China Miéville Reading Guide

Where to begin with China Miéville, SFF’s strangest and most thrilling imagination…
Wil Kenney

China Miéville towers at the overlapping edges of a half- dozen genres. An
industry presence that demands attention and, in the same token, intimidates
first-timers. How many countless words get written on this guy every year? Yet what
nearly every analysis of the Miéville corpus seems to neglect, astute as they are, is how
challenging this author can be to the uninitiated. Be it his bewildering linguistic
acrobatics or the sheer number of fantasy races he can pack into one city block, if a
reader comes into the wrong Miéville novel in the wrong frame of mind, they can get
(justifiably) frustrated and leave never to return. Here is a list of work by the New Weird
Fiction’s poster boy to light the fuse.

1. Perdido Street Station

Enter the monster-filled, steam-punkish world of Bas-Lag. Miéville’s lone series
of books kicks off with crisis already seething under the surface of New Crobuzon, a
metropolis unlike any other. An authoritarian government with a penchant for
“remaking” deviants and dissidents into gut-wrenching hybrids of human, animal, and
machine is working to stamp out a streak of labor strikes and agitating newspapers. In
the belly of this cramped city, itself an alien mirror of London is a pudgy and excitable
scientist on the verge of a discovery that will upend this oppressive social order. Drug
lords with ten mouths. A mayor who seeks the counsel of demons. And maybe Miéville’s
most terrifying creation: the slake-moths. If you need one good reason to pick this book
up, it’s to experience the dream-drinking, sleep-tainting, and unparalleled slake-moth.
Perdido Street Station bristles with the monstrous and the magnificent.
As an entry point to Miéville, Perdido establishes a number of key tenets of the
Miéville philosophy. The city of New Crobuzon is a character unto itself—falling neatly
into the literary tradition of doing the same with London—whose vibrant quarters and
striking vistas provide Miéville ample opportunity to flex his descriptive muscles (a
point I’ll expand on down the line). The radical politics that can sometimes crowd
Miéville’s other work is backgrounded here, boosting larger themes without becoming
one. Most important, the genre-bending and label-defying Miéville imagination is on
full display. Without becoming a fanboy, the way that Miéville’s world-building seems
both organic and internally consistent recalls LeGuin and Herbert.
I will sing the Perdido paean until I die. If nothing else, the book is plain fun. On
any given page you find fiction that’s genuinely funny, terrifying, and heartbreaking. The
action thrills. The drama is meaningful. Even characters whose goals align perfectly
have reason to mistrust, butt heads, and concoct contingency plans under the table.
Melted down into one whole, these components elevate one another into a SFF
experience unlike any other.

2. Un Lun Dun

Portal fantasy will likely never fully run out of steam. As a lifelong lover of that
sub genre of fantasy, particularly when it’s YA (see Narnia, Coraline, The Magicians),
injecting life into a tired trope is essential to keep the tradition alive. Miéville manages
to subvert a slew of tropes without sacrificing any of the requisite heart.
For 12-year-old Londoner Zanna, the breakneck pace of urban life is starting to
wear on her psyche. Umbrellas begin rooting around in trash cans at midnight like
raccoons. Strange city folk accost Zanna with spontaneous, enthusiastic thank-you’s a la
Harry Potter’s. An unnaturally dark and dense fog attempts to suffocate Zanna and her
skeptical friend, Deeba, which pushes them to finally act.
What follows is a fantastical romp through an absurd version of London,
UnLondon, that’s literally built from all of its original’s garbage, refuse, and wayward
citizens. Garbage bin ninjas (Binjas) fend off lackeys directed by the book’s antagonist,
the immaterial and nefarious Smog. Sky pirates attempt boardings from the backs of
gigantic houseflies. Zanna learns her role as “the Shwazzy,” a play on the French word
for “chosen”: choisi, and her destiny to save this alt-London from certain doom.
Selecting a novel ostensibly written for Young Adult audiences may rub some
Miéville purists the wrong way. But the sheer wit and imagination of this entry is well
worth your time. Making that leap from the alien world of Bas-Lag into Miéville’s
re-imagining of more contemporary settings (nearly always a sprawling city of some
kind) is also smoothest done here. Easily the least political (though the presence of
Miéville’s radical politics lingers as a strong undercurrent) of his work and most
readable, if Perdido Street Station weren’t such a tour de force on its own, I would place
this at the top of the list.

3. Who is China?

In the (tamely put) fraught political situation of 2017, it’s tempting to skirt China
Miéville’s radical left politics in the pursuit of not alienating potential readers. This does
a disservice to the undeniable under riding political slant that Miéville brings to his SFF.
He has gone on record to clarify that he isn’t, “[…] a leftist trying to in my evil message
by the nefarious means of fantasy novels.” (link) Far from it, his politics are simply part
of his authorial fingerprint, as much as his menagerie of monsters or punning.
In his citizen life, China Miéville is heavily involved in left-wing politics in the
U.K. and was one of the founding members of the anti-capitalist “Left Unity” party.
Without diving too deep into the world of U.K. politics, there are clear connections
between the Left Unity’s 2013 platform and the platform of rising Labour Party star
Jeremy Corbyn.
I bring this facet of Miéville’s life into the conversation because of its obvious
influence on his work and also to pre-empt the doubts of potential readers who may not
necessarily agree with his politics. So many fantasy fans treat the genre as a haven from
the crush of politics and real world events. Though outside his fiction, he’s quite the
activist, on the pages of his novels politics are at most a means to an end, and never
the end itself.
The proof of this, I argue, is in his substantial political writing. Why bother
hacking away at the establishment from the outside when he can so easily slip through
into the subconscious as a fantasy saboteur? Maybe it’s a diversion? Worth considering.
(The obvious contradiction in this section of the reading list is that Miéville writes
for those already steeped in the appropriate literature. If you haven’t done your
homework, follow me down this rabbit hole with an expectation for confusion.)
Here are a handful of essays to get the interested started:
The Limits of Utopia
An excerpt from his retelling of the Russian Revolution, October:
(The Story of the Russian Revolution, 2017 )

