An interview with China Miéville
Conducted by John Berlyne
Feature Book: The Scar

Conducted by John Berlyne, Notting Hill, London, 29th Jan 2002. 

SFRevu: To start, can you tell us a little about the evolution of China Miéville.

CM: Well, I always wrote short stories and I would try to get them into Interzone. I think I had my first story rejected by Interzone when I was about seventeen. They weren’t that great. When I left university, I was working for a year and I was started trying to write this book that turned into King Rat, although that wasn’t what it was at first. It was a werewolf novel. I found writing at that length – although it’s obviously harder because you have to sustain it – it is easier word for word because you have more leeway to get things wrong and stuff. So, basically I wrote whilst I was working. But it’s very hard to write full time.

SFRevu: Was this a case of you discovering that you may be more of a novelist rather than a short story writer?

CM: After it was done I discovered that. But at the time it was a question of saying well, I really want to write something I really want to write. I always wanted to write a novel even had my short stories been accepted. I have massive respect for anyone who can do a full time job and write – I don’t know how they manage it. So during the year I was working I wrote maybe a third of King Rat and then I got a scholarship to go abroad for a year to do some studying. As a student your time is more flexible, so I could give myself a month when that was all I would do, so I finished King Rat during that year. When that was done I looked back on it and I was very, very pleased with it. Subsequently I’ve done some more short stories and I think they’re much better than the stuff I wrote before the novel.

SFRevu: Had any of the early stories sold?

CM: No. The first thing I sold was a short story called Looking For Jake, which was sold after I’d written King Rat, and after my agent had picked up King Rat. In fact she got me the gig. She said “Have you got anything for the Time Out Book of Short Stories?” so I wrote this one for her and she got it in. But she was already touting King Rat around. What had happened was that King Rat was a watershed for me in terms of my ability to write, so that the stories I wrote after King Rat, even the shorts, were qualitatively vastly better than the ones I wrote before. I still plumb the early ones for ideas. The very first New Crobuzon thing was actually a short story I wrote eight years ago. It’s not canon because the universe changed a bit, but it was called New Crobuzon and the basis of the idea was in there. So I do still cannibalise them a lot.

SFRevu:   Was King Rat sent on spec to the agent?

CM: Yes. I contacted several agents once I’d finished it – one at a time, the way you’re supposed to do it – and said, “Would you consider looking at my manuscript?” – those that said yes, I sent them the first two chapters and a synopsis and I think I had about four rejections – and then Mic Cheetham said yes. She really liked it. So she was touting King Rat but before it was sold, she sold this story Looking For Jake, which uniquely for anything I’ve written, is almost, without a single addition, a transcription of a dream. Not quite, but almost! Then King Rat sold to Macmillan very quickly after that.

SFRevu: Do ever think it could have sold without having the agent to tout it?

CM: There’s no way. I hope I would have been published eventually, because I would have kept submitting the short stories to competitions and so on, but there’s no question my career started in the back of the novel – even though it wasn't the first thing that sold. No question at all.

SFRevu:   You mentioned that King Rat began life as a werewolf novel. How did it evolve into what it eventually became?

CM: What happened was I really into werewolves at the time and I wanted to do a werewolf novel set in London. I started writing it but I couldn’t make the werewolf thing stick. Somehow it didn’t work. The other thing was that were was a lot of drum and bass stuff in it. That was the other element that came over – it was a werewolf novel set in club land. Instead I started trying to think of a different set of characters and the character of King Rat - who is a kind of traditional pantomime baddie – has always captivated me. When I was seven, my school pantomime included a baddie who was King Rat and it was just my music teacher wearing a convict’s outfit with all the arrows and with a few whiskers drawn on but ever since then I’d always had the character in my head, and I’d drawn him and done things with him. And I loved the way he was done in the pantomime because there was this thing where it was a man dressed as a man with a couple of funky whiskers on, but somehow he was a rat! So, in the novel there’s never any explanation of this – he clearly looks like a man, but he is entirely rat essence. That’s taken straight from the pantomime. I even have a comic strip of an early version of King Rat, just the character, which I drew when I was seventeen.

