In November 2010, I interviewed China Mieville for my website, Popgun Chaos. This week, it was announced that Mieville would be writing the new DC series Dial H with Brian Bolland on art and Vertigo’s Karen Berger editing. I was so excited to see this project that I just had to reprint this interview, with my original introduction.
Being able to interview China Mieville was one of the most amazing and frightening experiences I’ve ever had. “Amazing” because his work doesn’t just encompass that word, but it surpasses it, redefines it, and then makes it moot. “Frightening” because I had no clue what to ask him.
Certainly, I had some ideas of things I had always wanted to talk to him about, but I began to second-guess each question that I prepared. I contacted Caleb Stokes (friend and essayist on Keeping the World Strange) and asked him what he would ask China Mieville. Caleb’s response was absolutely priceless –
“What do you ask the man who knows everything?”
Interviewing China Mieville was an enlightening experience, and I am immensely grateful that he took the time to speak with me. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I do.
Cody Walker: What has been your experience with RPGs?
China Mieville: I started off like probably a lot of us with D&D basic. I was probably 10 or something and it achieve this semi-mythical status within my school. It was this weird thing because it didn’t have a board and you could do anything. So I got that and I sort of DM-ed it. I DM-ed the keeper on the borderland which I still have intense affection for. I DM-ed it very very badly because I was new and I was very young, and none of my friends whom I press-ganged into playing were interested in doing it seriously, which was intensely frustrating. Then, I discovered this other thing called “AD&D” and I had no fucking clue what that was so I moved on to that.
I was a big fan of Chaosium engine, so I ended up playing a lot of RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu and I had a long running campaign with Middle Earth Role-Playing which is sort of paradoxical and ironic because I never particularly loved the Middle Earth setting. I preferred playing to DMing on the whole. If I was going to DM, all I really wanted to do was invent the world. I was never particularly interested in people tromping around in it.
We played Traveller, and Star Frontiers. We played a lot of Star Frontiers – very underrated, I thought. We played a lot of games. I played Paranoia a couple of times. I was really big into Bushido for awhile. And since then, I’ve kept on top of it, I wouldn’t say top of it, I’m by no means an expert, but I kind of occasionally try and see what’s going on. I ended up buying a reasonable amount of the White Wolf games, although this is fully 20 years after I played. I don’t think I’ve played a game since I was 14, maybe 15 or 16.
My playing experience was all front-loaded with D&D, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, and Villains and Vigilantes. I was really big into Villains and Vigilantes. I loved it.
Anyway, yeah, I’m rambling now. I’m reminiscing.
CW: No, it’s okay. It’s cool.
CM: Are you recording this or are you frantically making notes?
CW: I’m recording this.
CM: Okay, good. I was afraid I was speaking a little quickly.
CW: I’ve always been fascinated with how much history has been built into the Bas-Lag books and the whole idea of world building, and I was wondering where do you start?
CM: I did it, I would say, like many others and indeed like people who role-play; you spend a lot of time with your notebooks and you put together a history and a timeline and a map and things like that and you sort of fill in the gaps.
Different people do it differently. There are different things that are important to people in that process. I’m not someone who gets fantastically nerdy about alluvial flows and specifics of geology and geography and I say that with no sneering if that’s what flows their boat.
I was reading a book a couple of years ago by Ricardo Pinto called The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, and in the acknowledgments, he thanks someone for telling him what color was a flamingo’s tongue, and I thought, “Now there is a person who has a different relationship to research than I do.” I mean, more power to you if that is what you want to do but I don’t mind as long as it creates a sense of cohesion, then I don’t need to be completely neurotic about scientific accuracy. That’s just not something that worries me too much.
And the other thing with the question of creating maps and so on is that, personally, I leave spaces on maps. It would be impossible even if you wanted to, to map every single thing in your world. So instead, I kind of map out the world and I have a sense of anywhere that is relevant and anywhere that may impinge on the story and the other bits of the map may get filled in or they may not. I may even drop in a reference or a name without necessarily having an decided what it is.
