China Miéville and Urban Fantasy

When one thinks of London-set contemporary fantasy, the first book that springs to mind is inevitably Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Of course, Gaiman is far from the only London fantasy author, and some would argue that he’s far from the best (not me, I hasten to add). However, connoisseurs of London fantasy fiction that is not crap would do well to pick up the work of China Miéville.

Unlike Gaiman, Miéville is definitively a London author. Although only two of his novels published so far have been set in London*, the city seeps into all his work. This is most vivid in the Bas-Lag novels, twisted Gothic fantasies revolving around the bizarro city of New Crobuzon. Unlike most cities in fantasy fiction, which seem to simply exist in order to give the protagonists somewhere to meet, New Crobuzon is a presence as deep and vivid as any of the characters therein. Where many fantasy authors (I’m looking at you, Tolkein) can’t resist the urge to bombard you with endless amounts of backstory, Miéville deliberately leaves you wondering. Little details of the city will appear – a shoe market, a sculpture garden, but will remain unexplored. References will be made to history and mythology that won’t be elaborated on. This ought to be breathless and frustrating, but somehow it all works. Anybody familiar with a large, ancient city (such as old Mother London) will understand this. The city isn’t just grand buildings and governments. It’s inexplicable shops, anachronistic street furniture, road names that must mean something.

Yet despite the strangeness of New Crobuzon, there are little bits and pieces that creep in that London folk may find strangely familiar. Neighbourhoods in the shadow of Southwark-style elevated railways. A slum that nobody cared about until the area became fashionable, whereupon it became a gentrified museum.  A dockland that, for all its amphibian stevedores and worm-hauled ships, will be instantly recognisable to anyone who’s strolled around east of Tower Bridge. Perdido Street Station has elements of Liverpool Street and old Waterloo. There’s even a run-down estate in the form of the garuda ghetto of Spatters, a clutch of tower blocks inhabited by bird-people.

Miéville is active in left-wing politics, and this, as you might imagine, creeps into his work. Not in any really intrusive way, as Bas-Lag is a world where there are no simple solutions and pretty well everyone is flawed. Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid making certain comparisons between the failed politics of New Crobuzon and the social situation in our London.

The two explicitly London novels are King Rat and Un Lun Dun. King Rat is a contemporary work set in ’90s suburbia, and is a sort of modern-day sequel to The Pied Piper of Hamelin, albeit never straying too far from the real world. Un Lun Dun is the obligatory children’s book which, as you might imagine from the title, is set largely in a parallel universe version of the city. While it was never exactly unreadable, it did feel slightly twee and pseudo-Carroll compared to the rest of Miéville’s work.

Were I to recommend a starting point, I’d go with Perdido Street Station. Don’t be put off by its door-stopping page count – the prose, the dialogue and the sheer inventiveness on display are such that the work never lags. A chap I once acted with said that it’s a book he uses when coming down from drugs. Of course, being so very innocent and pure I couldn’t comment on such things, but it should give you some idea of the weirdness on display. His work owes nothing to Tolkein and his ilk, yet he’s unashamedly fantastical and yet, somehow, perfectly real.

*Since this entry was first posted, a new London novel – Kraken – has been published.

Further Reading – China Miéville’s list of 50 socialist sci-fi/fantasy works. – Michael Moorcock’s Epic Pooh, an essay for which Miéville describes himself as a “cheerleader.”



Filed under Literature, London, Psychogeography

4 responses to “China Miéville and Urban Fantasy

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