China Miéville is the author of several well-received novels, the most recent of which is Embassytown, a science fiction tale set in a human colony on the outskirts of an alien civilization. Relations between the two species, already complicated due to fundamental differences between how they think and communicate, begin to unravel with the arrival of a new ambassador. With war on the horizon, newly returned spacer Avice Benner Cho, a native of Embassytown, finds herself playing a central role in a conflict that could result in the death of thousands of humans and the end of an entire sentient species. Miéville’s story is science fiction at its most ambitious: an entertaining far future tale that never fails to entertain while asking serious questions about language and the role in plays in shaping the way we think. .
Miéville, after participating in our ongoing “Take Five” series, was kind enough to stick around and answer a few questions about his new book.
You initially had the idea for the Ariekei (the alien species at the center of Embassytown)when you were eleven years old, and rediscovered it in a journal from that time. How much of your juvenilia do you or your family still have? Is there any chance that we’ll ever see some of it published?
Possibly, but I doubt it. I have a fair bit of it, but the older I get, the less compulsively archival I get. I’m really unconvinced there’s any particularly interesting about most juvenilia. And I am wholly convinced there is absolutely nothing interesting about mine. Having said which, a short story of mine from when I was 12 was recently republished, but that was in a collection devoted to early work, and it was, technically, the first thing I had published, so maybe it’s a curio.
Anyway, if I publish too much of it, I can’t mine it for more ideas! Spoilers, dude.
Portraying authentically alien intelligences- in the sense that they’re not just humans with pointy ears or green skin – must be an incredibly difficult task for an author. How do you approach this?
I don’t just think it’s difficult, I think it’s literally impossible. If you are a writer who happens to be a human, I think it’s definitionally beyond your ken to describe something truly inhuman, psychologically, something alien. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no point trying, or that you can’t do some pretty interesting things with flaws and failures, and the very asymptotic aspiration is pretty exciting. You can play games – you can imply consciousness beyond ours, you can hint at things obliquely, you can not say too much, you can have a character describing in passing. I don’t think you can succeed, but I think you might just fail pretty wonderfully.
Though there are some honourable Forehead-of-the-Week aliens, too, in our tradition. SF seems to oscillate between cheerfully unalien aliens, and inadequately but, crossed-fingers, interestingly more alien-ish aliens.
Writing a science fiction novel that works as both a rousing space opera and exploration of language and meaning is no mean trick. Do you intend for your books to be appreciated on various levels? As an instructor and writer, have you learned any tricks for communicating complicated ideas in a simple way, especially through fiction?
Sorry, this is a rambly answer because I find it incredibly hard to answer with any rigour: the components of the question and answer lurch all over the place for me. I think it would be a mistake to ‘intend’ your books do anything, really – try to aim a book like that, it’s even more scattershot than a blunderbuss. You’re likely to get themes splattered all over the place. I hope that people find them interesting enough to want to keep reading: certainly there’s stuff in there, ideas-wise, that’s of great interest to me, and I vaguely hope it is also to others, but it’s a cliche, because true, that the book is a collaboration between writer and reader, or as many collaborations as there are readers, really, and you can only roughly steer what the finished product is.
I think you could say that Fiction doesn’t really ‘communicate’ ideas, a lot of the time, in other words. It uses ideas, it has ideas, it contains them, it shores them up, undermines them, traduces and fucks around with them. What would ‘communicating’ them mean? You don’t even have to agree with or believe an idea to find it useful for a story – Gary Wolfe recently pointed out that discredited theories can still be good hooks for fiction. You can put examinations and ruminations and speculations and even, sometimes, arguments in, for texture, and if they get traction with some readers, that’s great. But the verb ‘communicate’ begs a lot of questions, in my opinion. Lots of fiction that its creator doesn’t think of as having any job other than entertainment sluices all sorts of ideas around.
If I put speculations and ruminations in, I do it because I find them fascinating, and I hope some readers do too. But I do think it would be absolutely disastrous to think of fiction as a way of ’simplifying’ complicated ideas! It’s all about texture, not about unmediated communication or dissemination, or – most of the time – about simplifying things. It might be about making them more complicated. If that makes a better story or a more engaging book, then why not? If you want to present an exposition of a knotty theoretical problem, I think fiction is going to be a questionably efficient way of doing it, not because it *can’t*do it, but even if it succeeds, it’s also going to be doing all sorts of other things, so, the signal to other-signals ratio will be tricky. Which might, of course, make a fabulous novel.
You maintain a career as an academic and writer of weird fiction. I admire how one often informs the other in your work. Have you experienced any crossover of fans in this area, like fellow political theorists who appreciate your fiction and academic writings?
From time to time, sure. Sometimes readers of the fiction bring the non-fiction books to be signed, but rarely, because the non-fiction I work on is mostly relatively specialised. Conversely, some people I know through academia read some of the novels. It happens a bit more the latter way round, and it’s happening slightly more frequently these days. But I think SF/WF is still a minority taste within most of the academics within my milieu, so I think that while it’s not super-rare, it would be a little more common if I wrote novels that ‘realist’ or ‘mainstream’ or whatever our preferred handwavey term of the day is.
It’s fun when it happens. It always makes me double-take.
I understand that you’re a man of great and varied interests, and you’re fond of picking up on subjects that you know little about – journals on model trains or aquarium keeping, I think I read was one example. What have you been fascinated with lately?
That’s an awesome question. I only pick up enough to be dilettanteishly intrigued. Book binding. Hurling. Fountain pens. (That one’s got a little closer to the bone, I confess. I’ve got a bit bitten by that bug, despite having the worst handwriting in the world.)