    So, I took this character that had been knocking around my head for years and made him the main supernatural focus. Then I was thinking, well, who is the enemy of rats and, of course, it’s the Pied Piper. It was one of those incredibly serendipitous, aesthetic dove-tailings because the club music thing had already been in the werewolf version and once you clock that you’re talking about the Pied Piper then the whole theme of music becomes less of a backdrop and more central to the narrative.

SFRevu:   King Rat is a book about music and sound. There is a beat that pulses through the entire novel. Did this develop in the writing or was it something you intended to have in the book from the outset?

CM: Essentially the latter.  In the original version of the werewolf novel, I had them, in their wolf form, seeing the world as a forest. The see it correctly, but they perceive it as a forest. So they live in the forest of London. But there was this one character that was really into drum and bass. He becomes a werewolf, but perceives the world as a jungle - because of jungle music. So originally, the drum and bass thing was part of that. With the inclusion of the Pied Piper, the beat became much more the focus – what was organically going to be a couple of key descriptions of jungle music became central to the aesthetic core of the book. It was always there, but its centre of gravity shifted.

SFRevu:   Was it important to you when you were writing King Rat that it was a story of London? Could it not have been any generic city?

CM: It was categorically London. The jungle music was a subset of the “London-ness” of the book.

SFRevu:   So what about the Pied Piper element. Isn’t that a central European folk tale?

CM: I think its originally German – the Pied Pier of Hamlin! But the version I used was from the Browning poem. I didn’t really steep myself in wider “Piper-ology”.

SFRevu:   So how long did it take to complete?

CM: Well, first word to last word, probably eighteen months. But that’s not really very scientific because I was working during that time. If I had been writing full time, I suspect it would have taken about nine months.

SFRevu:   Were there many re-writes suggested by your agent?

CM: No. By the time the agent had it, it was pretty clean. There were re-writes at the suggestion of my girlfriend – and at the suggestion of my friend Max, to whom it is dedicated. I tend to do most of my editing as I go along, so the re-writes weren’t major.

SFRevu:   How do you feel about King Rat now that it is behind you - given that so much has happened post King Rat? Are you entirely happy with the novel as it stands?

One of the things that is interesting to me about the difference between short stories and novels is that short stories can be perfect within their own terms.

CM: Certainly there are things I’d changed, but there are things I’d change about all my books. I can’t really imagine ever being in a situation where I might say “that book is done!” One of the things that is interesting to me about the difference between short stories and novels is that short stories can be perfect within their own terms. They’re not always – but there are a couple of short stories I’ve written that I think are flawless – in their own terms. Let me make it clear that I’m not saying they’re the best stories ever written. People might think they’re absolutely rubbish. But what I’m saying is that they have a perfection of internal unity in as much as there is not really a word that I’d really want to change. They set out to do something and to my mind they achieve it. With a novel, you don’t ever get that. When I was first having King Rat edited and proofed and all those suggested revisions came in, about thirty percent of them you say yes, that’s an improvement, I’ll do that! About thirty percent, you say no, I disagree with that. I’m going to leave it. And then there’s forty percent in the middle that you don’t really care! And it’s this extraordinary realisation that you feel like it ought to have this complete integrity, but for me a realised that a certain amount of the novel is essentially contingent. It could be this way – it could be another way.

    All that said, I am very proud of King Rat and I identify with it strongly and I have very good memories of writing it and of finishing it.

SFRevu:   How do you work in terms of structure and the plotting of your stories? Are you a writer that deliberately maps out the book before you begin to write it or are you more instinctive, allowing it to follow its own course?

CM: I’m the former. I draw out a plan for the books quite rigorously. Sometimes, of course, they deviate from that plan, but once they do that I have a rethink and work out where it’s going. I’m not one of these writers who doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

SFRevu:   Are characters first, plot first …?

