The London Fortean Society, of all people, will be hosting a talk called “Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact” by Antony Clayton, author of the fascinating book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, on March 9. “So-called secret tunnels are a subject of perennial interest,” we read. “Are there really labyrinths of hidden passageways under our ancient buildings, towns and cities, or are these tunnel tales another seam of England’s rich folklore?” See, for example, BLDGBLOG’s earlier look at the Peterborough tunnels. There is still time to get on a waiting list for tickets. For what it’s worth, I also referred to Clayton’s book in my recent essay for The Daily Beast about the Hatton Garden heist. (Event originally spotted via @urbigenous).
Blogger Andrew Ray of Some Landscapes recently re-read The Wind in the Willows to his son, stumbling on “an intriguing passage that I’d forgotten all about, concerning Badger’s large underground home.” It is a scene where “the idea of the city has been literally buried,” where, “civilisations decline but nature endures,” an underground world of ruined architecture and vaulted halls disguised as forests.
Speaking of cracks in space-time, an urban legend I love is the one about a tomb in Brompton Cemetery, London, allegedly designed by Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi and rumored to be a time machine.
[Image: Via The Clerkenwell Kid].
He is also generally considered to have been the designer of the Egyptian styled “Courtoy” tomb in Brompton cemetery which was ostensibly intended to be the final resting place of “three spinsters”. An interesting legend has grown up around this mausoleum because it is the only one in the cemetery for which there is no record of construction. This, together with Bonomi’s obsession with the afterlife (reflected in the hieroglyphs on the tomb), have been held by some to be evidence that it is not a tomb at all but a time machine and that the three spinsters, if they existed at all, were in fact his time travelling sponsors.
The correct question to ask here is not: is this true? Is this tomb really a time machine? The correct question to ask here is: how freaking cool is this?
The Clerkenwell Kid then goes one better, however, claiming that this urban legend is wrong—because it isn’t ambitious enough.
In fact, we’re told, the tomb was actually one of five such chambers, designed and constructed by Bonomi in an occult conspiracy with his colleague, Samuel Alfred Warner.
[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, courtesy of the British Museum].
“Amongst several other inventions,” the Kid tells us, “Warner claimed to have developed a mysterious missile capable of destroying ships from a distance”:
The Royal Navy were convinced enough by his demonstrations to pay him to develop this new weaponry but proved unable to reproduce his results independently. This was because what Warner had allegedly discovered (with the help of ancient knowledge gained by Bonomi in Egypt) was an occult way of “teleporting” a bomb a short distance—I suppose you could call it a “psychic torpedo.”
Again, the interest for me here is not whether or not people actually were teleporting themselves—let alone submarine torpedoes!—back and forth through time using Egyptological monuments hidden in London cemeteries.
The interest for me, instead, is at least two-fold: one, how awesome a story this is, and how much I want to tell everyone about it, and, two, how urban infrastructure always seems to inspire, catalyze, or emblematically come to represent these sorts of unexpected narrative investments.
We could say it’s the paranoia of infrastructure: the belief that there is always a bigger story we don’t know, or that someone deliberately isn’t telling us, about how our cities came to be the way they are today. We see this in everything from the water-theft politics of Chinatown to the high-speed rail conspiracies of True Detective Season 2, to this teleportation chamber disguised in plain sight in Brompton Cemetery.
The fact that this story has an atmosphere of the occult only makes literal the notion that the real histories of our cities, the true tales of backstage deals, hidden interests, and untold corruption that made them what they are, have been purposefully obscured from us—they have been occulted—by mysterious figures who prefer we don’t know.
It’s as if narrative paranoia is the default note of infrastructural investigation.
[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a “Stela fragment of Horiaa,” courtesy of the British Museum].
In any case, The Clerkenwell Kid keeps upping the ante. Remember those five teleportation chambers? Well, there were actually seven!
In dark collaboration, this legend goes, Bonomi and Warner set about constructing “a transportation grid around London” that would “reduce the time taken to travel the large distances of the vast, congested metropolis. To this end they built seven Egyptian teleportation chambers in the most suitable places they could find—in each of the seven new cemeteries that had been built in the capital from 1839.”
The Kid has a great phrase for this, referring to it as “the London funerary teleportation grid.” Surrounding the city like a seven-pointed star, these tombs formed a kind of mortuarial diagram—an urban-scale morbid force-field—that could zap people back and forth through Greenwich space-time.
I’s worth pointing out, however, that the rumors continue, leaking beyond the borders of Old Blighty, to suggest that there is yet another such transportation monument—but it’s over the English Channel, in Paris.
Even within the complicated mythology of these urban legends, this Parisian tomb is an outlier, but it brings with it an interesting plot development. That is, under the cover of developing something like a primitive military radar system that could protect the English Channel from foreign invasion, occult architects and Egyptologists were actually bilking the defense establishment to amass funds and construct this teleportation grid, scattered throughout the war-shadowed cemeteries of western Europe.
[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of the “Coffin of Tpaeus,” courtesy of the British Museum].
Now all we need to do is uncover an undocumented Egyptian tomb somewhere in a rainy Swiss mountain churchyard or in the fog-shrouded hills outside Turin, perhaps designed by a bastard child of Bonomi, and we can help keep this urban legend alive…
Until then, for more information check out these three posts over at The Clerkenwell Kid.
Artist Katie Holten—who participated in “Landscapes of Quarantine” a few years back—has just published an interesting book called About Trees.
It is essentially an edited compilation of texts about, yes, trees, but also about forests, landscapes of the anthropocene, unkempt wildness, altered ecosystems, and, more broadly speaking, the idea of nature itself.
It ranges from short texts by Robert Macfarlane—recently discussed here—to James Gleick, and from Amy Franceschini to Natalie Jeremijenko. These join a swath of older work by Jorge Luis Borges, with even Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”) thrown in for good measure.
It’s an impressively nuanced selection, one that veers between the encyclopedic and the folkloric, and it has been given a great and memorable graphic twist by the fact that Holten, working with designer Katie Brown, generated a new font using nothing less than the silhouettes of trees.
Every letter of the alphabet corresponds to a specific species of tree.
This has been put to good use, re-setting the existing texts using this new font—with the delightful effect of seeing the work of Jorge Luis Borges transcribed, in effect, into trees.
This has the awesome implication that someone could actually plant this: a typographic forestry of Borges translations.
[Image: Borges, translated into trees, from About Trees].
Speculative short stories realized as ornamental thickets in the backyards of arboreally inclined landowners.
Given all the urban parks, hedge mazes, and scientifically accurate themed gardens of the world—two of my favorites being the exquisite Silver Garden at Longwood Gardens and the scifi otherworldliness of the Desert Garden at the Huntington—surely there is room for a kind of translation landscape?
Stories and fables—koans, slogans, poems, wisecracks—planted as cryptoforests, literary labyrinths you could somehow, impossibly, read provided you know what each species is meant to signify.
Just take Holten’s typeface as a new kind of planting guide, and see what landscapes might result.
[Image: From About Trees].
Holten’s About Trees is available for purchase, of course, if you want to check it out; in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someone actually implements a typographic grove somewhere, a planted language of texts flipped into readable tree-signs, sequenced using the font from About Trees.
In fact, recall the myth of Odin discovering the Nordic runes: hanging upside-down from a tree and mistaking, in the especially complicated carpet of roots sprawled out beneath him, the beginnings of a new typeface, an arboreal symbol system that could be written down and shared with others. Runes came from roots—and, as Holten implies, every tree contains a library.
[Image: The Very Low Frequency antenna field at Cutler, Maine, a facility for communicating with at-sea submarine crews].
There have been about a million stories over the past few weeks that I’ve been dying to write about, but I’ll just have to clear through a bunch here in one go.
1) First up is a fascinating request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, who is looking to build a “Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation.” It has the handy acronym of POSYDON.
POSYDON will be “an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning” in the deep ocean either for crewed submarines or for autonomous seacraft. “DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin,” but I imagine there is some room for creative maneuvering there.
The idea of an acoustic deep-sea positioning system that operates similar to GPS is pretty interesting to imagine, especially considering the strange transformations sound undergoes as it is transmitted through water. To establish accurately that a U.S. submarine has, in fact, heard an acoustic beacon and that its apparent distance from that point is not being distorted by intervening water temperature, ocean currents, or even the large-scale presence of marine life is obviously quite an extraordinary challenge.
As DARPA points out, without such a system in place, “undersea vehicles must regularly surface to receive GPS signals and fix their position, and this presents a risk of detection.” The ultimate goal, then, would be to launch ultra-longterm undersea missions, even establish permanently submerged robotic networks that have no need to breach the ocean’s surface. Cthulhoid, they will forever roam the deep.
[Image: An unmanned underwater vehicle; U.S. Navy photo by S. L. Standifird].
If you think you’ve got what it takes, click over to DARPA and sign up.
2) A while back, I downloaded a free academic copy of a fascinating book called Space-Time Reference Systems by Michael Soffel and Ralf Langhans.
Their book “presents an introduction to the problem of astronomical–geodetical space–time reference systems,” or radically offworld navigation reference points for when a craft is, in effect, well beyond any known or recognizable landmarks in space. Think of it as a kind of new longitude problem.
The book is filled with atomic clocks, quasars potentially repurposed as deep-space orientation beacons, the long-term shifting of “astronomical reference frames,” and page after page of complex math I make no claim to understand.
However, I mention this here because the POSYDON program is almost the becoming-cosmic of the ocean: that is, the depths of the sea reimagined as a vast and undifferentiated space within which mostly robotic craft will have to orient themselves on long missions. For a robotic submarine, the ocean is its universe.
3) The POSYDON program is just one part of a much larger militarization of the deep seas. Consider the fact that the U.S. Office of Naval Research is hoping to construct permanent “hubs” on the seafloor for recharging robot submarines.
These “hubs” would be “unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected—and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks.” Hubs will be places where “unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way.”
“You could keep this continuous swarm of UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] wherever you wanted to put them… basically indefinitely, as long as you’re rotating (some) out periodically for mechanical issues,” a Naval war theorist explained to Breaking Defense.
The ultimate vision is a kind of planet-spanning robot constellation: “The era of lone-wolf submarines is giving away [sic] to underwater networks of manned subs, UUVs combined with seafloor infrastructure such as hidden missile launchers—all connected to each other and to the rest of the force on the surface of the water, in the air, in space, and on land.” This would include, for example, the “upward falling payloads” program described on BLDGBLOG a few years back.
Even better, from a military communications perspective, these hubs would also act as underwater relay points for broadcasting information through the water—or what we might call the ocean as telecommunications medium—something that currently relies on ultra-low frequency radio.
There is much more detail on this over at Breaking Defense.
4) Last summer, my wife and I took a quick trip up to Maine where we decided to follow a slight detour after hiking Mount Katahdin to drive by the huge antenna field at Cutler, a Naval communications station found way out on a tiny peninsula nearly on the border with Canada.
[Image: The antenna field at Cutler, Maine].
We talked to the security guard for a while about life out there on this little peninsula, but we were unable to get a tour of the actual facility, sadly. He mostly joked that the locals have a lot of conspiracy theories about what the towers are actually up to, including their potential health effects—which isn’t entirely surprising, to be honest, considering the massive amounts of energy used there and the frankly otherworldly profile these antennas have on the horizon—but you can find a lot of information about the facility online.
So what does this thing do? “The Navy’s very-low-frequency (VLF) station at Cutler, Maine, provides communication to the United States strategic submarine forces,” a January 1998 white paper called “Technical Report 1761” explains. It is basically an east coast version of the so-called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that “would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin,” turning the Cheese State into a giant military antenna.
Cutler’s role in communicating with submarines may or may not have come to an end, making it more of a research facility today, but the idea that, even if this came to an end with the Cold War, isolated radio technicians on a foggy peninsula in Maine were up there broadcasting silent messages into the ocean that were meant to be heard only by U.S. submarine crews pinging around in the deepest canyons of the Atlantic is both poetic and eerie.
[Image: A diagram of the antennas, from the aforementioned January 1998 research paper].
The towers themselves are truly massive, and you can easily see them from nearby roads, if you happen to be anywhere near Cutler, Maine.
In any case, I mention all this because behemoth facilities such as these could be made altogether redundant by autonomous underwater communication hubs, such as those described by Breaking Defense.
5) “The robots are winning!” Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. The opening paragraphs of his essay are is awesome, and I wish I could just republish the whole thing:
We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:
…He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.
These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.
Mendelsohn goes on to discuss “the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil,” and it seems incredibly interesting to read it in the context of DARPA’s now even more aptly named POSYDON program and the permanent undersea hubs of the Office of Naval Research. Click over to The New York Review of Books for the whole thing.
6) If the oceanic is the new cosmic, then perhaps the terrestrial is the new oceanic.
The Independent reported last month that magnetically powered underground robot “moles”—effectively subterranean drones—could potentially be used to ferry objects around beneath the city. They are this generation’s pneumatic tubes.
The idea would be to use “a vast underground network of pipes in a bid to bypass the UK’s ever more congested roads.” The company’s name? What else but Mole Solutions, who refer to their own speculative infrastructure as a network of “freight pipelines.”
[Image: Courtesy of Mole Solutions].
Taking a page from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, though, perhaps these subterranean robot constellations could be given “hubs” and terrestrial beacons with which to orient themselves; combine with the bizarre “self-burying robot” from 2013, and declare endless war on the surface of the world from below.
See more at the Independent.
7) Finally, in terms of this specific flurry of links, Denise Garcia looks at the future of robot warfare and the dangerous “secrecy of emerging weaponry” that can act without human intervention over at Foreign Affairs.
She suggests that “nuclear weapons and future lethal autonomous technologies will imperil humanity if governed poorly. They will doom civilization if they’re not governed at all.” On the other hand, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, we have, in a sense, been dealing with the threat of a robot apocalypse since someone first came up with the myth of Hephaestus.
Garcia’s short essay covers a lot of ground previously seen in, for example, Peter Singer’s excellent book Wired For War; that’s not a reason to skip one for the other, of course, but to read both. See more at Foreign Affairs.
(Thanks to Peter Smith for suggesting we visit the antennas at Cutler).
[Image: Grimm City University from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
Later this summer, London’s Flea Folly Architects—Pascal Bronner & Thomas Hillier—will be running a workshop in what they broadly call “narrative architecture” at the Tate Modern.
“What would a town inhabited by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Man Ray look like?” they ask. “Taking inspiration from works in the Tate collection, in particular the speculative etchings by architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin and paintings by the Surrealists, our objective is to design and build a fictional miniature village made entirely from paper.”
Their own project, Grimm City, is perhaps an example of what might result.
[Image: The Barometer from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
As architect CJ Lim describes it in his introduction to the project in a gorgeously produced, limited print-run hardcover catalog, as “Grimm City is a future state derived from architectural extrapolations of the fairytales by the Brothers Grimm.”
That is, it is an elaborate narrative disguised as a city—a story given urban form.
[Image: The Bremen Town-Musicians from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
Bronner and Hillier explain that the “blueprint” for their city was “conceived in ink exactly 200 years ago,” and “was shaped by 86 magnificent tales collected by two of the most distinguished storytellers of their time.”
They are referring, of course, to the Brothers Grimm.
[Images: Two views of the Church and the neighboring Destruction Structure from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
Briefly, in what now feels like another lifetime, when I was backpacking through Germany after graduating from college, I made a beeline to the small city of Marburg after reading that it was a university town overlooked by an 11th-century fort—and that it was also once home to the Brothers Grimm.
I showed up by train and spent a few days there, mostly reading Grimm stories, feeding ducks, and walking around the roads that spiraled up to the castle; and I later learned, with equal interest, that one of the weird coincidences of history would make Marburg the same city where a strain of hemorrhagic fever would be isolated.
The disease, which is now rather straight-forwardly called Marburg, seems a fittingly strange continuation of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, in terms of the dark and often fatal transformations humans can undergo.
In any case, Grimm City is an architectural translation of their various stories, plots, allegories, and characters, and it took on a life of its own. “With enormous spinning wheels, tower-like limbs and turrets for claws, it began to resemble a machine that had been unjustly woken from its deep slumber,” they write.
[Image: The Timber Factory from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
At times visually reminiscent of Aldo Rossi or even John Hejduk, the black diagrams are unexpectedly carnivalesque, monochromatic yet fizzing with lively detail.
There are structures such as The Ink Factory, a Silver Forest (made entirely of money-producing slot machines, eg. a forest where silver grows), an economic Barometer spinning over the city, and a school of thieves and burglary.
[Image: The Ink Factory from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
There are also banks, churches, and a “windowless monolith” filled with forensic evidence of the city’s crimes.
Then, tacked way at the top of massive stairways so inclined they look like ladders, there are Confession Booths where the city’s sins are meant to be narrated and explained.
[Image: The Confession Booths from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
Your exposure and isolation in ascending to the Booths is part of the process: a confessional infrastructure that compels one toward self-incrimination.
Elsewhere, there’s The Morning Star, a kind of heliogenic megabulb that hangs over the city, casting shadows and making time, burning at the center of an urban calendar that guides the lives of those living in the streets below.
[Image: The Morning Star from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
And, finally, there is a huge plateau known as The Golden Compound where a vast sprawl—of what appear to be batteries—promises a “commune for the living-dead,” a dormitory those who “cheat death and remain everlasting” in this fairy tale metropolis.
“No one really knows if those inside” of these endless, battery-like structures, “are dead or alive,” we read, “and no one dares to find out.” They could be described as electrical mausoleums where sleeping beauties lie, equally alive and dead.
[Image: The Parliament from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
There are many, many further images, of course, as well as an intricate physical model that accompanied them; the whole thing was displayed at the London Design Museum back in October-November 2013 and, with any luck, the images and model both will someday show up in a gallery near you.
In his 2000 novel Perdido Street Station, for instance, an old industrial scrapyard on the underside of the city, full of discarded machine parts and used electronic equipment, suddenly bootstraps itself into artificial intelligence, self-rearranging into a tentacular and sentient system. In The Scar, a floating city travels the oceans, lashed together from the hulls of captured ships:
They were built up, topped with structure, styles and materials shoved together from a hundred histories and aesthetics into a compound architecture. Centuries-old pagodas tottered on the decks of ancient oarships, and cement monoliths rose like extra smokestacks on paddlers stolen from southern seas. The streets between the buildings were tight. They passed over the converted vessels on bridges, between mazes and plazas, and what might have been mansions. Parklands crawled across clippers, above armories in deeply hidden decks. Decktop houses were cracked and strained from the boats’ constant motion.
In his story “The Rope of the World,” originally published in Icon, a failed space elevator becomes the next Tintern Abbey, an awe-inspiring Romantic ruin in the sky. In “Reports Of Certain Events In London,” from the collection Looking for Jake, Miéville describes how constellations of temporary roads flash in and out through nighttime London, a shifting vascular geography of trap streets, only cataloged by the most fantastical maps.
And in his 2004 novel Iron Council, Miéville imagines something called “slow sculpture,” a geologically sublime new artform by which huge blocks of sandstone are “carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
BLDGBLOG has always been interested in learning how novelists see the city—how spatial descriptions of things like architecture and landscape can have compelling effects, augmenting both plot and emotion in ways that other devices, such as characterization, sometimes cannot. In earlier interviews with such writers as Patrick McGrath, Kim Stanley Robinson, Zachary Mason, Jeff VanderMeer, Tom McCarthy, and Mike Mignola, we have looked at everything from the literary appeal and narrative usefulness of specific buildings and building types to the descriptive influence of classical landscape painting, and we have entertained the idea that the demands of telling a good story often give novelists a more subtle and urgent sense of space even than architects and urban planners.
Over the course of the following long interview, China Miéville discusses the conceptual origins of the divided city featured in his recent, award-winning novel The City and The City; he points out the interpretive limitations of allegory, in a craft better served by metaphor; we take a look at the “squid cults” of Kraken (which arrives in paperback later this month) and maritime science fiction, more broadly; the seductive yet politically misleading appeal of psychogeography; J.G. Ballard and the clichés of suburban perversity; the invigorating necessities of urban travel; and much more.
BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with The City and The City. What was your initial attraction to the idea of a divided city, and how did you devise the specific way in which the city would be split?
China Miéville: I first thought of the divided city as a development from an earlier idea I had for a fantasy story. That idea was more to do with different groups of people who live side-by-side but, because they are different species, relate to the physical environment very, very differently, having different kinds of homes and so on. It was essentially an exaggeration of the way humans and rats live in London, or something similar. But, quite quickly, that shifted, and I began to think about making it simply human.
For a long time, I couldn’t get the narrative. I had the setting reasonably clear in my head and, then, once I got that, a lot of things followed. For example, I knew that I didn’t want to make it narrowly, allegorically reductive, in any kind of lumpen way. I didn’t want to make one city heavy-handedly Eastern and one Western, or one capitalist and one communist, or any kind of nonsense like that. I wanted to make them both feel combined and uneven and real and full-blooded. I spent a long time working on the cities and trying to make them feel plausible and half-remembered, as if they were uneasily not quite familiar rather than radically strange.
I auditioned various narrative shapes for the book and, eventually, after a few months, partly as a present to my Mum, who was a big crime reader, and partly because I was reading a lot of crime at the time and thinking about crime, I started realizing what was very obvious and should have been clear to me much earlier. That’s the way that noir and hard-boiled and crime procedurals, in general, are a kind of mythic urbanology, in a way; they relate very directly to cities.
Once I’d thought of that, exaggerating the trope of the trans-jurisdictional police problem—the cops who end up having to be on each other’s beats—the rest of the novel just followed immediately. In fact, it was difficult to imagine that I hadn’t been able to work it out earlier. That was really the genesis.
