Saturday, August 07, 2010
Leftist Sci-Fi Writer China Miéville Comes to San Diego
Speaks at Public Library After Appearing at Comic-Con
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
NOTE: See China Miéville’s response to this article at the end.
China Miéville isn’t exactly your typical science-fiction writer. He’s 38, a tall, imposing muscular figure with multiple earrings and a shaved head, and he’s both a multi-award winning author (British Fantasy and British Science Fiction awards, three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and nominee for the Hugo and Nebula awards) and a Left-wing political activist. A member of the British Socialist Workers Party — a Trotskyist group, like the similarly named but now defunct one in the U.S. — Miéville once ran for the British Parliament as a candidate of the Socialist Alliance, and he adapted a Ph.D. thesis into a non-fiction book (published by the Leftist Haymarket Press) called Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law.
Miéville came to San Diego for the July 22-25 Comic-Con, which in less than two decades has grown from a nerd-fest celebrating comic books and the movies made from them to a big, splashy, internationally recognized event at which major Hollywood studios trot out big stars and filmmakers to promote movies based on superhero stories and other comic books — which sometime seem to make up at least half of the films running at your local multiplexes. In addition to appearing at Comic-Con, Miéville took a detour for an afternoon question-and-answer session at the San Diego Public Library Sunday afternoon, July 25, during which he discussed his novels — notably his latest, Kraken, and his “New Crobuzon” series (Perdido Street Station, 2000; The Scar, 2001; Iron Council, 2002) — his politics and how the Internet has made the already difficult business of making a living from writing even harder.
“A lot of independent people and trade unions, including the Writers’ Guild, take the position that a downloaded book is a stolen book,” Miéville acknowledged in answer to a question about the Internet and its effect on authors’ income and rights. Then he made it clear that his own position is a lot more nuanced than that: “That’s only true if every downloaded book is a copy that would otherwise have been sold. There are too many variables to make that assumption.” Miéville said that “the punitive model” — major publishers filing huge lawsuits against ordinary individuals for downloading copyrighted material — didn’t work for the music industry and won’t work for publishing either.
“It’s based on this bogus idea, and risks alienating your readers the way Metallica alienated their fans by suing Napster,” Miéville said. “I make my living by writing, so of course I’m concerned [about a possible loss of income], but I think I can ask people to be decent and come to an arrangement. We have to accept that anyone who doesn’t want to pay for an electronic text won’t have to. Kraken was cracked in half a day. If you’re a recording company and you put out a single, anyone who doesn’t want to pay for it can get it. You can be punitive, or you can make it worth their while to throw you a few quid. I think the distribution model needs to change. We need to be undogmatic and open-minded.” He added a warning, however, that “if people don’t pay for books, I won’t write them.”
Asked about the “Creative Commons” licensing plan — an alternative to copyright in which works placed on the Internet can be freely transferred as long as no one but the original creator profits from them financially — Miéville said there were two problems with it. First, “it only worked before the e-book reader was available,” when the only way to get a portable version of a text was to buy a printed copy. Also, he said Creative Commons forces him to “worry about cover art and packaging” — which, as a writer, he wants a publisher to take care of so he can concentrate on inventing stories and getting them down on paper. Miéville probably spoke for a lot of his readers when he said, “I like computers. I like my iPad and I like the Internet, but I’m not a techie and I’m not into coding” [writing programs].
At the Public Library Miéville fielded a question he seems to get asked every time he speaks in public or does an interview: why does he write science fiction and fantasy? “Because it’s awesome,” he said. “I grew up reading science fiction, horror and fantasy. As a reader, I’ve become more catholic in my tastes, but as a writer I don’t sustain interest in stories unless they have some aspect of the fantastic and the unreal. Iron Council was representative of a kind of politics I could do in fantastic fiction I could not do in realistic fiction. A lot of times I’m asked how I got into genre fiction, and I answer, ‘How did you get out of it?’ A cluster of seven-year-olds were reading Harry Potter and two years later most of them had fallen out of it. We geeks are faithful to our obsessions.”
Another question Miéville frequently gets asked is how he got his first name. From his “hippie parents,” he explained. “It’s not a pretentious pen name, like ‘Sting.’” He said it’s a British slang term for “mate” — meaning a close friend. Based on the name, a lot of people (presumably the ones who either never look at authors’ photos or buy cheap editions that don’t have them) assume he’s a woman — and when they find out that he’s really a straight white male they give him special credit (which he doesn’t think he deserves) for being able to write so sensitively about women, people of color and Queers.
