With One Bound We are Free: Pulp, Fantasy and Revolution

by China Mieville on January 11, 2005

Warning: Enormous spoilers to Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, follow.

INTRODUCTION AND CAVEATS.

I am deeply flattered by and grateful for the attention that the Johns, Belle, Miriam, Henry and Matthew have paid to my stuff, and by their invitation to respond. Even more than having your work liked, having it thought about means a huge amount.

It puts me in a slightly awkward position, though. I don’t generally publicly respond to reviews, no matter how wrong-headed or perspicacious I think them. Nine times out of ten, writers’ responses to critics seem to me at best undignified. One of the usual arguments authors level is the foolishness that ‘I know better than you because I wrote it’. To make my position absolutely clear: authorial intention be damned. I do not necessarily know best. Which is to stress that this unusual and gratifying opportunity will inevitably be a Response To My Critics, and I beg them not to read it as defensive. Where I disagree, I say so in the spirit of open-minded debate.

I’ve tried to approach this thematically. There are countless issues raised in this discussion, direct questions,[1] issues I wish I could engage with at length [2] and references I’d love to explain, [3] but inevitably space precludes discussing them all.

Above all, I want to offer my deepest gratitude to everyone involved.

1. NEVER MIND THE BALROGS.

Tolkien looms over this conversation (as he always seems to). It may sound disingenuous, but I’d like to get to the point where I can stop talking about him. It’s generous of John H. to offer me the get-out clause that my PSS-era attacks on JRR were punk kickings against the pricks, not to be dwelt on any longer. Tempting as it is to agree, though, it would be untrue.

Which isn’t to say there was no punk posing in my sneers. The wen on the arse of fantasy…? These days, of course, I wince a little at that. (Not least because I’ve had it pointed out that wens are a kind of boil exclusive to faces. There is no such thing as an arse-wen. D’oh!)

But as a few of my later pronouncements have tried to make clear, my piece was less an attack on Tolkien than on his influence. Not that I’m distancing myself from specific critiques of Tolkien’s work (none of them original to me, of course. For the last few years I’ve been riffing off Mike Moorcock’s essay ‘Epic Pooh’).

The thing is that I did want to take on Tolkien, in PSS, which was conceived in radical antipathy to as much of his aesthetic and thematic furniture as I could think of. As far as I was concerned I was then done. Tolkien loomed over PSS, but he did not – consciously at least – over TS or IC (though of course it would be naïve to imagine that I’ve ‘escaped’ his influence, or that I’m not a descendent of his).

1.1: In Grudging Defence of Tolkien

John H.’s analogy, I think, is a good one: Tolkien is an outsider artist. His genius lay in his neurotic, self-contained, paranoid creation of a secondary world. That act of profoundly radical geekery reversed the hitherto-existing fantasy subcreation: unlike Eddison’s Mercury and Leiber’s Newhon, Middle Earth comes before the stories that occur within it. It’s precisely this approach, the subject of most scorn from the ‘mainstream’, which is Tolkien’s most truly radical and seminal moment. His literalised fantastic of setting means an impossible world which believes in itself, and has no truck with the tedious symbolism which mars so much ‘magic realism’, for example, in which the fantastic does not trust itself, and which the author is keen to stress is ‘really about’ insert-theme-here.

Tolkien’s ‘cordial dislike’ of allegory does not, as some of his followers, most of his detractors, and the man himself seems to think, imply a fiction divorced from reality – a fiction ‘about’ nothing real. What it means is a fantasy that is not reducible to a kind of philistine, simplistic, moralising, fabular representation of soi-disant ‘meaningful’ concerns, as with fiction that despises its own fantastic. Dispensing with allegory cannot mean dispensing with metaphor:[4] fantasy that believes itself is about itself and also about other things.

Fundamentally, that is why I think fantasy at its best doesn’t have to choose between John H.’s two poles: political economy vs. puppeteering expressionism. Because the realism of concern and the weird of expression are each their own end, but through metaphor, that magic dialectical glue, they are also, in a critical fantasy, functions of each other. (None of which, of course, is to say that I’ve got it right).[5]

This is not, of course, to repudiate any of the rude things I’ve said about Tolkien’s themes, prose, women, class politics, moralism, etc. In focusing on the way fantasy thinks of itself, the way a self-believing fantasy impacts the reader, I’m arguing to nurture the baby of Tolkien’s phenomenology of fantasy while chucking out the bathwater of his ideas. It’s very dirty by now.

1.2. An Admission on War.

I want to agree with John H. over Tolkien and the war. My criticism of him as falling prey to a boys-own-adventurism was misplaced. I still hold that Tolkien’s battles are ‘morally disordered’, but as John H. says, ‘the disorder is of a different order’.

Instead, the overwhelming tone reads as a kind of melancholic glorying, faintly elegiac, Tragic-with-a-capital-T, with swords a-flashing and valiant steeds a-galloping, not Just William but Light Brigade. Rather than the product of never having seen modern war, this in fact seems to me an attempt to forget. Tolkien’s modernophobia manifests in the attempted invocation of a nobility he knows doesn’t exist.

It’s interesting to compare him to that other great outsider artist of the fantastic, Lovecraft. Though Lovecraft never saw war, he did see, quite clearly, the social chaos that the First World War ushered in. The ‘Great War’ was the most shattering event in Modernity’s conception of itself as a rational, humane system: the paradox is that Tolkien, who experienced that carnage first-hand, attempted to turn his back on the truth of post-traumatic Modernity, whereas Lovecraft was thousands of miles away from the heart of horror, but was a neurotically acute barometer of society’s psychic disorders.

These different approaches manifest in their fantasies. To put it with unfair crudeness, Tolkien’s is the fantasy of a man murmuring to himself ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, but not believing it; Lovecraft’s of a man shrieking ‘none of it is alright, nor will it ever be’. Unconvinced forgetting versus psychotic fixation: both are the results of trauma.

2. ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

2.1 There goes the neighbourhood

In both Belle’s and John H.’s pieces the same question is asked: in New Crobuzon, where is the nice part of town?

