Politics and the fantastic

May 23, 2011

Britain's Guardian recently proclaimed that China Miéville may be one of the reasons why science fiction is "becoming cool."

"Miéville's homebrew of weird fiction and radical politics seems ever more relevant," the paper noted. "Despite the current slew of mindless sci fi-flavored Hollywood blockbusters, Miéville reminds us that beneath sci fi's skin-deep popular appeal beats a radical heart."

A long-time socialist and member of the British Socialist Workers Party, Miéville has won or been nominated for every major literary science fiction or fantasy award, and has the distinction of being the only three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award. In 2008, science fiction website IO9.com called his novel Perdido Street Station one of the "20 science fiction novels that will change your life."

But far from being rigidly stuck in a "genre ghetto," Miéville's wildly inventive works have explored everything from science fiction to fantasy, mystery and horror. His latest book, Embassytown, which he describes as more definitively in the science fiction genre, was released in the U.S. earlier this month.

Miéville spoke to Nicole Colson at Chicago's Comic and Entertainment Exposition in March about the role of politics in his writing, his thoughts on science fiction in popular culture and how politics and faction interact.

WHAT DRAWS you as a writer to fantasy?

IT WAS never a decision. I was always into it, so I'm having to kind of theorize, post facto, about something very deep in me. So the straight answer is, "I don't know, I've just always been into it."

But I think my tentative theory is that the kind of estrangement you get in fantasy is something that I love. I don't get so viscerally excited with something is realistic as I do with the fantastic. So I think there's something about that estrangement that the fantastic can do that is unique.

I RECENTLY read an interview with the science fiction writer Octavia Butler in which she talked about how, as a child, she was drawn to the idea of science fiction, because for her, it seemed to have no limits.

FOR ME, it was just that I was very, very excited from as young as I can remember about the description of things that I knew weren't real, that were impossible. I found that terribly exciting. I don't really know why.

Since then, I've spent a lot of time theorizing what it might be--what the fantastic can do and so on--but it starts from a kind of pre-theoretical love.

China Miéville
China Miéville (Catriona Sparks)

SCIENCE FICTION and fantasy is having a huge pop culture moment right now, yet in terms of literature, there still seems to be a real degree of sneering at it. A Booker Prize judge, John Mullan, said a couple of years ago that science fiction was "bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other."

I DEBATED him about that actually. To give him his credit, I invited him to do a debate about it, and he came along...but yes, there is a great deal of snobbery about it.

I think it's a function of a lot of different things. I think it's got a lot to do with the triumph of a certain genre that we now call "literary fiction," which has become terribly successful at pretending it is not a genre, but is in fact the definition of literature. That's the result of very powerful marketing campaign over the last 30 years or so.

But I think it does go further back than that. I think it's something to do with a shift in late Victorian and early Edwardian culture--a certain phase of bourgeois culture. Writers had done stuff across fields before then, but something shifted, and quite a strong ideology emerged of mimetic representation. There are literally books and books and books on why that is, but I think it is the result of a certain ideological moment.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Nicole Colson at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking on "A riot of my own: The Clash." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

I don't want to seem too crude. I don't want to be saying that the dominant ideology hates science fiction. If you look around, the dominant ideology loves science fiction. But there is a certain sense of generic hierarchies.

But I also think that it's breaking down at the moment. I think these things are cyclical. At the moment, things are much more open-minded than they have been for while. Those of us within genre whine a lot about this, and there are reasons to whine, but I'm kind of tempted to just get on with it.

THINKING ABOUT a convention like this, ComicCons are becoming so popular.

VERY ABRUPTLY. It's very interesting. They've started featuring in pop culture. You've started to have shows, cop shows or whatever, set at comic conventions. I don't think most people knew they existed until about five years ago.

I CAME in yesterday and saw my first Star Wars imperial storm trooper, and I felt, "This is my tribe." But then, I saw my twelfth storm trooper, and I thought, "Well, there's the downside." I wondered what you feel about the way it's getting so heavily sold back to people?

I DON'T think there's anything very complicated about it. Any obsessive group of people that shares an obsessive love--and I say this as one of them, I'm not being derogatory--has a kind of spuriously utopian effect, where you're all in this together, you're all a tribe, you all understand each other and all that.

That's fine--it's not the worst sin in the world. But there is something narrowing about it.

I love obsessions. I love people who are fascinated by anything, whether it's tropical fish or stamp collecting or science fiction. I don't always share the interest, but I love the passion. The passion is very moving, but it does also sometimes lead to a certain kind of insularity.

The main problem, obviously, from our perspective is that it's inextricable from an immensely successful commodification. So my argument is that I enjoy cons a lot--they're fun, and, as you say, it's my tribe.

