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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

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture