Earlier this year, I was one of the judges for the inaugural Independent Literary Awards. The ILA is unique in that the books are nominated and judged by book bloggers - a peculiar and persnickity sub-category of consumer.
The winner in the Speculative Fiction category was China Miéville's Kraken.
Following the award, we coordinated a Q&A with Mr. Miéville about the award-winning book. The questions are crowd-sourced, so it is a bit bonkers, but Mr. Miéville's responses are all brilliant. A big thank you to fellow ILA panelists Bryce and Jamie, it was a great experience all around.
So, with no further ado, China Miéville on Kraken...
ILA: Why a Kraken? Don't get us wrong, I love Krakens, they're awesome, but why did you center the book around one?
CM: When they got a giant squid for the Natural History Museum in London, what was I going to do, not lose my shit with excitement? Please. So I went, several times, as of course I was always going to, and it was as astonishing as one would imagine, to see a creature like that, in a tank like that, in a room like that.
I'm a cephalopod fan, of course, a lurker at TONMO, a lover of ammonites and belemnites, cuttlefish, argonauts, squid and all of them. I was always going to write something revolving around a tentacled beast at some point. I'm a verbose lover of them, though in my own soul, the octopus unquestionably looms largest. Nonetheless, the squid - the giant squid in particular - has a cultural presence that none of the others can match, so it really did feel like having a myth right there in the room. Pickled. So that was the start. It's less, in truth, the Krakenness than the Giant Squidness of the thing that was the spur. The equation of the two is an arguably tendentious innovation of modernity, though one I'm perfectly happy to go along with.
ILA: The idea of parallel universes comes up a few times in your work (as in The City and The City and Kraken). This is definitely an interesting concept, but what has led to this concept in your work?
CM: Sadly I think I, like most writers, am singularly ill placed to answer the question 'what has led to' any particular concept in the books. Not that that stops any of us trying to answer it, of course, but God knows when we do it tends to be awful waffle, because what do we know? In this case I'm tempted to say something along the lines of, oh, any SF writer and/or reader is always-already interested in alternate universes, in alterity. I, like everyone working in the field, feel a tug from the unreal. But parallelism in particular, I don't know. I'm not even sure I recognise that in my stuff (which is not of course to say it's not there), or, quite, what it is.
What makes another universe parallel, specifically? It's obviously in the eye of the beholder, and I think is something to do with nearness, with otherness-but-recognisability. Is that at all convincing? In the case of your question, I'm intrigued by the idea that there are parallel worlds implied in Kraken, or indeed in TC&TC. Because... minor spoilers!... for both, and particularly in the latter case, that is, I think, by no means self-evident. (I might even go further and say, about TC&TC, that it's very much predicated on the numbingly everyday. Though I realise that does not make it sound particularly appealing. Fail.)
ILA: In an interview, you said that Kraken marked the "end of a certain phase of my writing - a punctuation mark, a sort of breathing out." Can you expand upon this a bit? How do you think about the phase that has ended - what typified it? - and what comes next?
CM: That's a very interesting question. I suppose it's something to do with the fact that for various reasons, Kraken was written over quite a long time. The City & The City was written at about the same time, and feels to me, and I think to some readers, quite different in voice to my previous books. Kraken, by contrast, was a kind of loving valedictory to what I hope is an enjoyable but rather chaotic kitchen-sink excess of the Bas-Lag books. It's a book all about totality, it's full of stuff, it attempts - whether successfully or not - to make a virtue of a certain kind of, I hope not exactly ill-discipline, but sort of distraction, like the book itself gets distracted, but that those distractions, I hope, are engaging. (Something that no one I've ever read does as well as Pynchon, to whom this book is, among other things, a tentacular pulp homage.)
I don't intend necessarily to pare down my writing and go 'minimal' all the time (I couldn't, even close), but at the moment I'm drawn at least to a different style of focus and voice, perhaps more like TC&TC. So that rumbustiousness of Kraken feels affectionate and even a little nostalgic.
CM: It's always tough (and generally misleading) trying to reconstruct the order of these things, but insofar as I recall, Wati came from a concatenation of at least three events. i) Reading about the shabti, the servant-statues, in some book about ancient Egypt, and being absolutely blown away by the idea of such entities. Obviously, it's an exciting idea for someone interested in labour politics, like me. ii) The fact that for my 30th birthday (long before I wrote Kraken) my sister gave me a genuine (and, I add hastily, legitimately sourced) little Egyptian shabti. iii) Thinking about when Mickey magics the broom servants and orders them to carry the water in Fantasia - the notion that how it all goes wrong for him could represent a form of industrial strife and resistance on the part of his brooms. As to Wati's inhabiting of figures and figurines, I think I liked the idea of him ornerily appropriating made and constructed figures, a sort of expropriation, a statuary fuck-you.
ILA: “Is Urban the new Fantasy”?
CM: I'm sorry, I literally have no idea what this means. I'm not being cute, I promise, I just don't think I understand what this is getting at. Do you mean 'there sure is a lot of urban fantasy around at the moment'? Because yes my goodness me there is. Do you mean 'The adjective "urban" is becoming increasingly disaggregated from what one might have thought its referent would be, and instead portending various fashionable aesthetic tropes actually contingent to metropolitan quiddity'? Also yes, it is, is it not? Will this pass? This too shall pass.