I should say, also, that with the whole idea of a divided city there are analogies in the real world, as well as precursors within fantastic fiction. C. J. Cherryh wrote a book that had a divided city like that, in some ways, as did Jack Vance. Now I didn’t know this at the time, but I’m also not getting my knickers in a twist about it. If you think what you’re trying to do is come up with a really original idea—one that absolutely no one has ever had before—you’re just kidding yourself.
You’re inevitably going to tread the ground that the greats have trodden before, and that’s fine. It simply depends on what you’re able to do with it.
BLDGBLOG: Something that struck me very strongly about the book was that you manage to achieve the feel of a fantasy or science fiction story simply through the description of a very convoluted political scenario. The book doesn’t rely on monsters, non-humans, magical technologies, and so on; it’s basically a work of political science fiction.
Miéville: This is impossible to talk about without getting into spoiler territory—which is fine, I don’t mind that—but we should flag that right now for anyone who hasn’t read it and does want to read it.
But, yes, the overtly fantastical element just ebbed and ebbed, becoming more suggestive and uncertain. Although it’s written in such a way that there is still ambiguity—and some readers are very insistent on focusing on that ambiguity and insisting on it—at the same time, I think it’s a book, like all of my books, for which, on the question of the fantastic, you might want to take a kind of Occam’s razor approach. It’s a book that has an almost contrary relation to the fantastic, in a certain sense.
[Image: The marbled intra-national sovereignties of Baarle-Hertog].
BLDGBLOG: In some ways, it’s as if The City and The City simply describes an exaggerated real-life border condition, similar to how people live in Jerusalem or the West Bank, Cold War Berlin or contemporary Belfast—or even in a small town split by the U.S./Canada border, like Stanstead-Derby Line. In a sense, these settlements consist of next-door neighbors who otherwise have very complicated spatial and political relationships to one another. For instance, I think I sent you an email about a year ago about a town located both on and between the Dutch-Belgian border, called Baarle-Hertog.
Miéville: You did!
BLDGBLOG: I’m curious to what extent you were hoping to base your work on these sorts of real-life border conditions.
Miéville: The most extreme example of this was something I saw in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, where a couple of poli-sci guys from the State Department or something similar were proposing a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the case of Jerusalem, they were proposing basically exactly this kind of system, from The City and The City, in that you would have a single urban space in which different citizens are covered by completely different juridical relations and social relations, and in which you would have two overlapping authorities.
I was amazed when I saw this. I think, in a real world sense, it’s completely demented. I don’t think it would work at all, and I don’t think Israel has the slightest intention of trying it.
My intent with The City and The City was, as you say, to derive something hyperbolic and fictional through an exaggeration of the logic of borders, rather than to invent my own magical logic of how borders could be. It was an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders: I combined that with a politicized social filtering, and extrapolated out and exaggerated further on a sociologically plausible basis, eventually taking it to a ridiculous extreme.
But I’m always slightly nervous when people make analogies to things like Palestine because I think there can be a danger of a kind of sympathetic magic: you see two things that are about divided cities and so you think that they must therefore be similar in some way. Whereas, in fact, in a lot of these situations, it seems to me that—and certainly in the question of Palestine—the problem is not one population being unseen, it’s one population being very, very aggressively seen by the armed wing of another population.
In fact, I put those words into Borlu’s mouth in the book, where he says, “This is nothing like Berlin, this is nothing like Jerusalem.” That’s partly just to disavow—because you don’t want to make the book too easy—but it’s also to make a serious point, which is that, obviously, the analogies will occur but sometimes they will obscure as much as they illuminate.
[Image: The international border between the U.S. and Canada passes through the center of a library; photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. “Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering,” CLUI explains. “Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the building is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.”].
BLDGBLOG: Your books often lend themselves to political readings, on the other hand. Do you write with specific social or political allegories in mind, and, further, how do your settings—as in The City and The City—come to reflect political intentions, spatially?
Miéville: My short answer is that I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.
The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.
It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.
I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.
But the point is, those riffs don’t reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn’t end the thing. That doesn’t foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do—but neither, really, is the text itself.
So I’m very unhappy about the idea of allegoric reading, on the whole. Certainly I never intend my own stuff to be allegorical. Allegories, to me, are interesting more to the extent that they fail—to the extent that they spill out of their own bounds. Reading someone like George MacDonald—his books are extraordinary—or Charles Williams. But they’re extraordinary to the extent that they fail or exceed their own intended bounds as Christian allegory.
When Iron Council came out, people would say to me: “Is this book about the Gulf War? Is this book about the Iraq War? You’re making a point about the Iraq War, aren’t you?” And I was always very surprised. I was like, listen: if I want to make a point about the Iraq War, I’ll just say what I think about the Iraq War. I know this because I’ve done it. I write political articles. I’ve written a political book. But insisting on that does not mean for a second that I’m saying—in some kind of unconvincing, “cor-blimey, I’m just a story-teller, guvnor,” type-thing—that these books don’t riff off reality and don’t have things to say about it.
There’s this very strange notion that a writer needs to smuggle these other ideas into the text, but I simply don’t understand why anyone would think that that’s what fiction is for.
BLDGBLOG: There are also very basic historical and referential limits to how someone might interpret a text allegorically. If Iron Council had been written twenty years from now, for instance, during some future war between Taiwan and China, many readers would think it was a fictional exploration of that, and they’d forget about the Iraq War entirely.
Miéville: Sure. And you don’t want to disavow these readings. You may think, at this point in this particular book, I actually do want to make a genuine policy prescription. With my hand on my heart, I don’t think I have ever done that, but, especially if you write with a political texture, you certainly have to take readings like this on the chin.
So, when people say: are you really talking about this? My answer is generally not no—it’s generally yes, but… Or yes, and… Or yes… but not in the way that you mean.
[Image: “The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing…” Photo courtesy of the NYPD].
BLDGBLOG: Let’s go back to the idea of the police procedural. It’s intriguing to compare how a police officer and a novelist might look at the city—the sorts of details they both might notice or the narratives they both might pick up on. Broadly speaking, each engages in detection—a kind of hermeneutics of urban space. How did this idea of urban investigation—the “mythic urbanology” you mentioned earlier—shape your writing of The City and The City?
Miéville: On the question of the police procedural and detection, for me, the big touchstones here were detective fiction, not real police. Obviously they are related, but they’re related in a very convoluted, mediated way.
What I wanted to do was write something that had a great deal of fidelity—hopefully not camp fidelity, but absolute rigorous fidelity—to certain generic protocols of policing and criminology. That was the drive, much more than trying to find out how police really do their investigations. The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing, but what was much more important to me for this book was the way that the genre of crime, as an aesthetic field, relates to the city.
The whole notion of decoding the city—the notion that, in a crime drama, the city is a text of clues, in a kind of constant, quantum oscillation between possibilities, with the moment of the solution really being a collapse and, in a sense, a kind of tragedy—was really important to me.
Of course, I’m not one of those writers who says I don’t read reviews. I do read reviews. I know that some readers were very dissatisfied with the strict crime drama aspect of it. I can only hold up my hands. It was extremely strict. I don’t mean to do that kind of waffley, unconvincing, writerly, carte blanche, get-out-clause of “that was the whole point.” Because you can have something very particular in mind and still fuck it up.
But, for me, given the nature of the setting, it was very important to play it absolutely straight, so that, having conceived of this interweaving of the cities, the actual narrative itself would remain interesting, and page-turning, and so on and so forth. I wanted it to be a genuine who-dunnit. I wanted it to be a book that a crime reader could read and not have a sense that I had cheated.
By the way, I love that formulation of crime-readers: the idea that a book can cheat is just extraordinary.
BLDGBLOG: Can you explain what you mean, in this context, by being rigorous? You were rigorous specifically to what?
Miéville: The book walks through three different kinds of crime drama. In section one and section two, it goes from the world-weary boss with a young, chippy sidekick to the mismatched partners who end up with grudging respect for each other. Then, in part three, it’s a political conspiracy thriller. I quite consciously tried to inhabit these different iterations of crime writing, as a way to explore the city.
But this has all just been a long-winded way of saying that I would not pretend or presume any kind of real policing knowledge of the way cities work. I suspect, probably, like most things, actual genuine policing is considerably less interesting than it is in its fictionalized version—but I honestly don’t know.
[Images: New York City crime scene photographs].
BLDGBLOG: There’s a book that came out a few years ago called The Meadowlands, by Robert Sullivan. At one point, Sullivan tags along with a retired detective in New Jersey who reveals that, now that he’s retired, he no longer really knows what to do with all the information he’s accumulated about the city over the years. Being retired means he basically knows thousands of things about the region that no longer have any real use for him. He thus comes across as a very melancholy figure, almost as if all of it was supposed to lead up to some sort of narrative epiphany—where he would finally and absolutely understand the city—but then retirement came along and everything went back to being slightly pointless. It was an interpretive comedown, you might say.
Miéville: That kind of specialized knowledge, in any field, can be intoxicating. If you experience a space—say, a museum—with a plumber, you may well come out with a different sense of the strengths and weaknesses of that museum—considering the pipework, as well, of course, as the exhibits—than otherwise. This is one reason I love browsing specialist magazines in fields about which I know nothing.
Obviously, then, with something that is explicitly concerned with uncovering and solving, it makes perfect sense that seeing the city through the eyes of a police detective would give you a very self-conscious view of what’s happening out there.
In terms of fiction, though, I think, if anything, the drive is probably the opposite. Novelists have an endless drive to aestheticize and to complicate. I know there’s a very strong tradition—a tradition in which I write, myself—about the decoding of the city. Thomas de Quincey, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair—that type-thing. The idea that, if you draw the right lines across the city, you’ll find its Kabbalistic heart and so on.
The thing about that is that it’s intoxicating—but it’s also bullshit. It’s bullshit and it’s paranoia—and it’s paranoia in a kind of literal sense, in that it’s a totalizing project. As long as you’re constantly aware of that, at an aesthetic level, then it’s not necessarily a problem; you’re part of a process of urban mythologization, just like James Joyce was, I suppose. But the sense that this notion of uncovering—of taking a scalpel to the city and uncovering the dark truth—is actually real, or that it actually solves anything, and is anything other than an aesthetic sleight of hand, can be quite misleading, and possibly even worse than that. To the extent that those texts do solve anything, they only solve mysteries that they created in the first place, which they scrawled over the map of a mucky contingent mess of history called the city. They scrawled a big question mark over it and then they solved it.
Arthur Machen does this as well. All the great weird fiction city writers do it. Machen explicitly talks about the strength of London, as opposed to Paris, in that London is more chaotic. Although he doesn’t put it in these words, I think what partly draws him to London is this notion that, in the absence of a kind of unifying vision, like Haussmann’s Boulevards, and in a city that’s become much more syncretic and messy over time, you have more room to insert your own aestheticizing vision.
As I say, it’s not in and of itself a sin, but to think of this as a real thing—that it’s a lived political reality or a new historical understanding of the city—is, I think, a misprision.
BLDGBLOG: You can see this, as well, in the rise of psychogeography—or, at least, some popular version of it—as a tool of urban analysis in architecture today. This popularity often fails to recognize that, no matter how fun or poetic an experience it genuinely might be, randomly wandering around Boston with an iPhone, for instance, is not guaranteed to produce useful urban insights.
Miéville: Some really interesting stuff has been done with psychogeography—I’m not going to say it’s without uses other than for making pretty maps. I mean, re-experiencing lived urban reality in ways other than how one is more conventionally supposed to do so can shine a new light on things—but that’s an act of political assertion and will. If you like, it’s a kind of deliberate—and, in certain contexts, radical—misunderstanding. Great, you know—good on you! You’ve productively misunderstood the city. But I think that the bombast of these particular—what are we in now? fourth or fifth generation?—psychogeographers is problematic.
Presumably at some point we’re going to get to a stage, probably reasonably soon, in which someone—maybe even one of the earlier generation of big psychogeographers—will write the great book against psychogeography. Not even that it’s been co-opted—it’s just wheel-spinning.
BLDGBLOG: In an interview with Ballardian, Iain Sinclair once joked that psychogeography, as a term, has effectively lost all meaning. Now, literally any act of walking through the city—walking to work in the morning, walking around your neighborhood, walking out to get a bagel—is referred to as “psychogeography.” It’s as if the experience of being a pedestrian in the city has become so unfamiliar to so many people, that they now think the very act of walking around makes them a kind of psychogeographic avant-garde.
Miéville: It’s no coincidence, presumably, that Sinclair started wandering out of the city and off into fields.
[Image: Art by Vincent Chong for the Subterranean Press edition of Kraken].
BLDGBLOG: This brings us to something I want to talk about from Kraken, which comes out in paperback here in the States next week. In that book, you describe a group of people called the Londonmancers. They’re basically psychogeographers with a very particular, almost parodically mystical understanding of the city. How does Kraken utilize this idea of an occult geography of greater London?
Miéville: Yes, this relates directly to what we were just saying. For various reasons, some cities refract, through aesthetics and through art, with a particular kind of flamboyancy. For whatever reason, London is one of them. I don’t mean to detract from all the other cities in the world that have their own sort of Gnosticism, but it is definitely the case that London has worked particularly well for this. There are a couple of moments in the book of great sentimentality, as well, written, I think, when I was feeling very, very well disposed toward London.
I think, in those terms, that I would locate myself completely in the tradition of London phantasmagoria. I see myself as very much doing that kind of thing. But, at the same time, as the previous answer showed, I’m also rather ambivalent to it and sort of impatient with it—probably with the self-hating zeal of someone who recognizes their own predilections!
Kraken, for me, in a relatively light-hearted and comedic form, is my attempt to have it both ways: to both be very much in that tradition and also to take the piss out of it. Reputedly, throughout Kraken, the very act of psychogeographic enunciation and urban uncovering is both potentially an important plot point and something that does uncover a genuine mystery; but it is also something that is ridiculous and silly, an act of misunderstanding. It’s all to do with what Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, called kute korrespondences: “hoping to zero in on the tremendous and secret Function whose name, like the permuted names of God, cannot be spoken.”
The London within Kraken feels, to me, much more dreamlike than the London of something like King Rat. That’s obviously a much earlier book, and I now write very differently; but King Rat, for all its flaws, is a book very much to do with its time. It’s not just to do with London; it’s to do with London in the mid-nineties. It’s a real, particular London, phantasmagorized.
But Kraken is also set in London—and I wanted to indulge all my usual Londonisms and take them to an absurd extreme. The idea, for example, as you say, of this cadre of mages called the Londonmancers: that’s both in homage to parts of that tradition, and also, hopefully, an extension of it to a kind of absurdity—the ne plus ultra, you know?
BLDGBLOG: Kraken also makes some very explicit maritime gestures—the squid, of course, which is very redolent of H.P. Lovecraft, but also details such as the pirate-like duo of Goss and Subby. This maritime thread pops up, as well, in The Scar, with its floating city of linked ships. My question is: how do your interests in urban arcana and myth continue into the sphere of the maritime, and what narrative or symbolic possibilities do maritime themes offer your work?
Miéville: Actually, I think I was very restrained about Lovecraft. I think the book mentions Cthulhu twice—which, for a 140,000 or 150,000-word novel about giant squid cults, is pretty restrained! That’s partly because, as you say, if you write a book about a tentacular monster with a strange cult associated with it, anyone who knows the field is going to be thinking immediately in terms of Lovecraft. And I’m very, very impressed by Lovecraft—he’s a big presence for me—but, partly for that very reason, I think Kraken is one of the least Lovecrafty things I’ve done.
As to the question of maritimism, like a lot of my interests, it’s more to do with how it has been filtered through fiction, rather than how it is in reality. In reality, I have no interest in sailing. I’ve done it, I think, once.
But maritime fiction, from Gulliver’s Travels onward, I absolutely love. I love that it has its own set of traditions; in some ways, it’s a kind of mini-canon. It has its own riffs. There are some lovely teasings of maritime fiction within Gulliver’s Travels where he gets into the pornography of maritime terminology: mainstays and capstans and mizzens and so on, which, again, feature quite prominently in The Scar.
[Image: “An Imaginary View of the Arsenale” by J.M.W. Turner, courtesy of the Tate].
BLDGBLOG: In the context of the maritime, I was speaking to Reza Negarestani recently and he mentioned a Russian novella from the 1970s called “The Crew Of The Mekong,” suggesting that I ask you about your interest in it. Reza, of course, wrote Cyclonopedia, which falls somewhere between, say, H.P. Lovecraft and ExxonMobil, and for which you supplied an enthusiastic endorsement.
Miéville: Yes, I was blown away by Reza’s book—partly just because of the excitement of something that seems genuinely unclassifiable. It really is pretty much impossible to say whether you’re reading a work of genre fiction or a philosophical textbook or both of the above. There’s also the slightly crazed pseudo-rigor of it, and the sense that this is philosophy as inspired by schlocky horror movies as much as by Alain Badiou.
There’s a phrase that Kim Newman uses: post-genre horror. It’s a really nice phrase for something which is clearly inflected in a horror way, and clearly emerges out of the generic tradition of horror, but is no longer reducible to it. I think that Reza’s work is a very, very good example of that. As such, Cyclonopedia is one of my favorite books of the last few years.
BLDGBLOG: So Reza pointed me to “The Crew of the Mekong,” a work of Russian maritime scifi. The authors describe it, somewhat baroquely, as “an account of the latest fantastic discoveries, happenings of the eighteenth century, mysteries of matter, and adventures on land and at sea.” What drew you to it?
Miéville: I can’t remember exactly what brought me to it, to be perfectly honest: it was in a secondhand bookshop and I bought it because it looked like an oddity.
It’s very odd in terms of the shape of its narrative; it sort of lurches, with a story within a story, including a long, extended flashback within the larger framing narrative, and it’s all wrapped up in this pulp shell. In terms of the story itself, if I recall, it was actually me who suggested it to Reza because it has loads of stuff in it about oil, plastic resins, and pipelines, and one of the characters works for an institute called the Institute of Surfaces, which deals with the weird physics and uncanny properties of surfaces and topology.
Some of the flashback scenes and some of the background I’ve seen described as proto-steampunk, which I think is highly anachronistic: it’s more of an elective affinity, that, if you like retro-futurity, you might also like this. At a bare minimum, it’s a book worth reading simply because it’s very odd; at a maximum, some of the things going on it are philosophically interesting, although in a bizarre way.
But foreign pulp always has that peculiar kind of feeling to it, because you have a distinct cultural remove. At its worst, that can lead to an awful kind of orientalism, but it’s undeniably fascinating as a reader.
BLDGBLOG: It’s interesting that depictions of maritime journeys can maintain such strong mythic and imaginative resonance, even across wildly different cultures, eras, genres, and artforms—whether it’s “The Crew of the Mekong” or The Scar, Valhalla Rising or Moby Dick.
Miéville: The maritime world in general is an over-determined symbol of pretty much anything you want it to be—just fill in the blank: yearning, manifest destiny, whatever. It’s a very fecund field. My own interest in it comes pretty much through fiction and, to a certain extent, art. I wish I had a bit more money, in fact, because I would buy a lot of those fairly cheap, timeless, uncredited, late 19th-century, early 20th-century seascapes that you see on sale in a lot of thrift shops.
You also mentioned Goss and Subby. Goss and Subby themselves I never thought of as pirates, in fact. They were my go at iterating the much-masticated trope of the freakishly monstrous duo, figures who are, in some way that I suspect is politically meaningful, and that one day I’ll try to parse, generally even worse than their boss. They often speak in a somewhat odd, stilted fashion, like Hazel and Cha-Cha, or Croup and Vandemar, or various others. The magisterial TV Tropes has a whole entry on such duos called “Those Two Bad Guys.” The tweak that I tried to add with Goss and Subby was to integrate an idea from a Serbian fairy-tale called—spoiler!—“BasCelik.” For anyone who knows that story, this is a big give-away.
Again, though, I think you have to ration your own predilections. I have always been very faithful to my own loves: I look at my notebooks or bits of paper from when I was four and, basically, my interests haven’t changed. Left to my own devices, I would probably write about octopuses, monsters, occasionally Tarzan, and that’s really it. From a fairly young age, the maritime yarn was one of those.
But you can’t just give into your own drives, or you simply end up writing the same book again and again.
[Image: Mapping old London].
BLDGBLOG: Along those lines, are there any settings or environments—or even particular cities—that would be a real challenge for you to work with? Put another way, can you imagine giving yourself a deliberate challenge to write a novel set out in the English suburbs, or even in a place like Los Angeles? How might that sort of unfamiliar, seemingly very un-Miéville-like landscape affect your plots and characters?
Miéville: That’s a very interesting question. I really like that approach, in terms of setting yourself challenges that don’t come naturally. It’s almost a kind of Oulipo approach. It’s tricky, though, because you have to find something that doesn’t come naturally, but, obviously, you don’t want to write about something that doesn’t interest you. It has to be something that interests you contradictorally, or contrarily.
To be honest, the suburbs don’t attract me, for a bunch of reasons. I think it’s been done to death. I think anyone who tried to do that after J. G. Ballard would be setting themselves up for failure. As I tried to say when I did my review of the Ballard collection for The Nation, one of the problems is that, with an awful lot of suburban art today, it is pitched as this tremendously outré and radical claim to say that the suburbs are actually hotbeds of perversity—whereas, in fact, that is completely the cliché now. If you wanted to do something interesting, you would have to write about terribly boring suburbs, which would loop all the way back round again, out of interesting, through meta-interesting, and back down again to boring. So I doubt I would do something set in the suburbs.
I am quite interested in wilderness. Iron Council has quite a bit of wilderness, and that was something that I really liked writing and that I’d like to try again.
But, to be honest, it’s different kinds of urban space that appeal to me. If you’re someone who can’t drive, like I can’t, you find a lot of American cities are not just difficult, but really quite strange. I spend a lot of time in Providence, Rhode Island, and it’s a nice town, but it just doesn’t operate like a British town. A lot of American towns don’t. The number of American cities where downtown is essentially dead after seven o’clock, or in which you have these strange little downtowns, and then these quite extensive, sprawling but not quite suburban surroundings that all call themselves separate cities, that segue into each other and often have their own laws—that sort of thing is a very, very strange urban political aesthetic to me.