Back in the day, one of the most interesting reviews of PSS (Tom Arden in Interzone) said exactly the same thing. I read it, and had that gnawing annoyance that comes when you know a criticism is right. Like all those writers who self-importantly think of themselves as into ‘gritty’ ‘harsh’ ‘gnarly’ reality, etc, I’m more interested in crumbling bricks than in new ones, in the fucked-up mess than the neat marble columns. I knew there were a few uptown scenes in PSS, but my heart can’t have been as in them as the downtown, and it must have showed.

I took that to heart, and in IC, resolved to do better. I was never going to feature as much of the smart stuff as of the lower orders, but I tried not to be so one-sided. Self-consciously, I took the characters to Flag Hill and various other more sedate byways. I was proud of having redressed the balance.
Obviously I didn’t. I can only throw admit failure. In mitigation, I plead two things.

i) These are poor-town protagonists, and unlike PSS, the point-of-view is much more tightly controlled. If they feel isolated from uptown, which of course they do, so do the readers. ii) Why should I show uptown? In my wildest dreams (and with apologies for hubris), I would like PSS and IC to read for New Crobuzon as Iain Sinclair does for London. Would White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings or Downriver be improved with more of a balance-redressing focus on Kensington or Chelsea, instead of their constant fascination with the East End?[6] Does Céline’s relentless focus on the less salubrious arrondissements really hamstring his work, or define it?

The section Belle quotes, involving the slum museum in Flag Hill, has a very specific aetiology. It was a reference not only to the relentless gentrification of working-class areas in London and elsewhere, but about the way the trappings of these areas, including their very collapse, become fetishised, how their history isn’t effaced but emasculated. I was inspired in part by a poem by Mike Rosen, who angrily and brilliantly describes how a neighbourhood school in London is run down, the plaque bearing its name becoming more and more verdigrised and ruined, until the school is at last closed and refurbished as yuppy flats, at which point the sign is, for the first time in decades, finally cleaned, made a curio. Hence the slum museum.

As to the question of whether it is possible ‘that any citizen could possibly be unaware’ of the slums, I’d say the situation is as it is for many inhabitants of Eton Square in London now. To the extent that they know that a couple of miles away estates are crumbling into shameful ruin, their knowledge is highly partial, hedged with apologia, inevitabilism, and a kind of philanthropic anxiety predicated on the sheer abstraction of their knowledge. And some, in fact, simply would not believe it, just as many might not believe that almost 40% of London’s children live in poverty.

Of course, the issue isn’t fundamentally of architecture, but of social honesty. The relentless rookerie-ophilia is deemed as much a lie as the scrubbed towers of Minas Tirith. These days, it’s true, slums are more of a cliché than hallowed halls.[7]

However, all truth is, of course, partial, and the truths represented by IC are of people who live in the rookeries. I would hope that uptown does feature in the books, is referred to regularly, is a constant presence, but primarily in its absence. That is how the protagonists experience it.

2.2. Sadism versus Symbolism

If you kill a main character, then you’re obviously a ‘brave’ writer. Etc etc. This is the specious and middlebrow gravitas of charactercide. It’s not always an aesthetic con to do a protagonist in, of course, but it shouldn’t be an automatic brownie point.

This apparently most extreme thing you can do to a character, bumping her/him off, is easily assimilable by nebulous structures of comfort. (The question of what if anything is wrong with that is huge, of course, and fundamental to many of the issues here. For here, I’m just going to assert that all my writing tends to be sceptical of consolation and comfort.)

This is precisely why I’m not surprised by Belle’s resentment at the fate of Lin in PSS. It was, yes, precisely ‘uncalled for’. ‘That Lin should get killed,’ Belle says, ‘OK.’ Well quite. Had she been killed, it would have been ok. More than that, it would have presented us with one of the most trite figures in Romantic Art: The Beautiful Dead Female Lover. I didn’t want Lin to turn into Eurydice, which is why what happened to her had to be utterly foul and uncalled for. I maintain that it was more respectful of her as a character to give her a fate that vigorously resisted aestheticisation, than to subordinate her to the logic of myth, symbol and genre. (Particularly when (Ophelia in the water, consumptive beauties a-coughing) it’s a logic deep-structured with fetishised misogynist despite. Hmmmm… raping and mind-ruining a female character as striking a blow against the structures of gender essentialism? Well yes, actually.)

Of course, the problem with this strategy is that it’s a fine line to walk. Push it and you’re gratuitous. There is, it’s undoubtedly true, a cheap and spurious kudos to aesthetic sadism. This is the lie behind the tedious transgressions of much ‘brave’, ‘transgressive’ and ‘underground’ literature. Did I step over that line? I hope not. I don’t know how I could have avoided Lin being eaten by the voracious maw of Meaningful Tragedy had I not taken her through the mill as I did. And I precisely tried to avoid the sadism by having her disappear while the nastiness was going on. Maybe it didn’t work. But that was the idea.

It is also possible that the searingly unpleasant and supposedly meaningless, amoral trials that befall my characters are an overcompensation, an always-already failing attempt to deal with the fact that the representation of ‘real life’ without abstraction, fetishism and moralism is impossible. The in-fiction critique of fabulism and moralism is ultimately and intrinsically limited. John H.: ‘Life doesn’t usually go in for conventional Freytag’s triangle-style structures’. This is absolutely true. The fact is that by writing a story at all one subordinates one’s characters to a narrative, which is, of course, a form of consolation, an imputation of meaning. Lin’s fate, though I stand by it, might be read as me facing this problem and protesting too much.

2.3. Tangled Webs.

‘Miéville’s burning desire to not have things end up neatly leads him even to vitiate what accomplishments there are. The heroic journey of the Iron Council is retrospectively shown to be part of Wrightby’s schemes’. (Belle’s essay).

