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China Miéville on weird fiction, Melville and J G Ballard

The science fiction writer on 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)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide