China Miéville and Monsters: “Unsatisfy me, frustrate me, I beg you.”

China Miéville (1972 — ) is an influential English writer known for revitalizing weird fiction. He has won the World Fantasy Award and multiple Arthur C. Clarke awards, among others. Miéville’s early novels — including Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002) — fused the weird with body transformation, Marxist politics, secondary world settings, and a bold style. Later novels like The City and the City (2009) and Embassytown (2011) feature a more stripped-down approach without sacrificing the visionary quality of the weird.

Miéville is one of the guest of honor at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 21 – 24. The monsters theme of the conference inspired us to host “12 Days of Monsters” here at Weirdfictionreview.com — and I was pleased to be able to interview Miéville about monsters. I have also grafted on, in Frankenstein monster fashion, the relevant portion of a 2008 interview published in the 85th anniversary issue of Weird Tales. That 2008 interview was conducted via instant messenger. The 2012 section was conducted via email. Also on this site you can read part of his afterword to The Weird compendium and his essay on the weird and hauntology. (And never fear — all of the great books referenced will be linked to along with all others mentioned in our other 12 Days features, in a wrap-up post at the end.) – Jeff VanderMeer

2008

Weirdfictionreview.com: What does the word ‘weird’ mean to you?

China Miéville: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m teaching a course in Weird Fiction at the University of Warwick, so this has come up a lot. Obviously it’s kind of impossible to come to anything like a final answer, so I approach this in a Beckettian way – try to define/understand it, fail, try again, fail again, fail better…I think the whole “sense of cosmic awe” thing that we hear a lot about in the Weird tradition is to do with the sense of the numinous, whether in a horrific iteration (or, more occasionally, a kind of joyous one), as being completely embedded in the everyday, rather than an intrusion. To that extent the Weird to me is about the sense that reality is always Weird.

I’ve been thinking about the traditional notion of the “sublime,” which was always (by Kant, Schopenhauer, et al) distinguished from the “Beautiful,” as containing a kind of horror at the immeasurable scale of it. I think what the Weird can do is question the arbitrary distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime, and operate as a kind of Sublime Backwash, so that the numinous incomparable awesome slips back from “mountains” and “forests,” into the everyday. So…the Weird as radicalised quotidian Sublime.

WFR: That’s the theory side, in a sense, but expressed on a more personal level, what appeals to you most about the weird tale?

Miéville: The awe, the ecstasy. I was reading Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” the other day, and the moment when Defago is taken by the Wendigo and wails from above the trees this astonishing moment of unrealistic speech, “oh, oh, my burning feet of fire! This height and fiery speed!”, the strange poetry of it, I found very affecting. Of course we all have our favourite iterations of Weird, and for me it dovetails a lot with a love of teratology, so I also hugely love when the Weird is expressed by radical monster-making, the strangeness of strange creatures, but some of my favourite Weird Tales contain no monsters at all. It’s the awe and ecstasy that gets me.

WFR: But not necessarily epiphany? I.e., this awe and ecstasy is a cumulative effect of the story or it’s what it culminates in?

Miéville: I don’t think I can distinguish [between] the two. I think for me the best Weird fiction is an expression of that awe, which permeates the whole thing, but because you can’t structure a story as a continual shout of ecstasy (at least not and expect many readers to stick with you) it sort of pretends to be an epiphany. But I think it’s the epiphany of realisation – that the real is Weird – rather than change or irruption – that something Weird occurs. Lovecraft for example is always back-projecting his mythos into history. We don’t know it, unless we’re one of the select unlucky few in his story, but it’s not that these things have suddenly arrived to mess about with previously stable reality, but that we’re forced to realise – there’s the epiphany, it’s epistemological, rather than an ontological break – that it was always Awesome.

WFR: And that’s why the best examples are short stories, no? Because you can’t sustain that “reverie”?

Miéville: I think that’s true – it’s much harder to maintain Weird, or, certainly, ecstasy, over a longer form. Which is why these stories are about the revelation – not because it’s a surprise (we expect it) but because it’s a necessary kind of bleak Damascene moment. There are Weird novels and some brilliant ones, but they’re harder to sustain.

WFR: What do you think most surprises your students studying weird tales?

