China Miéville Writes a Secret Novel With the Internet’s Boyfriend (It’s Keanu Reeves)

On a recent Friday afternoon, I found myself interviewing the Internet’s Boyfriend. His name is Keanu Reeves. I introduce him this way because it may be the only time the actor has been treated as a side character in a story. Reeves’ kindness given that arrangement surprised me—boyfriend material indeed—as did the reason for our chat: a collaboration between Reeves and the main character of this story, the writer China Miéville. The two of them have written a book together called The Book of Elsewhere, which comes out this summer and takes place in the world of BRZRKR, Reeves’ 12-issue comic. (Possibly also surprising: that Keanu Reeves made a comic book.)

The idea for the collaboration was Keanu’s back in 2021, just after the first volume of BRZRKR was released. Yes, one might assume there will be BRZRKR movies some day, likely starring Reeves, but for now the comic would be subject to novelization. I would learn later this is called a “tie-in”—an extension of the brand, basically. Toys, lunch boxes, who knows, may follow. “I was really afraid China would say no,” Keanu told me. “Why?!” I exclaimed, convinced nobody could possibly say no to working with this man. “Because,” Keanu replied, “he’s a big deal!”

It’s true. China Miéville, 51 years old, is a celebrated writer of speculative fiction (although he prefers the term “weird fiction”). His dozen-plus books are beloved for the way in which, at any scale, from the interior of a single sentence to the entirety of the narrative structure, they feel as if they’re doing something more. In addition to being a big deal generally, and certainly in the circles I imagined Reeves was talking about—at Comic Con, among the sci-fi crowd—China Miéville is a big deal in mine. That’s because he’s not just a writer of fantastica. He is also a communist, is unabashedly pro-Palestine (he will take me to a demonstration in East London where we will sit in the street and block traffic), and generally lives a political life. He even ran for office once.

Keanu Reeves in front of a red neon sign

In 2021, Keanu Reeves asked China Miéville to write a book with him.

Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

My next question to Mr. Reeves was an innocent “What do you make of China’s politics?” Did the Internet’s Boyfriend fully understand, in other words, that he was partnering with China Miéville here? “I don’t really know his politics per se,” Keanu replied. He knew exactly what China’s politics were. As any interviewer would, I waited. Keanu then told me he had recently read, “and enjoyed,” the Communist Manifesto.

Whether he meant the short text by Marx and Engels, itself a commissioned project, a tie-in of sorts for the revolutions of 1848, or China Miéville’s most recent book, A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, about the same, I could not tell. The ambiguity made me giggle. Sensing it well up in me like a sneeze, I muted the phone just in time. I was forming my own speculative fiction: Keanu Reeves as communist, the Engels to China’s Marx. I suppose this makes perfect sense. Because science fiction—the kind China Miéville writes, but also, maybe, all of it, the entire genre—is, or so the great critic Fredric Jameson tells us, bent toward utopia. Possibly even a communist one.

It turns out China Miéville doesn’t exactly buy Jameson’s argument, the definitional, working theory of science fiction. “This notion that, like, utopia is the irreducible core, and everything else is a function of that—I respectfully disagree,” Miéville told me. If anything unites his output, it might be a lack of evident unity. Decades ago, he gave himself a semiserious mandate: to write in every genre imaginable. From his Hugo-nominated Embassytown (science fiction) to The City & the City (detective novel) to The Worst Breakfast (children’s book) to The Last Days of New Paris (speculative historical fiction), he’s well on his way—although it must be said that most of the books incorporate at least some fantasy elements.

I got interested in Miéville about a decade ago, when both my husband and my ex-husband would not shut up about his books. Then I realized all my friends, from the artist single mother to the macho literary theorist, were obsessed. When I first made contact with Miéville in March of 2023, I had no idea about the Keanu project. Mostly I just wanted to know why he hadn’t written a new novel in the past eight years.

A closeup of China Miville's ear with several silver hoop piercings

China, who has a shaved head and five earrings, looks the same as he did on his book jackets from 20-plus years ago.