I should say that I’m also very interested in a sort of alternative tradition of the fantastic which I associate with the writer M. John Harrison. He has written several books, but perhaps the most relevant here is a book called Viriconium which is a collection of three novels and a book of short stories and it’s set in a very fantastic world which is probably in the very far future of Earth. He has a great antithesis to world building. He wrote a very controversial post on his blog a couple of years ago about world building as being an antithesis of literature so he deliberately constructs a world that refuses to obey those worlds. So the names of places change or the layouts change from story to story or even mid story partly doing it to provoke an effect that’s quite interesting. He’s creating an argument and an anxiety among those readers who are really concerned with how things pin down very precisely like in a roleplaying game.
Now, that’s not exactly in the tradition that I write in. I tend to come from a style that is very much like a D&D style, but I think it’s an extremely interesting and provocative tradition, and I like to try and learn from it even if it’s not exactly the same as I do, and I thought some of the responses to his post were terribly bone-headed.
I’m sure you can find it if you Google the phrase “clomping-foot of nerdism” and “Harrison” you will almost certainly find it. I know it’s something that a lot of people won’t agree with, but I think it’s something we should all agree with and consider.
CW: I’ve recently come into the idea of internet fans being needlessly critical of things that they consume, as far as pop culture is concerned, so that sounds really interesting to me.
CM: In some ways, I would say that the opposite is true that fans aren’t critical enough. I think you end up with this weird self-hating (and I say this as a fan, so I’m not being dismissive, I’m critiquing myself) is that you end up with this weird kind of self-hating thing where you criticize something, but you will also always go see it. I’m very into the idea at the moment of rather than criticizing something – like when everyone was kind of raging about Transformers 2 or Transformers (that terrible film), I was like “of course they’re terrible. They’re by Michael Bay. What exactly did you think you were going to see? Why would you go and see that and be frustrated that it wasn’t like Gene Wolfe.” This is not to let the films off the hook, I think they’re a fucking embarrassment. I think that they are an abomination, but I think we have this weird thing where in the fan world, we’re so hungry for anything that touches our sweet spot so if it has monsters in it or time travel in it or sort of magic or horror or aliens then we’ll go and see it and then we’ll criticize it when it’s not very good and in fact if we would have made a critical judgment right off the bat and said, “this is essentially designed to take a lot of money off of people who aren’t particularly interested in narrative structure. I don’t think I’m going to like this. I’m not going bother to go see it.”
It doesn’t bother me that people are overly critical but that they are constantly surprised that they should be critical. Of course it was rubbish. Most things are.
And the other side is that when something is good then it gets an incredible amount of praise possibly to the extent that it hurts it. Like that Swedish film, Let the Right One In, I thought that was a lovely film. I really liked it, but I did not think it deserved it when people were saying, “the most extraordinary and original film in 20 years” which they were saying and I think they hurt the film by exaggerating it like that. I think they did it because the status has become so degraded and that anything that isn’t shit, we get incredibly excited about.
It’s like Moon, I thought it was a good film, but there were things wrong with it, but it was an interesting first film, but the savior of cinema, by far not.
That kind of incredibly intense, fannish rage that we get seems to be misplaced not because stuff is better than that, but because we shouldn’t be surprised that most of it is as bad as it is and in a sense, who is more fooled? The fool who produces an incredibly profitable piece of shit or the fool who gives the money out for the piece of shit when the last ten things they’ve seen by that person were a piece of shit. I think we should be super critical, we should be more critical. I think we’re much to soft on our stuff, but I think we should also vote with our pocket books.
CW: In your 2003 interview with Joan Gordon, you stated, “The other, more nebulous, but very strong influence of RPGs was the weird fetish for systematization, the way everything is reduced to ‘game stats.’” Specifically, you talk about how they stat out Cthulhu, and how do you create stats for something so powerful that we can’t comprehend it. My question is, are you concerned that the Bas-Lag RPG will have a similar affect on creatures in your world specifically like the Grindlylow or the Weaver or things like that?
