China Miéville is one of the bright lights in the new breed of fantasy/weird fiction writers. His works often take place in cities, where the cities are characters as much as their inhabitants.
King Rat, his first novel, was a reboot of the Pied Piper set in London's underground rave scene. His next three novels, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, were all set in a world called Bas-Lag, with the city of New Crobuzon a central part of particularly the first and last books. Next came a collection of short stories, Looking for Jake, followed by a fantasy for younger readers called Un Lun Dun. The latter featured two Londons — the London we know, and the surreal underground Un Lun Dun.
Now Miéville is back with The City and the City, a crime noir set in Eastern Europe, in two cities separated by a very unusual border. Doug Brown spoke to Miéville by phone in his London home, discussing writing, reading, the mistrust of allegory, and why influence is like an iceberg.
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China Miéville: I definitely wanted to write a book that was completely faithful to the crime paradigm, that obeyed all the rules of a crime novel, that was a police procedural. So, yes, it was deliberate. I knew perfectly well what it was going to be, and I was trying to bring something to that paradigm that was something of me. It had my kind of approach, so hopefully it remains faithful to all of those tropes and ideas, but it also tries to do something new with them. I like the idea of trying my hand at lots of different genres, and crime was one I'd wanted to try. I knew this was going to be the noir sort of thing.
Doug: What was the genesis of the idea for The City and the City?
Miéville: It was a triangulation of three things. One was, as I say, this desire to write a crime novel; one was an interest in the Eastern European aesthetic of literature and film — people like Kafka, Paul Leppin, Jan Svankmajer, and Alfred Kubin; and the third was the idea for the actual cities themselves. It was just an idea I'd been chewing over for some years, trying to work out how to do it most effectively, and I just fleshed it out and it took shape from there.
Doug: How present was Kafka's ghost for you when you were writing The City and the City?
Miéville: Kafka's a very big, very important figure, not just for me but for loads and loads of writers of the fantastic. In my case, Bruno Schulz was actually at least as powerful a presence. Bruno Schulz's stories in Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, The Street of Crocodiles, and so on, were very present. So, yes to Kafka, but I wouldn't want to underestimate the power of Schulz, and various others as well. There's no point or desire to escape these people.
Doug: Is it an overanalysis to say The City and the City is an allegorical version of "The Emperor's New Clothes," as the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma have learned to unsee what is right before them?
Miéville: I don't think it would be an overanalysis. I'm a bit suspicious of the term "overanalysis," because I think it's always legitimate to analyze things. As I've said many times, I don't think writers are necessarily the people who know what's going on in their own works. It may very well be that things I hadn't necessarily picked up on are still going on.
But I get slightly nervous about the idea of the book as an allegory. I think any decent fantasy/fantastic/unreal/dreamlike book has metaphoric resonance, and probably has quite a lot of metaphoric resonance, because that's the way the human mind works, by processing and creating metaphors. I'm very strongly a believer that these resonances are there. But the difference between metaphor and allegory is that metaphor begats more metaphor — metaphor is intrinsically unstable — whereas allegory is designed to have a one-to-one reading. To that extent, allegories are really only interesting to me at the point at which they break down.
Tolkien has a line that he has a cordial dislike of allegory, and on that I agree with him firmly. I think if you want to write a book that is an allegory, where the narrative is subordinated to a point you want to make, then it is unlikely to be a particularly persuasive point and it is unlikely to work well as a narrative. For that reason I don't want to subordinate the idea of this as a crime novel, or as a description of imaginary cities, to the idea of the political allegory. None of which is to say that those readings are not legitimate — that's what I mean about metaphor. I think these are legitimate readings. It's a question of cause and effect; if the book doesn't believe itself as a story, then how can it possibly get on with the job of meaning anything else?
Doug: So what were some of the themes that were kicking around for you when you were gestating this? Borders seems to be one, as there is such an unconventional border between these cities.
Miéville: Absolutely. It is an unconventional border, but at the same time all it is is the logic of a border extrapolated. Borders are absurdities which are true. [Laughter] They are literally absurd. There is absolutely no reason in most cases that a border is here rather than two feet to the left. At the same time, those two feet will kill you if you are on the wrong side of them. They are absurdities, and they are true. The borders in the book are extrapolations from that fact rather than a completely new way of thinking about it. It's an attempt to take the political logic of the geopolitics of borders very seriously, and push it a little bit further.
And then all of the stuff that one would expect from a noir in terms of conspiracy and paranoia — those things feature very large. For anyone who is interested, there is an argument written in the book about issues of world creation and imaginary creation of landscapes. To a certain extent I suppose you could say there's a meta-fantastic argument going on within the book. That is not to say it is a professorial dry tome; those things are there for those who are interested in them. But there are also gunfights and police chases and all that stuff.