But I get frustrated. I think our love for this stuff leads us to be, on the whole, too uncritical--or constantly let down in this weird way. We're so excited about it that we will go see anything with a spaceship in it, even if we know it's going to be shit. I feel like--let's just not go. Or if you do go, don't act surprised when it's shit. Of course it is. It's a Hollywood-extruded product.

Once they've got your money, they don't need you to like it. It would be helpful if you like it, purely to the extent that they can make more money--sequels and spinoffs and all that stuff. But, fundamentally, if you go and you think it sucks, as long as you pay, they don't give a shit. Now, obviously, some of the directors want to do good work--I'm not talking about individuals. I'm talking about the structure.

So as for that kind of constant sense of "our culture industry is letting us down" that we geeks do, I feel like we should say, yes, it's an industry, it's a set of companies.

If you enjoy the stuff, that's great, but don't be credulous about what it's for. And I say this as someone who loves it.

LET'S TALK about your new book Embassytown. Can you give a synopsis?

IT'S A science fiction set in the far future on an alien planet, in a universe where there is no instantaneous communication between distant objects. It's about a very isolated community of humans on a very strange planet. It's all to do with language--there's a particular kind of linguistic interaction they have with the local species.

There's a certain kind of looking at colonial politics and so on. But I'm going to be very vague about it, because I feel very superstitious about talking about work in progress.

THE NAME, though, certainly calls up images of the Green Zone in Iraq, for example. When you write, how much are you aware of external politics shaping what you're writing?

IT DOES. But it's more a question of background traction and texture.

Occasionally, I'll say, "I want to do an explicit riff on such-and-such." But very rarely. I can think of one quite explicit riff about the gentrification of East London in Iron Council, for example. But mostly it's more a question of background texture. So there's a war going on--and there always is--or the fact that we're in the middle of this economic crisis is undoubtedly finding its way into the fiction I'm writing, because it's to do with the way I'm thinking about the world. But not in a programmatic way.

I'm quite sure that in a year's time, people will be able to say about the stuff that I'm writing now that this is coming out of Tahrir Square, or this is the stuff that's coming out of the English Defense League marching in London. Of course, all that stuff's there. But I always say that if I want to talk about those things, I'll talk about them explicitly. They're absolutely there. But I don't set out to programmatically bring them in.

WHEN YOU write, do you give any kind of special consideration to how different audiences will read what you write? Most of what you've written is very accessible without being "easy," But I do notice that there are things that strike me as of particular interest to a socialist. For example, in Kraken, there's a debate about religion between two characters that made me think about how people always quote Marx about religion being the "opiate of the masses," but they never quote him about religion being the "heart in a heartless world." Does that ever enter into your writing?

I DON'T want the last answer to imply that I don't think about the politics. I do think about the politics, but it's in a kind of mediated way.

In terms of the specifics, you were sort of playfully using the word "tribe" about this place, but socialists are also our tribe. To some extent, that can be a problem, because we can be kind of insular. But it is undoubtedly the case that socialists have a certain set of vocabularies. And because that's one of the scenes I'm interested in and inhabit, I sometimes put "Easter eggs" for my comrades.

There are jokes that Marxists might get that other people are unlikely to get. There are little tweaks at particular left groups--for example, some of the stuff in Iron Council.

The idea is always that you don't have to get it to enjoy the piece, but if you do, it can be an enjoyable thing. To that extent, I think it would be disastrous to write a novel or a short story thinking, "Ah, the comrades are going to love this. This is for them." That would be far too narrow. But, certainly it can be sort of like, "Here's one for the Althusserians." There is an Althusser joke in Un Lun Dun that two people have caught!

I WAS reading some of the articles in a discussion of your book Iron Council, and one writer basically argues the your books are a bit grim--that you don't let your characters "win." I was wondering if you think there's any truth to that?

FACTUALLY, I don't think it's wholly true. There are positive endings, or mediated endings, in the books. But I would certainly accept that, on the whole, the stuff tends to be considered fairly "bleak"--although it's a term that I think is pretty asinine. I accept what she's saying, but I don't really understand it. I never have.

We have a bad history of this on the left--a very bad history which we really need to get over. The number of left cultural reviews I've read say, "This is an interesting film, but it doesn't offer any alternative." Well, that's not its job! Or, "This is relentlessly grim." Maybe it is. That's irrelevant to its quality as literature, and it's also irrelevant to its politics.

To this day, I often hear people on the left talk about "utopian, hopeful, progressive science fiction"--as if these are the same terms. Sometimes, "hopeful" fiction can be among the most reactionary. Sometimes, the "grimmest" and most depressive fiction might be really, really radical--or it might not, but it might be fantastic fiction.

Obviously, there's a question of taste. If you don't like "grim books," you probably won't like some of my books. That's fine--that's taste.

And you might well construct a political critique where you say, "The bleakness of these books is reactionary for the following reasons." That's fine. That's an analysis, and I might argue back. But to simply put out there that the books are in some way either lacking and/or politically reprehensible because they're downbeat is crazy.

My favorite example about this, within genre, would be Night of the Living Dead because--spoiler alert--Night of the Living Dead is a fantastically bleak film, and a very politically interesting film. The idea that somehow it would have been more radical had it had a happy ending is so crazy. In that particular instance, it's the unrelenting bleakness of it and the way it's done that make it such a powerful political film.

So, yes, that does get leveled at me sometimes, and it doesn't concern me at all. Not all the books are bleak, and those that are bleak are that way because I think it makes them better books. Now, I might be wrong about that.

YOUR WORK is often referred to as "steampunk" [a sub-genre of science fiction that evokes Victorian aesthetics, with an emphasis on "futuristic" technology as Victorians might have envisioned it, but which often glosses over the political ethos of the era]. Do you accept that term?

I DON'T particularly care how people describe me, and if they want to call me "steampunk" because it gives them a certain set of quick references, I'm not going to go to the wall about that.

But "steampunk" as a paradigm is not something I'm particularly enamored of. There's been a big debate online about the politics of steampunk recently, which I think is really interesting and long overdue.

So on the whole, I'm slightly skeptical of that designation. But I also kind of think, for the most part, that it's not for writers to decide. If other people find heuristic use in putting you in a certain category, to a large extent, that's up to them.

I READ a piece that science fiction author Charles Stross wrote recently, called "The hard edge of empire", in which he mentioned you. In it, he was very critical of steampunk in terms of the lazier aspects of it--the lazy world building. I felt some real sympathy toward his argument.

I LOVED his piece. I know it created a lot of fuss, and I thought a lot of the counter-critiques were a bit lame. People were saying, "Well, but you haven't talked about this, you haven't talked about that." It was a polemical opinion piece--of course he hasn't dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's.

But I thought his basic argument that a lot of modern steampunk is a nostalgia for a particular era of Victoriana, and that there's an effacing of a lot of the imperial stuff going on there, is straightforwardly, demonstrably true.

There's now been a whole wave of revisionist steampunk. Great--maybe we can do some interesting stuff about this. But we haven't seen the steampunk iteration of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Belgian Congo...these are the edifices on which the steam is built and, ergo, it would be nice to see them reflected. If that's starting to happen, great. If it took some people like Charles--and also Nisi Shawl made many of the same arguments--prodding, that's got to be a good thing.

A THREAD through a lot of what you write is the idea of cities having an internal life--of being characters. Where that comes from?

THERE'S A long tradition of writing that's interested in the city not just as a setting, but as a phenomenon, as a character, as a heuristic, as a problematic, and as a kind of "fraught" symbol and all that. I think I'm just doing that. I see myself very much as writing within that tradition.

ABOUT YOUR last book, Kraken--when I think of squid gods and the end of the world, I think of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is obviously a big influence for you, but, of course, Lovecraft was also terrifically racist. When you approach someone as an inspiration who also has very problematic politics, how do you deal with that?

I'VE WRITTEN a lot about Lovecraft, and I've thought a lot about Lovecraft and his racism. There is a whole body of theoretical investigation relating to Lovecraft and starting to really take on the extent to which racism is a fundamental structuring dynamic of his work.

My own feeling is that I want to have it both ways--because I don't think it's good enough for those of us on the left to say, "I really love this writer and their politics are irrelevant." I don't think they are irrelevant at all. I think if you're loving loads of writers, and every single one of them is a fascist, then there's something at least to be investigated.

But at the same time, I also think it's perfectly possible, as Trotsky famously did with Louis-Ferdinand Céline, to tremendously admire a writer's work, while being very critical of the horrible politics that went into that work.

I don't think there's a contradiction there. I think you can think that the Heart of Darkness is an amazing piece of work, and also accept that it's a piece of work where the power of it is predicated in part on the silencing of any African voices. It is a work structured by a particular kind of racism. If it had been less racist in that way, it might have been much better politically, but it would have lost something as a piece of fiction. Now, it might have gained in other ways.

It's one of the uncomfortable things we have to just accept. The power of these works is not coterminous with their political simpatico-ness. But it's perfectly possible to theorize that and work it out. That's one of the things I like about critically engaging with fiction--it allows you to both understand the sources of that power, without exonerating them.

I think Lovecraft is an astonishing visionary writer, and the source of his vision, in many cases, is race hatred. Now what do you do with that? Do you say, "I'm not going to read any of his stuff"? Do you say, "I'm impressed by the power of his ecstatic vision." I am. Understanding that it comes from a really horrendous place is a way of saying that I'm not surrendering to those politics, but I'm also not denying what, in Michel Houellebecq's words, raised him to the level of poetic trance, and it was race hatred.

I don't think it's impossible to have it both ways. You can read fictions symptomatically, which is and an important thing to do. But it always has many things going on. To understand the source of something and to denigrate it doesn't necessarily mean turning your back on its power as well.

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