Yes, I want to suggest a complication, a disentangling of the book’s reality from mythic structure, even the very myths by which people make the decisions they then perceive mythically. One way of destabilising such usually-heroic-sometimes-tragic-always-abstracted-and-fetishised narratives is precisely to unveil a tangle of unsavoury underlying motives or forces at work. However, what I hope is that this is not reducible to a ‘sordid truth’. Because despite such countervailing politics, the actions come to exercise their own dynamics.
This, I think, is what Henry fascinatingly discusses. The fact is that despite Weather Wrightby, the council does achieve something extraordinary and inspirational: in its concrete achievement, it eclipses, or at least supersedes, the baser dynamics that informed it in the abstract.

The uncovering of the ‘truth’ informs the achievement, but does not destroy it: actions gain their own momentum. Learning of Wrightby’s interventions does not derail the council. The person who thinks it does is Cutter, who goes to Ann-Hari with precisely Belle’s concern: this isn’t real, we aren’t really doing it, or not for the reasons we think. She says to him, in effect, ‘but we’ve actually done it, and we did it for our reasons, whether what you say is true or not’.

3. DARK LORDS AND TAKING SIDES

Matthew tempers his original comments that the ‘baddies’ in New Crobuzon – crucially, the government – are depicted as entirely bad. ‘[I]t may be the result of the main characters’ perceptions, and those perceptions may tie into the novels’ central ideas – the double-edged power of passion that both motivates people toward heroic acts and blinds them to the subtleties of the world’.

It is true that I intend the one-sidedness of the novel’s moral schema to be the result of the narrative’s location among the insurgents, where the individual members of the government are hated. The crimes of the Mayor are known and enumerated, but are somewhat abstractly conceived, such that when Ori finally comes face to face with her, while he feels little pity, he can’t relate to her concretely as the purveyor of these things.[8]

The first draft of IC, in fact, included a ‘sympathetic’ militiaman. I took him out. The careful intrusion of such ‘balance’ felt forced, a frankly trite nod to moral complexity that a novel in any way ‘sophisticated’, or at least not ‘simplistic’, is usually vaguely deemed to have to acknowledge.

But this is a novel seen through protagonists steeped in conflict, who relate not necessarily simplistically but thoroughly antagonistically with their enemies. Just as few Bolsheviks in 1917 or supporters of Allende in 1973 constantly reminded themselves that some tsarists or some of Pinochet’s officers might be good people, so Ori and the councillors and their comrades do not focus on the perhaps-honourable motivations of their oppressors. It is not the responsibility of a novel written in an attempt to depict that revolutionary fervour to break what intensity it can achieve with a dutiful reminder that there are other points of view. (Of course the stacked deck of my political examples makes it clear that IC doesn’t just depict fervour: it takes sides.)

This single-mindedness doesn’t mean revolutionaries don’t at some level know that there are layers of complexity to the motivations of opponents, nor does it make them (either in the book or in real life) unsophisticated: it is a corollary of the fact that they are facing enemies.

In Weather Wrightby I wanted precisely to provide a character who was believable, impressive, moved by absolutely opposing motivations than the protagonists’, but one who has to be taken seriously, and is not cipher-like ‘evil’. I don’t believe that any of the baddies are ‘entirely loathsome’, though the protagonists doubtless want to conceive them as so. Even the Mayor, at the point of her death, is a person, not a snarling banshee of capitalist hate. But Wrightby in particular is an enemy, yes, but is also a visionary.

4. ESCAPE TO VICTORY

The basic debate over escapism has been rehearsed many times. It has pitted Moorcock against Tolkien, with me an undignified cheerleader waving pompoms (Give me an M!). Interestingly, the claim that fantasy is escapist is made both by the field’s detractors and some of its defenders.

The detractors argue that therefore it has nothing to say to us, turns its back on what’s important. The counterargument here is that fantasy may think of itself as escapist, but it of course escapes nothing, and the idea that it therefore does not have anything to say about ‘reality’ is wildly simplistic.

Fantasy’s defenders, in turn, claim that in the turning away, the escapism itself, is a repudiation of an unacceptable reality. This argument is crystallised in Tolkien’s claim that ‘Jailers don’t like escapism’. The self-deluding nature of fantasy’s so-called ‘escape’ has been pointed out by, among others, M. John Harrison, and Tolkien’s bon mot has been utterly destroyed in Moorcock’s devastating riposte that jailers love escapism, that what they don’t like is escape.

The discussion is, I think, sometimes hamstrung by a misunderstanding of what constitutes escapism in literature. For example, John H. discussing the breathtaking ruminations of Bruno Schulz says ‘No language of social or political challenge here… Unapologetic escapism, which seems to me what Peake is all about’. I would disagree with the implication that only overt social or political challenge is non-escapist. Peake, for example, reads to me as in part a debate about dead ritualism versus dynamic change, about loyalty to a system versus the morality of self-serving concrete ambition, which in the context of post-War Britain was very much to the social point. Not that that’s what his books are narrowly ‘about’, much less ‘for’: only that the idea that they are escapist and fail to engage with reality seems to me to be wrong.

Schulz’s astonishing excursuses on time, on the ‘sidings’ of history, on cul-de-sacs of history into which hermetic bubbles of alternity might grow, his discussions of the allure of the cheap and second-best, have clear ‘real’ social and psychological resonances. I doubt John would deny this. The sense in which Schulz is ‘escapist’ seems to be that he stresses the liberation of fantasy and the imagination against the constraints of dull reality. The point is, however, that in having this discussion, Schulz creates a fiction about escapism, interrogating escapism – or escape. Schulz is not so much escapist as meta-escapist.

This is not mere wordplay: the alternative, the drabbest commercial fantasies, appear to believe themselves to be escaping. This is not only less sophisticated than Schulz: it is in fact self-denying. In contrast to those works, what escape there is in Schulz is predicated on a profound awareness that there is a reality against which escape velocity must constantly be assayed.

Those of us who want to defend ‘non-escapism’ as worth fighting for in fiction and fantasy have to move away from the simplistic idea that something is only non-escapist if it overtly and explicitly throws up a challenge to the status quo.
Related to this is the question of subjectivity. When radicals admit, shame-faced, to a prediliction for some ‘escapist’ books (people confess this to me regularly, for some reason), what they often mean by escapist, I think, is that these books gave them pleasure. There’s a terrible and common elision between ‘escapist’ and ‘enjoyable’.