Photograph: Alexander Coggin

So, for months, we talked on the phone, Zoomed, texted, and eventually met up in person, at the home he shares with his now wife, the artist and writer Season Butler, in London. (They had progressed from dating to marriage during the writing of this story.) To enter Miéville’s multilevel apartment, where he has lived for about two decades, is to leave the quiet sidewalk in Kilburn far behind for steampunk heaven: quasi-Victorian, beautifully done up, every inch of it considered. And very, very nerdy. Like, his two cats have skulls on their litter boxes nerdy. Miéville’s right arm has a massive tattoo of a skulltopus rendered in black, red, and gold ink; the left is covered in a set of flies on an ampersand. He has a shaved head and five earrings.

Miéville and his house are coincidental, the terms and images of one repeated in the other. But at their base, the home and the person are both just this: beautiful and nerdy. More surprising is that these two qualities seem to stretch quite a ways back. Though 51, China still looks like his press photos from when his second novel, Perdido Street Station (steampunk), broke big in 2000, after which he soon left academia, doctorate in hand. (My current husband on China’s physique: “Mr. Clean meets Oscar Wilde.”) Maybe he’s thinner now. And, though 51, he still plays with toys. At one point I awkwardly gestured at this, and he told me, “I have a theory. One of the things that tends to distinguish nerds and their interests is, broadly speaking, that they have fidelity to their loves in a way that other people don’t. I don’t mean other people are unfaithful in a flibbertigibbety way, but! The stuff I was into when I was 4 is still the stuff I’m into. From as early as I can remember, it was sea monsters. Aliens …”

Which is not to say this is the home of two people cosplaying their childhoods. The first floor of the apartment nearly tips into being a curiosity museum, though it’s not fantastically clean; Miéville just likes “tchotchkes.” (Despite his not being Jewish, Yiddish punctuates his speech more than it does mine.) Many are kept in old medicine cabinets. When I asked Miéville whether he might tell me about his collections, he took photographs of his living room and annotated them for me, sending me the bible of his universe. The old telephone on a bureau? His mother’s. That black-and-white print? He liked it, it was affordable. The hammer-and-sickle statue? Actually a science fiction award from Russia. The image of the ram above the sofa? That one is merely tagged with a digital sticky note: “painting in blood.” The centerpiece of the room is the largest, tallest cat tree I have ever seen. If you recall that the cats have tricked-out litter boxes, you can begin to imagine its stature.

A closeup of several vintage Mutant Raiders figurines on a navy blue desk

“The stuff I was into when I was 4 is still the stuff I’m into,” Mieville says. “From as early as I can remember, it was sea monsters. Aliens …”

Photograph: Alexander Coggin

On that first visit at the end of last summer, China was mostly game. Anything I might have wanted in the way of story, personal insight, or argument we could talk about, and happily. But about Miéville’s current work, he and Season were cagey. I followed Season upstairs to her office, where she rolled a cigarette. No dice. When she went to the bathroom, I tried Miéville again. Nothing. We might speak about anything and everything else—British politics, the term parasocial and who among Miéville’s cohort of science fiction writers courts it (China doesn’t use any social media), the role of Marxist critique today, Palestine. About his current work, I merely learned there were a pair of novels to come, one nearly 20 years in the making and one for which he was not the sole author.

Staying mum about anything in the present or future is sort of a problem when you’re trying to write about someone. Miéville, who is kind to his core, knew that. He was apologetic, and seemed rather sincere, but said he couldn’t tell me about the collaborative project—not without me signing an NDA, which he himself had signed. He couldn’t tell me about his magnum opus (“or my white whale, or Matterhorn, or albatross”) because it wasn’t completed. I had figured celebrity involvement or major IP in the collaborative project, because that’s when lawyers tend to get involved and people shut up; I told him I thought it was less Marvel and more a book cowritten with Kate Winslet.

Then, months later, Miéville finally told me what this secret project was—or, more precisely, told me how to find out. Which is how I found myself watching Good Morning America at 5 in the morning on January 10. I promised to text my editor immediately after I learned, along with roughly 3 million other people, what I’d be writing about. Why was the Internet’s Boyfriend talking straight to the camera about his comic book? Because, as we now know, China Miéville had cowritten a novel, in its universe, focused on an immortal’s quest to become mortal, with him.

I texted Miéville: “There’s a literal billboard in Times Square with your name on it.” And so there was: The Book of Elsewhere, which gave equal billing to novelist and actor, had its cover reveal three stories above the heads of morning commuters. China texted back: He was hiding under his bed.

So back to London I went, ready to talk, this time, about everything. No more secrets. Just off the plane, I made my way to China’s house, passing not too far from where he was raised by his single mother with his sister. China’s father, who was not in his life, owned an important bookstore, Bristow’s Books, a node in 1960s and ’70s counterculture. “They sold the Little Red Book,” China told me, “and the science fiction magazines from the counter-cultural wing of the genre, that sort of thing.”

China, Season, and the two cats greeted me; to my delight, the black-and-white one, my beloved Tasso, remembered me. Season and China had just returned from Iceland. I watched them do comedic bits as Season cooked. It’s clear they’re quite happy, and really like each other, even as they—political radicals both—are aware that marriage is a very traditional closing scene in another genre of fiction.

They popped champagne and we toasted, using China’s late mother’s glasses. Almost on cue, Season assured me China is not “the communist grandson of the fifth archduke of whatever.” But Wikipedia says something like that, and this means it’s an oft-repeated rumor. (I observed that the three of us truly were, at least in that moment, Marxists with champagne tastes.) Miéville described his childhood in Northwest London. After the breakup with his father when he was not yet 2, “we were homeless,” he said. “It was shelters, charity boxes for Christmas. Then Mum eventually trained and became a teacher.” A branch of his mother’s family was, once upon a time, aristocratic but had long since fallen out of that class. China reminded me: “There are wonderful comrades who tripped off the croquet fields and then became militants for the liberation of humanity. There are terrible, terrible right-wingers who came from council estates. As it happens, I’m not the former, although I have a kind of cultural lineage that links me to some of those people.”

The same might be said of science fiction, that the genre is not determinative of its politics, which is why China refuses Jameson’s total utopian theorizing. He doesn’t write science fiction because he’s a communist or because he wants to bring about the revolution. Instead, he thinks of himself as pursuing “difference” within and across his books: “Alterity. That’s where my heart beats.”

That China was willing to talk about much of anything on the record was novel in itself. He acknowledged that his silence over the past decade had been due to a deep depression, really as hard as they come, one that resulted in him not being sure he wanted to live. He had been depressed, he thinks, at least since his mother died, when he was 34. He realized how fully he was suffering after his 40th birthday. Ten years on, after a great deal of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology, he has slowly emerged from this state. He was, he told me, well enough to get together with Season and that falling in love with her took him, perhaps, the rest of the way.

Season Butler and China Miville holding hands while sitting on a couch in front of a white curtain

Miéville and the artist Season Butler progressed from dating to marriage during the writing of this story.

Photograph: Alexander Coggin

Depression had shown itself in many ways. One was a withdrawal from the press, from fiction, and therefore from his fans, whom he adores. “There is no reason anyone should give a shit about this, apart from the people who love me,” China said. But depression has changed his work. During those 10 years, he turned to nonfiction and helped to found a biannual journal, Salvage, of communist and socialist politics. (At one point I sat in on a rousing meeting of the board, at the aptly named Groucho Club.) Or at least that’s how it seemed. Now we know he was also completing a 1,000-plus-page novel and working on his collaboration with Keanu.

If, during the past year, China and Season had reason to talk about the collaboration out of doors, walking around London—about how the work was progressing, or a due date—they referred to it as the project with their “very dear friend.” Otherwise it was kept secret. China had taken the initial meeting while traveling in Berlin, to hear all about BRZRKR and what Keanu wanted in translating its universe into a novel. BRZRKR the comic centers on B., an 80,000-year-old warrior who wants to know why he is unable to die. He strikes a devil’s bargain: He will be the indestructible warrior for the United States if, in return, the country uses its considerable might to crack the code on his deathlessness.

