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China Miéville interview: a tale of two cities

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
Award-winning fantasy writer China Miéville is best known for Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council. His new book, The City and The City, follows Inspector Tyador Borlu as a murder investigation takes him on a journey through two ci
Issue 2151
 (Illustration: Elios Spinola)
(Illustration: Elios Spinola)

‘The setting of the two cities is one I’d been thinking about for years. I was thinking about a romance or a short story, but then I thought it would work as a crime novel. I’ve always been interested in crime fiction but it isn’t necessarily my home territory.

My mum was ill. She was a huge follower of crime novels, and I wanted to give her a present. I wanted to use the protocols of crime fiction but also elements of other things.

People who don’t like fantasy will hopefully enjoy this book. While I think I’ll always be shelved in fantasy, I didn’t want people who like crime fiction to think I was just coming in without fidelity or love for the genre.

In some ways The City and The City is a “triangulation” of eastern European novels, hard-boiled crime fiction and fantasy. Part of the triangulation is that it gives a slight strangeness to the language, almost as if it is translated. It was also a question of getting into the voice of crime fiction.


I like the baroque language of my previous books, which is fun, but wanted to try other things.

That’s in no way a repudiation of what I’ve done before. But there is something in the noir protocols of restrained language – the straighttalking of crime novels.

I wanted to have real respect for the genre, take it seriously, but do my own thing. The flip side of all that is that for people who like my work for particular things, this book is very different.

People who like florid language and the monsters may not like this book – that is legitimate.

You can’t expect readers to follow you whatever you do. You can ask them to do you a favour. To a certain extent this book teases people who followed my previous work. The idea is to keep within a tradition of crime writing, taking the protocols as far as they can go without crossing over into camp.

It’s no coincidence the first part of the book is sort of Inspector Morse, the second part is 48-Hours and the third is a political conspiracy thriller. It opens with the discovery of a body, which is of course a classic cliché.

But what initially appears as a straightforward setting emerges as something stranger.

Part of it was thinking about the effect of globalisation on cities. Most of the book was written before the credit crunch, so in part it’s a tale of the end of the boom-time.

The two cities in the book have different architectural heritage. One, Ul Qoma, is doing very well and has its experiences of combined and uneven development.

The other, Beszel, has a more sluggish relationship to the global economy. The book is trying to deal with differential relationships to capital.

In the book the history and archaeology of the cities are contested. In fact, the archaeology is absurd.

The idea is of a zone where there is some kind of logic, but you can’t work out what it is. That is very different from saying there is no logic.

You are left with how you relate to the fact that something is opaque. You can respond by saying it is up for grabs or you could not respond at all.

Part of this nods to the fantasy tradition of building worlds. The cities are depicted as fully as possible, but it is also a completely absurd situation.

I am trying to critically engage with a debate about the effectiveness of “world building”.

Sharing political culture is one thing, but any writer has different readerships who get different things. The trick is to have a book that has enough integrity that it works within itself.

But if you do spot a reference and you like it, great. That may be sharper for a political writer, but it is there for everyone.

The political aesthetic is complex. For instance, in a previous book, The Scar, the characters face voracious female mosquito-women. They are female simply because it’s only female mosquitos that suck blood.

I was, however, conscious of the trope of voracious/monstrous/vampiric women, so a couple of chapters later I wrote: “Some of [his] companions made nervous jokes… ‘Women,’ they said, and laughed shakily about females of all species being bloodsuckers, and so on. [He] tried, for the sake of conviviality, but he could not bring himself to laugh at their idiocies.”


I don’t think you can get everything right. I try not to be moralistic, and to put in intelligent characters. Any art created under structures of oppression is tainted to some extent – so it is about failing, but failing better.

The book has at its centre the constructed nature of borders. We all know that at least half the borders in the world are simply lines drawn on a map.

There is no intrinsic reason that a border is here rather than a foot to the left or a foot to the right. But at the same time, they are illusions and real things. A border will fuck you up – a border can kill you.

The borders represent unique difficulties. It allows the book to investigate – hopefully not in a tub-thumping way – questions of marginality.

We have countries that are divided and separated and those with borders that overlap. It follows that you can push this absurd logic of borders. I wanted to look at this ludicrous reality and yet make it plausible.’


Socialist worker has five copies of China Miéville’s The City and The City to give away.

China has set a question for readers to answer:

What was the name of the book about crime fiction written by Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel?

Send your answers to [email protected] or post to ‘Socialist Worker China Miéville competition’, PO Box 42184, London SW8 2WD.

The closing date for entries is 31 May 2009. The first five entries to be randomly drawn out of the hat will win.

The City and The City is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £17.99. Go to »


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