I would want not to judge something as escapist because it has a ‘happy ending’ or, god help is, is enjoyable, but because it loses its sense of the complex, oppressive totality of life. ‘Art which loses the sense of the social lie’, as Trotsky said, ‘inevitably defeats itself by affectation, turning into mannerism.’ Mannerism and escapism. And this, of course, applies as much to supposedly ‘realist’ fiction as to fantasy (many of what Iain Banks calls ‘Hampstead novels’ are predicated on hermetically sealing off a particular middle-class milieu and defining it as the morally meaningful universe), and almost as much to ‘gritty’ and ‘experimental’ fiction as to ‘mainstream’. (It’s hard to think of much more mannered than later period Beat Writing, for example.)

5. PULP, SUBVERSIONS AND CONVENTIONS.

John H., Matthew and Belle are quite right to point out that I am, in important ways, a ‘conventional genre storyteller’. Matthew points out how much I write within various pulp traditions, and questions whether from within, I can ‘subvert, but not … obliterate’. As Belle puts it, I am ‘very willing to take advantage of all the other fantasy conventions’ apart from happy endings.

The fact that I’m pretty faithful to various pulpisms and genrifications doesn’t mean that the criticisms I’d make of those traditions don’t have teeth. I can dis the consolation and abstract morality while retaining the firefights and cliffhangers, for example. The question is why one would want to do that. For me, banally, it’s because the tradition of page-turning storytelling is exciting and interesting.

One of the ways of panning for credibility in the pulpstream is to nod and wink at the reader that one is far too sophisticated to not know what one is doing, using all these popular devices. At its worst, this becomes a tedious nodding at the audience: I’ve called this the postmodernism of philistines.

Perhaps self-conscious genre retains a bit more credibility than unreflexive genre. This is moot, but one can at least argue that it bespeaks a critical and thoughtful approach to reading, so let’s not dismiss it out of hand.
The cheerful parodies of my D&D-style trappings are accurate and funny. It was with the self-reflexion of the cliché in mind that I had some characters in PSS described as ‘adventurers … Thrill seekers … [who] court danger … unscrupulous grave robbers … Anything for gold and experience’. Because that of course is what player-characters look like to everyone else in Greyhawk, or should if that world and others like it made social sense. If you get the joke, you’re its target. De te fabula narratur – it’s not the most sophisticated manoeuvre but it was designed to let me have my geek cake and eat it.

Similarly, having decided years ago that IC would be a Western, it was massively overdetermined that at some point in its narrative the Cavalry would Ride To The Rescue. This is an attempt at inoculation from criticism of pulpism by saying ‘yes I know’. It works up to a point, but it’s limited.

Crucially, it’s limited because, as Matthew says ‘the audience that wants shoot-’em-up action will be frustrated by the nonlinear plot, the incantatory prose, the existential angst’ while those to whom that appeals ‘will wonder why they have to slog through yet another clash of titans’. This bifurcation has been clear in the utterly contradictory responses to IC. For every reviewer for whom the ‘Anamnesis’ section is the best thing I’ve ever done, there’s a reader for whom it ruined the book. For everyone who liked the beginning because it had lots of stuff in it, there’s another who found it disjointed and shallow. (To generalise, reviewers for magazines and pro websites have tended to be positive about the book, while ‘fans’ have been far more sceptical.)

The bottom line of course is that I write the books I want to read. The cavalry rode to the rescue partly for the wink-factor, but partly because I like watching them do so. I like hallucinatory prose, avant-garde stylings, nonlinearity and existential angst, and I like monsters and gunfights and robust pulp. John H.’s suggestion that I might try ‘writing less clearly commercial fiction and trusting his audience will understand what private preoccupations made him do it that way’ is intriguing, but the ‘commercial’ (ie, storytelling) isn’t a constraint for me, it’s an urge.

I confess though that the comments on this issue, have given me pause. My problem (?) is I like battle scenes, and I like writing them (even though they might perhaps be as much a fetter as a pleasure). As John H. asks, ‘to what degree are various aesthetic values mutually destructive within a given work?’
I wish I could answer this. It seems to me at least plausible that these different kinds of values do ‘erode’ each other (John’s excellent metaphor). These values are several – the avant-garde sensibility, of depicting realistic social structures, of the ripping yarn – and it’s unclear the extent to which each can fruitfully coexist with others in a single text.[9]

John H. understandably presses me on this point, and I’m sorry that I’m bound to disappoint him. I simply don’t know whether I can have this cake and eat it too: critically depict political economy, while having shots ring out and people swinging off cliffs to magical battles. The best I can do is offer a thought. Even if it’s true that the different values fundamentally work against each other, the attempt to marry them may never succeed, but it might approach success asymptotically. Try again, fail again, fail better. That tension, that process of failing better and better – the very failure, if it’s the best kind of failure – might generate interesting effects that a more ‘successful’ – ie aesthetically integrated – work cannot do.[10]

6. MYTH, MEMORY AND REVOLUTION.

Henry is exactly right to describe IC as containing an argument about ‘revolution, myth and history’. His analysis of the incommensurability between individuals’ intent, politics and myth is astonishingly accurate as to my intent (though the Benjamin essay, while a favourite, wasn’t one I was consciously riffing off). While I wanted to depict the radical movement warts and all, within Bas-Lag, Iron Council ends as a myth, an inspiration.
All three of the Bas-Lag books, particularly PSS and IC, have culminated with what are designed to be insoluble dilemmas. In the former, there is no correct way for Isaac to respond to the revelation about Yagharek’s crime. In the latter, the rub, as Henry so astutely points out, is that ‘the blasting of Iron Council out of history works’. His take – his stress that Iron Council qua myth is, as far as the motivations of the councillors are concerned, a lie – is not exactly different from mine, but it focuses more on the melancholic. There was no ‘correct’ course: had the council reached New Crobuzon, it would have been shattered. However, that it was not allowed to is a betrayal, by Judah, of the councillors themselves, whose decisions were ignored. Judah’s death is not the messianic moment as which he must understand it: ‘he dies for the presumption that salvation was his to offer in the first place’, as Miriam’s extremely persipacious essay puts it.