I’ve been thinking about trying to write a story not just set, for example, in Providence, but in which Providence, or another city that operates in a very non-English—or non-my-English—fashion, is very much part of the structuring power of the story. I’d be interested in trying something like that.
But countries all around the world have their own specificities about the way their urban environments work. I was in India recently, for example. It was a very brief trip, and I’m sure some of this was just wish fulfillment or aesthetic speculation, but I became really obsessed with the way, the moment you touched down at a different airport, you got out and you breathed the air, Mumbai felt different to Delhi, felt different to Kolkata, felt different to Chennai.
Rather than syncretizing a lot of those elements, I’d like to try to be really, really faithful to one or another city, which is not my city, in the hopes that, being an outsider, I might notice certain aspects that otherwise one would not. There’s a certain type of ingenuous everyday inhabiting of a city, which is very pre-theoretical for something like psychogeography, but it brings its own insights, particularly when it doesn’t come naturally or when it goes wrong.
There’s a lovely phrase that I think Algernon Blackwood used to describe someone’s bewilderment: he describes him as being bewildered in the way a man is when he’s looking for a post box in a foreign city. It’s a completely everyday, quotidian thing, and he might walk past it ten times, but he doesn’t—he can’t—recognize it.
That kind of very, very low-level alienation—the uncertainty about how do you hail a taxi, how do you buy food in this place, if somebody yells something from their top window, why does everyone move away from this part of the street and not that part? It’s that kind of very low-level stuff, as opposed to the kind of more obvious, dramatic differences, and I think there might be a way of tapping into that knowledge, knowledge that the locals don’t even think to tell you, that might be an interesting way in.
To that extent, it would be cities that I like but in which I’m very much an outsider that I’d like to try to tap.
Thanks to China Miéville for finding time to have this conversation, including scheduling a phone call at midnight in order to wrap up the final questions. Thanks, as well, to Nicola Twilley, who transcribed 95% of this interview and offered editorial feedback while it was in process, and to Tim Maly who first told me about the towns of Derby Line–Stanstead.
Miéville’s newest book, Embassytown, comes out in the U.S. in May; show your support for speculative fiction and pre-order a copy soon. If you are new to Miéville’s work, meanwhile, I might suggest starting with The City and The City.
[Image: “Homer, the Classic Poets,” by Gustave Doré, from Canto IV of The Inferno].
As Slate’s John Swansburg describes it, the book is a fictional anthology of “Homeric apochrypha—versions of the Odysseus story that circulated in the time before Homer but were left out of the epic as we came to know it.” Yet “Mason’s enterprise never devolves into a mere high-concept exercise,” Swansburg adds. And I agree: the book’s constantly shifting short narratives offer a kind of stratigraphic road-cut straight to the contested origins of Western mythology, where a storm-wracked, war-torn archipelago is ceaselessly crossed by a homesick husband fighting to return to his family—only Mason has taken these elements and cross-wired them, creating a dreamlike, parallel landscape of new heroic sequences, echoes, and myths.
In the following interview, Zachary Mason speaks to BLDGBLOG about his book; its use of the archipelagic landscapes of ancient Greece for new, combinatorial ends; the algorithmic templates underlying much of his fiction; his current work on Artificial Intelligence; the future of automated construction technologies, including 3D-printing, a theme explored in Mason’s most recent work; other possible narrative directions for further rewritings of The Odyssey (including a version set in the Caucausus Mountains, with, as Mason describes it below, “a huge system of unreliable, unmapped and essentially creaky rope-bridges strung up between the peaks”); and much more. We spoke by phone.
BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with one of the most memorable images in the book, that of “Agamemnon’s Fortress.” Could you describe that briefly?
Zachary Mason: In that chapter, the Greeks, having no building materials except for the timbers of their ships, and expecting the siege to last a long time, have excavated their forward base in the sand in front of Troy.
This chapter has the structure of a fairy tale, or something out of the Arabian Nights. It starts with Agamemnon’s sense of helplessness; for all his armies and his heroes he can’t take a single city, which leads him also to reflect on the extent of his ignorance, so he calls together his three wisest counselors and, not being one for half-measures, asks them to explain, essentially, everything in the world. Three times he asks them, and each time they come back with a denser and perhaps pithier solution, and with each iteration more time passes.
The underground base becomes first a city, then a network of cities, that keep getting deeper as the old cities crumble and are used only for storage chambers and secret passages, and, all this time, Troy is only about half a mile away. By the end of the story Troy has been abandoned, so there’s no further reason for the Greeks to be there, but they still are, and they’re still digging deeper.
Part of what I was doing was taking the structure of a fairy tale—often there are three questions, animals, obstacles or what have you—and making the progression between the iterations exponential, rather than constant, so there’s a drastic acceleration.
Also, there’s something fascinating about this improvised, temporary, and quite uncomfortable underground base becoming permanent and entrenched, and going ever deeper, starting to dominate the lives of the residents with its deranged logic. It’s reminiscent of an ants’ nest, or the World War II eras quonset huts still in use at SRI.
BLDGBLOG: Or Kafka’s “Burrow“, another story of tunneling. What I like about the image is its dichotomy between the aboveground walled fortress of Troy, with its stone walls and permanent streets and houses, and its long-term sense of history, compared to the underground maze of the invading Greeks, constantly turning this way and that and digging deeper into the earth. It’s a nice juxtaposition.
Mason: Troy is the absence of possibilities, in a sense; it’s just there and the Greeks can’t do anything about it, no matter how much they try. In the sand, though, there are infinite possibilities, all of them fairly useless.
BLDGBLOG: You also describe how, when the sand walls collapse, the Greeks implement laws that say the soldiers can’t excavate or uncover things that have been buried. They’re forced to avoid their own past, in a sense, and keep digger new tunnels. It’s like a legislatively enforced amnesia, or a living archive that refuses to excavate itself.
Mason: I liked the idea that they would become trapped by their own superstitions: prevented from doing the rational thing—as far as planning went—and obliged by this unfortunate belief to keep digging themselves in deeper.
In a way, it’s the opposite of amnesia, if you think of the collapsed chambers as preserved. As though we were forbidden to repair collapsed or damaged buildings on the surface, and cities become theme-parks of stratified decay.
BLDGBLOG: There’s another image in the book that really caught me: Ilium, “death’s city,” full of “uncountable mausoleums” and constructed from bones. “The high walls of Death’s city became the ubiquitous background of the Greek’s dreams,” you write.
Mason: In that chapter Troy has become Death’s city, and it is implied that all of Hades is contained within its walls. I imagined Death’s city as a place of levels, reaching down forever; it goes so deep, that not even its inhabitants have seen all of it, which somehow seems to gel with the way the representation of Death as an object of obsessive focus.
In this story, Menelaus eventually defeats and overthrows Death, and though he intends to destroy his city, but he end up doing no more than taking Death’s place, and adding new levels to the already infinite levels of the city.
BLDGBLOG: I’m curious, pulling back a level, how a particularly evocative city description or landscape description can, in and of itself, achieve something on a narrative level that other rhetorical devices often aren’t able to or have a harder time accomplishing. It interests me, for instance, that if your book was set in a very different place or geography—in central Illinois, say, wandering from town to town—those facts alone, before characterization even kicks in, would hugely affect the mood or tone of the story. Part of the imaginative appeal of The Odyssey itself, I would say, has a lot to do with the archipelagic landscape it takes place within; if Odysseus had just wandered around the Caucasus Mountains, from peak to peak, instead of island to island, then the story’s cosmic overtones—wherein each island is its own micro-cosmic world, with its own sequences of experience—would have been achieved only in a quite different rhetorical way.
Mason: [laughs] I’m imagining The Odyssey set in Illinois—how the Trojan War would be a fight for one particular bit of plain amidst otherwise completely identical expanses of plain, and how that would add a sense of futility to Odysseus’s homeward journey—he weeps when he finally sets foot on Ithaca, which is fifty hectares of absolutely undistinguished farmland.
Here’s an idea: set The Odyssey in the Caucasus, but with a huge system of unreliable, unmapped and essentially creaky rope-bridges strung up between the peaks. The valleys are full of bandits, and hardship, and take a long time to navigate—but, though the ropes are faster, no one knows quite why they’re there, or their connectivity. Then you’d have something that feels at least a little like The Odyssey.
A nice thing about islands, as opposed to regular old landscape, is that they seem completely knowable. With an island, one could have a clear view of all of the elements in play in whatever narrative, and of the island’s history, and of the full significance of everything. One’s understanding of a continent is necessarily hand-wavey, and things are probably changing faster than one can keep track of them.
There was an older version of the Lost Books—or, at any rate, another book that ended up getting folded into what eventually became the Lost Books—which was going to be much more explicitly geographical. Every story was going correspond to an island, and the elements of those islands would be specified by a combinatoric system. I made up a table of elements, and I was duly working my way through the possible combinations, but it turned out to be very, very difficult to make this work; I couldn’t finish it, though you can still see echoes from time to time.
I think art tends to turn out best under moderate constraint; the combinatoric system was probably a little too strong. But I kind of like the way the character of the old, never-quite finished book shows up in the Lost Books (there’s actually more than one unfinished ghost-book lurking in the Lost Books), because its interesting when there are multiple patterns that partially describe, in this case, a book, but where none of them completely describe it. Its a little like complexity theory—too much order and you get banal rigidity, but too little and you get chaos, and the interesting things are on the boundary between the two.
BLDGBLOG: Are you drawn to things like the Oulipo, or other sorts of literary games?
Mason: I’ve always been drawn to Oulipo. I have one life in math and science, and another in literature, so Oulipo is compelling as the intersection between the two. On the other hand, Oulipan games don’t always work. There are a few products of Oulipo that are brilliant, and some that are interesting, and more that are the literary equivalent of musical scales.
The book was, in its original conception, intensely Oulipan, but I couldn’t get it work that way, so I ended up relaxing the constraints I had imposed on myself, lest I end up with something that felt like a sterile exercise rather than an organic whole.
So you might say that, for me, Oulipo is a good starting point but not a good finishing point.
BLDGBLOG: Is the final sequence of chapters arranged for narrative effect, then, or is it based on some other sort of underlying structure or combinatorial path?
Mason: In an early version of the book I did use an algorithm to order the chapters. In those days, each chapter was associated with a handful of keys—broad themes like “time” and “the gods” and “revenge” and so forth. I wrote a program that used simulated annealing to order the book in a more-or-less optimal way, where optimality was defined as maximizing the number of overlapping keys between adjacent chapters. The intent was to produce an ordering where there was always a strong sense of continuity between chapters, but where the nature of that continuity varied with every boundary.
