China Miéville shares his fascination with the otherworldly for Zell Visiting Writers Series

Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 7:28pm

Some people walk into a room with the swagger and confidence that shows they want everyone else to know how smart they are. These are the lecturers who love the sound of their own voice, the intellectuals who direct every topic back to their own accolades. They may well be brilliant, but God knows they won’t let you forget it.

British author China Miéville’s visit to the University of Michigan last week was like a photo negative of this ego-driven attitude. As the new distinguished international writer-in-residence for the Zell Visiting Writers Series, Miéville appeared at a rash of campus events all week, addressing everything from “World War Z” to the Brexit debate. The writer has rocketed to the top of his field — it was a coup for the program to get him, and this was reflected in strong attendance at every event he visited. Yet Miéville, a tall, bald man with sleeve tattoos peeking from underneath a sharp gray suit, may be the most modest genius of his generation.

Throughout the week’s events, Miéville remained unassuming and refreshingly humble. At one Q&A, he hung by the side for a few minutes while he was introduced. Everyone looked expectantly at him as he lingered offstage and then glanced around in surprise: “Should I come on now?” he asked. He sat down onstage, the talk started and everyone remembered just why they were here. Miéville’s every response was so interesting, so original, that it was a little startling.

Humble demeanor or not, this should come as no surprise. After all, Miéville is one of the literary world’s most dazzlingly creative minds, penning everything from speculative fiction to graphic novels to Marxist analyses. His fiction alone spans every genre — he has said he plans to write a novel of every stripe — allowing each new published work to win a different type of award. Several have won “Best Fantasy Novel,” another received the “Bram Stoker” horror award and yet others bring home top honors in science fiction, including a Hugo award.

“I started loving monsters as a kid, and then post-facto trying to understand why that was. I have a great fidelity to my own obsessions,” he said on at his event on Tuesday, Oct. 4. “The things that I’m interested in, generally I have been interested in for a long time.”

This fascination with the otherworldly has led Miéville down dark and divergent paths, sometimes surreal, with distant echoes of the ghosts that haunt our own world. This requires both insight and a powerful imagination, something that science fiction has always inspired in the writer.

“One of the paradoxes of science fiction is that it’s obsessed with the idea of the alien (the unimaginable), when the alien can’t really be depicted,” he explained. “Science fiction both knows this and disavows it with various degrees of élan.”

Much of Miéville’s work draws upon not just the monsters of his imagination, but the utopias and dystopias within our political realities. He has been an active and vocal socialist for years, involved in international organizations and even Marxist theory. Miéville brings this perspective, as well as his educational experience with anthropology, into every facet of his oeuvre.

“I am someone committed to a post-capitalist world,” he said.

This doesn’t always influence his work in the ways one would think it would — don’t go looking for any Upton Sinclair-style propaganda passages. What it does contribute, though, is a tendency to see possible realities in the unreal, in what seems impossible to envision. As Marx argued that his society must look beyond capitalism to escape, Miéville somehow crafts escape hatches in places we never would have noticed: in monsters, and slums, linguistic theory and the Wild West.

There are difference types of brilliance, such as gifted thinkers, who form ideas so unique it seems they could have sprung from their mind alone, or talented orators, who have a way with words and so on. Miéville, a rarity, has both, allowing him to translate truly fascinating ideas into speech and text in a way that is all his own. Whatever the topic of discussion last week, his combination of mental richness and lyrical clarity shone through.