According to fantasy author China Miéville, people can be divided into two categories: those who see hulking half-man, half-refrigerator monsters when their girlfriends say the "fridge men" are coming, and those who don't.
But perhaps Miéville is more prone to imagining zany monsters than the average guy. He says they form in his mind at least 10 times an hour, a claim his reputation and readership easily validate. Miéville's newest universe, a multispecies-inhabited Un-London or "Un Lun Dun" (Ballantine Books, $17.95), is both his first work of young adult fiction and the first book to showcase his own illustrations.
"My books are a cross-fertilization of surrealism and a kind of grotesque and weird fiction tradition," says Miéville, who usually has the idea for a setting and a few key monsters before forging ahead into his traditionally intricate labyrinth of plot and character. While he claims that "Un Lun Dun" is not autobiographical, Miéville admits to spending a lot of time as a kid pushing on the insides of wardrobes and searching out worlds of fantasy in other ways. He believes that the classic child's wonderland is an old idea because it's a great one, but in his own writing, that's where the similarity ends.
"Miéville's books are so revolutionary as fiction because he takes standard formats for example the hero's journey then he cuts them in half and shreds them," says Kelly Justice, a longtime Miéville fan and manager of Shockoe Slip's Fountain Bookstore. She devours at least two books by different authors every week.
"You read him for the consistent surprise," Justice says. "You're never going to say, 'I expected that to happen.'"
While a carton of spoiled milk and a tailor with a pincushion head (among many, many others) seeking adventure through universal and political themes are perhaps unusual from a man with a Ph.D. in international law, Miéville's true genius is in his constantly inventive use of the Queen's English.
"I am conscious of the philosophy and politics of language," Miéville says. "Whether or not you can own your words, and then the many different interpretations and nuances of language are definitely present. My adult books tend to be linguistically baroque and dense. But here, often wordplay becomes literalized." In "Un Lun Dun," words do more than describe characters, they are the characters, forming physical bodies, evolving and inverting their own meanings.
Although the overwhelming success of Miéville's second book, "Perdido Street Station," in 2000, when he was 27, thwarted his plans to become a lifelong academic, it also allowed him to have a full-time career as a world-renowned author. An active member of the British Socialist Workers Party, Miéville has to date written, among other things, six novels, a collection of short stories and a book about Marxist theory and international law.
He has wanted to write a young adult book like "Un Lun Dun" for many years, because of the enormous impression books made on him as a child. "Maybe it's psychic grandiosity trying to have such an impact on young people," Miéville says. But given his success rate so far, maybe it's not. S
Fountain Bookstore is sponsoring a reading and signing of "Un Lun Dun" by China Miéville, with a Q&A to follow, at the Richmond Public Library's main branch, 101 E. Franklin St., Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free but required and are available at Fountain Bookstore. Call 788-1594 or visit www.fountainbookstore.com.