New Releases: Embassytown by China Miéville
Where's Pornokitsch?

China Miéville at Foyles

China MiévilleThe "kids' table" might be a purely American phenomenon, but I suspect that every culture has its version. The concept is simple. At any sort of massive event (Thanksgiving, wedding, grandma's birthday,...), there's the dining table for the adults that's laid out with the proper linen, the best crystal, the matching silverware and the immaculately carved roast beast.

Meanwhile, one room over, there's a rickety card table with six mismatched chairs, paper plates and hot dogs. That's for us kids.

In my family, this was supposedly a temporary exile. Once you were Bar or Bat Mitzvah'd, you were an adult (says GOD) and were therefore definitionally worthy of the dining room. Alas, that bar kept shifting higher and higher. The simple fact was, no matter how old I got, I was still the youngest in the family. Until the next generation came along, it would always be the six of us and our paper tablecloth.

At the time, I was boiling with the injustice of the situation. I had adult conversation! I knew big words and had a spelling bee trophy to prove it! Why did I go through the pain and trauma of wearing my best (only) collared shirt if I was only sitting with (gasp) other kids?

Now... Imagine a panel where the microphones work. Imagine a ninety minute event where the chairs aren't uncomfortable. Hell, imagine chairs. Picture a quiet space without other shoppers, background music or persistent, crackling calls of "till-trained staff member to checkout please". Imagine a seamlessly ticketed event - not charged, just ticketed, so that they had an idea of numbers and prepared accordingly. Add in a stack of the author's latest books and the entire back catalogue. Throw in a green room, a timely start and a well-managed signing queue.

I have seen the adult table, and it is beautiful.

As genre fans, we spend a lot of time worrying about how we interact with the rest of the literary world. Mr. Miéville had a poetic description of this behaviour - I won't risk a shoddy paraphrasing, but the point could be distilled to the fact that we seem to get an emotional kick out of being the victim, as evidenced by the annual sulk for the Booker shortlist. I don't fully agree with him, but I do believe that, as with all marketing efforts, you need to start with your packaging. Events are the apparel of our world and, as my father still ceaselessly reminds me, "You dress for the job you want, not the job you've got".

If we, as genre fans, are dead set on convincing the world that we're a full-and-equal partner in literary credibility, we need to stop having signings in basements - physical and metaphorical. I can't - or won't - invite non-genre fans to most signings. They're not events, they're commercial transactions with unnaturally long and sweaty queues. Last night at Foyles was something I could (and did) invite my mother-in-law to join. She'd never identify as a science fiction reader, but left with two of Miéville's books tucked under her arm. And, to the author's credit, he wasn't being disingenous about his roots or Embassytown - the evening kicked off with ten minutes of trans-dimensional alien monsters.

All that said, the kids' table isn't a terrible place. We got to talk comfortably about the stuff we liked (adults - not so cool with spending 45 minutes on ninja turtles), nobody chided us for using the wrong fork and, after dinner, we had our own cryptic system for divvying up the desserts. It was a pleasant, happy and safe place. If I had spent less time amibitiously coveting the other room, I would've enjoyed myself a lot more. I assure you, that lesson isn't completely wasted on me.

I suppose that's our choice. We can be happy where we are or we can dress for the job we want. Foyles showed us a beautiful vision of one potential future, but this is science fiction - there's an infinite number of possibilities. Which do we want?

Also, and it probably goes without saying, but the Q&A was amazing. If you haven't heard Mr. Miéville speak before, I can't recommend it highly enough. The tour for Embassytown has just begun and he's at several events over the summer.


China Miéville reading and Q&A for Embassytown, held 5 May at Foyles (London, WC2). 

Photo shamelessly nicked from their website.