[Opinion] World-building? It’s all in the twist — Part 1: China Mieville

I hope you enjoy this first installment of World-building? It’s all in the twist. Sometime in the next couple weeks, we’ll be moving on to another one of my favorite world-building authors, Brandon Sanderson, in part two!

If you have any authors that build worlds that you love, let me know in the comments below! I’ll check them out and maybe feature them in a future part.

SPOILER WARNING: The following may contain spoilers about China’s books!


Fjords? I got a prize for creating those, you know.

World-building is hard. Are you telling me it’s not enough to just have a great plot, kick-ass characters and a lovable, whimsical style, but I have to make an engaging backdrop for it all, too? I mean, I’m no Tolkien — I certainly don’t have the patience or skill required to construct an intricate world full of diverse species and then populate it with four hundred and eighty individually described trees. Even if Tolkien sub-contracted out most of the hard work to Gandalf, he still had to go ahead and invent the entire Elvish language for the Grey Wizard’s spells, right? A typical world-building session for me goes something more along these lines:

100% accurate transcript from a real conversation I had*

FRIEND: …and that’s why a gremoblin shouldn’t be a thing.

ME: I couldn’t agree more. Oh, hey, so I’m working on a new book — this one’s gonna be a cracker of a read.

FRIEND (sighing): Yeah? What is it this time, microscopic rhinoceroses battling zebras for supremacy of red blood cells?

ME: No, no, way better! See, so the world is just like ours, except in the future, and everybody carries around piñatas.

FRIEND: This place exists. It’s called Mexico.

ME: Ha ha. But these piñatas, they contain people’s souls, right, and no one can die unless you stab their piñata with a sword. Like Highlander.

FRIEND: Scottish Mexico?

ME: Sort of. But in the future.

Coincidentally, keep an eye out for my new work Llamas with Piñatas 2: The Returnening, hitting bookshelves near you this summer.

Now, admittedly, most authors aren’t Tolkien (or, thankfully, me), but some of them nonetheless manage to succeed in building enthralling landscapes that complement and enhance their overall story. As you’ve just witnessed, this is an incredibly impressive feat, and with this series I want to take a closer look at some of the sci-fi and fantasy authors who I consider to be the best that I’ve come across. So without further ado, let’s talk about China Miéville.

China Miéville likes cities. A lot. He likes cities so much that one of his books, The City & The City, has the word “city” twice in the title. China sees urban settings everywhere: an endless expanse of train rails? Dot it with city-islands. London? Okay, but let’s put a city beneath London, except in a sort of alternate dimension where lost stuff filters through, and call it an ab-city. A bunch of ships? More like a floating city! But keep the pirates. And add horrific mosquito-people.

Alright, great, we get it. The man is obsessed with cities, but urban-centric literature where the setting closely influences the plot is certainly nothing new, especially not in the realm of science fiction. We’ve all read Curious George Goes to the Hospital, right? What makes China so special?

All of China’s settings possess brutal politics, even his relatively young-reader-friendly novel Un Lun Dun. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who published a PhD thesis on Marxism, China’s worlds are plagued by absurd and crippling bureaucracies, racial tensions, police-state regimes and a staggering host of other political, economic and social maladies that permeate and pollute the lives of their denizens. In Perdido Street Station, the first of his wonderful Bas-Lag saga, militia towers rule the city skyline and criminals are punished with horrific Remakings that alter their bodies in grotesque ways. In The City & The City, two cities occupy the same physical space but are considered foreign countries, where those who ‘breach’ by acknowledging or interacting with any part or person of the other city get abducted by a mysterious alien force, never to be heard from again. China’s inventiveness in constructing these bizarre dystopian worlds is devious and thrilling, the worlds themselves almost Lovecraftian in nature — a connection the author actively encourages, frequently referring to his own work as “weird fiction” after the pulp writers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

For me though, it’s not just what he says but how he says it. China Miéville loves the English language. If you open up any of his books to a random page, you’ll be struck by sentences that are delicious to read, sometimes holding made-up words that are nonetheless immediately obvious in meaning. Here’s a few:

Manihiki naval officers lounger in uniform, half on duty, half on display, half flirting with passerby. Yes, the maths was correct: such swagger could only be made up of three halves. They might bellow an instruction to a passing kid, or intervene in some minor altercation with tough, sanctioned panache.” (Railsea)

Past a copse of twisted trees there was a sofa and several chairs in front of a television, burrowed through by voles and little digging beasts and wound around with leaves. The TV was on with the sound turned down. Through the ivy that criss-crossed its screen, it lit the clearing with the colours of a game show.” (Un Lun Dun)

Dump Two was surrounded by unconvincing barbed wire, rusted through, broken and torn, deep in the coil of the Griss Twist, surrounded on three sides by the sinuous Tar… A landscape not urban, not created by design or chance, an agglutination of waste remains left to rot, that had subsided and settled into random formations…” (Perdido Street Station)

While it’s true that China’s books sometimes contain excessive language and could be criticized for being difficult to read because of it, for the most part his words paint vivid, evocative pictures that, whether dripping and sordid or breathtakingly picturesque, conjure up very tangible and real images in my mind as I read. Personally, I rarely ever find myself getting bogged down in the description, which tends to be the sticking point for a lot of other ambitious but ultimately mediocre fantasy. China’s juicy descriptions come when they’re needed and never interrupt the flow. I should point out, for the sake of balance, that one thing which can slow down the reading process are the unusual and plain bizarre images he presents — I’ll occasionally find myself going back over the last few sentences to appreciate the magnitude of the weirdness involved:

The specimens mindlessly concentrated, some posing with their own colourless guts. Flatfish in browning tanks. Jars of huddled mice gone sepia, grotesque mouthfuls like pickled onions. There were sports with excess limbs, foetuses in arcane shapes. They were as carefully shelved as books.” (Kraken)

On the other hand, this never really feels like a chore — it’s not so much that I haven’t understood an image, more so that I want to read it over again and re-revel in the picture. I admit that it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, since I am a self-confessed word junkie and take an inordinate amount of pleasure out of such finely crafted phrases. Results may vary; let the reader beware!

When it comes to world-building — and general literary excellence — China Miéville is without a doubt one of my favorite authors. His flair for twisted urban landscapes filters through in each and every one of his books, and his writing while urban is also urbane. I highly recommend you check him out — if you’re looking for a place to start, try Perdido Street Station, or, if you want something a bit lighter, pick up a copy of Un Lun Dun as I did, a few years ago. You won’t be disappointed.

*Just yesterday, I swear!**

** The author swears no such thing.

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