First China needed to hear what the nonnegotiables were. He also had nonnegotiables of his own. He needed to be able to do something “interesting” with the form—which, in a way, describes what motivates his work generally. “I always think of it as pulp OuLiPo,” he told me, referring to the French literary group that used mathematical and other external constraints to produce art. “OuLiPo says, you know, ‘I’m going to write a novel without the letter e.’ Now, instead of the letter e, your random constraints are the universe of this other world.” This is something China takes deeply seriously. “You’re going to honor them.”

But China was surprised. Keanu’s people had just one main nonnegotiable: that the protagonist still be B., that he still be immortal and want the ability to die. (“Different from wanting to die. Keanu is clear on that,” China reminds me.) The two tossed around ideas, and then China was happy to try to write an outline for the book, which Keanu accepted. Then, after more than a year, came the book. China still wouldn’t let Keanu announce the collaboration, not until there was a publication date, not until he was sure that Keanu was happy with it.

Keanu was, it can be said, very happy with it—even if China took it to surprising places. China is very spirit-not-letter about fulfilling requirements and conventions in all of his works. He told me about this by way of describing his obsession with minor lore and terms of art in any field. He and his mom used to read specialist magazines about, for instance, model trains. He loved trying to follow the disputes and disagreements within these enthusiastic subcultures. Each genre he works in has its own set of principles that he respects supremely during his stay there. He said, “When I wrote The City & the City,” which he did for his late mother, who loved crime fiction, “it was really important to me to write a crime novel that didn’t cheat. So I had to learn what cheating was, because that’s not my home genre. You know, if you introduce the murderer 10 pages from the end, that’s cheating.”

China approached his BRZRKR tie-in with these two rules: same universe, no cheating. “If you come in wanting horrible violence and a helicopter chase, you’re going to get it, because it would be cheating to not give you that in a BRZRKR novel.” The helicopter scene might be as much for China himself, who loves helicopters and even has a tattoo of two of them. He was also simply excited by the assignment of writing a tie-in novel, and doing it well. “The tie-in is, from the point of view of polite traditional literature,” China said, “vulgar.” Then—using his characteristic it-will-become-clear reversal, always announced with a bright “But!” and a held-up index finger—he added, “Some of them are really great.”

China Miville smiling while sitting in front of a window with a view of London behind him

“This notion that, like, utopia is the irreducible core, and everything else is a function of that,” Mieville says, “I respectfully disagree.”

Photograph: Alexander Coggin

Miéville’s genre-hopping works are all dedicated to imagining human relations as they might be otherwise: in the past, in the future, and most wistfully, now. The Book of Elsewhere is no exception, but until I actually read it I had no idea that this collaborative tie-in between a movie star and a titan of weird fiction was less about Karl Marx than about Sigmund Freud. It’s practically Freudian fan fiction.

In September 1939, as oral cancer made his life ever less tenable, and despite just having made a bid for survival by escaping the Nazis with the help of a princess, Freud died in his London home by assisted suicide. His daughter Anna and his physician, Max Schur, helped him. On the eve of this September day—or so Miéville has it in the BRZRKR universe—Freud sat down to write his last letter—a missive to the future that, as they all are, was about the past.

Before I say more, China made me promise to include a giant spoiler warning in the text before discussing the book. So:


As the fictional Freud writes of his own approaching death, he foresees the death of his sister Dolfi (who will die three years later in historical time, on the way to the camps). To put it mildly, death is everywhere. “Pain will be with me until I take my final leave,” Freud/Miéville/Reeves writes. He is ready to take it, to be clear. Freud then offers us a case study of a patient he met only three times, the last time when the world was at war. This patient offers Freud a riddle, not unlike the one the Sphinx offers Oedipus, and from which psychoanalysis in part sprang:

“I kill and kill and kill again,” he said. “And the truth is, I would like to rest … And sometimes, not frequently but many times over the course of my life, I die. And it hurts.

And then I come back.

I return, and I kill and kill and kill again, and eventually I die again, and the whole merry-go-round continues. So please—​Herr Doktor … What sort of man am I?”

This is, of course, B., the immortal warrior hero. He wants to be able to die, to become mortal, but can’t quite, for he cannot die his own death. Freud seeks to redescribe this in psychic terms for B. And that is the nature of their analytic work together. It is possible to read much of the intervening book, which opens and closes in Freud’s voice, as a lost case study. Freud declares to B.: “You’ve told me you don’t wish to be a metaphor. But you don’t get to choose.” What kills us and dies and is reborn? B., like it or not, is a metaphor for the death drive.

The death drive is not some science fiction weapon or engine, exactly, but a theory introduced by (the real) Freud as a corrective to his idea of the pleasure principle—the idea that we all try to minimize pain and strive for pleasure all the time. War-torn Europe had shown him there was something else to account for—that we don’t just go for what’s good, but also for what’s bad, for “unpleasure.” Thus he conceived of the death drive at the end of World War I and during the Spanish flu, wherein his beloved daughter Sophie died suddenly. Freud would deny until he died that Sophie was the inspiration for it, and here, Miéville grants Freud’s wish. B., in Miéville’s hands, embodies the death drive—and he has come to Freud, like many have gone to their analysts, seeking cure. Freud then does what analysts do best—extrapolate from one patient toward a universal theory. The immortal B., in this alternate universe, showed Freud what sort of men we all are. When I asked Miéville about it, he said, “I think you could argue that that’s B. saying, ‘I want to be a human, I want to be a real boy.’ I mean, it’s a Pinocchio story.”

Even though it was actually Reeves who introduced Freud to the original BRZRKR comic, it’s easy to see why Miéville latched onto it. All of this was written while China was reckoning, deeply, with whether or not he could imagine going on. “Depression, for me, was the realization of what has been the case rather than something happening,” he told me. “These books”—he means not just The Book of Elsewhere but also his upcoming magnum opus/white whale/albatross, which I’m still not allowed to talk about except to say it’s just been shipped off to the publisher—“are being brought to a close in what I tentatively and hopefully believe is out the other side of the worst of that.”

I wondered whether the immortal who wants the ability to die is a figure for the depressed person who wants to live. I hurt, I die, and then I come back. Day in, day out. I asked China about what it was like to write an immortal for the first time. “I mean, to be perfectly frank,” he said, “it isn’t a subtradition that I have had a wildly deep fascination with. But!”—index finger raised—“Melmoth the Wanderer is a very big figure for me,” referring to the Charles Maturin retelling of the Wandering Jew from 1820. “It’s one of the first books I remember my mother reading, and I have the cover of her edition.” Indeed he does; it appeared in the annotated photos he sent me. “I’ve grown up with this very strong resonance of, you know, immortality as torture.”

I asked him whether he thinks immortality will ever be achieved. “No, I don’t think we’re going to have immortality ever,” he said. But if we did, he added, “I don’t like the idea that it is automatically a bad and reactionary thing. I would say context is everything. So, you know. Communism and immortality? Maybe. You know, neoliberalism and immortality? Sounds like hell.”

How does one get from hell to maybe, from depression to what Freud called “ordinary unhappiness,” from oppression to emancipation? To mark the occasion of their wedding, Season and China had taken a helicopter ride in Iceland. They told me that, on the way out there, their taxi driver had told them they had chosen the auspicious but unplannable day of the return of the Lóa bird. Without taking his eyes off the road, the driver recited them an Icelandic poem about the bird. Then he translated it into English on the spot. (“Not a short poem,” China said.) It was a poem about returns—about no longer being suicidal in the depths of winter, joked the newlyweds. China thought this must just be his cab driver’s preoccupation. But no, there it was, the national headline in that day’s Icelandic news. The Lóa bird had returned.

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