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China Miéville talks to Handshake about the ‘endless, accelerated cycle of monstrous creation’ in RPGs, world-building

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Last week at C2E2, I was very fortunate to run into the incredibly talented and humble British author China Miéville after his spotlight presentation, which included a reading of his upcoming book Embassytown. Aside from creating worlds that go beyond what any single genre can encompass (in his “asymptotic” quest for the “completely alien Alien”), Miéville is currently slated to publish a new book every year until 2014 and is currently in talks with Marvel Comics to author a graphic novel as well. At the same time, some fans of his work are working to produce an RPG based on Bas-Lag, the semi-fantastic setting for three of his novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council).

But you can’t find any of this information on his Tumblr. There Miéville only posts artworks/found items he appreciates, terse observations about British politics and artistic (either drawn or written) renderings of his thoughts.

In my interview with Miéville, I attempted to explore the motivations behind his world-building and RPG influences that go into his works. Here is the result:

Handshake: Yesterday, during your spotlight, you talked about the careful planning that goes behind the setting of your works and how you consider your writing to have roots in Dungeons and Dragons. How do you think table-top RPGs such as DnD have informed the world-building in your fiction?

Miéville: Table-top RPGs were a really big part of my cultural growing. I got into DnD Basic when I was 11, I think. And then over the years I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, a lot of Call of Cthulhu and Rune Quest. Chaosium was sort of my main engine for role playing.

I remember two particular things about them impacting me: One is a fascination with the systematization of a world, that everything can be defined in terms of logical rules and statistics. But I think that conceiving a world that way comes at a cost. The thing that we like about the fantastic is the awe, the unknowability. And that drive to systematize is opposite to the unknowability, so there’s a kind of creative tension there that can be productive.

The second thing came from my mania for the bestiaries, the collection of monsters. I share the voracious desire that RPG creators and gamers have to steal fantastic creature from all of the world’s mythologies and to invent their own. It’s an endless, accelerated cycle of monstrous creation. This drive is sort of philistine, and I know because I’m one of them, since it doesn’t care about the folkloric context for a creation. We just want to steal it and systematize it in a game. There’s something refreshingly piratical about that collecting mentality of the unreal.

Handshake: In most RPGs, elements such as religion are an avid gamer’s approach to flavor the experience. How does that translate into how you use religion, for example, to texture the characters and civilizations in your novels?

Miéville: That RPG desire to map everything, to map all the deities of the pantheon and to know all the timelines of events is too complete. There are not enough gray areas in it to comprehend the world. I share this slightly desperate desire, but I think it comes with a cost. My own feeling about its role in cultural creations, such as books and games, is that it gives a very interesting effect, if you come out of that tradition, you can do really interesting things with it, but without its opposite it has a cost. For example, the Cthulhu mythos is all about the unknowable, but to have Azatoth’s stats in front you make you look at it in a completely different way. I love that tension, but I think that surrendering to one side or the other is a bad idea, so I try to oscillate on that tension.

Handshake: Would you still call yourself a gamer?

I haven’t actually gamed in 20 years or something, although I do keep up with their developments. The itch that playing scratched I now do through world creation. I was more interested in creation than moment-to-moment playing, but I would never disavow that part of my past. Any geek who is about my age can say it was an immensely formative part of our lives. Anyone can criticize some aspects of gaming, but it would be pointless and ungrateful to say it wasn’t a very important part of my psyche.

Which is why when someone wanted to make an RPG adaptation of Bas-Lag, I was very flattered and delighted. It’s an incredible honor to think that people would want to play in that world, doing what I did when I was a kid.

Handshake: Going off that idea of people creating within your world, what your opinion of people writing fiction within Bas-Lag or another universe.

Miéville: It’s fine. Making fiction or home-brew games purely for enjoyment doesn’t matter and can only bring people closer to each other and the original work, so I don’t have a problem with it. Now, what I think is true is that there’s an issue of courtesy. I think for somebody to make money off of an author’s work without permission is, aside from being illegal, discourteous.

Fanfic is very interesting, but I do worry a little bit about it keeping those people from creating their own original works. There is not a lot of fanfiction of my stuff, but I’m fine with people entertaining themselves and each other with fanfiction of my work. But I’m much more interested to see them invent something, because I’m much more interested in your worlds. It’s not a judgment, but I hope that fanfiction of my works is not stopping you from doing your own stuff.

Handshake: What if your work inspires someone to create their own worlds?

Miéville: Now that is much more exciting to me. That’s an immense honor. I’m much much more moved by the idea that what I write is part of you writing something unrelated. If someone’s pirating ideas, well that’s what we all do all the time. It’s just not a big deal to me.

Stay tuned for Handshake‘s review of Embassytown, which will come out this May through Del Rey Books.

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