First, if you don’t know of China Miéville yet, stop reading this right now and go get a copy of Perdido Street Station.  It is one of the weirdest, darkest, grittiest novels I’ve ever read, and—maybe paradoxically—it’s beautifully written to boot.  I am already itching to get to the library and pick up my next Miéville book.

If you’re interested in writing, Perdido Street Station is more than a great novel; it’s a writing workshop.  Miéville can teach you volumes about writing with élan, but I don’t want to go on for volumes here.  Instead, I want to encapsulate a few of the lessons I learned from Miéville, with references to specific turns of phrase.

Lesson one: If you want to write gripping fantasy or science fiction, inundate your reader with the bizarre.

In the first paragraphs of Perdido Street Station we already see a building dribbling mucus.  That one goes up into the sci-fi firmament right next to Heinlein’s dilating door: it tells me volumes about what I’m looking at in just two words.  Not only do I know that humans didn’t build this building, but I can guess that it must have been intelligent insectoids.  (If you had the same guess, you’d be right.)  Since this building stands beside ordinary brick-and-mortar cousins, I know humans and aliens live in close proximity to one another, and most importantly of all, I know this city is a slimy, gritty, stinking, disgusting place to live.  How could it not be if its buildings dribble mucus?

By the end of chapter two we’ve encountered khepri, refflicks, and pterabirds pulling rickshaws; we’ve seen lumbering constructs, intelligent badgers, and the Remade; we’ve seen buildings and artwork made of khepri spit and flying baskets that run errands for you.  By the end of chapter three we add to the list the vodyanoi, their water sculptures, and a garuda.  Don’t know what these are?  It doesn’t matter.  Everyone in the world of Perdido Street Station knows what they are, and that makes the world real for the reader.

The list keeps growing, by the way, and it keeps getting weirder, until you meet beings so strange that not even the inhabitants of Miéville’s world can comprehend them.  And that doesn’t make things harder to understand; it throws the utterly bizarre into sharp contrast with the so-far-so-good-I-can-dig-it-bizarre.  If you can get your head around the cactus warriors, the wyrmen, and the ambassador from Hell, it’s really saying something that no one can sort out what the hell Mr. Motley is or understand the motivations—or even the physical and metaphysical existence of—the extradimensional Weaver.

In a nutshell, lesson one is it’s okay to think of your otherworldy setting like one big, long, panning shot through the Mos Eisley cantina.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then A) I’ll bet you a shiny nickel you’re under 25, and B) go watch Star Wars.  Maybe I’ll post later about why the cantina scene alone makes the real Star Wars movies so much better than those awful pretenders claming to be prequels.)