The Arthur C. Clarke Awards take place next week. China Miéville stands as the only man who has won the award more than twice and he hopes that 2012 will mark a fourth such award having been shortlisted for Embassytown. The novel has also bee nominated for a Hugo Award this year so it seems that his star is on the rise.
But what of the man and what of his writing? Admittedly I have not read as much of his work as I would have liked but so far, I have enjoyed what I have read. My first exposure was the short story Tis the Season, a near-future dystopian tale where Christmas has been privatised and license agreements are required and limits placed on the trinkets and traditions you might want to indulge in. Not so much a pop at commercialism as it is about intellectual rights and the absurdity of the politicisation of copyright law. Firmly tongue in cheek, it is an amusing parable for the times.
The other work I have read is an essay written in a rather abstract style. Featured in Arc 1.1 that I reviewed here. Aside from those, I have two more of his books: Un Lun Dun on my Kindle and Perdido Street Station in physical paperback. His full list of work is summarised on the Good Reads page where there is also a couple of videos.
His blog is a bizarre mish-mash of odd photos, addle-brained jottings and political commentary. This seems to fit with the bizarre style of writing that has made him famous (he quotes amongst his influences as the weird fiction writers of the last century such as H.P. Lovecraft). His far left politics will not attract everyone and perhaps may unfortunately put some people off of reading his work. I may not agree with all of his views (I don’t know, I haven’t read much of his political commentary but I guess I can make assumptions about him based on his membership of the Socialist Worker’s Party) as I no doubt would have agreed little with H.G. Wells, but I do like to keep my taste in fiction separate from the political motivations of the writer unless their views become more important than telling a good story. I guess I would feel the same way about Christian Rock music, if the music is good I will see through or ignore the message it is pushing.
He makes this point:
I’m not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I’m a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have… I’m trying to say I’ve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that’s fantastic. But if not, isn’t this a cool monster? [Wikipedia]
He is not without his critics though. BSFA winner Christopher Priest, listing Miéville as an admirable person with a lot of positive literary traits describes his recent novel Embassytown thus:
Although Miéville is clearly talented, he does not work hard enough. For a novel about language, Embassytown contains many careless solecisms, which either Mr Miéville or his editor should have dealt with. This isn’t the place to go into a long textual analysis, but (for example) a writer at his level should never use ‘alright’ so often or so unembarrassedly. He also uses far too many neologisms or SF nonce-words, which drive home the fact that he is defined and limited by the expectations of a genre audience. On the first few pages, alone, he uses the words ‘shiftparents’, ‘voidcraft’, ‘yearsends’, ‘trid’, ‘vespcams’, ‘miab’, ‘plastone’, ‘hostnest’, ‘altoysterman’ … Yes, of course, it’s possible to work out what most of these might mean (or to wait until another context makes them clearer), but it is exactly this use of made-up nouns that makes many people find science fiction arcane or excluding. A better writer would find a more effective way of suggesting strangeness or an alien environment than by just ramming words together. Resorting to wordplay is lazy writing.
I also find Miéville’s lack of characterization a sign of author indifference: Embassytown is full of names, full of people, but mostly they just chat away to each other, interchangeably and indistinguishably. And for a writer who makes so much of ambience, China Miéville’s fiction lacks a sense of place: this is not the same as a lack of description, as there is a lot of that, but a way of using a physical environment as something the characters notice, respond to, feel themselves to be a part of, so that the reader can also sense and respond to it. In Embassytown there is scene after scene in which these weakly drawn characters twitter away to each other in what might be a field or an airport terminal or someone’s front room, for all the lack of evocation the author manages.
This is not to say that Embassytown is a bad novel. It is not, but neither is it a good one. It has too many common flaws that could have been eradicated by a more ruthless editorial process in the writing, or even more simply by an extra draft of the manuscript. Nor does it suggest that Miéville is a poor or failing writer: he is obviously not, but unless he is told in clear terms that he is under-achieving, that he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces, he will never write the great novels that many people say he is capable of.
Priest received and unfortunate backlash for airing what is actually a reasonably thought and well-argued piece. If I were more familiar with the works he was criticising, I daresay I would have something to say on the matter. I will just add the comment that he is entitled to his opinion in the article above.
I will, in time, give my own views of the two works I currently have in my possession. In the meantime, I would appreciate comments from anybody – fan or naysayer – about China Miéville or any of his work.