The Murakami-Mieville Continuum

I've mentioned before Bruce Sterling's famous essay from 1989, in which the science fiction author laments that "mainstream" (read: "literary fiction") writers are writing speculative fiction better than the genre writers are, citing examples like Margret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Don Delillo's White Noise, and suggests a new category, called "Slipstream," which would include literary works with genre elements and genre works with literary feel (or more precisely, "a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility"). (There's an interesting digression I could go into about how literary fiction people think of themselves as marginalized while genre fiction is "popular" and "commercial" and genre fiction writers think of themselves as marginalized while literary fiction is "mainstream". In fiction, everybody is second class.)

Sterling's attempt at rebranding was marvelously unsuccessful: while a small group of genre writers occasionally identified themselves as Slipstream, most genre writers ignored the term while literary fiction writers never learned it existed. Some people missed the point entirely and thought the term just meant combining two genres together, and there was at least one "Slipstream" anthology filled with cowboy werewolves and noir detective vampires.

However, Sterling's purpose in making SF less incestuous and more "literary" was more successful—though there was pretty certainly a larger movement in that direction that he was simply a part of, a movement that was itself a revival of the efforts of the "New Wave" writers of the 60s and 70s. Now, 20+ years later, there are a lot of writers with both speculative and literary values on both sides of the genre line enjoying a good deal of success. The list of these authors could go on for pages (much as Sterling's Slipstream list does) and would certainly include Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, William Gibson, Kelly Link, Will Self, Neal Stephenson, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Jeff VanderMeer, Lev Grossman, Susanna Clarke and many others. If you're really into one or two of these authors, you'll probably like the rest of them to a greater or lesser degree.

I'll call this group of writers the Murakami-Miéville Continuum after two writers who I think most typify the phenomenon, Japanese "literary" writer Haruki Murakami and the English "genre" writer China Miéville. The name is deliberately long and cumbersome, because that last thing we need is more labels and genres; the Murakami-Miéville Continuum is not a genre label and it's definitely and emphatically not a marketing term. It is instead a critical term, a means of contextualization. This may seem like a niggling point, that contextualizing things together is a form of marketing, but the idea is that the Murakami-Miéville Continuum is not something that can be slapped on a book jacket by a publisher seeing dollar signs or degraded into something else entirely. It is only something that can be discussed, only something that can be used in a conversation where one can explain who Murakami and Miéville are and why they represent a continuum of writers.

And the thing about Murakami and Miéville, besides the fact that their names sound cool together, is that there's also a lot of people who've only read one and not the other, because they are both so firmly identified with their respective genre camps (at least in the US, where they're foreign imports—I can't speak for how they're read in their own countries). There's even a kind of neatness about the fact that they literally come from opposite sides of the world, with the US straddled between them. And yet, I think if someone not familiar with genre distinctions were to read Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle followed by Miéville's Perdido Street Station and The City and The City, he or she wouldn't think they were writing in different genres at all. There is a similarity there, in the attention to language, in the willingness to create a well-thought-out secondary world where things are and are not as they are in our own, in the weight they give to character and plot and idea without over-privileging any one of them. Murakami and Miéville have much more in common than Murakami and, say, John Updike, or Miéville and, say, Robert Heinlein. They are, in other words, the perfect example of two writers separated only by artificial and anachronistic notions of genre divides, lines that have little to do with content and everything to do with marketing and class and pretension and tribal allegiances.

The objective then is clear: To get people who read Murakami to read Miéville and vice-versa, along with the other writers I mentioned and the many others who could be included in the same camp. Because the only way to obliterate preconceived notions of genre differences is through example.

Comments

I've tried reading Mieville,

I've tried reading Mieville, but haven't liked him much. Murakami I like very much.

I Agree, Mostly...

While I agree with the broader point you are making, I think the idea might be better served with a "pairing" of Haruki Murakami and Catherynne M. Valente. I have read many books by Murakami and Miéville (in fact, I am currently reading Miéville's 'Kraken') and can certainly see some of the similarities you mention, but I think Murakami's work tends to have certain qualities that Valente has more than Miéville. Particularly see Valente's 'The Labyrinth' and 'Palimpsest', for example.

I realise this is a highly subjective area, but at the very least I hope I've pointed you or other readers at something they may not have encountered and might enjoy!

Because Haruki Murakami might

Because Haruki Murakami might win the Nobel Prize and China Mieville never will.

This is like asking why Thomas Pynchon fans aren't all over Terry Pratchet.

Sorry, but China is still stuck in a bit of the "sci-fi ghetto" by simple virtue of the level of his ability. Murakami is simply a superior writer technically and stylistically.

That, Mr. Rosnefield, is why the two don't enjoy a good deal of crossover.

Troll!

Troll!

I agree, completely...

This is a good point, I found the ambience in 'Hard Boiled Wonderland and the end of the world' and 'The city and the city' to be similar and the otherworldy themes definitely have a resemblence. They also happen to be two of my favourite authors and while just recently discovering Miéville, I immediately thought of homogeneus qualities between the two. I will however aquaint myself with Catherynne M. Valente soon after reading the post above, looking forward to it.