CM: Well, I’m obviously not so worried that I didn’t want them to go ahead with it, but it’s certainly a danger. If you were to stat out the Avanc or something that would be quite silly. It would be like trying to fight a city or something, but it was interesting the response to that article and I said similar things at a con and it got reported and there was some response to this. And I don’t know if it was a question of it being misreported or if I wasn’t clear, but I was startled because it seems that there were some role-players who thought I was dissing role-playing. I was very surprised by this and if that was the impression I gave, then I need to hold up my hands to the hobbyists and say that was not my intention. I owe RPGs a huge amount of my mental furniture. I have enormous affection and love for them. I learned a lot from them. What I was describing, and I think you put your finger in it, is a tension and it seems to me that the mania of systemization is sometimes absurd (and I think it’s absurd to stat out Cthulhu) at the same time, it’s an absurdity that appeals to me. I get it. I have great empathy for that desire to do that.
When I was role-playing, one of the things I did, I got frustrated because I didn’t think they were statted enough. I didn’t think they were systematized enough. One of the things I loved about RuneQuest was hit locations. I homebrewed a whole bunch of tables to add hit locations to things like Cthulhu. “Roll a d20. Okay, you hit one of his tentacles. Nothing happens, he still kills you.” It was completely absurd, so it’s not like I don’t have complete empathy for this.
What I think I was saying was that the fantastic genre uses that kind of tension and you can see books and fiction lean towards one way or another. So you have things that are like magic realism or high literary fantasy that are against that high systemization and it becomes more like a kind of a dream logic and then you have the other end which are simply like a book version of a D&D campaign where you have a list of spells prepared per day and that kind of thing. There is some kind of oscillation between that sense of awe and that systematizing of that awe making a kind of a totalized and comprehensible. And I think that’s a completely insoluable tension because the point of the awe is that it is unknowable and the point of that systemization is to not just know it, but to kind of rigorously taxonimize it. So, I think it’s something that can’t be solved, but I do think it creates a really interesting tension and because it can’t be solved, it doesn’t mean that you’re ever find an elegant way out of it, but hopefully that kind of oscillation back and forth can lead you to some really kind of interesting effects.
I feel that tension in myself. I often think of the creatures I’m creating in RPG terms even if I don’t slap my own wrist sometimes. Like, how do you stat out a Weaver? And that tension is quite productive. I’m fascinated by that tension. I know that there are role playing games out there that are trying to move away from that kind of mania systemization. I’m talking about the stuff I knew and the stuff I grew up on.
It’s a quantum relationship to the unreal. A kind of constant superpositional vibration between blasted awe and nerdy dice rolling that I find really really interesting.
CW: Lately, you’ve been moving into the realm of comic books, and I was curious as to your relationship with comics. Did you read a lot as a kid?
CM: I always read comics. In Britain, we have a slightly different tradition of comics and they were very important to us. I suppose I wasn’t one of the super comicy guys who used to keep up with everything, partly because I couldn’t afford it, partly because I found a kind of neurotic, plastic bag fetishism about your monthly titles being kind of stressful. I prefer collectives which proper comic fans kind of despise.
I was a kind of a middling comic geek. I was aware of Watchmen at the time, I wasn’t someone who came to it 15 years later. Watchmen, Dark Knight, Ronin, and all that – I was reasonably up to date of all that. I wouldn’t say I was completely up on the Marvel and DC universes, but I had a vague sense of the big things that were going on. I read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing. I was into underground comics like Charles Burns, and Chester Brown, and people like that. I always black and white art.
CW: You were attached to revamp Swamp Thing and I was curious as to what kind of take you had on the character?
CM: I had scripted out five issues in total and I had done an outline for ten more, so there was a little done on it. It was a 15 issue arc. Basically, it was going to be quite political (probably not surprising), but I have enormous respect for Alan Moore as a writer, I think he is absolutely amazing, and I also very much like how he deals with politics in his work, but at the same time, his politics and mine aren’t always exactly the same (although we are both on the left in some sense), but I wanted to have a sort of respectful argument with him about what the notion of ecology is. His run on Swamp Thing was very much about the deep ecology stuff, and I find myself to be a bit skeptical of that, but I do count myself as a green, but I think of myself as a kind of “red green.” So, some of the ways of ecological thinking are kind of anti-humanist and toxic.