Asked about the Asian girl in his book Un Lun Dun, Miéville pointed out that the character is actually “Desi” (descended from people from Pakistan or India) — British people have a broader definition of what constitutes “Asia” than we do, he said — and he wrote her because it was a book for “young adult” (publishing-speak for teenage) readers and “I hadn’t seen that many representations of Asian girls in British fiction.” He said he caught her voice because “I spend a lot of time on buses listening to how children talk, and I think the distinctions between men and women are grossly exaggerated. I think hopefully [the question of whether male authors can create convincing women characters] is getting to be less of an issue.”
As much as he likes the science-fiction and fantasy genres — and as committed as he is to writing no other sort of fiction — Miéville also likes to push against the traditions of that sort of writing. “I wrote Perdido Street Station to go against some of the traditions of fantasy, but I wasn’t the first,” he acknowledged. “There are always counter-traditions and ways of writing against the grain. In Iron Council the main character is Gay, and that’s not so transgressive, but in a lot of adult fiction Gays are desexualized, and I resent that. One book I’ve read is set on a ship in the 19th century, and there’s a Gay man defined as evil and his sex with his lover is described in almost lascivious terms, while the ‘good’ Gay guy is described as never having sex at sea. I wanted to write an explicitly Gay character who has anal sex, though I think a lot of this is not that big a deal anymore.”
One genre convention that particularly ticks Miéville off — and which he’s deliberately tried to avoid or subvert in his own work — is the notion of the “Chosen One,” the one hero uniquely fitted to the task of redeeming the human race from the peril the author has invented to jeopardize it. “The schtick [of Un Lun Dun] is that the Chosen One fails, and the funny sidekick has to take over — and succeeds by cheating and skipping to the end,” he said. “As a kid, I always hated books about the Chosen One because that implies all the others are not chosen, and that’s fascist. I always was drawn to the sidekicks.”
Though Miéville tries to avoid blatant political propaganda in his books — like most artists with strong political leanings, he’ll drop the politics if it means the books will be stronger as art — he’s quite open about analyzing other writers’ works in the light of his Leftist beliefs. “Not all my favorite writers have my politics,” he acknowledged. “I’m a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft even though he was a fascist and anti-Semite” [though in his last decade Lovecraft largely abandoned the racist beliefs he’d held earlier]. Noting that American science fiction has a reputation for being Right-wing, Miéville said he thinks that’s unfair because the U.S. has also produced authors like Ursula LeGuin and Judith Merril, “progressives writing deliberately in the political milieu.”
Indeed, one of the things he likes about science fiction and fantasy is how well they lend themselves to what Lenin called “Aesopian language” — coded messages about the world of the present couched in terms of the world of the future. He thinks that’s what science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc were doing under Communist governments: sneaking in social criticism they couldn’t have got published in direct terms. On the question of whether there’s something inherently radical about science fiction as a genre, Miéville said, “I go back and forth on that. The idea of something that starts with radical thinking lends itself to political thinking — not necessarily progressive political thinking — but certainly the overlaps between political geeks of both flavors and sci-fi geeks is interesting.”
Responding to a question about born-again Christians and their use of media like science fiction and rock music to express their ideas — including the belief that young people who remain virgins for religious reasons are the real transgressors in a hyper-sexualized age — Miéville expanded his analysis beyond science fiction to Right-wing books in general like the Left Behind series (minister Tim LaHaye’s and author Jerry Jenkins’ best-selling series dramatizing the apocalypse predicted in the Book of Revelation) and The Turner Diaries, William Pierce’s 1978 novel about a Right-wing revolution against a U.S. government dominated by Jews and socialists. Indeed, Miéville seemed to admire The Turner Diaries even though it’s not only an extremely Right-wing book (“a fascist dystopia,” he called it) but it’s not at all well written.
The Turner Diaries “starts with a very clever piece of thought judo designed to appeal to a group [white Americans, particularly ethnics from working-class backgrounds] that feels badly threatened,” Miéville explained. “It starts with a Black becoming president and eliminating the laws against rape on the basis of ‘cultural sensitivity.’ It’s great strategy that weaponizes the notion and taps into a lot of anxieties.” Miéville sees The Turner Diaries as part of “the culture war in general” and notes that not only did Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh own a copy and carry out his terrorist attack with a bomb design copied from Pierce’s pages, but “every other Tea Party sign” reflects this sort of militancy on the part of the radical Right.
Miéville said in Britain that sort of radical-Right politics comes out less in fiction — “where we have things like [the long-running TV series] Doctor Who that are relatively liberal” — than in mainstream newspapers like the Daily Express. That paper, he said, recently ran a headline that said, “In 20 years one in 5 Britons will be ethnics,” presenting that as a horror its readers should fear. “It’s one of the most bile-raising, sick-raising things you see: the loss of [white people’s] privileges, people suing universities over affirmative action,” Miéville said. “It’s certainly visible in speculative fiction, but some books pull in more than one direction. Battlestar Galactica is overtly progressive, but it also contains a lot of racial anxieties.”