John Q puts his finger on one aspect of the Iron Council’s fate, its transmutation into The King Under The Hill, into the Prague Golem, waiting, a promise to emerge at ‘time of greatest need’. But John sees this as a ‘metaphor for our times’ despite the ‘battle between workers and bosses … [having] fizzled out in a tame draw with the sharp edges smoothed over by economic growth and social democracy’.

I don’t share this political analysis, which would posit the council-as-metaphor as a kind of nostalgia for ‘real’ class politics. In fact in this era of anti-capitalism’ (or ‘anti-globalisation activism’ or whatever else one wants to call it), the pace of politics is speeding up, the sense of class antagonism, though not marked by the level of industrial militancy of the 70s, is growing sharper. (Elsewhere I’ve even speculated that a good part of the vigour of much fantastic fiction today is in its mediated response to that new politics.)

I realise, of course, that John and I won’t necessarily agree about this, and that it’s another debate. However, IC is directly informed by my approach to this question. While it does represent a clash of rights between Judah and the councillors – it was both correct and quite unforgivable to do what he did – the ending also articulates the insoluble dilemma that faces the leftist novelist (or this leftist novelist at least).

For a socialist, an irruption of fundamental social change – the revolution – represents a necessary horizon, a defining part of the social imaginary. Many novelists have depicted revolution. The paradox is that for a novelist committed to the potentiality and necessity of revolution, that revolution is both of vastly more importance than to her/his uncommitted colleagues, and yet is concomitantly, unlike for those colleagues, unrepresentable.

If the revolution is portrayed as unsuccessful, the fiction can, perhaps not inevitably but easily, insinuate that revolutions are unwinnable, noble-but-doomed, the quintessential tragic endeavour. This sanctification of the failed revoluton/revolutionary is one of liberalism’s classic strategies for emasculating revolution.

On the other hand, the depiction of successful revolution doesn’t solve things. In this case the attempt to express Marx’s ‘carnival of the oppressed’, can – being restrained by the words and context of a society defined by its lack of being-in-revolution-ness – easily degenerate into the kitsch of Stalinoid agitprop. Even if the work negotiates this, it raises the issue of depicting a post-revolutionary society. While thought experiments about such possibilities can be invaluable – see for example Michael Albert’s Parecon – if we take seriously the scale of social and psychic upheaval represented by a revolution, a post-revolutionary society is unthinkable: for someone not born in a post-revolutionary situation, it takes the process of going through a revolution to fully imagine it. To depict it is to diminish it.

There is a third kind of depiction, in which the revolution seems both to succeed and to fail. This is the most reactionary model of all, in which the revolution occurs and wins but ultimately nothing changes. Either the revolution eats its children, as the invidious cliché goes, or those children make their peace with power. Exemplary of this approach is Ian MacLeod’s impressive but, for a socialist, troubling novel The Light Ages.

So the revolution is both incomparably more important to a socialist than to a non-socialist, and is incomparably more problematic to write. It is not a setting, but a moment necessarily present in the most banal quotidian, let alone in moments of heightened social tension. The nearer a socialist novelist closes in on the revolution itself, the more impossible the task of its representation becomes.[11]

But then, fantasy specialises in the impossible.

Some have read the ending of IC as elegiac, as constructing a kind of memorial to revolution. In fact, the intent was to embed it, render it permanently immanent, with one of the impossibilities, one of the literalised metaphors that do not however subordinate their literalism to their metaphoricism, in which fantasy fiction excels. Primarily an expression of the revolution itself, the ending was also intended to be a vindication of and homage to fantasy. Because, I hope, the genre allows not only the scientifically impossible (monsters and magic), but the politico-aesthetically impossible (writing a revolution without diminishing it).

Of course, as with everything I write (pulpist that I am), it’s intended that you don’t have to be interested in any of this, that the gunfights, monsters and Remade will keep you happy. For those who care, though, Iron Council was also something else. My two great passions are socialism and the fantastic. I’ve always had an inchoate sense that, for me at least, the two are linked. Above all, Iron Council is an attempt to marshall the unique resources of the fantastic to allow a revolutionary socialist to write a revolution.

Endnotes

fn1. Here I answer John H.’s direct questions in brief. (i) ‘the Flexibles … name is … homage to martyred Ben Flex, right?’ Right.(ii) ‘Tolkien’s arse wen is to Miéville’s “New Weird” as traditional New Crobuzon puppet theatre is to the Flexibles’ subversive art. (Am I right, China?)’ Absolutely. The Flexibles’ modernist production is also a homage to Jarry’s Ubu plays, which also start with an obscenity veiled with a consonant (in English ‘pshit’, in the original French ‘merdre’). (iii) ‘Weather Wrightby (whether right be?)’ Yes, but that was happy serendipity. Wrightby is named in homage to Wright Wetherby, the railway visionary in John Ehle’s novel The Road.

fn2. For example, Belle, I’ll defend Uther Doul’s motivations. In brief, he’s not fully aware of his own motivations, and operates half according to a plan, half ad hoc. He is a man crippled by contradictions. He feels unbelievable liberation, coming from a feudaloid status society to a commodity economy where he can sell his services, and where the personal/overtly political element is thus stripped out of the exchange relation. That sale of service defines him as a hired sword, a man who does his boss’s bidding not as a vassal but as a mercantile mercenary. However, he as a political player fundamentally disagrees with the direction his boss is moving in, and the tensions between his liberation-in-commodified-obedience and his political disagreement manifest in a borderline psychosis of Machiavellianism, designed to enable him to control the fate of his entire society without ever appearing (perhaps even to himself) to disobey an order.