CM: The two things that come first for me are mood and often one or two set pieces, one or two scenes. I have no idea how they fit into the narrative, but with King Rat for example, I knew I wanted a slow motion scene of people dancing in this kind of apocalyptic club. I knew that was in there before I had a sense of plot. Usually character comes after that, because I think about certain characters that are going to be the vehicles for creating that that mood and those scenes. Then I kind of lay a plot on top of that, but that’s not to suggest that plot is least important, because plot is by far the hardest thing for me to work out. I would never set pen to paper until I had at least a skeletal plot structure in place. You talk to writers who say well, I just write and I don’t really know what’s going to happen – I just don’t understand that on any level. And, of course, some of these people write superb books so that isn’t a criticism, but for me it is unthinkable to do that.

SFRevu:   On the subject of mood … there is a very definite bleakness to all three of your novels. Is this something that is very much a part of you or is there the chance we may get a light “after dinner” novel from you in the manner of Noel Coward?

CM: Ha! The short answer is I don’t know! I don’t why I’m more interested in the bleakness. It’s actually a function of what I read. I would always gravitate towards the macabre and the bleak, the dark. The difficult rather than the light hearted. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like some humorous books. But that is definitely the way I gravitate, and in terms of maintaining the interest to write something, I’m just much, much more interested in an aesthetic of alienation, which tends to be a function of the bleakness.

SFRevu:     Are you writing books that you would want to read?

CM: That’s exactly what I’m doing. Perdido Street Station, the response to which has been incredible, was precisely me saying, “I haven’t read any books like this for ages. This is what I want to read. This is exactly the kind of book I want to read. Always!”

SFRevu:   We’ll talk more about Perdido Street Station, but you mentioned already the reaction to it. Were you – in all honesty – surprised by the reaction to that book? Or were you quietly and smugly nodding your head and saying, “Yes, it is that brilliant!”

CM: I was genuinely astonished and delighted … and astonished! Which isn’t, I hasten to add, precluding the idea that I think it’s brilliant! What happens is, for me, you spend that long with a book, you lose all critical distance, every scrap of it. So when I gave it over to my agent, I had no idea at all whether it had worked and I was steeling myself for my agent or publisher to say, “Well, it’s a brave attempt, but it doesn’t really come off. It’ just not really working, blah, blah, blah!” And they didn’t, they were really positive – I mean they were really positive about it. I was delighted. When the press started coming in, I was overwhelmed! I suppose a long time after the fact, you do feel a certain vindication, but it’s not really smugness, because it’s very fucking nerve-wracking putting a book out there that you’ve lost your critical distance from. I thought it was good and I hoped it was good, but I was certainly surprised at the scale of the response. I was blown away by that – I mean people talking about it as a landmark book and all that. In my wildest dreams I wasn't expecting that. And I know what they mean! Not because I think I’m a genius, but because it brings together certain threads and certain themes that I think, to a certain extent have been somewhat neglected.

SFRevu:   Like what?

CM: I think it’s a combination of two things. Part of the reason it has been so successful is because it has no truck with the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. I think that has been one of the major things.

The main agenda was I thought I was writing a fantasy book that was going to be the antithesis of Tolkienian fantasy …

SFRevu:   Was that your agenda when you set out to write it?

CM: Essentially yes. The main agenda was I thought I was writing a fantasy book that was going to be the antithesis of Tolkienian fantasy …

SFRevu:   … of which it is famously quoted that you have a desperate aversion to.

CM: Yes. I’ve never been able to read Tolkien – I mean I have read them  but I don’t enjoy them – and I think you have to be honest and say that anyone working within the fantasy field, even if they criticise Tolkien, is a child of Tolkien and that we are all rebelling against him. So, it’s not a question of saying he isn’t an influential figure. He’s vastly influential and I’m certainly not saying he hasn’t influenced me, but that my influence has been one of rebellion.

SFRevu:   So you’re writing anti-Tolkienist fiction?