4. The City and the City

You’re ready. You’ve immersed yourself in the New Weird. You’ve probably
picked up a VandeerMeer novel and done your homework with a refreshed re-reading of
American Gods. If you haven’t already, now is the time to perform the requisite blood
rituals decoded from the fourth word of every sixth line of The Silmarillion, using the
cipher sent via carrier pigeon by your local chapter.
It’s here. I can’t coddle you anymore. To be completely honest, at this stage in
your Miéville conversion, there won’t be a need to sell you on reading what may very
well be Miéville’s (tentative) opus. If the hooks aren’t for you yet, though, here’s my
elevator pitch.
The title tells all. China Miéville’s obsession with the city reaches its peak.
Written for his ailing mother, The City and the City unites police procedural with the
New Weird genre’s standard of taking the bizarre and treating it with utter seriousness.
A murder. An inspector tasked with solving it. A fictional analog of an Eastern European
city. A second city inhabiting the same physical space as the first, with each citizenry
strictly isolated from their un-city counterparts (Un Lun Dun has prepared you. See
what I did there?). Our resident crime-solver must find the sections of his city that
“cross-hatch” with its mate, breaching the great divide, to dig ever deeper into the brutal
reality of these crimes.
No monsters?! Do you feel betrayed? Don’t be. You will hardly notice their
absence. Winner of the gamut of SFF awards including the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke,
The City and the City is Miéville at his best, with the chops to masterfully handle a
premise that would wither in the hands of even good novelists.
While an experience unto itself, the most lauded Miéville novel shouldn’t mark
the end of your reading career with him. Guess what? There are at least ten more books
waiting plus a TV adaptation of this novel due out in 2018. You may yet be on the
bleeding edge of a worldwide Miéville frenzy?
One can hope.

5. The Scar and The Iron Council

Your post City victory lap should involve—what else could it be?—more China
Miéville. Return to the electrifyingly strange world of Bas-Lag if not to the characters
that appear in its first entry. Though Isaac dan der Grimnebulin holds a special place in my heart, I’m glad he’s moved on to bigger and better things outside of New Crobuzon.
Further reassurance shouldn’t be necessary now unless you’re among the most fickle of
readers, but trust me when I say that the new cast of The Scar rivals the old team and
surpasses too. Why bother ranking your children? And so on, and so on…
I bundled the final two entries in Miéville’s single series for their equally more
complex plotting and writing-style over Perdido, though these are absolute mandatory
once the first in the Bas-Lag trilogy has unfurled its hypnotic wings and entranced you.

6. Novels to Avoid (When Just Starting Out)

King Rat marked the beginning of Miéville’s career. Despite this debut sowing
the seeds of the Miéville’s romance with London, monsters, and the like, it remains a bit
unformed and fuzzy at the edges. Later work refined his vision and tightened up his
language. Visit the genesis once you know what to look for. As a first impression, King
Rat simply doesn’t do justice to what this writer’s capabilities.
In hot contention for Miéville’s best with City and the City, Embassytown is a
hard veer into sci-fi. Language is, as in Un Lun Dun, an end in and of itself. Colonialism,
gender, and some of the most intelligently imagined contact between humans and
aliens: the book exemplifies a veteran author with the skill to keep throwing chainsaw
after chainsaw into the juggle. Save Embassytown for your post-City hunger to really
enjoy the depth of flavor.
Kraken is arguably a solid portal into this author’s strange mind. A squid-worshipping cult plays a central role… need I say more? I leave it out of the proper list only due to the smoothness of transition between the current lineup. Pick this one up at any point for a more straightforwardly humorous take on the New Weird genre. If nothing else, Kraken shows off Miéville’s flexibility.

Enter the picture ready to be confused, but with the faith that you’re in good hands…No Fear Miéville™. All the accolades, the curiously accented name, and the inability for anyone to succinctly explain a given novel’s premise (trust me, I’ve ruined plenty of conversations at cocktail parties trying to describe slake-moths) can spook even ardent SFF fans. Be you a beginner or bitter veteran; there’s no good reason you shouldn’t be ordering these/driving to the store to pick up these books. Few authors grab you in such a visceral way. Even fewer do so across multiple books. I can count on one hand the number of authors whose entire catalog pulls it off. Dip those toes in. Drop by your local apothecary for an extra vial of daemon tears (you always underestimate how often you need them). There’s a sewer outlet in the basement
of your local bookstore…

P.S.-If all this Miéville fanboying has you feeling queasy, there exist voices on the
web who aren’t so approving.

Wil Kenney

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