fn3. For example, in several of my books, fairly hefty clues as to the true nature of a person or a thing are sometimes there from the get-go, in their names. Nomen est omen. In The Scar, the essentially meaningless nature of a maguffin was pointed at in the apparent driving force behind the Grindylow’s advance, the Magus-Fin (geddit?), which turns out to be meaningless even within its own world. It is, in other words, a self-critical maguffin, and its nature is signalled in its name. In Iron Council, the true nature of the Whispersmith, and his real agenda, is signalled for anyone who’s read the Western novels of Frank Spearman. There are many other such references – the last entry in Runagate Rampant, Ann-Hari’s name, et many al – which space and time permitting I’d have liked to explain.

fn4. The human mind, after all, is a machine for making and processing metaphors.

fn5. I’m anxious that I haven’t really got at the core of John’s dilemma, which is frustrating because it seems to me tremendously interesting and important. I hope he’ll forgive me offering this as a kind of holding response, for now.

fn6. It’s true that Sinclair ventures uptown a bit in other works, especially Lights Out for the Territories. Whether it’s coincidence that that is his least impressive book is moot.

fn7. There’s still a fair number of white-marble castles to argue against, in fantasy. This is an argument with some purchase, but it is fundamentally pretty weak, in that i) as a genre, fantasy is particularly infantile, though it ii) was never quite so hail-fellow-well-met as all that, and anyway iii) to the extent that it is, it is only in its least impressive representations. It might be undignified to suggest that these particular pricks were worth kicking against.

fn8. While he dealt concretely with some of her repression, when he did so he dealt with her in the abstract. More importantly, she is not the locus of the repression, but is a representative of a repressive system.

fn9. It’s particularly common to attempt to square pulp and the avant-garde, though the results are often unsuccessful. Carl Artmann’s The Quest for Dr U>), for example, I found fairly unreadable, though its back cover promise to ‘subvert its numerous literary models … pulp and avant-garde fictions’, made me think I’d be its dream reader.

fn10. I’d reiterate that it seems to me fantastic fiction (inclusively conceived – SF/F/H) is uniquely located to attempt this kind of constantly better failure.

fn11. In an email, Henry has pointed out that there is an affinity, even a homology, between this discussion of revolution and M. John Harrison’s argument about fantasy, in many of his stories. Henry: ‘for MJH … this is at the heart of fantasy and escapism – the idea that we can somehow transform ourselves completely, and make everything alright… But in the moment that we reach out for what we desire, what is going to change us, it slips away. … Fantasy is a sort of fetishization of the moment of choice when everything seems possible…’ I think this is exactly right, and that there is a close relationship between revolution and Harrison’s just-out-of-reach fantastic. This is obviously the subject for an entire essay, and I have touched on the issue in my introduction to Harrison’s collected stories Things That Never Happen. I think the moment of fantasy that Henry correctly identifies is MJH’s unique critical-fantastic modulation of a conception of which has existed in ecstatic and critical art and religion for centuries. MJH takes from Gnosticism the term Pleroma for that realm of fullness, and the Gnostic conception of the embedded numinous in the everyday has its parallels in the visions of Julian of Norwich, Blake, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis Thompson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Baal Shem Tov, Rumi, et hundreds of al. Of course the distinctions between those various writers are enormously important. But they share a sense of the unmediated relationship to the godhead. It’s no surprise that religious movements with such a conception, from Hassidism in its early years, to the Levellers, the Lollards, Gnostic sects such as the Circumcellionites, were radicals, were often thrown up in moments of oppression, and were perceived as a threat to power. What unites them all is that they live in an unmediated utopian moment. That better place – perceived religiously as the numinous – is all around them, is immanent in the everyday, which conception casts a radically sceptical eye on those who rule, to mediate between us and the world. The numinous is also in its majestic and utter differentness is fundamentally unrepresentable, hence the focus on ecstatic rituals, attempts to synaesthetically imply the unimpliable, or viz Hopkins’ extraordinary violent-joyful reconfigurations of language to make it do something new. The analogy here with revolution is vital, but I am cautious of how to express it, as it might easily seem to reiterate that hoary canard that Marxism/socialism is a kind of religion: revolution as eschatology. In essence I think the relationship goes the other way. It is not, I think, that Marxist socialism is simply the latest in a long line of utopian movements. It is that only at a particular point in history is the social context able to rationally comprehend and suggest the mechanisms by which the historic utopian impulses of people might be realised. Marxism is an heir to the utopian tradition, but it is also, I think, its culmination and its transformation. Harrison’s secular (indeed profane) translation of the utopian-religious perception leads him sometimes to a fairly bleak position – without the godhead, this numinous is only the world around us. Paradoxically, however, that vindication of the everyday is also in fact a step that led non-religious socialists toward a secular, Marxist, revolutionary conception of social transformation – the translation of ‘utopia’, of pleroma. That ambivalence is there in Harrison – over the course of his work, that bleakness moves, and without changing any of its (visionary) predicates, becomes a much more forgiving view of the world, with (without explicitly translating it into the politics of socialism) some space for social hope. All of which is to say – yes, the analogy between Harrison’s fantasy and my revolution holds.

{ 1 trackback }

Crooked Timber » » Women and men; servants and masters; England and the English
11.29.05 at 11:39 am

{ 38 comments }

1

Jacob T. Levy 01.11.05 at 3:46 pm

I’ll just kick things off by saying that the symposium is great fun to read– a very terrific use of the medium and of CT’s mixture of specializations and styles. A very good idea.

2

Rich Puchalsky 01.11.05 at 4:01 pm

Wow. This is a truly amazing series.

John Holbo’s and Belle Waring’s essays are important complements to each other; JH does, as usual, have more systematic insights (after all, this is his job) but BW zeroed in on what really bothered me about the otherwise brilliant Perdido Street Station.

What troubled me about the fate of Lin was that I couldn’t escape the suspicion that she was treated so badly, authorially, because she was a “sellout”. Unfortunately, the politics in CM’s books are cartoonish, in that 1) there are clear good guys and bad guys, and 2) whether someone is a good guy or bad guy is determinable purely from their socioeconomic position. The moment I read, in The Scar, that a character travelled around and sold things, I thought “Ah, he’s going to turn out to be the main bad guy.” (Haven’t yet read Iron Council, so I don’t know whether this is still true there).