In the end, I didn’t like the ordering the algorithm produced, and realized that there were actually other rules I wanted to follow, some of which didn’t lend themselves to formalization, so I ended up arranging the chapters by hand. I try to alternate long and short chapters, and its good when adjacent chapters rhyme, thematically; also, the book now starts off by establishing the kind of recombinatoric game I’m playing with The Odyssey, and then, as you get toward the end, that pattern breaks down, and you get all sorts of strange things—The Odyssey interpreted as a chess manual, for instance.
BLDGBLOG: The chess manual chapter—“Record of a Game”—is fantastic. Could you describe that chapter briefly and explain its conceit?
Mason: “Record of a Game” is a chapter that explains how The Iliad is not, in fact, an epic, but an ancient chess manual. This chapter explains that chess radiated out from India and took on locally idiosyncratic forms in most Indo-European cultures; in ancient Greece, it assumed a form in which the pieces, rather than being faceless icons, are strongly individuated. There were a few particular games that were considered to embody everything that was worth knowing about the game, and chess masters had to memorize those games precisely. Various mnemonics were added to make this task easier and eventually, to the uninitiated, the records of these games came to seem like heroic narratives, which was aided when the mnemonics were misinterpreted as epic clichés—Thetis being “trim-ankled,” Achilles “fleet-footed” and so forth.
A lot of the book is about interpreting The Odyssey as a code, so that Homer’s text is understood as a distortion of some underlying signal, and it is that signal, under various assumptions, that one is trying to infer. “Record of a Game” is perhaps the most extreme example of this, in that it explains away almost everything about The Iliad.
The coda to this chapter explains that The Odyssey is a sort of fictive chess manual, describing the motion of the pieces after the game has finished and the players have departed, in which the Odysseus piece is trying to get back to its home square. So it a sort of second-order game.
BLDGBLOG: Interpretation, here, becomes a form of paranoia—more an act of invention than one of reading.
Mason: There are some aspects of The Iliad that lend themselves almost eerily to this kind of interpretation—like the famous catalog of ships, which is also famously boring. In “Record of a Game,” it’s explained that the catalog of ships is properly understood as a description of the opening in a chess game.
Then there are all the lists of killing—this warrior slew that warrior, and that warrior slew this other warrior—which is not, I think, hugely interesting in itself, but, if you look at it as a series of exchanges in the middle game, begins to make sense sense.
On the other hand, Homer has been what one might call exhaustively interpreted. You can sit alone in your living room and make up the craziest, most implausible theory about Homer that you can, and then go to Google, you’ll find that some serious person with solid academic credentials has dedicated his career to espousing your preposterous theory.
BLDGBLOG: [laughs] Like Shakespeare wrote Homer.
BLDGBLOG: If that’s the case, do you see your own book as participating in, and thus continuing, this sort of interpretive culture? Or is it more of a parody?
Mason: It’s a bit of both. I was certainly aware of the exhaustive interpretation of Homer, and I guess I thought of the Lost Books as enabled by that, and somehow setting a cap on it, by being the logical culmination and maximum expression of this tendency. It’s as though I was saying, “You call that interpretive chaos? I’ll show you interpretive chaos!”
That said, I wasn’t trying to put Homeric interpretation out of business or make any big, stomping academic points. It just seemed like this tradition both suggested and licensed a really fun thing to do with the book.
And then, The Odyssey seems to lend itself uniquely to this kind of remixing, in that it’s compelling at almost any granularity. The way its written is compelling in the details, but, at a coarser level, what one might call its language of imagery is powerful. The Odyssey retains considerable power even when reduced to a plot synopsis, which isn’t true of many books—a plot synopsis of The Inferno or Lolita is unlikely to be hugely interesting. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road might come close, but, really, it just has a single image. As I say this, it occurs to me that many Borges stories would still be compelling as a single paragraph precis.
BLDGBLOG: Stepping back a bit, your author bio refers to you as an Artificial Intelligence researcher, but I’m curious what that actually means.
Mason: The first thing to notice about AI is that there isn’t any; in some sense, there’s been no real progress in the field. We don’t know much more about the computational character of cognition than we did in 1950. So I, like a number of people, am interested in trying new ways of approaching the problem. New kinds of computational models of perception and language are, I think, one promising path.
A particular interest of mine is computational models of design. Design problems are kind of a sweet spot, insofar as they offer deep domain richness, but they don’t too much background knowledge, which is very difficult to handle, computationally. You just need models of artifacts, and the way those artifacts are interpreted.
One of the problems with A.I. is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across a desert, though—or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions—is vastly more difficult.
BLDGBLOG: Saying this purely as a dilettante, it seems like there are at least two models of Artificial Intelligence. One of them is about spatial navigation, as you say, but another is more textual, or language-based. This latter version touches on things like the Turing Test, of course, but also on things like the text-mining industry, where they’ve developed intelligent software programs that can read through hundreds of thousands of pages in a flash and find the keywords or phrases that you’re looking for—which is different from a Google search.
Mason: Text-mining is well and good, but there’s a sense in which it’s not A.I. The programs don’t understand the text in any meaningful way. They manipulate it statistically, and, in that way, they’re able to accomplish things that appear intelligent—but there’s no actual comprehension.
You can take text analytics and that sort of thing up to a certain point, and you can get some pretty impressive results—Google works well—but there’s a hard boundary that you’re not going to be able to cross if you don’t have a full-fledged model of cognition.
Nobody’s figured out how to make that model, so there are hard limits on how far things like Google and text analytics can go. This is tacitly understood, for the most part (though I’ve spoken with some Googlers who have seemed guilty both of hubris and of not understanding A.I.’s history), but it’s bad business to admit it. So, when they say their algorithms are intelligent, or that their algorithms understand the text and so forth, its just fatuous marketing-speak.
BLDGBLOG: I’m curious how all this comes together in The Lost Books of the Odyssey. So far, we’ve talked about combinatorics, allegories, Artificial Intelligence, and the Oulipo, and I know that, for me, there were moments while reading the book when it felt almost as if a program had been fed certain narrative parameters—cave, cyclops, Odysseus, boat—and the remixed results became the Lost Books, as if it were the output of a demented A.I. program. Were you hoping to use the book itself as a model for computational literature?
Mason: There was a time in my life when I would have been very happy to have it suggested that my work was the output of a demented A.I. program—
BLDGBLOG: I meant that in a positive way!
Mason: A counter-question for you is: do you think you would have thought that if my bio hadn’t said that I worked with A.I.?
BLDGBLOG: Perhaps not. But, on another level, especially with a book like yours, doesn’t the author bio become a deliberate way to frame the book’s contents? It helps to flavor how a book is received and interpreted.
Mason: That’s a fair point. In fact, in the first edition of the book, I used a fake author bio. I claimed to be an archaeo-cartographer and paleo-mathematician at Magdalen College, Oxford, the holder of the John Shade Chair. Note that archaeo-cryptography and paleo-mathematics don’t exist as disciplines, and John Shade is a character in a Nabokov novel. I was perhaps unreasonably pleased with this trick, not least because much of the book is about endless recursions of false and manipulative identity—so it seemed to fit, rather than being arbitrary hijinks.
I was persuaded to use a real biography for the FSG edition, and have since regretted it. My author-bio says I do A.I., because I thought it was an interesting hook, but it seems to color the way people approach the book now, and not necessarily in desirable ways. On the whole, I’d like the book to be read without reference to my biography. Perhaps I should really have gone beyond the bounds of the plausible and claimed to be a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and that I now teach creative writing at a small Midwestern liberal arts school.
I’ve been sufficiently cranky about this that I’ve considered saying that, in fact, I’m just a writer, but there’s another guy with the same name as me who is a computer scientist specializing in A.I. We met because we have similar gmail addresses, and sometimes get each other’s mail. He was kind enough to read an early draft of my book, and, being a Borges fan, like disproportionately many well-read scientists, wondered how differently the book would read if it had been written by an A.I. guy. I thought that sounded like a good hook, and ran with it.
But, to answer your question more directly, I certainly wasn’t going for anything overtly combinatoric, or at least not after the book’s very earliest days.
It sounds like you’re reacting to my preoccupation with what I might call the primes of the story. There are aspects of the Odyssey that seem essential, and these are few in number, just a handful of images. There’s a man lost at sea, an interminable war a long way behind him, and a home that’s infinitely desirable and infinitely far away. There’s the man-eating ogre in his cave; there are the Sirens with their irresistible song; there’s the certain misery of Scylla and Charybdis.
I feel like these images are responsible for the enduring power of the story, and its survival, more than the particular details of, say, dialogue among the suitors, or what have you. I wanted to work directly with these primes, to present them in as powerful and stripped-down a way as possible, and to explore how they could interact, and how they could combine to make new forms. I suppose this kind of minimalist, reductive aesthetic does has a mathematical flavor.
BLDGBLOG: In the more recent fiction that you sent me, you’ve been exploring quite strong architectural and urban imagery. I’m curious to hear more about how urban imagery, in particular, features in your more recent fiction, and other ways that urban and architectural descriptions are being foregrounded in your work.
Mason: I sent you some fragments of a book, tentatively titled Void Star, in which architecture does feature rather prominently.
The book is set in the murkily indefinite future. Technology has improved, and robotics works much better, so much so that it has become a cheap, boring technology, and construction robots, in particular, are ubiquitous—they’re essentially 3D printers scuttling around on insect-like legs. Right now, researchers are taking the first steps toward building robots where you can set them loose and they’ll assemble complicated structures—often, interestingly, mimicking the control principles used by social insects—and I thought how interesting it would be, and how different the world would look, if these things ever actually work.
Today, anybody can go to Home Depot or its equivalent and buy the materials to build a shed; but construction, on a large scale, is very expensive and reserved for wealthy organizations. It’s a rare privilege to actually get to build something. If these robots exist, then architecture is democratized: anyone with a few bucks can build a structure to whatever specifications they like.
Once you have that, cities start to metastasize and grow. Favelas and other improvised and illegal shadow cities become marvelous, growing layer upon layer, like coral reefs.
Another architecturally salient aspect of Void Star is that, in the book, A.I.s exist, but they’re not like anyone expected. They’re intelligent but not human; in fact, their minds and perspective and languages are so different that people can’t really talk to them—they’re much more like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris than Commander Data, the Terminator, Agent Smith, or HAL. Despite this, they can still be useful—in design tasks, for instance. They write most of the world’s software, and do it very quickly—the amount of code in the world increases by many orders of magnitude, but nobody knows how it works. Software development becomes a process less of hacking code than establishing some sort of shared understanding with these strange, essentially foreign intelligences.
The A.I.s also design buildings, and they think so fast, and with such breadth, that their designs are more complete than is otherwise possible. Buildings become much more complicated, and better thought-out—in a sense, absolutely thought-out. The A.I. might consider, say, the light and the acoustics at every spot in the building at every time of day and every day of the year, and the kinds of relationships that you could then create between the experiences at these different locations. Also, because the machines have such fine-tuned control of the way buildings are constructed, they can implement design motifs that go down almost to the molecular level. In buildings as they are, there is, inevitably, unarticulated matter—a girder is just a girder, concrete is just concrete—but the machines could make their artifacts fractally ornate at every level. They would, in some sense, be complete artifacts.