I would definitely include

I would definitely include Valente in the Murakami-Mieville Continuum. I even hosted on event for her book Habitation of the Blessed!

But I'm already a fan of both

But I'm already a fan of both Murakami and Mieville and have moved back and forth between literary postmodernism and genre fiction for as long as I can remember. I owe it all to Thomas Pynchon. And Godzilla.

Really?

I, for one, am a bit perplexed by this pairing, as I know quite a few people who read and enjoy both. I taught in Japan for a while, and lots of English speaking folks in Japan love SF/Fantasy and read Miéville, and have also read Murakami. I'd be curious to know how the author arrived at the conclusion that the camps don't significantly overlap.

As I said in the article, I

As I said in the article, I can't comment on how these writers are treated in their home countries, only in the US.

I read both

You've got a point that they're both interesting authors with a flair for well-used language. Of course, I read both, so that makes me cool I guess.

They do

Really, they do.

Choice of comparison

This is an interesting topic, although I think the core of Sterling's original argument still holds true in that few "genre" authors write very well, although the frequently have outstanding stories. As the author points out there are indeed quality "genre" writers, but I am a bit surprised by the choice of comparison like other commentators.

Others have noted this as well, while I read, and enjoy, both Murakami and Mieville I do find the style rather different, Mieville is rather more explicitly political (Iron Council for instance, which also happens to my least favourite Mieville book). One other aspect that I generally find lacking in my "genre" fiction is the people in the book and their development - Mieville does this better than most but I do find Murakami to do it rather better.

Let me also bring up my own favourite author, Ismail Kadare, who also often write "fantastic" literature which to me has many parallels in "genre" fiction. In some ways I find him to compare even more closely to some of Mieville's work (though less the Perdidio Street et al sequence).

I'm not saying that Murakami

I'm not saying that Murakami and Mieville are the same, only that they seem to be writing in the same genre. There are obvious differences between the two writers, as there are between any two writers.

I do read both as well

As many before me noted - I also read and like both of them. To be hones, it never occured to me to compare them... For me, Mieville is more like for example Gaiman (if I should choose from current authors that I like). And I even like Mieville despite his pollitical opinions (which however somehow ruined the Iron Council for me), I love how imaginetive he is, how he can be full of ideas. Murakami, on the other hand, is more about the... feelings behind the story.

Completely

I agree about Iron Council, except for me it then started to ruin King Rat and The Scar. After that I haven't read anything more from him. Had the same problem with Martin Amis' class disdain

Mieville's politics are part

Mieville's politics are part and parcel of what make him interesting. You can't escape politics in speculative fiction. It's an inherently political medium because it's so rife with opportunity for allegory.

Like them both

Like many of the other commentators, I read them both as well as some of the other "slipstream" authors you mention (Stephenson, Mitchell, Gaimen); will look up some of the others mentioned in the original comment and followup.

I can see the affinity. I am

I can see the affinity. I am still trying to figure out what it means to write "very well," but both writers compel me, so there's my way around the whole writing question. The implication in some of the comments posted seems to be that distinctly political is bad whereas lengthy character development is good. But the pairing is particularly interesting because Mieville is a political allegorist whereas Murakami isn't, which make their affinity all the more fabulous.

Perdido Street Station is

Perdido Street Station is full of genre conventions adopted without question, whereas hardboiled wonderland in particular is actively engaged in trying to figure out what those conventions means. That's why Murakami is better than Mieville, although neither are really all that great and I do enjoy both when i'm looking for something light and entertaining.

Your definition of good and

Your definition of good and mine may be diverging.

I think the way Mieville reinvents and reinvigorates conventions is a form of examination and is very interesting, along the lines of what I talked about in my essay on the meaning of conventions.

Also, i like everybody on

Also, i like everybody on that list for the most part, but I still think Jeff VanderMeer is a bit of a hack.

Have you read VanderMeer's

Have you read VanderMeer's short story "Errata" or his novella "The Situation"? They're really good.

http://www.tor.com/stories/2009/01/errata

http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2008/03/the-situation-j/ (link there to a pdf of the story)

M & M

I love them both...

Its funny I did a search in

Its funny I did a search in google with both Miéville and Murakami's names hoping to find someone writing about authors who are similar to them. It's funny because I put them together already thinking they were similar. The fact is I love reading, and love doing it for multiple reasons. For a long time my Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror books were a kind of guilty pleasure, and in between I'd have my brain food in Classics and so called Modern classics. 'Life of Pi' followed by 'Lord of the Rings', Kafka's 'The Trial' then HG Wells' 'Time Machine', 'Catch 22', Feist's 'Magician' etc... With writers like Miéville and Murakami, I feel like I get both. The escapism and complete immersion in a strange unique world, and also the complexity of real life themes/ideas like politics, relationships, culture, identity for example.