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Return to Bas-Lag: An Interview with China Miéville

Following Jared Shurin’s Comment piece about bookish superfans, here is Jared Shurin’s interview with author China Miéville. They discuss his fanbase – one of the most active and creative in the world.

One of the most acclaimed (and awarded) fantasy series is China Miéville’s Bas-Lag. The first three were released in rapid succession – Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004). Between the three, Miéville picked up two Arthur C. Clarke awards, two British Fantasy awards and nominations for every other genre award of substance, including both Hugo and Nebula. The last canonical addition to the series was a short story, “Jack” in 2005.

Although he’s produced an impressive volume of work since – three additional novels, with a fourth, Embassytown, to be published in May (Macmillan/ Del Rey) – Miéville is relentlessly asked at almost every Q&A when he’ll be “returning” to Bas-Lag.

Miéville maintains the position that he should avoid openly interpreting his own work, but this didn’t prevent us from theorising about what other discussion was (and wasn’t) taking place around his series. He discussed the systemisation of fantasy, the impact of the upcoming game and where the line is between fans’ imaginations and his own (if there even is one at all).


JS: Bas-Lag isn’t officially “unsupported”, as much as “no one knows when or if the next one is coming out”. Unless you wanted to tell us right now…

CM: I know.  [laughs]

JS: How often are you asked about returning to that world?

CM: Most Q&As. It’s one of the most common questions. “When are you going back, are you going back, if you are, if not, why not?”…

I do have a very intense curiosity of what would or will happen if/when I do write another Bas-Lag book. I don’t believe it will be unalloyed joy. I don’t know, but I’d be really interested to see.  I’m also fairly convinced that a lot of this stuff people think they know what they want, but they don’t want what they want. They want to want it a lot of the time… I don’t know.

JS: It’s been seven years since “Jack” was set in that world, people are probably poring over your work, combing through interview answers, looking for a hint. Are you getting contacted outside of the Q&A’s regarding Bas-Lag?

CM: No, not really. Although, occasionally, people are doing academic work on fantasy or my world and they will ask it putatively as part of their research. Mostly just a straight reader’s question.

At the moment, I think I’m in touch with two people that are doing PhDs that are either partly or largely based around my stuff. But I would say a substantial minority don’t. Which is fine, that’s totally their business.  I think I’m quite unsatisfactory for those people that do contact me because I have this semi-programmatic position whereby I’m, as far as possible, quite hands off. So I’m happy to answer specific questions but I try to recuse myself from analysis of it. I think it’s inappropriate and not my thing.

JS: “That’s their business”…. at what point does someone writing a paper about your books – or doing anything based on your work – cross the line between their business and your business?

CM: Intellectually, I have opinions about my own work. When I say I recuse myself, largely this is kind of a fidelity to the intentional fallacy position. I don’t think I’m the final respository of wisdom on this stuff. But that isn’t tantamount to some kind of Vulgarian Derridean “death of the author”. I think authors’ opinions about their own stuff are relevant. It is a factor among several.

My recusing myself isn’t because I think I mustn’t have an opinion on this, it’s that it is very, very hard not to structurally be a bully. If the author is saying, “I disagree with your interpretation”, then it is very hard for a scholar not to feel in some way that you’re implying that you have more of a conduit to the truth.

So where it becomes my business: if someone said something that’s just factually wrong. I remember a review of King Rat that took the initial lie that King Rat was Saul’s uncle, and thought that was true all the way through and that there was no alternative revelation. At that point, I feel like I could, “FYI – no”. But… I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t. But, when it comes down to a difference of interpretation, I feel I ought to butt out.

The difficult thing is when you’re attacked on grounds that really matter to you. I’ve read a number of political critiques – I don’t mean critiques from the right, that I expect – but political critiques from people I’m quite sympathetic to, basically attacking me for bad politics. And that really hurts. And that’s one of those things where you really want to come back and say, “Ok, I see your point here, but, this is why I…” … but I think as far as possible, I shouldn’t.

JS: At what point do people’s imagination of your world start to intrude on your imagination of the same world?

Never. Their imaginations are entirely their business. I have no problem with fan-fic – quite the opposite, it is incredibly flattering. I’m delighted by the idea of cosplay (which I don’t think has every happened – I’ve never seen any New Crobuzon cosplay), slash, RPGs… this is lovely.

I also have intense empathy for that drive to canonize. But I also think that’s a drive that precisely those of us who have, need to be quite tough on. Not to get rid of, we’re not going to get rid of it and part of what we do is about not getting rid of it. But we need to remember that it’s always a problem, and this is where I think a jolt of [M. John] Harrison is really good. Or [Samuel] Delany. But Harrison in particular.

[M. John Harrison is the author of the Viriconium series, amongst others, and, as Mr. Miéville says, writes in a fashion that deliberately dissuades systemization – making him a provocative figure in genre fiction.]

It’s not that I think it is a stupid question, it is a question I totally identify with, but it is a question I want to not indulge in myself or in other people. If they want to have huge debates about it, that’s fine.

JS: Your work has influenced a lot of art, there’s the RPG, there’s an issue of Dragon magazine… but there’s a surprising lack of fan fiction based in your universe. Has any one ever sent you any? (I’m leaving slash out of this.)

CM: No one has ever sent me fan fiction. I know it exists – and a couple times I’ve been pointed to it online.

Perhaps, well, one of the giant’s shoulders on which I stand is Harrison, and Harrison is the clearest example of an internal critique of fantasy within the fantastic. And the idea of Harrisonian fan-fic is hilarious. Viriconium is a setting that the readers that love it love, but it absolutely rebels against that kind of systematization. I’m also someone that’s trying to draw on that. And maybe, in some way that I can’t map in kind of a neat way, there’s some sense of that sort of obduracy in the books. I truly don’t know.

I’ve never claimed to go that far. I do have maps and I do have timelines. For example, the arrival of the role-playing game. You could not have an RPG of Viriconium. It would be… well, “roll against Ennui”, “I failed my saving throw against Entropy”. You couldn’t do that… so the fact that someone is doing an RPG of Bas-Lag shows that it can be done, and maybe that will unlock some of this stuff.

I suppose I hope is that the relative paucity of that stuff – which isn’t to diss that that’s there – is something to do with people focusing on the books in a slightly different way, which I’m pleased about because I’m ultimately more interested in trying to do that than trying to provide safe havens in which to brackets “not live”.

Again, I say that as someone that sympathizes with that drive, not someone that despises that drive. That whole thing – the desperate desire to live in these worlds – is absolutely fascinating. I remember – when I was really hooked on Buffy – I remember having the revelation that it wasn’t that I wanted to know what would happen next, it was that I wanted to live in Sunnydale. And I was really troubled by that.

JS: If you look at Perdido Street Station, there’s actually a classic adventuring party that’s introduced midway though, only to die horribly. And the whole book is told by secondary characters…

CM: If you write in some sort of relatively straightforward narrative tradition – which I do, I’m not a high-modernist – then inevitably what you’re doing is creating a kind of narrative shape. That is something that really kind of militates against that kind of experimentation.

But, one of the ways in which you can kind of have your cake and eat it by pretending to experiment, is to try and create a narrative shape out of a concatenation of secondary narratives. I quite like the idea that the big stories are happening just over there and you’re kind of following stuff that abuts them on a few occasions. I’ve tried to do that a few times, and maybe that kind of narratorial exhaustion is one of the things you’re picking up on.

JS: Thank you very much.

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