“Art is something you choose to make… it’s a bringing together... of everything around you into something that makes you more human, more Khepri... More a person.”
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
It’s time for a little bit of history, dear reader. Cast your mind back, twenty-three years.
It was the year 2000 and a new millennium had dawned. The dreaded Y2K had passed without incident after months of media-spun fear-mongering; The Weakest Link was primetime viewing; Nokia 3310, equipped with the legendary game, Snake, was the top dog of the mobile phone industry; Big Brother launched on Channel 4 and heralded the era of reality TV; England, as would become the norm until recent times, fared terribly in Euro 2000; The Sims debuted and changed gaming forever; Friends was still on the television; and Stone Cold Steve Austin was stomping a mudhole in your arse and walking it dry. From within that heady, optimistic time (pre-9/11, obviously) emerged a strange, new subgenre of fiction. That was the year the New Weird was born.
It began with Perdido Street Station by China Miéville…
… It could be argued that it really started before then with the publication of The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco in 1999 - a book I’ve read recently and one that is very bizarre - and the term was actually coined in 2002 by M. John Harrison in the introduction to Miéville’s novella, The Tain…
But let’s not get bogged down with specifics. Wikipedia informs me it was Perdido Street Station that started the movement, and for the sake of ease, let’s take it as 2000.
But what is the New Weird? Well, let’s have it from the mouth of two of the subgenre’s biggest players, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer:
“The New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping-off point for the creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”
It was a non-conformist literary movement. It’s about taking traditional tropes and genres, like fantasy, sci-fi and horror, and mashing them together into a beautifully odd hybrid. From the mouth of China Miéville himself:
“New Weird – like most literary categories – is a moment, a suggestion, a tease, an intervention, an attitude, above all, an argument. You cannot read off a checklist and say ‘x is in, y is out’ and think you’ve understood what’s at stake or what’s being argued.”
Let’s take Perdido Street Station as the benchmark. The story takes place within one giant metropolis called New Crobuzon, but this is no typical city, and its inhabitants are even less so. Insect and human hybrids are commonplace, cactus men are perfectly normal, automatons wander the streets, badgers are kept as messengers, frog people do business from the comfort of their baths, giant brain-sucking moths rove the sweaty nights, demons can be conjured from the underworld and even have their own embassy, interdimensional spiders that weave the world web have a love of art… and on and on. The sheer number of creatures beggars’ belief, and it’s just so deliciously, tantalizing WEIRD!
But what the book does very well is splice multiple genres. You can see a great many tropes across the novel's 867 pages. I really enjoy that scope of imagination. It’s the kind of fiction that inspires me to write because there’s a certain amount of freewheeling to it. You can’t simply plan all that insanity. You have to allow space in the process of writing to let your imagination run wild. I always give myself that kind of room. Often, the most interesting things pop out of your head.
Of course, Miéville isn’t the only author of such madness. I’ll list a few others that stand out for me. Jeff VanderMeer, who wrote Annihilation, which was made into a movie, and the City of Saints and Madmen. Steph Swainston, who wrote The Castle series of novels. K.J Bishop, whose standalone novel, The Etched City, I simply adore. Jeffrey Ford and his book, The Physiognomy. The aforementioned Michael Cisco and his novel, The Narrator. Paul Di Filippo and his novella, A Year in the Linear City. And many of the works of Neil Gaiman, notably Neverwhere (although he never crops up in the lists of New Weird books, but I think that’s a strange oversight.)
I could keep going, but I won’t because I do need to get to the point eventually. These types of books are my influences: the strange, the weird, the unsettling, the unusual, and the downright insane. I love a good sci-fi and fantasy novel and read them all the time, but I always go grovelling back to the New Weird for true inspiration.
New Gillion Street – coming out in January, don’t you know? And available for pre-order right NOW, hint, hint – is influenced by this brand of outlandish fiction. Yes, it’s mostly a soft sci-fi novel (I would also have to give a nod to the Hainish Cycle, notably The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula le Quin, a truly astonishing piece of fiction, which I was reading at the time), but you should expect some strangeness. Not quite to the heights of Perdido Street Station, of course, but I would certainly argue that it’s not your standard, conventional story either…
For those who haven’t read the description (how dare you!):
The book follows Albert Smith of Number 20, an Even, who lives on New Gillion Street, a human colony in the form of a single street that sits on an otherwise forest world. He loves nothing more than to tend his garden and drink cups of tea, but he is forced to deal with the scandalous and highly irregular political machinations of Mr Zand of Number 13, an Odd. A compromise that has lasted for decades is abruptly shattered. The residents of New Gillion Street must deal with the unknown, but they are not the only species that live on the woodland planet known as Neo-Yuthea. Strange things lurk in the trees beyond the fence, both savage and civilised.
Not too shabby, eh? If I don’t mind saying so myself.
But when you understand that my chief inspirations are from the New Weird movement, the above doesn’t sound so strange. Unconventional, certainly. But it’s almost average when compared to the New Weird. When it comes to the Gillion universe (yes, there are more Gillion books - two standalone novels in a modern-day setting, and a short story collection in a Victorianesque era - and all three have some strange, and I would argue, weirder settings – and more on the way), unusual is the standard.
New Gillion Street will mark my foray into the New Weird movement. I’m two decades late, but they say that you must write what you read, and I do love it strange.
So, to the maestros of the New Weird, I salute you. You are insane, and the world is a better place for it.
One final note: the New Gillion Street book launch event is now live. Come and join me at Truman Books.
Thanks for reading.
Elliot J Harper
Author of the soon-to-be-released New Gillion Street by Fly on the Wall Press.