The lord ofthe earrings

Look out, orcs, hobbits and elves: a scholarly Notting Hill revolutionary is about to blast the cosy, bestselling world of fantasy literature apart
Click to follow

The next time somebody tries to sell you a copy of Socialist Worker, give the vendor a closer look. If you happen to be in West London and he's a tall, muscular, crop-haired guy with an unfeasibly ample allocation of earrings, there's a strong possibility that it's China Miéville. His second novel, Perdido Street Station (Macmillan, £16.99), is about to blow a very large hole in the stodgy complacencies of one of our most popular, and most conservative, literary genres.

These days, the term "fantasy" tends to mean interminable faux-epic quest trilogies: one part Jive Tolkien, one part Conan The Barbarian, one part either Norse or Arthurian cliché. It's escapism for people who yearn for an age before electricity, plumbing and democracy. Miéville has a different, and far bigger, kettle of fish to fry.

His 1998 début, King Rat, was a "hidden London" novel in the tradition of Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock and Christopher Fowler; but Perdido Street Station is a post-grunge Gormenghast with nary an elf or a runesword to be seen. In this crowded, clamorous urban fever-dream, a plethora of species live chitinous cheek to feathered jowl, the squalid and the poetic become inseparable, and a sculptor and a scientist must resolve a nightmare within a nightmare.

"Perdido Street Station is my attempt to simultaneously say, 'Fuck you' to fantasy, and to say to readers, 'Please read some fantasy,'" says Miéville. "It's a way of saying, 'I know you think you don't like fantasy, but maybe you could give this a try'."

He adds that "So much modern genre fantasy is so trite... When you read Tolkien's theory of fantasy in On Fairy Tales, he has a systematic theory of 'consolatory fantasy': that consolation is the function of fantasy. That whole idea makes me want to puke, and it stinks up the whole genre.

"That's why Perdido Street Station is a fuck-you to fantasy, as defined by totally predictable plots, rampant generalisation and stereotypes. It's one of the only genres in which the whole function of having characters of different races is to pigeonhole them.

"If you have an elf," he explains, "odds-on they're going to be noble, mysterious and good with their hands. A dwarf is going to be unimaginative and probably trustworthy and a bit stolid. And orcs are going to be evil. It's not just a paean to feudalism, but to a feudalism that never was: happy feudalism, nice feudalism, feudalism lite."

Miéville owns up to being a fantasy writer, but he prefers the descriptions "weird fiction" or "fantastic literature". "I use the term 'fantastic literature' as a way of bracketing the genres of supernatural horror, epic fantasy, low fantasy and science fiction. The term I would prefer to reinvigorate is 'weird fiction'."

He believes that "there's a radical moment in all weird fiction, and that moment is the positing of the impossible as true. Whether you make that what the story's all about or you simply have it as a starting-point, that to me is a radical moment. The problem with most genre fantasy is that it takes this radical moment of alienation and otherness and renders it as comfort food, like the seabirds which chew up food and regurgitate it into their babies' mouths when the babies can't really take the raw thing. It's pap, in the literal sense."

He's aware that "when you say 'fantasy', people think of Tolkien and his innumerable heirs". That's unfortunate, Miéville argues, as it masks the alternative tradition of weird fiction: authors such as "William Hope Hodgeson, Robert Chambers, Clark Ashton Smith, H P Lovecraft, and certainly the Weird Tales tradition with Fritz Leiber, and then Mervyn Peake, and up to date with people like M John Harrison.

"Essentially I'm a fantasy writer, though in a different tradition that stresses the macabre, the surreal, the alienating, the decadent, the lush, the grotesque - a tradition of grotesquerie, cruelty, sadness and alienation. The surrealist aesthetic is an alienating aesthetic, the opposite of Tolkien's consolatory, comforting aesthetic. Part of that means not shying away when the dynamic of the aesthetic is quite cruel. It doesn't dissolve into sadism. In real life I'm quite sentimental, so I overcompensate in my fiction. I have to be quite ruthless about sentimentality. Given the history of fantasy, you have to purge yourself of it."

Yet Miéville is a committed Marxist. So what kind of relationship does a dialectical materialist have with high fantasy? "Through the heritage of the surrealists and of weird fiction, 'the fantastic' has the potential to be a truly extraordinary, radical genre. The fact that it often isn't is frustrating and a shame, but that's not the genre's fault. My relationship with weird fiction stems from the fact that it's what I grew up on. I love it, and it's what I gravitate to when I'm in a bookshop.

"It's the opposite of cosy, but genre fantasy is by far the worst offender. Science fiction has far more serious, radical, interesting, questioning writing in it. Horror, although it's often denigrated, has a very good tradition of serious writing. Almost by definition, what it's about is rendering the everyday unsafe and unsettling. More than SF and more than horror, the fantasy field is awash with crap.

"It's not the case that as a socialist I'm going to write a particular book and get across a particular message. That's not my job... I want to tell weird, macabre stories involving strange species and I want to have fun inventing species and cities that couldn't possibly exist. I want to create the impossible as an aesthetic project. I'm a political writer of weird fiction; ergo I'm a writer of political weird fiction.

Yet his fiction can never serve as a vehicle for politics. "There's always going to be politics in there, but if I want to make the argument for socialism, I'm not going to do it in a fantasy novel. That would be a ridiculous medium for it. The relationship is inextricable - everything I ever write is informed by my politics - but not in a very immediate sense.

"Iain Banks said once that he'd love to write an explicitly political novel but whenever he tries it reads like the most awful Stalinist agitprop. That's basically how I feel. I put politics in my books, but that's not what they're for.

"The most important political things I can do I will do: things like leafleting, making political arguments, selling Socialist Worker. I think it would be foolish to suggest that because a story is left-wing, it's going to be better. One of my favourite writers is M R James, who was a High-Church Tory and wrote the best and most chilling ghost stories ever. I'm not going to say that those stories would have been improved if he'd been a socialist, because you don't judge writers as writers on their politics. Jeffrey Archer is scum. He is also a shit writer. Those are two separate things. Louis-Ferdinand Céline was scum, but a superb writer."

As for his own imaginative landscape in Perdido Street Station, he intends to stay there for a while. "I like this universe, and I've done a lot of work on it. The next book I'm writing is also set in it, but it is not a sequel. It is not number two in a trilogy: I promise.

"One of my biggest bugbears is fate. The trope I loathe most in genre fantasy is fate, prophecy and 'lo-it-is-written' - because, in narrative terms, what's interesting is the innate, enabling power of the individual and social forces. That's what narrative fucking is, you know what I mean?"

Finally, is "China Miéville" his real name? And if so, why? "Because my parents were hippies, and they looked through the dictionary for 'a beautiful word'. Apparently, they nearly settled on 'Banyan' but thankfully flicked forward a few pages - and also because it's Cockney rhyming slang for 'mate'."