China Miéville explains theology, magic, and why JJ Abrams hates you

Illustration for article titled China Miéville explains theology, magic, and why JJ Abrams hates you

I had a chance to sit down with China Miéville to talk about his latest novel, Kraken, as well as his thoughts on nerd pop culture. Turns out he's got some pretty strong opinions about JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon.

I reviewed Kraken here, and members of the io9 book club already had a chance to chat with Miéville online here, where he answered many of our questions about his previous novel The City & The City at great length, so be sure to check it out.


Because he loves to play with genre conventions, I asked Miéville where he sees Kraken's tale of multiple apocalypse scenarios fitting into the fantasy and science fiction traditions.

He replied:

There's a brilliant bit in Light by M. John Harrison where he has this idea about alien starships that work according to physics that contradict our own - but they all work. I liked the idea of doing a fantastic version of that epistemological anarchy. With contradictory theologies, you're going to end up with a Darwinian struggle of competing truths, or a marketplace of competing truths.

I'm trying to treat that idea fairly cheerfully. Kraken is a comedy. It's a bleak romp, a disorganized comedy. The cult collectors are [part of the humor]. All of these ideas are old fantasy ideas: secret organizations in the police, the squid cult, the end of the world. I wanted to acknowledge they were established ideas and cheerfully riff on them.


In Kraken, Miéville introduces a new magic system, city magic, to the body of magic systems he's already established in previous books. I asked how he saw these systems fitting together.


Miéville explained:

Each big magic system [in my books] is self contained and rigorous. They're literalizations of theories of how the world works. But in Kraken, it feels different. The basis of magic in Kraken is about the persuasiveness of metaphor. If you can say to the universe that this thing is like this other thing and slide from simile to metaphor, the universe will listen and will change its nature. I'm taking the making of connections and literalizing that as a magical force . . . it's sort of a D&Dification of [Thomas] Pyncheon.


Did he think of the competing cults as a metaphor for internecine arguments between leftist groups, which is a topic he's dealt with in previous books? He said no:

Not so much consciously. I'm normally conscious about left political writing, like in The Iron Council. Consciously it was about debates between different theologies. I would like to abjure the comparison between leftist groups and cults.


One of the ideas that Miéville returns to repeatedly in books is the peculiar magic of cities, so I asked him what exactly is the magic of cities to his mind? Why are cities such potent sources of magic in his work?

He replied:

I don't have any fantastic insight, but I think it's simply that cities to varying degrees are amazing palimpsests of history and cultures. They're coagulated together, a mixing of social norms. I like the temporal dislocation of cities, where you get 17th century buildings next to 21st buildings in London. The world is divided between people who like fractured mixed up stuff, and those who like clean aesthetic totality. I'm more the former.

The majority of humanity now live in cities. They are the site of most political and financial drivers - that's just a fact of economy. They are the site of this kind of chaotic aggregation of ideas that's going to translate into a sensation of the fantastic. That's why fantastic city fiction is so strong – it's about translating enchantment into a modern urban environment.


We began to talk about the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, and somehow got onto the topic of JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon. Miéville feels that Abrams' career has been all about marketing, unlike Whedon. He said:

I've never met [JJ Abrams]. I am not a member of his fan club or anti-fan club. I disliked Cloverfield a very great deal. I disliked Star Trek intensely. I thought it was terrible. And I think part of my problem is that I feel like the relationship between JJ Abrams' projects and geek culture is one of relatively unloving repackaging - sort of cynical. I taste contempt in the air. Now I'm not a child - I know that all big scifi projects are suffused with the contempt of big money for its own target audience. But there's something about [JJ's projects] that makes me particularly uncomfortable. As compared to somebody like Joss Whedon, who - even when there are misfires - I feel likes me and loves me and is on some cultural level my brother and comrade. And I don't feel that way about JJ Abrams.


And then, you know I just had to ask Miéville about giant monsters. He's got a terrific giant sea monster in The Scar, and Kraken is filled with giant squid imagery. Turns out he has a special love of the animated Godzilla. Here is what he said - something that could truly only be captured on video:

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I'm glad that I don't have to agree with authors I respect.