Friday, March 30, 2012

Mieville, Embassytown, Priest, etc.

I had always intended to spend this evening writing a blog post about why I love China Mieville's books, but then Christopher Priest posted his vicious (but wonderfully delivered) opinions on this year's nominees for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Embassytown [2011] by China Mieville is among them. I really enjoyed it. Christopher Priest clearly did not.

It seems a bit silly to let this stall me, but it has. Priest is significantly less qualified than I am to judge what I like, and that is really all I'm ever talking about here. Some of what he wrote is just plain nasty, and generally I prefer not to dwell on that sort of thing. What's stopped me in my tracks, though, is that there are some ways in which I completely agree with him, and that's caused me to ponder more carefully all the things I think I disagree with.

So the post I had intended to write is now going to be interspersed with some thoughts on where my opinions differ from Christopher Priest's, and perhaps also where they align. It's worth noting before I start that I'll be focussing specifically on Priest's comments about Mieville and Embassytown; I have read none of the other books that Priest mentions in his post.

My favourite thing about China Mieville's novels is that they make science fiction or fantasy feel lively and new. I think he does this partly by messing around with genre tropes (sometimes specifically undermining them, as in Perdido Street Station [2000] and Un Lun Dun [2007]), and partly through sheer, gleeful inventiveness. The things he writes are at once recognisably of their genre, and energisingly different from anything I've read before.

(It is interesting to me that I appear to be attracted to Mieville's writing for his indebtedness to the genres in which he writes, whereas Priest considers this a deficiency: "he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces". I think that Priest would argue that this implies I am an unsophisticated reader of genre fiction, and though I'm reluctant to agree, he may be right.)

I'm also really fond of Mieville's prose. I think it's pretty clear that he is in love with words, and that's a wonderful way to be. You can see it most overtly in Un Lun Dun's word games, but I think it's there in everything he's written. The names he has chosen for space travel and the people who perform it in Embassytown, for example, are clever and rich with meaning. I enjoy reading his words, on a line by line, sentence by sentence basis, and that's actually quite rare in science fiction and fantasy.

("A better writer would find a more effective way of suggesting strangeness or an alien environment than by just ramming words together," says Priest. This criticism is pretty much directly opposite to my views on Mieville's writing. I think I'm of the opinion that word games are fun, and that names for things matter. Besides which, it's quite possible to ram words together badly, or uninterestingly, and I think that Mieville does neither. But it seems to me that Priest's contention that "it is exactly this use of made-up nouns that makes many people find science fiction arcane or excluding" might be worth further thought.)

Perhaps my enjoyment of Mieville's books comes down to this: they are heavily informed by his love for the literary weird. Weird fiction, it seems to me, is about making the familiar appear strange. I find the idea of it intoxicating, and I think Mieville is an expert at it. There are few feelings that I enjoy more than "I never thought of that" (or, perhaps "I never thought of it like that"), and that sense pervades Mieville's novels. 

(Now here's the part where I point out that I have not loved every one of Mieville's books. Un Lun Dun was fun enough while I read it, but not much more than that, and I found Kraken [2010] difficult to fully engage with. While I enjoyed The City & The City [2009] very much, and still consider it a worthy Best Novel Hugo winner in 2010, it didn't excite me to quite the same extent as his other novels.

Two of Priest's criticisms may be relevant here. The first is that Mieville's characters are "weakly drawn". I'm not sure I'd be so emphatic about it, but I think there's some merit to the observation. It pains me to admit it, but I don't think I can recall the names of any of the characters in Mieville's novels. Bearing that in mind, it may be significant that the three books I didn't love as much were in genres I have no strong feeling for -- YA urban fantasy, urban fantasy, and the crime novel respectively. Priest again: "he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces".)

So there you have it. I'm not actually sure if this post has been particularly readable. If not, I apologise. I had intended to talk about my love for China Mieville's books, but Christopher Priest's outburst turned it into a conversation with myself about my own opinions. I don't know if they've been firmed up, but they've certainly been challenged, and that can only be a good thing. 

(As a counterpoint to Priest's evident distaste for Embassytown, I recommend reading this review of the book by another grand master of the genre, Ursula K Le Guin. Her reaction to Mieville's neologisms is particularly interesting: very different from Priest's, and much closer to mine.)

Incidentally, this June is the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Scar [2002]. It remains my favourite China Mieville novel, and so I might take that as an excuse to re-read it, and talk about the experience here. If anybody felt like reading along with me, I'd enjoy the company!

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