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The megabus rockets down the New Jersey Turnpike towards Philadelphia. I'm sitting in the front row on the top level and I have to say, there's nothing quite like traveling in this way. It's as if you're riding a large air-conditioned elephant; you feel every bump and rattle, but the view is fantastic.

About twenty hours ago, I met China Mieville in a small bar in Brooklyn. The man is absolutely amazing - articulate, intelligent, and extremely kind. He read a rather esoteric passage from his latest novel Embassytown and promised the audience of about sixty people that it would all make sense when we finished the book.

There was an amusing moment when Les Grossman walked onstage to begin the interview portion of the event. Grossman is white and bald -- save for China's tattoos and the fact that Mr. Mieville looks like he could bench a truck, the two could have been brothers.

Grossman began by asking a few questions about Embassytown - with an emphasis on comparison to China's earlier work.

Obviously, Embassytown primarily focuses on themes of language and how language defines us - building on philosophies espoused by Søren Kierkegaard while also homaging authors that influenced the young Mieville such as Ursula le Guin and M Thomas Harding. Mieville would go on to explain that the beauty of fiction is that you can play with grand philosophical notions while also having "spaceships and exciting chases and so on."

For Mieville, language has been a fascination from a young age and as such has played a role in many of his books, notably The Scar and Kraken. However, now that he has written a book primarily about languages, he doubts that he will revisit language with such focus again, much as how he doubts he will write another book as political as Iron Council again until he had something to say on the subject to avoid being "camp."

China does not have the same sort of anatomical understanding of the Hosts, the two-mouthed aliens of Embassytown, as he does the many fantastic races in his New Crobuzon (anti-)trilogy written during his "Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) phase." A D&D enthusiast since age 12, Mieville recently licensed a Bas Lag RPG although he doubts he will return to the universe in a literary sense. Mieville believes one problem that plagues fantasy writers and readers is that too frequently, one stops enjoying a setting and starts living that setting. For example, Mieville referenced a "bad time" when he watched Buffy because he was so enamored with the setting.

At the mention of Buffy, an audience member or two whooped; judging by Mieville's expression, it was this exact moment that confirmed his suspicion that he was surrounded by dorks - a suspicion doubtlessly raised by the enthusiastic response he received when he revealed he played a Chaotic Good Ranger in D&D as a lad.

China sported a new tattoo at the event. The new "skulltopus" is a small tribute to the idea of death (skull) meeting the ineffable (octopus). China briefly flexed his immense knowledge of octopuses ("not octopi, how's that for a mindfuck?") but refrained from going into great depth for fear of being too dry.

An audience member, impressed with China's ability to describe the indescribable queried where China himself has experienced the ineffable. Given the phrasing of the question, I nearly expected a recommendation for where to get rolls of acid on the cheap, but as Mieville would later quote Kipling while signing my book: "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug."

Mieville explained how man has always been searching for the sublime, how Romantic poets would climb tall mountains and be overwhelmed by by the vast countryside stretching beneath them. Personally, China Mieville finds the sublime in several writers, not just weird fiction by the likes of Lovecraft, but also in Jane Eyre.
Go figure.

The audience was the biggest disappointment of the night.

The crowd was predominantly white and predominantly male, but not as male as I expected. There were many couples in attendance and I wasn't enough of a creeper to figure out who dragged whom to the event. The median age, as far as I could tell, was late twenties/early thirties; the average dragged up by four or five persons whom I would liberally describe as "old people."
China referred to the venue Public Assembly as a punk bar. If that is the case, none of the regular clientele were there. It's safe to say that everyone there deserved to be shoved into a locker at some point in their life - Mieville himself acknowledged "none of us are cool."

I was surprised to discover that many audience members were only casual fans of Mieville; some only came to add another autographed book to their collection. I could tell many did not agree with Mieville's political views, worse, it seemed some were amused by them. One question clumsily attempted to get a rise out of Mieville ("do you feel guilty making money"), as if political radicals were capuchins in small cages that will throw shit at the sight of a peanut. China handled the situation with aplomb, answering that while he felt guilty about a lot of things, he had no difficulty reconciling his profession with this political leanings.

I sounded like a tool when I finally got to meet Mieville personally. I told him I was from Philadelphia and that I rather hoped that Orciny was real. In the gentlest terms possible, he told me that was kind of the point. Hoping to recover some dignity, I babbled a heartfelt thanks to him for what he has done for the genre - avoiding such outdated tropes as Chosen Ones and the superiority of monarchies and he thanked me and then I wandered for an hour through Brooklyn looking for my friend's flat.

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Three Little Birds

August 2011

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