CM: Yes. Exactly. And when I was writing Perdido Street Station I said to myself quite calculatingly I want to write an anti-Tolkien fantasy. So I kind of made a checklist of what Tolkien does and then did the opposite. So for example, Tolkien’s fantasy is feudal, so I made mine capitalist. His is rural, so I set mine in a city. In his, racial distinctions actually pan out into the type of person you are – you are defined by your race – so in mine, racism is as fallacious a way of understanding people as it is in the real world. So it was an explicitly anti-Tolkien fantasy. But at the same time, one of my bugbears is that Tolkien does not equal fantasy. If you go back to the earlier traditions of fantasy, the distinctions between the three genres, between SF, fantasy and horror, were much more blurred. The examples I always cite are those writers who worked for things like Weird Tales – like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson – because when you try and pin them down as to whether they were writing fantasy or science fiction or horror, you just can’t do it. Lovecraft for instance – his Gods do evil magic, but at the same time they’re aliens. Also it’s materialist. There’s no sense of abstract morality in Lovecraft. It is rigorously materialist – it’s about aliens, so it’s SF. But they do these horrific things, so it’s horror. What they’re doing is Weird Fiction, - capital “W,” capital “F” - so my glib answer when I’m asked what kind of fiction I write is just that. Weird Fiction, rather than simply SF or fantasy or horror. And there was this kind of whole scholastic debate about whether Perdido Street Station was fantasy or science fiction. One of my favourite ones was that it’s “science fiction that pretends to be fantasy”!  This is all a very long winded answer to your question, but one of the reasons I think it did well and I think it caught a mood was because it related to the genres in that kind of very open and generically blurring way.

SFRevu:   You say it caught a mood – does that suggest that had it been published at another time, it perhaps would not have been received in the same way?

CM: Certainly people have said that and my suspicion is that that is the case. My belief is that I have had the extremely good luck to have the aesthetic I’ve always been into happen to fit the time I was writing. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been published or that it wouldn’t have had good criticism and so on, but I think that the scale of the response was due to a certain dissatisfaction with mainstream fantasy – but at the same time, quite an aggressive renaissance of genre. So, it’s a kind of internal, generic critique of fantasy rather than a mainstream “snobby” one.

SFRevu:   I’m fascinated by the notion of you sitting down at your computer with the specific intention of writing something so deliberately anti-Tolkien. This was a conscious agenda?

CM: It was absolutely conscious and it was absolutely explicit in me. Now I’m not backing down on that for one moment but it does make it sound as if it was a very cold process, that it was essentially a process of the head not the heart – which isn’t true. The reason I am a genre writer is because I love creating monsters! I love bestiaries, I love inventing weird creatures, I love inventing weird cities – that is what I like to do. So I knew that the book I wanted to do was going to include really cool monsters and a really cool city and really cool weird magic and be really dark and all this …

SFRevu:   …but not orcs and trolls and elves …

CM: …precisely. It’s not a question of me saying that I’m going to impose this anti-Tolkienism on this thing. The thing that interests me about the monsters and the city is part of that anti-Tolkienist thing. It is a rejection of a bucolic, sort of quasi-noble fantasy. So the answer is that yes, it was absolutely conscious and explicit – but it wasn’t an academic exercise. It was a work of passion and love for weird fiction

SFRevu:   Do you think you are in “danger” of creating a sub-genre all of your very own. Already I have seen stuff being marketed as “in the mould of China Miéville.”

CM: Really? I haven’t seen that! I find that incredibly exciting. Really cool! I think I’ve maybe got one more book of being a “young Turk” and then I’m going to be establishment and what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a lot of young writers writing articles about how they’re moving away from this trite bullshit that China Miéville is coming up with! If it’s true that people are writing stuff that is inspired by Perdido Street Station I think that is marvellous, fantastic. Of course one runs the risk of simply creating a new set of clichés and obviously I hope that doesn’t happen. But I don’t see myself creating a new genre, rather I see myself as going back to an existing tradition. I am acutely conscious of tradition in all the areas of my life – in science fiction and also politically I am very conscious of how I got to where I am. So I see what I write as absolutely in the lineage of the weird fiction writers. So to that extent it’s not new. Maybe you could say I’m doing a slightly new thing to it, adding a dash of Steampunk or whatever but that’s a filigree. I think if you said to yourself I’m doing something really, really new, you’re going to set yourself up for disappointment.

