Tag Archives: Writing

China Miéville

Fantasy As A Challenge

“When people dis fantasy—mainstream readers and SF readers alike—they are almost always talking about one sub-genre of fantastic literature. They are talking about Tolkien, and Tolkien’s innumerable heirs. Call it ‘epic’, or ‘high’, or ‘genre’ fantasy, this is what fantasy has come to mean. Which is misleading as well as unfortunate.

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés—elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings—have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps—via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on—the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.

Of course I’m not saying that any fan of Tolkien is no friend of mine—that would cut my social circle considerably. Nor would I claim that it’s impossible to write a good fantasy book with elves and dwarfs in it—Michael Swanwick’s superb IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER gives the lie to that. But given that the pleasure of fantasy is supposed to be in its limitless creativity, why not try to come up with some different themes, as well as unconventional monsters? Why not use fantasy to challenge social and aesthetic lies?

Thankfully, the alternative tradition of fantasy has never died. And it’s getting stronger. Chris Wooding, Michael Swanwick, Mary Gentle, Paul di Filippo, Jeff VanderMeer, and many others, are all producing works based on fantasy’s radicalism. Where traditional fantasy has been rural and bucolic, this is often urban, and frequently brutal. Characters are more than cardboard cutouts, and they’re not defined by race or sex. Things are gritty and tricky, just as in real life. This is fantasy not as comfort-food, but as challenge.

The critic Gabe Chouinard has said that we’re entering a new period, a renaissance in the creative radicalism of fantasy that hasn’t been seen since the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, and in echo of which he has christened the Next Wave. I don’t know if he’s right, but I’m excited. This is a radical literature. It’s the literature we most deserve.”

China Miéville


I don’t usually post quotes this long, but as I’ve been working on Coal Belly, and after publishing my essay on problematic fiction this quote from 2002 has been kicking around in my head. (Originally from here, but it’s been modified over the years.)

My work has frequently been described as “difficult to categorize”—and while I label the Bell Forging Cycle as urban fantasy for simplicity, it’s no secret that its more accurate description is much more complicated. I revel in this, genre classification is boring at best and writing dangerous or challenging fiction within the “Next Wave” the “New Weird” or whatever we want to call it is exactly where I want to be as a writer.

💀🦑💀

Ibn Battuta

It Leaves You Speechless

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Ibn Battuta, maybe Ibn Juzayy, potentially someone else


So, I am a big fan of this quote for obvious reasons. However, among scholars, there is some doubt that Ibn Battuta actually said or wrote this. He didn’t take notes on his travels, and much of his work was dictated long afterward to Ibn Juzayy (who plagiarized.) If you want a synopsis of the controversy, I recommend checking out the “Works” subsection of Ibn Battuta’s Wikipedia page as it does a decent job summarizing.

Plagiarization or not, a great many travel blogs still attribute this to Ibn Battuta without so much of a note of doubt. Due diligence is necessary even for quotes, and often the story behind the quote can be more interesting than the quote itself.

Okay, all of that said: controversy-schmontroversy! The quotes still rad and travel is enriching. Get out there. Breath the air. Immerse yourself in worlds beyond your own. You’ll never know what you find.

Coal Belly Draft Zero

So, Coal Belly is Done… Sorta

Last weekend, after a year and eight months, I finally hit print on the final chapter of my latest novel, Coal Belly. The first of what I hope to be a trilogy. Right now, it weighs in at 190k words, and I expect it to grow.

Long time readers know this isn’t the first time I’ve written Coal Belly. The original manuscript emerged in 2010/11—a few years after I moved to Seattle and around the time I started working at Google. In fact, this blog began right after I finished the manuscript as an attempt to document my journey. That first version was around 130k words, and in the end, nothing came of it. It languished on shelves and hard drives for years. Always nagging at me as I worked on and published other projects. I knew there a was a better story there, I just hadn’t found it yet. It wasn’t until early 2016 that I felt I was ready to give it another go.

Coal Belly, Draft Zero, along side pre-manuscript ritual islay scotch and a cigar.
Behold! Coal Belly, Draft Zero sitting alongside my post-manuscript ritual: Islay scotch (in this case Laphroaig 10 yr., often Lagavulin 16 yr.) and a Cuban cigar.

It’s the longest I’ve ever worked on a book. Some elements have remained the same, steamboats still feature prominently in a world covered with rivers, and its weird-west aesthetic persists. But the themes between books are very different. Characters have become something greater, plotlines are better defined and much more complex, and the stakes are personal. Looking back it’s obvious now, and I’m glad I put it aside. That first version was akin to raw ore, and this new manuscript is the refined mineral. It’s a better book in every way.

“That first version was akin to raw ore, and this new manuscript is the refined mineral.”

As always, I took some time over the weekend and commemorated the occasion. I spent most of this last week reflecting on the work, and I’m excited. Coal Belly draft zero is done. The editing lies before me. I go on vacation next week, but soon it’ll be time to delve back into the work while my steam is up.

More on Coal Belly later.


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