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Tuesday, 5 June, 2001, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK
Sci-fi writer gets political
China Miéville
Miéville - author of King Rat and Perdido Street Station
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy

Novelist, politician and on-the-home-stretch PhD student China Miéville - yes that is his real name - is on the campaign trail.

I trotted alongside the Socialist Alliance candidate for Regent's Park and Kensington North as he thrust leaflets through tower block letter boxes.

A thankless task, but may have paid off in at least one vote.

An old lady came to the door to tell us that there was no point in giving her a leaflet since she was nearly blind.

Perdido Street Station
Perdido Street Station was critically acclaimed
Instead Miéville chatted about what he was doing for a minute.

Suddenly she turned to me with a conspiratorial air and said: "Isn't he lovely looking?"

Not so blind after all.

Miéville may be extremely likeable in more ways than one, but winning the seat he is campaigning for would be something of a coup.

Labour's Karen Buck won the seat by a margin of some 14,000 votes in the 1997 election.

No matter, says Miéville, since for him it is about making a point.

And anyway, what would happen to the PhD in International Law that is due in October and his award-winning writing if he were to take off full time for Westminster?

Weird fiction

Earlier this month Miéville won Britain's premier award for science fiction writing, the Arthur C Clarke award.

The 28-year-old is clearly chuffed with himself for winning the prize, particularly from a shortlist that features a literary hero like Octavia Butler.

But he reckons that fantasy and science fiction, or weird fiction in the expression he prefers, should be included on so-called mainstream prize lists as well.


Dismissing fantasy writing because some of it is bad is exactly like saying I'm not reading Jane Eyre because it is a romance and I know romance is crap

China Miéville

"Weird fiction is absolutely excluded from mainstream literary discussion, from literary journals and programmes and I think its deeply shameful," he says.

It is not that Miéville is dismissing "straight fiction" out of hand - this is a man who lists Jane Eyre as one of his top five novels - but that he feels his writing, and that of many others, has a place in the mainstream.

He tells me about an arts programme that featured a debate about the Arthur C Clarke award but did not bother to name the short listed books, angry at an oversight that would be unthinkable in an item about, say, the Orange or Booker prizes.

Evangelical

Miéville is an evangelical for weird fiction and caught up in the passion, I find myself agreeing furiously, though I may have committed the very thought-crime he rails against.

"Most of what is called fantasy writing derives from Tolkien and CS Lewis and that stuff that I don't like at all," he says.

"It's all very clichéd, that epic quest and noble lord type of thing."

I find myself twitching with mortification that I had not read the writers he lists as being of "Nobel calibre" - like M John Harrison and John Crowley.

Miéville is no Angry Young Man, but he does have a way of making you feel that you should be helping him put things right - be that political or literary ills.

The link between writing and politics is, he says, complicated, but certainly there.

"There's something intrinsically radical about the fantastic aesthetic - starting from the premise that the impossible is true, attempting to undermine expectations," he says.

"And I see socialism too as a way of questioning reality and saying that within reality there is the possibility of a radically different future."

Culture-clash

His novel Perdido Street Station tells the story of a filthy, corrupt city full of grotesquely mutant inhabitants.

The story is a page turner but beneath all the morbidly fascinating descriptions of half-cockroach artists having affairs with lunatic-fringe scientists and their various associates are themes of belonging, of interaction, of individual desperations.

"People find it hard to believe it is political because it is set in a fantasy world, but the ideas I'm interested in are racism, exploitation, sexism and people organising."

He became interested in such themes while studying anthropology and living in Zimbabwe and Egypt.

China Miéville
Mieville puts hours in leafleting in Kensington and Regent's Park
It is indeed a clever device to examine alienation and culture-clashes from a world where absolutely everybody seems to be a weird hybrid of animal, machine and plant.

Miéville admits that there is some god-awful fantasy writing about.

"But the genre should not be judged according to the worst examples," he says.

"That's exactly like saying I'm not reading Jane Eyre because it is a romance and I know romance is crap."

But he also thinks that the time is coming when weird fiction will go mainstream, pointing to the use of fantasy tropes in mainstream writing.

Booker winner Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin are good examples of this, as are Peter Ackroyd's novels and David Mitchell's Ghostwritten.

So maybe Miéville's dream of literary tolerance, if not political, at least might come true.

In his own words "you start by saying the impossible is real" - and that is exactly what he is doing.

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