I think the countryside is nice to walk into, have a look round – so I’m not saying I wouldn’t go, but God knows I wouldn’t want to live there!

SFREVU:    I just want to touch upon some of the themes that pervade your work. Clearly the concept of “The City” is all-important to you. Why?

CM: I grew up in London and I am and have always been a city person. I find cities vastly more interesting than the countryside. I think the countryside is nice to walk into, have a look round – so I’m not saying I wouldn’t go, but God knows I wouldn’t want to live there!

SFRevu:   There is great dichotomy in the politics associated with the rural and the urban. Is that featuring in this need of yours to set your stories in these cities? It seems that you’re doing more than simply setting your stories in these places, rather your creating cities so vibrant and extraordinary and real that they are almost actual characters.

CM: None of this reducible to politics in the sense that if you never know a damn thing about any of my politics or any of the politics of the cities, hopefully it shouldn’t matter. These are not political tracts, these are novels and my job is to keep you turning pages. There is an overlap though, because aesthetically and politically the kinds of things I am interested in are at their sharpest in cities. If you look at the city as an aesthetic fact – the fact of this mass of architecture, the fact of these many, many, many thousands of different people – there is more conflict, there’s more contradiction, there’s more uncertainty. There’s more, full stop! More going on. The scope is greater.

SFRevu:   All of which adds up to drama.

CM: Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it. It’s drama. But again, none of this is to preclude anything. I think the next book I write is likely to be less urban in certain direct ways, but I think even if the cities are off stage, they will always act as a kind of central gravity of my work. I don’t think I would ever write a rural fantasy, but I might write a fantasy in which the people aren’t in the city – which happens to be just over there!

SFRevu:   With New Crobuzon we have a city in which you have settled on a very particular time in its history. This is a post-industrial revolution era, a place of machines and chimneystacks – you’ve already mentioned the Steampunk influences. Why have you settled on this as the place in which your stories occur and not, say, a city run by computers?

CM: There are two reasons. The biggest reason – and I don’t think I can say anything clever about this! – is that I just like Steampunk. I like Victoriana. One does run the risk of recycling clichés with this, as Steampunk does have its very own set of clichés …

SFRevu:   …but only in so much as it is limited by its own boundaries. By definition it is about the Victorian era and so there is only so far you can stretch that without it becoming something other than Steampunk.

in Victorian era stuff, in Steampunk stuff, you can’t ignore the big engines because they’re so dramatic and you’re caught up in this incredible acceleration of technology and therefore culture

CM: Yes, but it has been quite influential as a sub-genre. It peeks its head into all sorts of books and films and stuff, which aren’t straight Steampunk – the “dark satanic mills” cliché, which really Perdido Street Station is part of, if I’m honest (but hopefully it does it with enough panache to get away with it!). The point is I love Victorian era technology. If you’re going to do a city that is stressing its own industrial nature, you can’t really do better than early to mid period Victorian because it is so dramatic. Modern industry (late twentieth, early twenty-first century) although it still, I think, underpins everything, has become somewhat taken for granted, so we don’t think about it as much, and its smaller and tends to be quieter and it sort of just chugs along and gets on with it. Whereas in Victorian era stuff, in Steampunk stuff, you can’t ignore the big engines because they’re so dramatic and you’re caught up in this incredible acceleration of technology and therefore culture. What that means is, as we come back to Victoriana with a sort of funny mixture of nostalgia and fetishism, it is simply a sort of aesthetic predilection that these things look cool. There is something cool about Victorian engines!

SFRevu:   Your post-industrial age though doesn’t have this feel of progress. It’s more a case of it has arrived and that is where the city is stuck now for a while.

