Q&A with China MievilleEmbassytown is your first work to be labelled as science fiction rather than fantasy. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
If you mean, did I start by wanting to write something that would a priori be called 'science fiction', and then thought of something to fill that internal niche, then no. I started with the aliens, and the story emerged from them. But from early on it was conscious to the extent that I knew it would be received as more 'straight' SF than most of my other stuff, and that was fine by me. After all I grew up on the spacefaring of Ursula le Guin, of Robert Silverberg, I'm an admirer of Cordwainer Smith, I'm steeped in the space-operatic pulps--I couldn't but want, some time, to write something in that tradition. The writing style I hope is specific and particular to this novel, but less (at least less consciously) as a result of it being 'SF' than of the nature of the protagonist and the shape of the world and the events that occur within it. Trying to inhabit a voice is one of the most important aspects of getting to grips with any book, for me.
I've spent a lot of time arguing that the distinction between SF and fantasy, at least when it's expressed as it often is as a sort of hard-and-fast epistemological distinction, is theoretically unconvincing, so I suppose I'm being a bit of a hypocrite by now announcing that this is my first 'proper' or 'real' or 'straight' (etc) SF novel. But even if these distinctions aren't philosophically rigorous, they are very prevalent, and given that we're also talking here about reader and writer expectations, marketing, and so on, these rough-and-ready pigeon holes do have a reality, though it's often not the one I think their partisans claim it is. Why do I think the distinction exists is a question I've spent many years and a lot of words ruminating over. The very short answer would be that it's something to do with a certain 20th-Century propagandistic notion of science and the 'scientific mindset', but that of course begs more questions than it answers. For anyone really interested in the most coherent thing I've tried to write to get at this, there's an essay called 'Cognition as Ideology' in a book I edited with Mark Bould, called Red Planets, that has a go at answering it.
Aside from being "science fiction", what sets Embassytown apart from your other books?
To me, the language has a certain register, not as baroque as some of the Bas-Lag stuff, but not as terse as The City & The City
, that I hope--that's all I can say--gets at a cool resolve simultaneously with some emotional resonance. I hope that works. There's also some descriptions of a sort of much-mediated zombie apocalypse (much, much mediated) that I like, and some ruminations about language and politics for those who like such things. (As always, the hope is they don't intrude too ostentatiously for those not so fond of them.)
Your work is characterised largely by world building. How do you approach the creation of these worlds?
How each setting is come up with varies enormously book to book. Bas-Lag was a chaotic and exuberant creation I'd been working on for years; a ragbag of fantastica, monsters and impossibilities that I'd been shaking up in my head. Beszel and Ul Qoma, in The City & the City
, were much more austerely and cautiously created, out of a desire not to let them seem too narrowly or crudely 'symbolic' (about which neither the reader nor I could or needed to know everything). Un Lun Dun was created by actualised game and literalised pun. Embassytown
and the world of Arieka, and the immerverse in general, was built up slowly, after the initial idea (which I had when I was 11--it's in a school notebook) for aliens that speak in this unique way, out of a sense of the desire for isolation, of excruciatingly slow interplanetary communication combined with some kind of faster-than-light travel. Obviously the dignified answer is that the world and the story and the characters all emerge together, mutually constituting each other. It would be nice if that were true, if they felt inextricable. I hope.
That's not to say it would never happen, but just that I think more caution (even) is indicated. Of course the moment you hand something over for an adaptation, you have very little power over it. Whether or not it turns out any good is more or less completely beyond your control.
Which of your worlds would you most like to live in?
None. I like writing them and inventing them. The hankering to live in invented worlds in general I totally understand, and share, but it troubles me. To go a step further and want to inhabit those that I invented
would seem to me a queasy mix of escapism and narcissism.
(Having said which, if the back of my wardrobe disappeared and Bas-Lag appeared at the end of it, I hope I'd not be too cowardly to take the trip.)
How do you deal with writer's block?
Writer's block I'm not really sure about, I think my own working methods are such that while I may have all sorts of problems with writing--I'm a terrible fritterer of time, I'm often not the most disciplined, etc--I'm not someone who tends to sit down and stare at a blank screen and not have any idea what to do next. That's on the whole not the axis of my failures (they exist, are multifarious--just not quite that shape).
Your career to date is rather impressive. What else would you like to achieve?
The bottom line is very simple: I'm incredibly lucky to be able to make a living writing full-time, and what I fervently hope is that I continue to be able to do so. To continue to be able to do that is what I'd like to achieve. Beyond that, I think what I'd like is to sometimes write things that people don't expect, and maybe even expect not to like, but that win them over--maybe to their own surprise.