It will be an interesting world.
Thanks again to Zachary Mason for taking the time to have this conversation. Pick up a copy of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, meanwhile, which came out in paperback last month, and see what you think.
For half a decade now, I’ve been an avid fan of the work of Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, the B.P.R.D., and Abe Sapien, among many others, including, most recently, the new series Witchfinder and Baltimore. When my wife and I moved back to California last August, the heaviest boxes were the ones I’d stuffed full of graphic novels by Mike Mignola, which I’ve been hoarding whenever money allows. It’s become an addiction: the incredible old castle interiors and snowbound mountain landscapes of Conqueror Worm, the Mesoamerican design motifs emerging like mazes from pitch black walls of shadow in Seed of Destruction, the graveyards of ships wrecked on rocks before coastal citadels in Strange Places, and all of it shot through with Mignola’s dark sarcasm and humor.
Mignola’s work outlines an endlessly captivating world, somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Norse epics, Dracula—as rewritten by Jules Verne—and the Discovery Channel. Equal parts archaeology and horror fiction, Indiana Jones and The Thing, heretical mythology and conspiracy science, once Mignola’s work digs its plot lines and landscapes into you, it seems impossible to shake.
The buildings, terrains, and spaces Mignola’s plots take place within are equally extraordinary: there are remote, factory-like castles north of the Arctic Circle, wired floor-to-ceiling with arcane laboratory equipment; maritime plagues and New England shipwrecks; intelligent geological formations in space, larger than planets, signaling down to Army radar stations at the end of World War II; abandoned mines and ruined churches; Mayan fragments mounted on the luxurious, candlelit walls of Alpine mansions; Nazi conspiracies and fallen astronauts; derelict Victorian houses wrapped in fog on the coastal moor.
In addition to his prolific work as a graphic artist, Mignola has served as a visual consultant on three films by Guillermo Del Toro, each better than the previous: Blade II, Hellboy, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. With Christopher Golden, he is co-author of the recent novel Baltimore; he has drawn covers for Conan the Barbarian, X-Men, Aliens versus Predator, Superman, and dozens of others; and his Eisner Award-winning graphic novel, The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects, was republished in 2010.
Mike Mignola recently talked to BLDGBLOG about his interests, including H.P. Lovecraft, wartime landscapes, and houses on the verge of collapse, with a specific focus on what it means to draw spaces of horror and mythology. We spoke by phone.
BLDGBLOG: I’ve long been interested in how people outside of the architectural world use buildings, landscapes, cities, and other spaces as a way to frame mood or character. Your own work, from Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. to Abe Sapien and Baltimore, is full of ruined churches, old battlefields, houses with flooded basements, warped floors and empty attics, and other straightforwardly Gothic landmarks. What draws you to these particular building types and locations, and how do these settings then affect your plot lines and characters?
Mike Mignola: Well, I am unapologetically old-fashioned in my use of Gothic settings. Ever since I was a kid, when I read Dracula, I’ve just loved those kinds of places.
I have never done a story in a shopping mall because, even if I’m not drawing it myself, I don’t want to see somebody draw a shopping mall. In the Hellboy world, and in other things I’ve done, those places almost don’t exist. When I do Eastern Europe—and I’ve been to Eastern Europe, and I’ve seen the shopping malls and the god-awful housing projects and things, and there are horror stories that take place in there, I have no doubt—but I gravitate toward the classic, clichéd, spooky places, whether they truly exist in this world or not.
But that’s the world I want to live in, and it’s the world my characters live in.
[Images: (left) A cover from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt; (middle) from the cover of Rex Mundi by Arvid Nelson and Juan Ferreyra; (right) a cover from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt. All artwork by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].
BLDGBLOG: Beyond shopping malls, I’m curious if there are other sorts of anti-Mignola settings, so to speak—places where you just could never set a story, even if it’s just a bank in London.
Mignola: I’m not going to do any stories that I don’t want to draw—and, for the most part, those are places that also just aren’t particularly interesting for me to write about.
It’s interesting, because the spin-off book from Hellboy—B.P.R.D.—is written by another writer. I have some involvement there, but the books are written by somebody else. You look at that book now, and the current storyline takes place in a trailer park. It’s entirely made of the places I have no interest in writing about—but the other writer doesn’t have my overwhelming love of the Gothic. He’s a much more modern type of writer, so we differ on our choice of locations.
But, now, a haunted bank? You know, that would be cool—but it would have to be a really, really old bank. And preferably a bank that’s been abandoned for a bunch of years, so you have cobwebs and things. I just like those old, spooky settings.
BLDGBLOG: There’s a maritime undercurrent in much of your work, including Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and, of course, the plague ships of Baltimore. It’s a kind of maritime Gothic—a world of shipwrecks and sea monsters and lighthouses on foggy coasts.
Mignola: Shipwrecks are great—but ships in general, even when they’re not wrecked, as long as they’re old school sailing ships, are wonderfully Gothic. I don’t know that I’ve done a lot of stories—if any stories—with ships that are 20th-century ships. I like the romance and the spookiness and the tragedy that goes with that old time sea travel. Those stories pertaining to ships are huge. I love them. They’re a big genre within ghost story fiction.
One of my favorite authors—a guy named William Hope Hodgson—most of his career, or a large chunk of his career, was writing supernatural ships-at-sea stories. There’s a romance in that old school, Gothic-y way to the world. And, basically, everything I love, I try to bring into my work. This world, or these different worlds that I’m creating, are entirely made of stuff that I love and think about.
Everything that I’m a fan of, I want to put into these worlds.
BLDGBLOG: Last summer, construction workers uncovered the remains of an old ship buried in the mud beneath the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, and some of the photos later printed in the New York Times, taken by Fred R. Conrad, were like something straight out of a Mike Mignola story. In some ways, it seemed like the perfect opening scene for a film version of Abe Sapien or for Hellboy 3—as if beneath, or even inside, the island of Manhattan we find this rotting, Gothic, semi-forgotten maritime history.
Mignola: Yeah, you know, I love history. I’m not a scholar—I’m not an historian—but it’s mostly because I just don’t have time. There’s too much other stuff I’m trying to keep on top of. But I love that sense of the buried past.
BLDGBLOG: I want to go back to the idea of setting. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a setting that you’ve devised for a certain storyline simply doesn’t work for Hellboy, say, so you have to use—or even invent—another character, or an entirely different plot, in order to use the architecture? In other words, how does setting—that is, how can architecture—affect plot and characterization, and vice versa?
Mignola: Well, part of the Baltimore series we’re doing now takes place on a World War 1 battlefield. I love that setting. It’s wonderfully rich in horror and drama—but it’s really hard for me to do a Hellboy story that takes place on a World War 1 battlefield. I could do it, and I’ve done stories like that, where it’s a time travel -slash- dream kind of thing—in fact, in an upcoming issue of Hellboy, I do have another character who I’ve tied to World War 1—but, to do it right, you need a World War 1 story.
There’s also Victorian London, which I love. I came up with a Hellboy story once where he kind of time-traveled back to Victorian London—it seemed a little goofy to me—but I knew that I wanted to do Victorian London, so it was just a question of making a character who functioned in that world.
In a lot of cases, though, I am creating characters in order to see these places—these times, these settings. But, from the very beginning, I’ve known what kinds of stories I’ve wanted to do—so it’s also a question of finding the character who belongs to that world, as an excuse to draw that world.
BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about your work method, as far as nailing the details of these settings and landscapes. Do you travel a lot, watch a lot of movies, look at lots of photographs, talk to archaeologists—or it is really just an act of imagination?
Mignola: It’s a little bit of everything. I do watch a lot of films—which is great for getting the voice and the general character and the atmosphere—but I tend to come up with stories that are not super-specific to particular locations.
If I’m doing Victorian London, I’m not trying to do that story for a scholar of Victorian London. In a way, I say that this is more like a 1940s film version of London—in other words, I want to do at least the level of research that you’d see in an old Hollywood film. So I’ve given myself a little distance from reality with that.
But, as I say, I do like history. If I’m doing something specific, I’ve got a ton of reference books here in the studio, and I’ll try to make sure I get some of the names right and some of the dates right, if I’m referring to specific things. But, for the most part, I tend to shy away from plotting stories that are going to require a lot of very specific, historical research.
In Witchfinder, where I’m doing Whitechapel—well, I’ve been to Whitechapel. But I’m writing about 1880s, or maybe 1870s, Whitechapel, and I want it to seem like the real thing. So I did a little bit of homework on the East End. But the trouble with doing research for this stuff is that you start finding so much material that’s interesting, after you’ve already plotted the story, and you think, oh, I want to use this, and I want to use this, and I want to use this—well, uh oh, too late.
In terms of specifics, a little bit of dialogue, a little bit of color, a little bit of flavor, will give any story a certain amount of authenticity, but I’m not looking to make giant plot points out of that kind of stuff. It’s just background. Most of my buildings, and most of the things I do stories around—when I’m drawing these things, I’m trying to create objects, buildings, ships, whatever, with a particular background. I want it to feel like there is more to the story than can be told.
But, yes, you know, I have traveled a bit—and people love to think that what I’m doing comes from lots of traveling, and from talking to old monks and that sort of thing—
Mignola: —and I have spent more time in Prague than I ever thought possible. But, other than a story I haven’t yet done—about a haunted couch—there are no experiences I’ve had that I’ve turned into stories. And the couch wasn’t haunted, you’ll be glad to hear; I think it was just infested with some kind of Eastern European insect.
For more exotic locations—like I did a story once set in Malaysia. It was entirely because I’d read a description years ago of a particular kind of Malaysian creature—a vampire—and I just knew I was going to do that story someday. But I needed pictures of Malaysia; I needed to do Malaysia research. That went back and forth for years, until, one day, I stumbled upon a book that just had really good photos of Malaysia. And that was it. It was the same with Norway: it was just a matter of some guy at a convention coming up to me with a book once that had great photos of Norway.
You know, I’m constantly looking for visual references. Story-wise, I’ve got all that stuff in my library—but I can never have enough photo references. There are still stories that are waiting to be told until I have the right references; and there are certain stories that I decided to set in a location just as an excuse for me to draw a particular place or building.
For instance, I did a story a couple of years ago called “In the Chapel of Moloch.” It was designed to take place almost entirely inside an old chapel. But the story wasn’t set in any particular location; it was just a matter of going to the books I had and looking for a building that would be fun to draw, or for a city that would be fun to draw, and I happened to have a book on Portugal. It had these great photos of decrepit hill towns, and a couple really good pictures of an old chapel. There was nothing about the story that was specific to Portugal—it was just that Portugal would be fun to draw. It was a nice, exotic location that I had never drawn before. And that’s usually how it works.
BLDGBLOG: Stepping away from the idea of setting, I’m also interested in how you populate your stories with this constantly shifting catalog of sinister, yet natural, creatures: amphibians, frogs, worms, apes, gorillas. What is it about these particular species that works so well in terms of developing your mythological world?