CM: That’s a really good point. That is related to my second point, which is a political one. The other thing about Victoriana is that it is the age when the first really, really modern class conflicts become very, very sharp. You’re talking about an industrial working class and an industrial capitalist class and their fight. Although is isn’t a theme in Perdido Street Station, that kind of class conflict is a back-drop to it and happens during it and is in it. In Tolkien, class is either invisible or aestheticised and treated as eternal. So, if you’re going to do a book that picks at that notion of an internal stratification and you’re therefore going to bring in ideas of class conflict, you can’t really do much better than the Victorian era. And because it’s my world, I have the prerogative to stall history as I want. So you’re right - New Crobuzon is either stagnant or even, as may become clear, is not in the ascendant that it once was. If anything, technology is winding down. This may not be the way history panned out in our world, but this is my world, so I can do what I want! I do worry with these political explanations about them sounding calculating or tagged onto things. The short answer is that it is set with Victorian era technology because I love Victorian stuff.

SFRevu:   It gives you a lot of toys to play with!

CM: Yeah! Engines. Steam engines and trains. And because of the station, I knew that trains were going to be essential and much as they’re useful, diesel and electric trains don’t have the same aesthetic kick as steam trains.

SFRevu:   Now when we spoke at the World Fantasy convention back in November last year, you were saying that you had some concerns as to how your new book, The Scar, might be received. What was/is it that specifically worries you?

CM: I was worried because the reaction to Perdido Street Station had been so overwhelming and positive that it was really affecting and so I suppose there was a sort of fatalistic sense I had that there was no way that I could not let people down. There’s one time in your life, basically, where you maybe have a really huge impact and I think I had mine. So I couldn’t imagine how a follow-up to Perdido could not be something of a let down – even if people loved it.

SFRevu:   Was The Scar being written before this big success of Perdido?

CM: Yes. Although the bulk of The Scar was written after the success of Perdido had really taken off.

SFRevu:   So was there a tremendous pressure on you to produce something just as extraordinary? You don’t (obviously) want to be seen as a flash in the pan, as a fluke, as having peaked.

CM: Exactly. I felt that very acutely. As I say, the process was already underway when the response to Perdido started coming in so it wasn’t straightforward cause and effect, but I had a quite contrary relationship between the readers and the critics because the response was so good and in such particular ways that what I started doing was almost thinking, well, sod you then! Because, for example, when people say New Crobuzon is this fantastic creation of fantasy literature, and so I say, well, ok then, you can’t have it! I’m not going to give to you. So I took away a lot of what people liked about Perdido Street Station and I didn’t do that with a sense of nihilism or annoyance, I did it because I really wanted to see if people would come and do that with me.

SFRevu:   So is there an element of experimentation for you in The Scar?

CM: Yes. Very much so. It is much more experimental than Perdido in the sense that structurally I think it is much more sophisticated. Which also makes it less easy to read, but I think ultimately a much more sophisticated book and a book that I’m prouder of – although I love Perdido Street Station, it does have a much more traditional structure. I think The Scar is much more adventurous. It is not a question of feeling antagonistic towards readers, it is a question of saying that it would be idiocy for me to try and do Perdido Street Station Two. That just wouldn’t work at all.

SFRevu:   Having gone to the tremendous trouble of creating this extraordinary world of Bas-Lag and having given us such a ride in Perdido Street Station, it struck me on reading The Scar that you had taken a tremendous risk in deliberately not providing the reader the very thing he wants. It’s a dangerous thing to do (though I am of the opinion that you definitely pulled it off!) but I was very conscious of that.

CM: People who read The Scar are going to feel like that because they loved Perdido Street Station.

SFRevu:   Do you think people might not buy your books if you’re going to do that to them?

CM: Yes, and that’s why I was nervous. And that’s why I still am nervous! I was very conscious that it was a risk. I can’t remember who said this – it might have been Erica Jong or one of the feminist writers, but someone said that once you’ve written a book, you want to follow it into the home of every reader and stand over their shoulder and say “Did you get that bit?” or “No. Go back, you’ve read that too quickly!” and I feel very much like that about The Scar because it is a risk and what I really want to do is sit down with every reader individually and say “This is why I did this,” and I have no doubt at all that some of them aren’t going to like it. Some people are going to say “He’s really lost it since Perdido Street Station.”

SFRevu:   It strikes me that nine out of ten writers, having had the success you had with Perdido are going to sit down and write book two and book three and watch the money roll in – and the readers would be happy with that scenario. But that’s clearly not for you. You need to be pushing back the boundaries all the time.