CM: Never say never, of course, but I sort of doubt it. There's a bunch of reasons for this, but they mostly boil down to some variant or other of a predilection for texts that work as a totality. (This is, I suspect, just a way of saying I prefer standalones because I prefer standalones, and unprefer non-standalones.) That doesn't mean no sequels, necessarily, and obviously I like (and have done) books set in a shared setting, but that's different. I feel I think these days a bit ground down by the saga-ness of sagas, even where I admire them. And I have and do - for me, for example, Steven Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books were a huge thing, I'm a great admirer of John Crowley, whose Aegypt series is very much a series, and so on. But overall I suppose I'm attracted to the idea of narrative, of stories, being sort of contingent, extracted wilfully from a mess, which means that I like the idea of overlapping-because-messy stories, that are connected yes, because tugged out of an impossibly complicated tangle, but also distinct precisely because their edges are (like all stories' are) constructed, decided. We don't find stories, we make them, in real life and in fiction. After all it's no happy chance that they perfectly fill the book allotted them (hey, how about that!): the book ends because the edge of the story has been declared. It's as manipulative a decision to enseries a story as it is to end it with the last page.
While I really love loving cultural bumph, like books, movies, etc, I vaguely detect in me a disinclination to get addicted to series in any medium (post-Buffy I tend to assiduously avoid watching things on tv that I think might hook me as series, though I'm generally cheerful about individual episodes), which I think is perhaps related to my ongoing and extreme anxieties about time-management, and about frittering time away. So - and this is post-facto hypothesising - it might feel to me a bit hypocritical to attempt to addict others to such things.
Anyway, a book that starts and middles and ends pleases me.
ILA: The "Remade", from Perdido Street Station, are convicts that have been physically altered or bioengineered with any number of animal and/or mechanical parts grafted on. How did this idea come about and is it a look at punishment versus rehabilitation in a penal system?
CM: I like grotesquerie. Part of, indeed for me a very if not the major, appeal of writing the fantastic has always been the creation of monsters, as many and as varied as possible. And with the Remade, with a category of person defined by their variability, I gave myself leeway to produce as many different physical monstrous forms as I could possibly come up with without having to endlessly rationalise them as new species. It wasn't just licence, it was encouragement, to indulge as baroque a teratogenesis as I could. And combined with that it raised (in what I hope isn't/wasn't too camply overt a manner) issues of crime, punishment, state power, the body, what has been called biopolitics, and so on. To that extent it is absolutely, as you imply, about the politics, culture and economics - and performance - of punishment, especially by the state.
Personally though I wouldn't tend to stress the terms of punishment *versus* rehabilitation, because those very terms of debate, which purport to represent the 'opposing wings' of possible opinion, restrict the conceptual terrain. Both of them, whether from a hawkish or a putatively dovish perspective, maintain the notion of crime as malignant social pathology, with the debate being over how best to address that Bad Behaviour™. Obviously lots of crime is terrible, and our task should be to understand where it came from, take care of those hurt by it and do whatever necessary to stop it happening again. But a worthy discussion of the penal system has to point out that of course i) our world is structured by countless unspeakable, violent, maleficent acts perpetrated every day by those in positions of power, from imperial wars to corporates'/the rich's tax evasion - or to give it its other name, stealing from hospitals - that are ignored, if technically 'illegal' in the first place, and are very often even culturally celebrated; and ii) colossal amounts of crime at the other end of things are not social pathologies at all - the infamous 'looting' after Katrina, otherwise known as 'attempting not to starve', would be an extreme case in point, but plenty of illegalities that occur are wholly predictable acts of survival, everyday efforts to get by, reasonable desires to experience a bit of pleasure, in many cases deliberately made illegal to justify oppressive structures of martial law (hello, 'War On Drugs'), and that deserve neither punishment nor rehabilitation, but instead illustrate the urgent necessity to change a society where such activities are so brutally pathologised.
CM: I'm very bad at answering questions like this because my own druthers tend to be to go into a book knowing as little about it as possible. That doesn't stop one expecting things, of course, but it would be best, I think, if a book could totally confound expectations and still win you over.
With that in mind, therefore, some, but not all, of the following hints about what's in Embassytown are lies: language; aliens; the politics of glass; metropole-periphery interaction; disguised unicorn riffs; cameras that act like wasps; cameras that act like bones; Spinozan astrophysics; comic poetry; shenanigans.
ILA: What does your tattoo mean?
CM: The one on my arm? The short answer is it is a simultaneous homage to two radically countervailing traditions of the fantastic to which I owe fealty and love. The shorter answer is it is an incompossibility. The long answer is this piece, particularly between pages 123 and 127.
ILA: Thank you very much for your time and, again, congratulations on Kraken's success.
China Miéville has also won a few other awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke, the Nebula, the Hugo, the BSFA and, of course, the prestigious Red Tentacle. Kraken was also a finalist for the 2010 Kitschies, our review of it is here. We had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Miéville on a previous occasion as well.