Mignola: Well, I think monkeys are funny—that’s the easiest answer there. I don’t really love monkeys—but they’re kind of fun to draw. Something I always say is: monkeys always work. [laughter] People just like to see monkeys show up in these stories. I think it’s the absurdity of it.
In one of the first issues of Hellboy, I showed a 1940s scientist. I was drawing a bunch of scientists in a room, and one guy was actually just a severed head in a jar—but that wasn’t enough. The picture needed something else. So I drew a giant gorilla towering over them, with these Frankenstein-like bolts sticking out of his neck.
Oh—and you know what? Go back even earlier than that. Go back to one of the try-out stories—one of the teaser stories—before I even started the Hellboy series. It was a Frankenstein gorilla about to stick a needle in a girl’s neck—and, not that I stole the image from pulp magazines, but it’s such an old, clichéd, pulp magazine image. Making it a Frankenstein gorilla probably took it one step further, and made it my own, but it’s just… it’s funny. It’s so absurd it’s funny.
So, yeah, I use monkeys. And monkeys are usually the animal you associate with animal-testing. For instance, there’s another story where Hellboy’s blood is being extracted—and what are you going to inject Hellboy’s blood into? A rat? A rat just isn’t as much fun to draw turning into a giant hell-rat—actually, that’s not a bad idea—but it would be much more fun to take a monkey and turn it into a big demon-monkey, which is what I did.
As far as frogs and other amphibian stuff—that, again, is a reference to this kind of H.P. Lovecraft worldview where anything from the ocean is scary. Frogs, in a Lovecraft sense, are associated with some kind of unknowable world. They’re not from the ocean, but they’re also not from, you know, the woods. Where do they come from? And why are they always out there… chirping, or whatever the hell it is that frogs do? Lovecraft also uses birds that way—and birds are great—but I have a harder time drawing birds than frogs.
In the very first issue of Hellboy, I did a sequence with frogs in it, and it just sort of stuck. I established it early. Frogs will be my kind of icon characters; when frogs show up, you know something bad’s going to happen. They become symbolic of this kind of evil that’s always running around in the background.
And then things just tend to snowball. You know, you hear about something like a “rain of frogs,” which happens periodically for whatever reason—it’s one of those weird phenomena that gets written about—and, I thought, well, let me have a little bit of that kind of action. I mean, that’s a weird thing and it’s got a kind of authenticity to it: there’s something about it that’s unnatural, yet supposedly it does really happen. And I like that.
But I think you’ve put more thought into these questions than I have into why I do these things!
BLDGBLOG: No, this is fascinating. It’s great to hear how you work. You mentioned H.P. Lovecraft: I’m curious to hear what you think it is about the Lovecraft universe—about the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft—that remains so appealing. In fact, it actually seems to be increasing in popularity today.
Mignola: For me, the monsters in Lovecraft are… you know, they’re fine. But what’s really appealing to me is his antiquarian sensibility. It’s the old houses in Rhode Island. It’s the fact that the guys are all scholars and they’re researching things, and there are references to different editions of this book or that book, and this edition is in that library, and a Latin translation of that book is in this other library. He writes about smart guys who spend a lot of time in libraries—and I love that.
His stories are set in a time when people are still wearing suits everyday. They even have upturned collars and things like that. There’s just a wonderfully old-fashioned, scholarly antiquarian feel to the stuff. It bridges the gap between modern horror and the old, classic M.R. James ghost stories—Lovecraft just added bigger monsters. Instead of some shadowy thing that skitters along the wall, it’s a giant octopus in space that makes people go crazy.
But it’s his obsession with old buildings, and shuttered windows, and climbing into church steeples—it’s his locations. I just love that.
BLDGBLOG: As well as things like abandoned fishing towns in New England, with collapsing wharves and moonlit salt marshes and that sort of thing.
Mignola: That’s actually one of my dream projects: to sit around and do half a dozen paintings of those towns. To do a series of drawings that’s just called Arkham, and it’s all about these buildings in creepy old coastal towns where the walls are falling over and they have these wonderful leans.
BLDGBLOG: That brings us back to the idea of architecture and the role that architecture plays in your work. What brings you to draw a certain building or structure—and what do you add or exaggerate to make it more your own?
Mignola: [laughs] Well, once upon a time, when I started all this stuff, the one thing I didn’t want to draw at all was buildings. Because, growing up in California, buildings to me were an exercise in using a ruler and perspective, and shit like that. I just had no interest in drawing that kind of stuff.
It was only after having lived in New York for a while, around really old buildings—where you see that, actually, this building’s kind of sagging and that building’s kind of leaning against the other building next door and this chimney looks like, if those three wires weren’t there, it would all fall over, and that fire escape is at some odd angle—that’s when I really started to love architecture.
It’s one of those things that is still evolving in my work, as I become more and more comfortable drawing that sort of stuff: my buildings lean more.
Right now, I’m drawing an old house, and the house is leaning one way, the fence is leaning another way; I’m working from photo references, as I love to do, but I’m able to exaggerate it, and say, yeah, okay, this building’s kind of crooked in the photo, but let’s lean it way the hell over there. Let’s throw a couple of sticks out of it this way. Let’s make the building next door look like it’s about to fall over. And let’s make everything dark.
It’s really one of my favorite things to draw these days: old, crumbling architecture.
BLDGBLOG: Is there a particular building in your recent work that stands out this way?
Mignola: I recently did an 8-page story for USA Today called “The Whittier Legacy.” I said I was going to keep it simple for myself; I would set it almost entirely inside a house, in the dark. The way the story’s structured, we’re not going to spend a lot of time drawing furniture, little details, and things like that; it could just be an old, derelict house.
The most work that went into that story was going through my references and finding a really good house that would be fun to draw. I happened to have a book on Victorian houses that had a lot of really good texture to them and really nice angles, with things jutting out at weird angles. With the way I use shadow, it’s really important to me to have some sort of structure where things are going to be jutting out at different angles—because you can say, okay, if I light it on this side, that bit’s going to be in shadow; but if I light it on that side, then this is going to be in shadow. A square? You get light on one side and black on the other.
But if it’s a square with other things sort of jutting at you out of the shadows, and if you put a big porch on it, and, you know, it’s a derelict place so it’s all sort of sagging the way those old places start to do—then that’s a really good day for me, being able to draw stuff like that.
Thanks to Mike Mignola for taking the time to talk—and for producing so many awesome comics. Thanks, as well, to Jim Gibbons, Jeremy Atkins, and Scott Allie at Dark Horse Comics for their help with the images. If this interview piques your interest, consider picking up some of Mignola’s work for yourself.
[Image: From “The Migration of Mel and Judith” by Thomas Hillier].
“The Migration of Mel and Judith,” Hillier writes, “was the pre-cursor to The Emperor’s Castle and my first real exploration into using narrative as the vehicle for generating and scrutinizing my architectural ideas. It was also where I began using craft-based techniques and 2/3-dimensional assemblage to illustrate the design process.”
The Migration, though, is not only an entire storyline packaged inside a beautifully realized, miniature architectural world—it’s also told inside a lampshade.
[Images: From “The Migration of Mel and Judith” by Thomas Hillier].
Mel and Judith, Hillier explains, are “a recently retired couple from Croydon who have decided to give up on their life in London’s third City and travel Europe,” looking for a place to touch down for a while (and for better weather).
[Images: From “The Migration of Mel and Judith” by Thomas Hillier].
Soon enough, though, they get homesick—and the architectural transformation of their caravan-home begins:
To combat thier longing they slowly adapt and customise their caravan-house to feel a little more like home. Walls of the caravan become aroma filled bricks of white bread, especially made by Mel & Judith themselves. Other adaptations include the pebbledash façade reminiscent of their Croydon abode. A green lawn-carpet that is much cooler underfoot than the hot Marbella sand and when it gets too hot there’s always the sprinkler system and snow-chimney.
The couple’s mobile slice of English domesticity becomes all but entombed beneath the ornament of personal nostalgia.
[Images: From “The Migration of Mel and Judith” by Thomas Hillier].
This, too, steeped in English nostalgia, becomes too staid for them, and the couple decides to leave Europe altogether, alighting for the more exotic climes of Luxor, Egypt.
[Image: From “The Migration of Mel and Judith” by Thomas Hillier].
There, they settle “on a small, uninhabited island situated on the River Nile, where in their weird and wonderful ‘Do-It-Yourself’ English manor Mel brews beer in his bathtub-brewery whilst Judith bakes rose-bread in the bread-garden.”
Their island comes alive during the holiday season creating an English retreat in the middle of Luxor, a retreat that lures in English tourists with the opportunity to be surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of home. The smell of roses and freshly baked bread drift through the air whilst the temptation to drink beer (which is illegal in Luxor) is impossible to resist.
Maps of riverine estuaries have thus been sewn into the lampshade alongside windfarms, fishing boats, photo-collages, and even a portrait of Princess Diana.
[Images: From “The Migration of Mel and Judith” by Thomas Hillier].
If you pull back, though, and look at the whole project within its physical and visual frame, the self-enclosed curling world of the lampshade adds a wonderfully anti-perspectival, frilly concavity to the couple’s journey. These latter scenes become both explosive and disorienting.
Like the spaceships in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, the walls of their representational frame simply turn and turn, bringing us over and over again back through the same space, as if unwilling to let go of what’s come before. Here, that space is asprawl with tidal flats and marshlands, fishing spots and coves. The couple, living now in Luxor, welcome visitors, dry their clothes aboard the boat deck, catch some afternoon sunlight, and grow old together, retired into this deliberately over-nostalgic world of their own making, constantly cycling back in memory through their shared past.
They have built a frame to fit themselves within, as if to give their lives narrative completion.
[Images: From “The Migration of Mel and Judith” by Thomas Hillier].
Just in time for the summer solstice, I thought I’d post this hand-drawn, shamanic map of the “Barasana cosmos.”
[Image: The Barasana Cosmos, via PrimatePoetics!].
“Constellations are here mapped as identities from Barasana mythology,” we read. “The Pleiades, or Star Woman, is shown here as the ‘star thing that holds the summer.'” As a brief aside, the Pleiades are known in Japan as Subaru—which explains that carmaker’s astrally inflected logo. So, if you’re driving a Subaru, there’s a kind of ethno-astronomical star chart emblazoned on the front grill of your car.
In any case, the image seen above comes from a recent series of short posts, looking at hand-drawn cartographies from peripheral cultures around the world, posted on the excellent blog PrimatePoetics! (whose exhilarating manifesto reminds us that “we still have at least 30,000 years to go before our existence in history will be of equal duration to our existence in prehistory,” and whose blog thus hopes to document “the transmutation of the ape into a conversationalist”).
That blog’s ongoing interest in ethnocartography extends from this “Yage Map” and a handful of “Amazonian Maps” (including the Barasana map, above) to the “Ojibwa Migration Map,” the “Arawete Village Map,” the “Aboriginal Water Map,” the “First Contact Eskimo Driftwood Map,” a “Valcamonica Topographic Rock Carving,” and many, many more examples that should not be missed.