By ALEXANDRA ALTER
Like his genre-bending novels, China Miéville defies easy categorization. With his shaved head, row of earrings and sculpted arms, the 38-year-old British novelist more closely resembles a bodyguard or mixed martial artist than an author who studies linguistic philosophy and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics.
He leapfrogs between literary categories, playing with the narrative conventions of police procedurals, Westerns, sea adventures, urban fantasy and even romance. His 2000 novel, "Perdido Street Station," won British literary prizes in two separate categories, science fiction and fantasy. "City & the City," his take on classic noir, reads like a mash-up of George Orwell and Raymond Chandler—a murder investigation leads a detective to a secret mirror city that is hidden from ordinary view.
China Miéville leapfrogs between literary genres, from Westerns to science fiction.
"I once said I wanted to write a novel in every genre, and I feel duty bound now to do so," he said.
His latest novel, "Embassytown," marks his first foray into straight science fiction. The novel, due out in the U.S. on May 17, takes place on a distant planet that sits on the edge of the known universe. What starts as an intergalactic space romp turns into a meditation on language. Human colonists have developed tenuous relations with the locals: the Ariekei, a winged, insect-like race with two mouths that speak simultaneously. To communicate with them, humans have bred test-tube clones who can speak the double-layered language. Relations grow complicated when the Ariekei, who are incapable of describing something that does not exist, learn to mimic the human capacity for lying.
Mr. Miéville says he first came up with the idea of an alien race with two mouths when he was 11. He resurrected the concept a few years ago when he decided to write "classic interplanetary science fiction," in the tradition of novelists like Ursula Le Guin. Mr. Miéville invented fragments of the alien language ("suhaish" and "ko," said simultaneously, mean please), and read linguistic theory by philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur and I.A. Richards.
An early draft of "Embassytown" read too much like a doctoral thesis on linguistics, so Mr. Miéville refocused his efforts on what he does best: twisty plots, monsters and "spectacle candy." "Embassytown" is filled with fantastical elements such as "gun-animals" and other creature-machine hybrids, and unappetizing sounding futuristic food, like "nutrient-rich pabulum" and "sheets of meatcloth."
Marketing an author who bounces among genres can be tricky, particularly as Mr. Miéville's publishers seek to promote him as a mainstream writer. "We want an element of whatever genre he's focused on, but more the thinking should be upscale, literary and slick," said Del Rey publisher Scott Shannon of the packaging of Mr. Miéville's books. "There's no big rocket ship on the cover."
Mr. Miéville's U.K. publisher is rereleasing eight of his backlist titles with a "unified" modern look to help rebrand him as an author who might appeal to any reader, not just genre fans. "Now that he's established himself as a name, people recognize that what they're getting is a China Miéville book," says Tor U.K.'s editorial director, Julie Crisp. "It doesn't matter if it's science fiction or fantasy or crime or a Western."
Mr. Miéville says he hopes the more generic look will help his books find a broader audience. "The genre audiences are very, very loyal," he said. "The difficulty is reaching beyond to people who say, 'I never read that sort of thing.' "
Friday, May 06, 2011
A Literary Shape-Shifter
Wall Street Journal - Life and Culture: A Literary Shape-Shifter
Posted by Barbara Peterson at 9:02 AM