Genre fiction is sometimes regarded as beneath other forms of literary enterprise, but I think that’s unfortunate. To dismiss certain authors because they write stories that are not firmly planted in the “real” world is to miss out on staggering feats of imagination and mind-expanding ideas. And isn’t that one of the roles of fiction? There are superb writers creating fantastic stories who should not be ignored simply because they veer off the path of the ordinary into the extraordinary.
However, I must admit that until recently I had gone off fantastic stories unless they were somehow anchored in the world we recognize. I needed the sense of place, the grounding in places with which I had a passing familiarity—and thought the realm of high fantasy, the realm of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert had become a little lackluster. Then I discovered China Míeville’s The City & The City on a bookshelf in Beirut. Though set in our present day it created a fictional Balkan city that overlapped with another city in space-time. Its description of two overlapping cities, the residents of each deliberately trying to ignore the other, immediately made me think of Istanbul. The book was compelling enough that I decided I would venture into Perdido Street Station next, the author’s second novel, set in a wholly fictional steam punk universe. I don’t know if this book is a masterpiece or not—I’m not fond of such back page pronouncements—but I can tell you I will read the book again. It unfurls a little languidly at the beginning, making a worthwhile investment in setup, and then becomes one of the most exciting, vivid novels I’ve read in years.
I haven’t yet read all of Mr. Míeville’s works, but I can tell you that he’s an extremely gifted author. His descriptions of cities, real or imagined, are beautifully rendered, full of the grit, grime, scents and smells that bring a place to life on the page. This is an author who understands what cities mean. I recently finished King Rat, his debut novel, which weaves the musical genre of drum n’ bass with the legend of the Pied Piper set in contemporary London. I was completely hooked.
There’s nothing tender or sweet about Míeville’s books. If you’re looking for “likable” characters or soft focus whimsy don’t venture into his worlds. However, if you like staggering feats of imagination, interesting scenarios and writing that’s so vivid you get a taste—sometimes the metallic one of blood—in your mouth, drop by a bookstore and pick up one of Mr. Míeville’s works.