CM: I think if you did that one thing you would risk is denigrating Perdido Street Station and one of the things that I like about The Scar is that -although everything I write is set in the same world, you can read them as stand alone, in any order, read one and not the others – they do riff of each other. The Scar, if you do read both, will hopefully reconfigure Perdido Street Station. The reason I don’t want to just continually set things in the same place and simply go and do Perdido Street Station again and again is because I like Perdido Street Station too much! I’m certainly not saying I’ll never go back to New Crobuzon (in fact I’m willing to lay large amounts of money I do!) but the fact was that for the follow up to Perdido Street Station, if I did  that I think it would have been more of a let down to people.

SFRevu:   But you say that without having tried to write it.

CM: I didn’t want to write it. I wasn’t moved to write it. Like we were talking before about do I write the books I like to read, I know that having read Perdido Street Station, what I wanted to read was something that was acutely conscious of Perdido Street Station, but emphatically not it! That was part of it, but was also differentiated from it. And so the feeling in The Scar is very different, as is the structure and The Scar is a less immediately likeable book. For all its flaws, Perdido Street Station is, I think, a book that is quite easy to really love. It is very embracing. The Scar isn’t. The Scar is much more testing for the reader and I know some readers won’t like that. What I hope is that those people who are prepared to go with it, will realise that it is because of taking the stuff they liked in Perdido Street Station seriously, that I have decided to go this way. Hopefully it will be seen as an honourable addition to that canon.

SFRevu:   I suppose comparisons between the two novels are inevitable, not least because of the impact made by Perdido Street Station on the industry and readers alike. The Scar though, is a much more philosophical work. It deals with much more universal themes. There is a magic running through it that functions on a much deeper and more fundamental level than we see in Perdido. I’ve gathered from talking to you that you have a lot of preconceived ideas before you write your books. You have an agenda set out that says “I’m not only writing an adventure story here, I’m doing something more.” So, are you setting out to do what …? Educate people?

CM: No. Not in the slightest. The thing is that I come out of the “Pulp” tradition. As much as I like M. John Harrison and Mervyn Peake, I also love Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P.Lovecraft…

SFRevu:   But the term “Pulp” implies a certain frothiness to the subject matter – something disposable. But you’re writing something much more legitimately “literary” – certainly The Scar is a far more literary novel than Perdido Street Station was.

I’m deeply proud to write in the Pulp tradition – there are good monsters and there’s magic and there’s some kick-ass fight scenes and some of what SF calls “sense of wonder” stuff.


CM: That’s probably true. I think it is partly because I think I’m getting better at writing. As a general rule, the use of language is better. But I’m not sure I agree with you about Pulp. If you look at Hodgson and Lovecraft, I don’t think it’s about froth at all. When I say it is a Pulp book, one of the things I like about The Scar is that it has got some great monsters in it! I’m deeply proud to write in the Pulp tradition – there are good monsters and there’s magic and there’s some kick-ass fight scenes and some of what SF calls “sense of wonder” stuff. I’m certainly not trying to educate people, but what I am trying to do is sustain my own interest.

    Whereas with Perdido I was quite conscious of what I was doing structurally in saying this is an anti-Tolkien thing or whatever, it was much less so with The Scar. In the early stages of The Scar I was conscious of the fact that I was having this slightly risky thing of moving out of the city and that what I’d given in the first book, I was now taking away and giving and taking away became the structure of The Scar. The Scar is structured by a sequence of refusals to deliver what it is promising to deliver – which I am very proud of. But it was during the process of writing it that I realised I was doing it rather than beforehand.

SFRevu:   Could that not be described as short-changing the reader?

CM: It could indeed – and that is why I’m conscious of that as a risk and some readers will not like that.

SFRevu:   Why are you driven to take such risks?

