The literature of China Mieville has become recognizable to many fantasy fans as the icon of the strange, often dark, wave of avant-garde fiction popularly branded “New Weird” or “Slipstream.” Historically, the broad term (weird fiction) is most often associated with H. P. Lovecraft, and if you’re familiar with his work, you might get an idea of how this category of fiction deserved these names. If you’re not, well, you’re probably a much saner person for it.
Seeing as how sanity doesn’t alway describe me, I was enthralled by the last Mieville book I read: The Scar. It’s a curious blend of Slipstream fiction (Slipstream usually combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror) and Steampunk era speculative fiction that, like its companion novel, Perdido Street Station, refuses to be pigeon-holed into a specific category. With Perdido, I felt like the novel got under my skin with a greater use of horror than anything else, but The Scar is a more balanced piece.
Simply put, it was one of the greatest adventure stories I’ve ever read. Fascinating at it’s slowest points, terrifying at its multiple climaxes, massively grotesque; The Scar is a concoction that can’t be explained easily. I took to avoiding reading it in public places where people might ask me about the book. Not because I was ashamed, but because the inconvenience of trying to describe what it was about to anyone who has little experience with speculative fiction got tiresome. There’s nothing adequate to compare it to.
Mieville’s ability to create impossible settings and cityscapes leaves images in my mind that can never be erased. They’re just too dang impressive. In The Scar a ship on its way back to the city in which Perdido takes place get’s commandeered by pirates and assimilated into another city – Armada, the floating cityscape of ships that moves slowly across the seas, plundering and growing. The author has built an entire culture around Armada, and I could have read hundreds of pages worth of sheer explanation. By the end of the book, the city itself has become a believable character, and despite its dubious moral system, you’re rooting for it anyway.
What makes the book New Weird? Even after immersing yourself in the genre, it’s hard to pinpoint what might fall under the label. It’s difficult to capture and assess levels of imagination, but New Weird strives to embrace a higher tier of imagination, pulling itself further away from a recognizable universe and the usual fantasy tropes. The New Weird author kicks down some boundaries that would never be visible to others.
This is a helpful broadening of ideas for any writer. Perhaps that aspect that New Weird and speculative fiction contains at its heart – the thing that most defines it – is the ability to press readers out of their comfort zones. Mieville himself touches on this point in an interview about his novel, Railsea.
“In an ideal world you’d hope you’re pushing readers enjoyably out of comfort zones with all sorts of things.”
As much as I dislike bland categorizations, they’re necessary for many reasons, and a book might cross over into multiple territories and tread several different waters, but at the end of the day we give it a label (that’s not to say people don’t argue endlessly and pointlessly). And New Weird was a label people invented for books they simply couldn’t classify, giving it an almost-joke name and setting people who read it up for failure in coffee shops.