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China Mieville crosses over to science fiction in 'Embassytown'

​The central idea in China Mieville's new book, Embassytown, is about an alien race that can only communicate while speaking in unison. It's a concept that has been in the back of the British author's mind for quite some time.

"It's an idea I first had when I was 11," Mieville says. "That happens a lot with me. I'll have the ideas and they will percolate for a time."

Mieville's dense, knotty books have earned the British writer a dedicated following that has continued to grow over the past decade. His latest work is his first formal foray into science fiction. In it, Mieville presents an unusual alien species with a unique way to communicate.

"Speaking with a forked tongue is a way to denote lying. Here, we have creatures who speak with forked tongues and literally cannot lie," he says.

Though Embassytown is Mieville's first science fiction novel, all of his books have been part of the speculative/fantastic fiction spectrum, whether they are twists on the Pied Piper of Hamlin set in modern-day London (King Rat) or brutal tweaks of familiar fantasy settings and tropes (Perdido Street Station). His Marxist beliefs and deep understanding of politics (he holds a masters and doctorate from the London School of Economics) set Mieville apart in the often reactionary world of science fiction and fantasy.

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​Voice and tone are important for Mieville, to the point that he will spend some time before embarking on the formal writing of a book to get into the right character. "If the writing doesn't feel comfortable, I know I haven't done enough work on getting into the voice," he says. "And that all depends on the book. Kraken is the most lighthearted of my books, but it was the most difficult to write."

Like most writers, Mieville writes the books he wants to read. As a reader, he is always looking for that spark of genre, be it fantasy, science fiction, or supernatural horror. It's a spark that has always been a part of his reading. In talking about favorites, Mieville mentions the likes of Ursula LeGuin, Samuel Delany, and Michael Moorcock -- authors interested in pushing against the limits of the genre, while still definitely being a part of it. Mieville sees himself as part of that continuum, citing modern authors like Kelly Link and Michael Cisco as particularly effective creators.

Of course, science fiction, fantasy, and horror have moved into the cultural mainstream in recent years in a big, big way. Mieville sees this both as a positive and negative, as high-quality work is gaining a foothold, while also producing "great gobs of shit."

China Mieville is in town and will read from and talk about Embassytown at 7 p.m. today at the Barnes and Noble in Roseville.