first book is not great, but the next two, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, are magnificent. They’re set in the same world, an extraordinary creation teeming with fresh and striking ideas, written with prose that approaches that of an obvious inspiration of his, M. John Harrison (my vote for best SF prose ever, and one of the best living prose stylists), with whom he also shares that New Wave interest in the likes of social outsiders and artists.

The thing that astonishes me is the way he combines the classic literary virtues – the beautiful sentences, complex characters, use of motif, substantial and subtly explored themes – with the most insanely rollicking adventure and excitement. Perdido Street Station is set in the world’s biggest city, under threat from some genuinely scary moth-monsters, more from what they do to people’s dreams than their physical threat. The city throws everything at them, and nothing works. He piles up the odds brilliantly – the scenes around their offering the ambassador from (the literal) Hell absolutely anything to save them is particularly daring; and he is only their second-last resort…

The Scar is a high-seas adventure, with a climactic battle in which the world’s greatest martial artist with his quantum sword joins the pirates against vampires and sea monsters. The combination of dazzling imagination, terrific writing by any standard and really exciting plotting makes him, for me, one of the greatest new talents of recent decades, and I am not restricting that to SF, or genre writing more generally.

Don’t bother with his first, but the third, The Iron Council, also set in that world, is very good too and highly political, though it does build on the first two rather than add a lot to his creation; and there is a collection of short stories, most of it more reflecting his earliest work, but some of it is tremendous.


  1. 1
    Andrew F on 8 Feb 2009 #

    Isn’t The Iron Council his fourth, but his third in that world? I want to go reread Perdido Street Station now. Also I concur about King Rat sadly not being much good – do you think it was the decision to dispense with realism that caused the considerable improvement for PSS?

    One thing I remember noting from when I first read it was that it’s actually paced for a big book (my paperback edition was 600+ pages) – a major character only turns up halfway through – while still being very busy on every page.

  2. 2
    Martin Skidmore on 8 Feb 2009 #

    Whoops, quite correct – badly written.

    I don’t know why there was that spectacular improvement. There are some similarities, but the untrammelled imagination and, as you say, teeming creativity of PBS is an extraordinary leap.

  3. 3
    Kat but logged out innit on 8 Feb 2009 #

    I really enjoyed PSS but I can’t for the life of me remember how they resolved the whole moth problem (I remember what happened to the main characters VERY well though, jebus that was harrowing). I swear my memory has got worse in the last few years.

  4. 4
    Alex S on 9 Feb 2009 #

    The children’s book Un Lun Dun is also well worth a look – just as the adult novels delight in subverting fantasy tropes, here he gleefully trashes several elements from recent children’s books (and is as happy to take swipes at self-appointed Rebel In Chief Philip Pullman as at Harry Potter et al).

  5. 5
    Martin Skidmore on 9 Feb 2009 #

    I’ve not read that – I didn’t even know it existed, to be honest.

  6. 6
    Pete Baran on 9 Feb 2009 #

    Un Lun Dun is OK, though tiptoes a bit too close to King Rat for my liking – he clearly loves London and cities (clear from PSS). It does do a good job, as you say, of undermining kids fantasies of being “The Chosen One” or the sekrit princess, though in other places it does get a little Phantom Tollbooth with its access via libraries etc.

    The biggest problem with King Rat is its desire to tie into a drum and bass subculture, European myth and rubbish slackerdom.

    I loved PSS and The Scar, but though Iron Council was a bit inconsequential and lacked the key through characters to make me care. PSS has a devastating ending, really sad and one you wish he would pull out a plot nullifier to undo, but rightly he doesn’t. I am more scared of moths now than I used to be!

  7. 7
    chap on 10 Feb 2009 #

    When I first discovered Mieville I had to periodically put the book down to excitedly jump around the room like a sugared-up ten year-old. The Scar is my favourite, but PSS is magnificent too, and one should probably read it first for context.

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 19 Mar 2009 #

    I’ve just finished PSS following the recommendations above and quite enjoyed it – although I do think CM lays on the exotica with a trowel in places. I like the Weaver and the Garuda characters, both of whom have hints of a genuine alien consciousness – but others like Lin seem more like humans in bug costumes – they might look different but their attitudes and behaviour are much the same as Isaac and the rest.

    Still, it kept my attention and I’ll probably give The Scar a read sometime soon.

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 22 Apr 2009 #

    I just finished The Scar and enjoyed it even more than PSS. I found it more tightly structured and better written because it didn’t over egg the mix with more and more exotic creatures. Them mosquito women were enough for me.

    I hope you’re going to keep this series going Martin. I’d like to read your thoughts on Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, Neil Stephenson and, following his recent demise, J.G. Ballard.

  10. 10
    Matt W on 28 Apr 2009 #

    IMO Iron Council is the best of his three Bas Lag books. The prose (already great in PSS and The Scar) truly shines here. It’s written more like a fable than a novel. And how could you not love the return of the Weaver, all of the fantastic golems Judah makes, and a visit to the Cacotopic Stain? I think it’s actually a good thing that it’s more overtly political than the other two; it fits with Dr. Mieville’s assertions about how spec-fic should always do more than simply provide escapism.

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