Asked about the growing popularity of the late Right-wing Libertarian author Ayn Rand, especially among young Americans, Miéville said, “We don’t have many Randroids in Britain. I think Rand’s popularity in the U.S. is a sign of the weakness of the Left. Students who are anxious about government bailouts, if you give them to me I’ll make them Leftists. But there aren’t such people in America, so they read Ayn Rand and become Rightists instead.”
Commenting about artificial intelligences and “hidden messages” in current science fiction, Miéville said, “I think I would make a distinction between deliberate and unconscious messages. I don’t think there is a depoliticized message about consciousness and sentience. I’m very unconvinced that the increase in computer power will result in consciousness. The notion in science fiction over the last decade and a half of computerized rigor that erupts into consciousness is based on a bad notion of consciousness, but I don’t think the authors mean that deliberately.”
Asked if any of his books will be turned into movies, Miéville said he’s got a few nibbles from the film industry — “a couple of my short stories are under option” — but his fans shouldn’t hold their breaths. “Dealing with movie people is intimidating because it’s all based on lies,” he said. “All the clichés are true — and they’re put out by people who work in movies.” He said “ it would take a lot of convincing” to get him to sell the movie rights to one of his novels because “most movies are rubbish because they’re not done well.”
Miéville’s advice to aspiring young writers — another stock question virtually every author who speaks in public gets asked — is don’t try to write a novel unless you do a lot of meticulous pre-planning. “Novels are really big, and people get paralyzed by the size,” he explained. “The way to avoid that is to front-load a lot and plan the bejeezus out of it. Do a chapter-by-chapter plan and estimate how many words each chapter will have and what will happen in it, and then you can write as few as 300 words a day. The more work you do up front, the less you can think about it. I work out the shape of it first and I’m a rigorous planer. Planning has a bad rap, but I think it’s a kind of safety net.”
After the original publication of this post China Miéville e-mailed me a reply and asked that it be added. Here it is:
Dear Mark Gabrish Conlan,
I've just seen the report you did of the talk I did at the San Diego library. I had no idea there was anyone intending to write about it in the audience. I thank you for all your interest and for the careful attention.
However, I have a question and a concomitant request. It's my impression from reading the piece that rather than recording, you made notes and transcribed my answers from a combination of notes and memory. Would I be correct? I ask because in several places, the formulations are not ones that I recall using, and in a couple of cases are ones that I would in fact avoid. Obviously, when extemporising, sometimes things emerge from my mouth in ways that aren't as I'd prefer, and it's possible some of that is the case here. However, your piece repeatedly uses quote marks which I think most readers would interpret as being assertions about what I definitely did say, and I'd really appreciate a chance to set the record straight about a couple of things. For the most part where I remember otherwise it's largely just a question of language, but in a couple of cases the words in your piece imply opinions I do not hold, and it's these latter I'd prefer not to let stand.
I'm not asking you to change your piece - only, perhaps, to reproduce this message at the beginning or end, in your newsletter and in indybay,org, so that I might have a chance to correct any misapprehensions about my positions.
i) 'He added a warning, however, that "if people don't pay for books, I won't write them."'
I cannot imagine any eventuality in which I would not attempt to continue writing, and the implied, arrogant sense of punishment and/or warning in that quote is not one I would intend to communicate. My point, and the formulation I would use, is that if no one pays for books, it will be impossible for me to write professionally, which would of course drastically reduce and alter my output.
ii) Re: creative commons. 'Mieville said there were two problems with it' - this is true, but I stress these are problems in terms of its sometimes asserted status as a way of continuing to make a living as a writer during an online era. It still has many other unproblematic uses.
iii) Judith Merril was Canadian, not American (though this was very possibly my bad in exposition).
iv) I certainly wouldn't say I 'admire' The Turner Diaries, though you're right that I was pointing out that its initial premise was well-chosen to appeal to its target demographic.
v) On which topic, you gloss that target 'feeling badly threatened' as, apparently in my opinion, 'white Americans, particularly ethnics from working-class backgrounds'. Can I emphatically stress that I do not think 'white Americans, tout court, feel threatened by an ebbing of white privilege, and can I further stress that I would consider it both sociologically incorrect and some form of class slander to suggest that such anxieties were overrepresented among working-class white Americans. (The class roots of this particular form of ressentiment in fact I see as largely weighted in other directions, but this is a wider topic.)
vi) I would not use the formulation 'a Black', about a person. (As I recall, I said 'a black guy'. )
I'd be very grateful if you could reproduce the contents of this message somewhere on your piece. Many thanks again for writing it, and for coming to the talk.