Miéville: I think for a lot of people who don’t read pulp growing up, there’s a real surprise that the particular kind of Pulp Modernism of a certain kind of lush purple prose isn’t necessarily a failure or a mistake, but is part of the fabric of the story and what makes it weird. There’s a big default notion that “spare,” or “precise” prose is somehow better. I keep insisting to them that while such prose is completely legitimate, it’s in no way intrinsically more accurate, more relevant, or better than lush prose. That adjective “precise,” for example, needs unpicking. If a “minimalist” writer describes a table, and a metaphor-ridden adjective-heavy weird fictioneer describes a table, they are very different, but the former is in absolutely no way closer to the material reality than the latter. Both of them are radically different from that reality. They’re just words. A table is a big wooden thing with my tea on it. I think they also are surprised by how much they enjoy making up monsters.

WFR: You say they’re surprised? They think that’s too childish to start?

Miéville: Yes, to some extent. It’s something you need to grow out of. Or your monsters are only legitimate to the extent that they ‘really mean’ something else. I spend a lot of time arguing for literalism of fantastic, rather than its reduction to allegory. Metaphor is inevitable but it escapes our intent, so we should relax about it. Our monsters are about themselves, and they can get on with being about all sorts of other stuff too, but if we want them to be primarily that, and don’t enjoy their monstrousness, they’re dead and nothing.

WFR: Right – nobody likes a monster piñata.

Miéville: Yeah – it’s what Toby Litt brilliantly called the “Scooby Doo Impasse” – that people always-already know that they’ll pull the mask off the monster and see what it “really” is/means. The notion that that is what makes it legitimate is a very drab kind of heavy-handedness.

WFR: Do you think a lot of writers create monsters, though, that they don’t mean literally? I mean, do you think writers sit down and think to themselves, when writing the rough draft, “This is going to be a metaphor for 9 – 11?” Or is it just that readers and academics think they do?

Miéville: Well I think this is one of the big distinctions between genre and non-genre traditions. I think, for example, that when Margaret Atwood invents the “pigoons” for Oryx & Crake, part of the problem with them for me is I think they are primarily a vehicle for considering genetic manipulation, and only distantly secondarily scary pig monsters. I think plenty of monsters get hobbled by their “meaning”. The Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula vampire had to shuffle along, so weighed down was he by bloated historical import. None of this is to say that monsters don’t mean things other than themselves – of course they do – but that to me they do so best when they believe in themselves.

2012

WFR: If a monster believes in itself, can it remain inexplicable within the arc of a story and still satisfy you?

Miéville: Depends what you mean by “satisfy”. I’m tempted to say that part of the job a monster can do best is refuse to satisfy me, completely — which is good, because what I want for satisfaction is a kind of satiation, which usually translates into too much information, into overkill, into shining a light where a light has no business shining. In other words, the frustration that I feel at not understanding everything about a monster (indeed the weird, indeed anything fantastic) is both a sign that I am not fully satisfied and the only way of doing this with anything approaching success, I imagine. I want to know everything, but I don’t want that desire to be fulfilled. Unsatisfy me, frustrate me, I beg you, teratologists and others. The point is, as all my favourite writers and artists and musicians and whatever know, I cannot be trusted.  

WFR: Is the physicality of a monster a sort of self-contained narrative, regardless of how it fits into to the overall story?

Miéville: This is an excellent and very provocative way of formulating something, and I think that the answer is probably yes. Given the somatic impossibility of monsters — without which they are nothing — their simple there-ness and specificity is indeed part of what makes them what they are, a self-contained, if highly and, one hopes, effectively hermetic, narrative, an implied “There was a thing that was, impossibly, like this.”

WFR: Vampires, werewolves, zombies — are these “monsters” still truly monstrous, depending on the level of reinvention, or do you think what you said about Coppola’s Dracula applies more generally?

Miéville: I think monsters are resilient but I absolutely definitely think that excessive familiarity deguts them, defangs them if you will, ba-boom, undermines their ability to i) scare, ii) fascinate through estrangement (instead they become comforts through familiarity) and iii) fecundly mean all kinds of things. There are fashions, and there will always be amazing inventors who will be able to do new and astonishing things with what seem the most tired figures, so it would be a foolish hostage to fortune to say that can’t happen, but as a generalisation, certainly, I think when our monstrous figures become too familiar, by far the most sensible thing to do is leave them alone a bit, to recuperate, so that they can come back and be astonishing again, later. It is because one loves these figures that one should, I’d suggest, leave them alone a bit, from time to time.