CM: Somebody wrote a review of Perdido Street Station – and I must be careful of spoilers here – but somebody wrote this review in which they said it was really, really good except for an annoying bit of anti-closure at the end. Now I thought that was a bit silly, but also, to me it is not about annoying, it is about the book’s own integrity. There is a difference between anti-closure which is to simply not tell you the end, to finish at the penultimate chapter, and anti-closure in the sense that the end is that things are not resolved. That’s a very different thing to me. And so the reader shouldn’t feel short-changed (and I accept that some will) in the sense that I’m not refusing to give them what happens – that is what happens! And it happens that way because that’s the way the book has it’s integrity and that’s the way the book works. It is risky but I think it also makes for better books and The Scar is a much better book for having done that.

SFRevu:   Thinking about taking risks per se, it could be argued that in writing another book set in this invented world of Bas-Lag, there is no risk involved at all! You know the environment works after all! Why not leave Perdido Street Station as a stand-alone book and give us something completely new?

CM: Well, it is a stand-alone book, but I take your point. As I said before, these books are vehemently stand-alone but they do riff off each other.

you can read them in any order, you can read one of them, you can read the third one and then the first one and then not the second one at all...

SFRevu:   But they can clearly be quantified as a series.

CM: Yes they can, but you can read them in any order, you can read one of them, you can read the third one and then the first one and then not the second one at all. The point of this is that there is a big structural difference between a trilogy and a series – and I wouldn’t characterise them as a series. Perhaps in the sense that they are all set on the same world, but each is an individual book. The simple reason that I set The Scar in Bas-Lag is because I’ve got all this material on Bas-Lag and I had the best fucking fun in the world inventing it and I really enjoy it! I love building up this catalogue of cool, weird stuff, adding texture to it and I love the fact that each individual episode adds further texture so that you can write a bestiary of Bas-Lag, you can write a geography of Bas-Lag, you can write the history – I love that! The one thing I take from Tolkien with immense respect is the way that he systematised the secondary world. Up until then, when you had a secondary world it was contingent on the demands of the plot. If your characters had to do a certain thing then a city would suddenly appear that did that kind of thing – whereas with Tolkien, he starts with the world and then fits the stories into it. Now, I think that’s just fascinating.

SFRevu:   So this is where you become anti-anti-Tolkienist?

CM: Ha! No, you see the line is that Tolkien was right for the wrong reasons!

SFRevu:   Having taken the decision in The Scar to leave the city behind, I was fascinated to see that “The City” as a metaphor still looms large in the novel. It seems such an insistent, inescapable thing for you.

CM: I think it is and I’m conscious of it and I could not tell you if/when that will go away. But cities loom massively for me and New Crobuzon itself is a very strong centre of gravity in The Scar even though it’s not there. What’s the Freudian thing called? “The Absent Other” or whatever it’s called!

as long as I’ve got all these creatures and places, then I’m going to keep going back to that world...

SFRevu:   But there’s much more to Bas-Lag than New Crobuzon.

CM: You’re absolutely right and there is this great pleasure in exploring these various elements and the part of me that loves the simple weirdness of the monsters wanted to go somewhere else. For example I’ve got pages and pages of descriptions of creatures and monsters that I would love to get into books, but try as I might, I couldn’t get them into New Crobuzon because they just couldn’t live there – they’d be shot! Otherwise they’d kill people! And similarly, a couple of the monsters which I really wanted in The Scar – which were in the first draft of The Scar – which I though were just the coolest, I just couldn’t leave them in as they didn’t really fit. So I’m going to have to put them in the next one – so in the next one you’re going to meet The Inchmen and you’re going to meet The Striders. So as long as I’ve got all these creatures and places, then I’m going to keep going back to that world.

SFRevu:   Now that you’ve got a lot of detail in place for this invented world, are you going to be able to turn out these books at a faster rate?

CM: I hope so. It hasn’t happened so far but that has largely been due to external factors. The Scar took a long time to write and was very difficult to write because I was also doing the last year of my PHD…

SFRevu:   … and you were also under this pressure to perform?

CM: Yes – and standing for parliament took a huge amount out of me. So, I don’t know. I’ve never, ever written before when all I’m doing is writing fiction and I’m looking forward to it indecently. I don’t know that I’ll get faster, but the hope is that I will get better at doing it.

SFRevu:   Thanks China. It’s been great to talk to you.


© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu