There are worlds where superimposed city-states fight invisible wars and where outposts at the fringe of a barely-understood universe struggle to stay united despite impossible language barriers. There is a planet where scientists battle moths that eat dreams, where underground crime is conducted by ganglords with too many limbs, and where interdimensional spider-beings speak in unending free-verse—they call this place Bas-Lag.
In fact, all of these places have names—they’ve already been written by the immensely talented and infinitely creative author, China Miéville. A life growing up in London informs much of his work, as many of his novels are centered on complex and fantastical city life. Miéville is a self-described “weird fiction” author, although his work is typically considered to be a blend of science-fiction and urban fantasy.
Most science-fiction/fantasy readers will be most familiar with Perdido Street Station, the first entry in a collection of works set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag. These novels tend to focus on one city in particular, New Crobuzon, but the history is meticulously crafted for both this singular city and the larger world of which it is a part. Fully formed political systems, with their own dissidents and conformists, operate across separate continents, influencing everything the characters do. And as far as characters are concerned, anything goes—aside from the aforementioned poetry spider, Bas-Lag is home to a variety of humans, alien races, cactus people, scarab women, and elemental golems, each with their own languages and histories.
Just as richly developed is the setting for the novel Embassytown, the titular outpost where humans interact with aliens known as the Ariekei. Called “Hosts” by those native to the outpost, the aliens of this novel are truly alien—they talk using two mouths at once, and there is no abstract thought or symbolism in their Language (so unique are their linguistics, that everyone refers to it using a capital L). They also cannot understand anything that does not speak using this mode of communication, which is the reason Embassytown ambassadors are two mind-linked identical twins who speak as one. With this complicated backstory, Miéville crafts an intense and emotionally resonant tale involving biological cities, spacecraft that travel through sub-reality, and a multitude of bizarre nuances to alien language that show just how thoughtful and methodical Miéville is as a writer.
The final novel, The City and the City, is an odd case—despite being neither a true science-fiction novel nor a true fantasy novel, it managed to win both the Arthur C. Clarke award and the World Fantasy Award. The novel is grounded in reality far more than the others and is set in the city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma, vaguely European nations largely disconnected, politically and economically, from today’s countries. The two cities occupy the same geographic area but are entirely separate entities with their own designated colors, mannerisms, and language. Citizens of one city must “unsee” the citizens of the other—interaction or acknowledgement between the two in any way invokes “Breach”, a powerful entity that operates above the laws of either city. The implications of this dynamic are enormous and the detective-noir story that unfolds takes full advantage of them all. This is a world where crossing the street can be international travel, where pedestrians are forbidden from avoiding cars that are illegal to see, and where inter-city war is held at bay by mysterious forces no one completely understands.
It may sound like I’m merely gushing, and truthfully, I am—but more importantly, I want writers out there who share my passion for Miéville’s work to start taking advantage of these immense worlds that have so many more stories to tell. Discovering new and exciting established universes to expand and contribute to is often difficult, but China Miéville ensures that a large amount of them can be found in one place.
Now that you know about these extravagant settings, there’s nothing else to do but start writing, or start reading, if you’ve never read a China Miéville novel before. The point is—it’s your turn.