WFR: In reading what is written about monsters, do you find that there’s one monster in fiction that’s typically more misunderstood than others?

 

Miéville: It’s anecdotal, but I regularly see Frankenstein’s monster described as a warning against scientific hubris, an alarum about Tampering With Things That Should Be Left Alone™. This I think is quite wrong: I think it is a story about what happens when one fails the (still at the time of writing) radical enlightenment by failing to take social responsibility for one’s actions and interventions. If it’s a warning, it’s a warning about turning one’s back, out of cowardice, on what one creates, not about creating it in the first place. 

WFR: Can you share with us any monsters from your reading of the past couple of years that you’ve found particularly interesting?

Miéville: It’s a fraught question of theory and taxonomy as to whether ghosts can be counted monsters, but if one allows it, the strangely haunted house of Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching astonished me. Vilém Flusser’s ludicrously misrepresented Vampyroteuthis infernalis from his philosophical rumination of the same name had me laughing at the theoretical chutzpah and utterly questionable theoretical claims pegged on the teuthic heuristic at times, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed reading it. The animate fur stole in D.K. Broster’s “Couching at the Door” sort of amazed me. Various of the more vermiform of E.F. Benson’s monsters, from short stories. I remain staggered by the ancestral beast-presence-thing in Marion Fox’s Ape’s-Face –I read it a few years ago, but reread it last year, so am counting it. The unseen aliens in Jane Gaskell’s A Sweet, Sweet Summer. Also, talking of still-toothy vampires, her light-phobic mod in The Shiny Narrow Grin. I liked the organic oddities extruded by bureaucratic satanists in Philip Challinor’s Beelzebub. Rather enjoyed the giant crabs — long time before Guy N Smith — in Neil Bell’s Who Walk in Fear, though the book also includes one of the most genuinely unpleasant sadistic stories I’ve read. (I loved his Life Comes to Seathorpe enormously — and there’s some odd monsters for you — so was rather stricken by the nastiness of that other book.) All the deeply strange angels and devils in Wyndham Lewis’s The Human Age trilogy. Cliff Twemlow’s giant pike in, well, The Pike. Bertram Mitford’s giant spider in The Sign of the Spider (another reread, just as amazing the second time). The Japanese yokai (someone gave me a book). 

I’m quite sure there are lots more, but that’s some to be going on with. 

WFR: Finally, if you had to wind up on a desert island with any monster in fiction, which would prefer to be stuck with? And which would you be horrified to find there with you?

Miéville: I cannot answer this. I want monsters to surprise me. If I come up with a candidate companion, it doesn’t deserve to be considered monster. Out of fidelity to its monstrosity, I can’t say. 

Readers are encouraged to imagine a monster that might surprise the author…

24 replies to “China Miéville and Monsters: “Unsatisfy me, frustrate me, I beg you.”

  1. Triumph at last! I’ve been saying for years that Frankenstein’s sin was in abandoning his creature, not in creating it, but nobody’s ever wanted to listen to me. Validation of my theories from such a luminary as Miéville feels wonderful.

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  3. The comment on Frankenstein really hit home for me. I’d only ever seen snatches of various Frankenstein films, but never watched the whole thing and never really enjoyed monster movies much (aside from Alien).

    From my reading of A Modern Prometheus in high school, all I was left with was the sense that Dr. Frankenstein was a brilliant scientist but a terrible father. And this wasn’t some sort of allegorical lit-crit faffing about, but a pretty literal reading of the text. If anything, he’s a cruel man for not making more.

  4. Thirding the appreciation for your interpretation of Frankenstein. I’m so sick of science-o-phobia, or whatever the word is.

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  9. well
    Let´s say that i am writing this comment several weeks after I read the interview. But from the beguining I wanted to call the atencion to the absence in the scholarchip that Mr Mieville is showing (Whom I think is one of the must councious science fiction auteur to this date), of the freudian concept of unheimlich it est (generally) things that we already know but return as emblems of fear.

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