I’m being deliberately a little bit vague, because I don’t want to say too much about what was written because I don’t want to presume anything.
It was meant to be a respectful argument with Alan Moore. It was going to take a couple of minor characters from the DCU and pumped them up and sort of retconned some stuff in the universe. I think in a way it was kind of rigorous but wouldn’t have fucked with stuff that had gone on before and introduced a couple of new characters. It was big, violent and epic and had wars in it. It was a big, sweeping thing is what it was.
CW: I’m in love with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and I think that’s really fascinating to think about a different way to look at ecology.
CM: There is more than one way to think about ecology from a progressive position. Alan Moore is very much a progressive and I’m very much a progressive and I have a huge amount of respect for him as a writer, but that doesn’t mean we have exactly the same politics. There is more than one way in thinking from a progressive position about the relationship between humans and nature and vice-versa and where I wanted to respectfully argue was where I felt that there was a certain privileging of one over another which I had a bit of a problem with.
And you didn’t have to care about that stuff. It was a big, cool, kind of kick-ass, and sort of blinding fight scenes in there as well.
CW: One final question that I’ve always wondered is how magic is utilized in fiction and how do you write magic in a believable way that avoids the deus ex machina?
CM: Well, I mean there’s different ways of doing it, isn’t there? You can go the D&D route and think in terms of magic having very very rigorous rules and have your characters do magic within the context of the rules and no more. My own thing is that as long as it has it’s own internal, consistent logic, even if it’s dream logic, people will largely let it go.
Even the deus ex machina thing, it’s not exactly the most elegant way out of a plot, but they can be done well. It isn’t the worst sin in the world. For myself, one of the things I’m been interested in is taking a different kind of thematic metaphor and having it as a kind of conceptual backdrop for the magic. I really hate books that take their fantasy and subordinate it to the metaphor so that you’re constantly having the writer kind of tell you what it means. I don’t want to do that. It has to have an internal belief in itself, but there is that internal organizing theme in the backdrop and that can lead you to a certain kind of internal rigor.
For example, in Perdido Street Station, the notion of magic is a kind of literalized metaphor about the idea of tension and crisis leading to resolution. It’s deliberately almost kind of camp, but it’s a dialectical logic of synthesis – of thesis/antithesis tension leading to something else.
In The Scar, it’s a radicalized sense of quantum possibilities. The logic of many worlds and thinking about how would you weaponize quantum events. What are the uses and limitations of these events.
In Iron Council, it’s the notion of human interaction in the world as symbolized and forgetting it’s a symbol within a golem maker and that being a contradiction with someone who works with elementals because elementals it’s much more to do with not controlling them but making deals with them.
And in Kraken, it’s a completely different logic again. The logic has to do with simile and metaphor and the idea of something being like something else and it’s intrinsically a chaotic logic. It’s a riff on Thomas Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow has a lovely passage where he talks about the way humans make connections between things and he has a description where somebody is seeing rubbish and interpreting it as if it is a literary text and he’s kind of teasing because this is what he does all the time. He knows it’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s kind of what we do as human beings and it has a certain kind of amazing poetry to it, but it’s also kind of bogus and he calls this Kute Korrespondances.
And so in Kraken, one of the things I was wanting to do was to take this idea of Kute Korrespondances and push it a little bit further. That logic of simile of one thing being like something else actually has kind of material magical effects in the real world. You are actually making magic out of simile. Again, then the logic becomes logic of persuasion.
In each of these cases, the events hopefully present themselves and as long as you remain reasonably true to the internal logic of the theme and the system you have created, then hopefully it doesn’t simply become a kind of “get out of plot difficulties” free card.
CW: Thank you so much for doing this interview! I really appreciate it!