So, back to Lin. She decides to make money and get thrills by doing a statue of a rich drug dealer; Grimnebulin helps a mutilated outsider. So Grimnebulin, wierdly enough given the risks he takes, escapes, and Lin gets raped, mutilated, loses her mind, etc. This impression may not be what CM intended, but it’s inescapable given how much the characters have all fallen into roles.

China Mieville’s (sorry, don’t know how to write the accent mark)own defense in his essay above seems beside the point. The books are told from the viewpoint of one side in a conflict? Not really, they are told in third person. We have scenes that are about the political leaders in PSS. And the author goes out of his way to show us only those scenes which demonize them; we get a piece about how the mayor keeps needing to kill people and take their eyes, not because it’s a plot point, but because it says “Look how evil I am!”

You can’t say that well, you’re just showing one side of a conflict, when you’re talking about fantasy rather than history. After all, CM created the conflict and everyone in it. Why should we care about the politics (rather than the show of circus freaks) in a conflict that has so clearly been set up as Good vs Bad? I love the anarcho-socialist politics in Iain Banks’ Culture books, and part of the reason they work is that he has an occasional sympathetic politician or king (both of whom are villians by definition, to the Culture) who are as good as their society allows.

Pulp brings its own assumptions along with it. Moorcock became a literarily worthwhile writer when he started the Jerry Cornelius books and systematically demolished his pulp universe (all those scenes where Jerry is revealed to be less and less than he thinks he is) and China Mieville can do it too.

3

CTD 01.11.05 at 5:29 pm

Lessee, Mieville in PSS has the monster come out of collusion between organized crime and government, Isaac hires help more often than not, and urban planning is gleefully mocked on just about every page.

By these lights, Neal Stephenson and Virginia Postrel are also “socialists”. Vive le revolucion!

4

Jonathan 01.11.05 at 6:37 pm

I’d like to add more substantive comments to this groundbreaking litablogging event later, but I will now only register my own personal aesthetic disagreement re Moorcock with Rich Puchlsky. I found the early Elric books the best writing of Moorcock’s career, and I think that’s not an uncommon opinion, despite (or because of) their pulpiness.

5

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.11.05 at 6:42 pm

I know I already put it a similar link in the comments on JH’s post (which comments seem to be working poorly since when I preview I see three but when I view I see only one), but Tolkien actually has a rather good explanation of escapism as he sees it during a speech on fairy stories:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.

In his mind escapism should not be considered soley a replacement for actual escape, it can often serve as an escape attempt which should allow your mind to be free of the constraints put upon it. The fact that some escape attempts fail is not an argument against escape attempts.

6

Rich Puchalsky 01.11.05 at 6:52 pm

I liked the early Elric books too, Jonathan, but are they really as worth thinking about, and do they really have as great an effect on one’s feelings? Do you really want to claim their superiority as an aesthetic position, or are you just making a statement that you find pulp enjoyable?

7

Jonathan 01.11.05 at 7:16 pm

Yes and yes. Yes. No.

There are writers who are enervated by intellect. Ever read some of Rimbaud’s letters from Africa? That’s not a good example of what I mean at all.

8

yabonn 01.11.05 at 8:38 pm

Is there room here for simple stupidities like “mr miéville, i love your books”? If so : i love your books, mr miéville.

Too, i wonder how the immanent revolution will work in the future. How to write crobuzon book, from now on, without the constraint of characters having to situate themselves vis a vis this holy grail of revolution, so close to the city?

The other option – new crobuzon finally getting rid of that cyst in its side – bring us back to the pessimistic revolution story.

9

agm 01.12.05 at 1:12 am

This brings up a question I’ve often struggled over ever since I audited an experimental class on Japanese animation as a vehicle for exploration of psychological, political, and social ideas (cultural response to nuclear holocaust — think Godzilla here, hierachical societal structure, Meiji engineering of sexual mores as suppression of revolutionary impulses, you get the idea).

Exactly where does one draw that line, the boundary between what is there by dint of the author composing and that which is there through interpretation of the reader? Often it seems like a person wants a given work to say something it doesn’t, so the work gets run through the wringer until a tortured interpretation allows the work to say whatever that person wants (yes, I was raised Southern Baptist; moving briskly along…)

In the class I participated in, it often seemed as if there were conceptions being projected onto the works which were patently not there, whereas other students argued quite vociferously over how much or how imporant. This analog of the measurement problem is quite familiar to me from my own field, and so I wonder Mr. Mieville (and other CT bloggers/commenters), how do you handle this? Do you feel that readers should be free to criticize your compositions on grounds that aren’t there, or maybe they are revealing something you hadn’t realized before, or perhaps the criticisms are all too on-target (list of possibilities obviously not inclusive)? How do you divine amongst the possibilities?

10

david g 01.12.05 at 11:34 am

“Tolkien, who experienced that carnage first-hand, attempted to turn his back on the truth of post-traumatic Modernity.”

No, no, no. But Miéville must say that, for his revolutionary ideology requires that “Modernity” be “traumatic” in order for the “revolution” to be both necessary, desirable, and liberating. To me this is a form of Gnosticism, in the negative sense, and implies a wholly utopian, unjustified belief in the possibility and necessity of a future, better world here on Earth, to be obtained by the methods known to Miéville and other true believers. Result of this in past = mass murder, barbarization, thought control, and Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face, forever.” Result in future = the same. Why? Miéville will never accept this, but the short answer is “fallen human nature.” You can’t get there from here, and efforts to do so have fatal consequences.

However, if 100 million human lives crushed, ruined, and despised by socialist revolutionaries in power won’t convince Miéville of this, I certainly cannot and won’t try.

And, the notion that WWI was peculiarly traumatizing is not entirely false, but it is also a favorite belief of a certain progressive mindset. Was that war really that much more terrible than the Wars of Religion in the 16th-17th cent.s or even the hugely bloody interstate wars of the 18th? Not to mention the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War? Most veterans of the Great War were not neurotic, not shell-shocked, not traumatized, and most, including many who recovered from traumas, lived productive and fruitful lives.

