I arrived to China Miéville mania pretty late in the game. I remember how it happened clearly though.
It was spring of 2008; the only reason I recall the approximate date was because it marked either the beginning or the middle of my final undergraduate travails. Ah yes, that brief, tumultuous pocket of time when you feel, as you’re juggling a dissertation, assignments and exams, that the world is whirling around you with cataclysmic intensity. You only think of it fondness soon after you’ve been thrust into the merciless, mundane world of work.
The on-campus bookshop was offering its seasonal book sale: which means that a raft of discounted bestsellers, literary-award darling novels and assorted textbooks were left to bake in the students’ quadrangle (Malta’s sun is merciless, even in spring).
Among this multitude was a red book of some girth. Its cover declared the author’s exotic name in the kind of bas-relieved, silver lettering that a hard-to-suppress knee-jerk snobbery led me to view with suspicion, if not outright distaste.
But my friend (and sometime collaborator) Daniel – standing watchfully by my side and doubtlessly making a note of the interesting books he could swipe from under my nose (bibliophilia respects no camaraderie) –, fingered the spine of that very same novel and, pulling it out of the sardine-packed raft of its discounted brethren, asked in a near-whisper: “Have you ever read China Miéville?”
“No…” I replied, taking in the book’s title. The atmospheric illustration of a silhouetted train chipped at my snobbery, just a little.
“You should,” Daniel said.
Now, let me tell you something about Daniel.
He is not a person you’d normally associate with strong, declarative statements. In company he is quiet, though never shy. A film enthusiast as much as a book lover, he’s at home with even the most tumultuous of post-movie discussions. His soft-spoken nature betrays an assured, unwavering opinion, which usually rises to the surface as a single-sentence riposte after the smoke of heated discussion has cleared (Malta is, after all, at the centre of the Mediterranean, and its geeks are as fiery in conversation as in everything else).
I listened, and bought Iron Council on his word.
Alas, that particular book would remain unread for over two years. I had academic duties to see to, after all.
When I did get around to reading it – the book ended up becoming my favourite in the so-called Bas Lag series – I had also firmly resolved to make Miéville in particular and the ‘New Weird’ in general the main focus of my post-graduate studies. Suffice it to say that consuming Perdido Street Station and The Scar marked the beginning of a wonderful literary journey – of the kind I thought I’d never experience again, as jaded as I supposedly was by the surgical study of English literature at university.
But unlike many, however, I didn’t particularly find Miéville’s wonderfully dark and zany work to be particularly ‘weird’. This may be sacrilegious – spoken on home turf, for shame! – but while the inner workings of Bas Lag were wonderfully labyrinthine, often scary, sometimes disgusting and always haunted by either real supernatural threats or the cruel, monolithic structures of totalitarian power, I found reading them an unambiguous joy throughout.
I loved the evocative introduction to Perdido Street Station, where the newly-arrived birdman Yagharek launches into a rhapsodic, and immensely quotable (“Veldt, to scrub, to sea…”) exposition of the large, Dickensian squalor that is New Crobuzon. I loved how the book unashamedly switches from a presentation of a knotted world populated by different species – not to mention mutated species – co-existing under military rule, with all the complication that that implies (even inter-species sex!) and then just pulls a switcheroo and turns it into a bug-hunt.
Next, The Scar delivered fun in spades: putting all the strange savagery of Perdido Street Station on a pirate ship (to this day I still contend that a keen Hollywood filmmaker could turn it into gold without much getting lost in translation).
And when I finally got to Iron Council, I found a book that was harder to get through but infinitely more rewarding: overtly political, but also linguistically subtle, in certain moments it felt like a real work of dark magic.
I was lost in them.
In the exact same way as I found myself lost, so many years ago, in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. (Another bit of sacrilege on my part, knowing full well what Miéville himself thinks of the grandmaster of epic fantasy.)
Innovations are as strange, and unpredictable, as the whole of humanity itself. I’m pretty sure there’s a good reason why one of the most enduring texts of Western civilisation remains Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Change is inevitable. It’s also unpredictable, and you never know what form it’s going to take, and how it’s going to affect people.
And we don’t even have to be talking about people morphing into trees or wild boar. We don’t even have to think about making the comparison with Motley, the horrendous mobster villain from Perdido Street Station, who appears to be a random composite of any monster of which you can think. Nor the countless ‘Remade’, freaks by dint of punishment or necessity, that populate and colour the rich world of Bas Lag.
We don’t have to talk about any of this, though it’s fun. We don’t have to talk about it, because the transformation I’m referring to is far from physical. It’s not even visible. But it’s there.
Who could have thought that Miéville, seeking out to wrest fantasy away from the cosy enclave of Tolkien et al, would inspire the same kind of engrossing and, dare I say it, escapist, pleasure in a reader? Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. Is the same pleasure inimical to Miéville’s approach to fantasy? Again, it may or may not be the case… we’re not privy to the writer’s intentions – conscious or subconscious. No matter how much they let on in interviews, what gets lodged between the lines has a tendency to remain there.
Reading Miéville was transformative in the way Tolkien was transformative, in that it opened up, once again, a world of fantasy and wonder we so often forget about. Remember: we’ve grown up with it and we revisit it each night in dreams. Just because we forget dreams every now and then doesn’t mean we don’t have them.
Tolkien showed me a less problematic vista, perhaps. However, for all its political and aesthetic pitfalls, an essential kernel of it remains a part of me, marinated in nostalgia as it was bound to become. I’m not one of those people who reads The Lord of the Rings every 10 years or so, but I see myself joining their ranks soon, for better or worse.
The obvious thing to say would be that Miéville presented a world just as immersive, but laced with just enough cynicism and darkness to make it palatable to a jaded adult. But that’s too pat an explanation to describe the intense experience of devouring a fantasy trilogy after years of being wary of ‘genre’ fiction. I don’t think anything ever can.
“You should,” Daniel said, handing me the discounted copy of Iron Council. I’m glad I heeded his suggestion. Not only did Bas Lag remind me of the pure joy of tucking into a lovingly constructed work populated by strange, surreal turns and characters, its weird nooks and crannies nudged me, curious and curiouser, to other works of memorable weirdness.
They led me back to some of Kafka’s short stories, and helped me become truly sensitive to the grotesque beauty of that literary genius’ works – a collection of fables and allegories which, previously, I couldn’t help but view as ossified artefacts to be admired, never enjoyed, never loved. Sticking to the same geographical radius while digging deeper down the rabbit hole of dark fantasy, I discovered Bruno Schulz and Alfred Kubin, whose visions will haunt me forever.
And looming large over the already-large Bas Lag novels, always and forever, will be Mervyn Peake, whose Gormenghast trilogy I will doubtlessly return to as often as Tolkien’s own magnum opus – in a different mood, perhaps, but with no less relish.
“You should,” Daniel said, reminding me that words contain universes and that, in turn, books are made of universes. And sometimes, these universes open up, and go deep.
Born in Zemun, Serbia in 1985, Teodor Reljic grew up in Malta, where he now works as a journalist. He is a co-founder of the island’s first online fiction venture – Schlock Magazine – which he edits along with his friends. He is also an occasional burlesque performer with The Dazzle Troupe. Along with other characters, he has impersonated Oscar Wilde and Marlene Dietrich on the stage, a transgression that has not been forgiven by either of the illustrious personages, who continue to haunt him to this day.