China Mieville (part 1)

I’ve been reading a fair bit of China Mieville lately, after discovering that my university library had most of his books.

For those who haven’t read him, he’s probably best known for three books set in the city of New Crobuzon and the world of Bas-Lag. New Crobuzon is a ‘big evil fantasy city’ in the tradition of Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork, but much grimmer than either.

He says that he’s influenced by role-playing games (and he actually wrote some stuff for Pathfinder). Perdido Street Station has a brief appearance by an obvious D&D adventuring party. More broadly, the city is one where lots of non-human species live side-by-side with humans, and there are large non-human societies elsewhere. He doesn’t use dwarves, trolls etc like Terry Pratchett. His main non-human races are frog-people, cactus-people, and the most interesting ones, khepri, who are red-skinned women whose heads are giant dung beetles (there are males, but they’re just giant dung beetles and aren’t intelligent). Another D&D-like quality to his work is that magic is common, and magicians are analagous to academics, specifically scientists.

The most distinctive thing about the New Crobuzon books, to me, is that politically powerful figures act like politically powerful figures in the real world, and are condemned as such.

Some examples of what I mean: Fritz Leiber presents the ruler of Lankhmar as borderline insane, but this fact doesn’t effect Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s lives very much and the story sort of laughs it off. It’s part of the picturesque detail of Lankhmar. Terry Pratchett presents the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork as a cold, scheming despot. But, very improbably, he always wants what’s best for the city. And although it’s stated that he tortures and kills people,.he never does it to a main character and it’s apparently not something that you’re supposed to worry about. Whereas when the rulers of New Crobuzon have people murdered, you’re supposed to be outraged, and it’s often part of the plot rather than a background detail.

Similarly he has organised crime, but they do things like deal drugs and murder each other, rather than being a loveable thieves guild.

Anyway he once described Tolkien as “the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, which not surprisingly caused a lot of bad feeling. Tomorrow I’ll get into that.