China Miéville on weird fiction, Melville and J G Ballard

The science fiction writer on Railsea.

China Miéville on weird fiction, Melville and J G Ballard.
China Miéville, the British science fiction writer, talks about his new work Railsea.

Your new novel, Railsea, transposes Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick from the sea to the railway, replacing the whale with a giant mole. Has Melville always been in your canon?

Yes, Moby-Dick in particular. I first read it when I was about 17 and I was really blown away by it. I think because of its mad discursiveness it’s always been a big book for me. It’s such a bloated, overdetermined metaphor for everything. I remember being made to feel quite vertiginous by the way Melville would do whatever he wanted. I like very much that sort of hypnotic, overwrought, very lush prose.

You’ve defended lush prose in the past against the fashion for sparseness.

Well I don’t feel sectarian against sparseness, although I sometimes get a little chippy about this. I resent the way that a certain notion of parsimony has become the norm for skilful literary writing. My problem is that adjectives like “spare” raise so many questions. Why should sparseness in and of itself be a desideratum? I think there’s something quite interesting about the almost tragic quality of a lot of overwrought prose, because it has a much more self-conscious awareness of its own failure to touch the real.

Is such awareness characteristic of “weird” fiction, with which you’re sometimes associated?

Yes. I’m becoming very interested in the sublime as a way of thinking about the weird. It’s about reaching for the unsayable, the unknowable, the beyond. I’m not spiritual, I’m not a believer, but I’m very, very interested in ecstasy.

You say you’re not religious, but isn’t religion about ecstatic experiences that are shared, or are in some other way communal?

A lot of official religion isn’t. Religion is often about policing the excessive and saying, “You don’t get to experience it. This is down to us, down to the priestly caste.” What I’m interested in is the tradition of people like Julian of Norwich or Hildegard of Bingen, which to me feels very closely related to the weird.

Where do the writerly pleasures lie in composing a book such as this? Are there architectural satisfactions to be had in conjuring up a fully realised world?

In the field of fantastic fiction, the question of world-building is not uncontroversial. But I grew up with Dungeons and Dragons, so that whole world-building thing is very close to my heart. For me, the architectonics of creating a world are very enjoyable, but there comes a point at which the world is driving the story, and I think for a lot of people that can be a problem. There’s a tension between the drive to systematicity and the drive to the unsayable, the unknowable. Those are the two inextricable but completely countervailing tendencies within the fantastic. And to me that tension is key.

You have had success beyond the confines of the science-fiction and fantasy communities. What is your relationship with them like?

An enormous proportion of what I am, I am because of that kind of writing, but I don’t come out of fandom. I’d never been to a science-fiction convention until I became a professional writer. If you had asked me 15 years ago if I was a science-fiction fan, I would have said yes, though what I thought that meant was simply that this was my favourite kind of stuff. I didn’t really know much about the whole fandom scene. But now I’m very much part of that. The level of seriousness with which books are treated at some of the science-fiction conventions puts a lot of conventional literary festivals to shame. At the same time, I get very exasperated with certain aspects of geek culture. And I am able to say that. I’m happy to, because there are aspects of the culture I find infuriating.

Is the career of J G Ballard a model here, as far as having a more wide-ranging appeal is concerned?

To the extent that it’s inspiring to be read by people who would otherwise never have read an SF book, absolutely. Often someone will read Ballard, and then poke around and go away and read Cordwainer Smith or Michael Moorcock. That’s exciting. So Ballard is a model because he remains in the tradition, as well being outside of it.

China Miéville’s “Railsea” is published by Macmillan (£17.99)