11

iotar 01.12.05 at 11:58 am

>>Some have read the ending of IC as elegiac, as constructing a kind of memorial to revolution. In fact, the intent was to embed it, render it permanently immanent, with one of the impossibilities, one of the literalised metaphors that do not however subordinate their literalism to their metaphoricism, in which fantasy fiction excels.

The problem for me with reading a “revolutionary socialist” writing fantasy are the same as if I were reading a Jehovah’s Witness writing a fantasy or a Catholic Oxford don writing a fantasy: it’s merely the species of apocalyptic mythology that changes. In fact with the above sentence China seems on the verge of propelling Revolution into the transcendent realm, in the manner of Milton. And do we regard Revolution, like the Day of Judgement, as an escape or an escapism?

12

Al 01.12.05 at 12:56 pm

Responding to Iotar – well, this is a response to the quote above re the ending of IC, rather than the whole article (which I won’t have time to read until this evening, so more substantive stuff later), but one of the things that interested me about that ending was the way it seeemd to balance optimism in the possibilities of a *Marxist revolution* with a very real hopelessness.

The ending does create an immanence; but implicit in that immanence is a sense of failure. On the one hand, the possibility of revolution is made permanent and permanently inspiring; on the other, fuck all actually happens. Everything is frozen in a wonderful but static state, entirely divorced from the possibility of any further action, any further achievement. When the revolution meets the machine, it stops dead – it seems, the only way of preserving it.

So in some senses it seems to me that the final images of the book despair at *Marxist revolution* as ever being anything more than a wonderful, inspiring but completely impractical / irrelevant idea.

Also a fascinating reworking of the final freeze frame of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (whether intentional or not I don’t know) – itself (come to think of it) creating a very interesting tension between myth and reality, inspiration and practicality.

13

Doug Muir 01.12.05 at 2:46 pm

China, your comment on Tolkein and Lovecraft is… three quarters right. Dead on WRT Lovecraft, half right on Tolkein.

Because Tolkein doesn’t think that everything is going to be all right. Yah, Sauron is defeated, and the good guys all live through it. But Middle Earth… Middle Earth is continuing is long, relentless downward spiral through the millenia, becoming ever more drab and mundane. The Third Age was less than the Second, which was nothing compared to the wonders of the First. We’re explicitly told this. So the Fourth, even if there’s peace and prosperity for a while, will be duller and poorer still: the elves gone, the ents dying off, things “higher and deeper and darker” fading to legend.

(There’s just one character who ends up getting nailed by this: Arwen. Remember her? Three generations of fans have grumbled that she’s a trophy rather than a character, barely present, Exhibit A for Tolkein’s work being anti- or at least a-female.

(But I’ve sometimes wondered if that neglect of her wasn’t deliberate. Because what happens to her at the end, in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, is pretty awful. Awful, but thematically necessary: someone has to show what’s gone out of the world, there on the bare winter hill where Galadriel once held court. If this happened to someone we’d come to know and care about, it would be, not poignant, but horrible. Even as is, Arwen is the only “good” character who surrenders to despair in the end, and is not comforted.)

Point being, Tolkein isn’t really saying “it’s alright, it’s alright”. Middle Earth is not alright. It’s dying. Nobody fantasizes about visiting the Fourth Age. (Strangely enough, people do fantasize about Sauron winning. Really. Check out the fanfic sometime. But it makes some sense, right? The world of Sauron Victorious would be horrible and blighted, but it would still be /magic/.)

That said, I think you’re right in seeing the construction of ME as a response to deep trauma; and further, in the way Tolkein watches out for (most of) his characters, as wish fulfillment of a world where Things Work Out at the micro level. The wise and mighty Ents will go extinct, but faithful Sam gets to marry the girl and be Mayor and stuff.

A final thought. The most idyllic part of Middle-Earth, and the one clearly closest to Tolkein’s heart, is the Shire. It’s Middle Earth’s Alpha and Omega. Both Hobbit and trilogy begin and end there. It gets the last symbolic blessing of the elves. The one act of King Aragorn that we’re informed of is that he turns the Shire into a gigantic reservation where No Men Are Allowed.

Okay, well, the Shire is basically preindustrial England, minus the highest and lowest classes. The social structure bottoms out at small farmers; it doesn’t rise above rural squires. Not only is this pre-modern; it’s romantically idealized anti-modern. And it’s idealized in a way that simply eliminates class as an issue.

I don’t think Tolkein designed this to annoy Marxists. I do think, though, that a Marxist would find it particularly annoying. The Shire is never going to make the transition from feudalism to capitalism, never mind to whatever may come after. And that’s presented as a good thing. Presented effectively, too; people do fantasize about visting the Shire.

Eh, you’re probably sick of talking about Tolkein by now. But if you’re going to acknowledge the brilliance of his phenomenology (with which I agree), then you ought to go half a step further and acknowledge that Middle Earth is essentially tragic. It’s a world where much has been lost, and there is much yet to lose, and where the damage done by folly and evil can never fully be healed. Happy endings in a world that’s gradually winding down: that’s the tension that empowers the trilogy.

And so to bed.

Doug M.

14

Rich Puchalsky 01.12.05 at 5:09 pm

I think it’s sad that so much of the combined comment threads of these essays has been about Tolkein. It’s as though there were a discussion with Iain Banks about his work and everyone insisted on writing about E.E. “Doc” Smith. (I realize that Tolkein was a better writer than Smith, but it was the closest combination of well-known living author and influential dead author in same subgenre that I could come up with on short notice.)

China Mieville was have brought this on himself by publicly dissing Tolkein in an old essay and then crediting him with “looming over” his own early work. But the only way that Tolkein can presently loom over someone is through the influence of pulp. What’s left of Tolkein in his hordes of imitators and in genre conventions is not what made Tolkein himself arguably great, but all of the tics that went along with it. If Mieville gave up on the thrill of writing within pulp conventions, Tolkein would no longer be important.

15

Rich Puchalsky 01.12.05 at 5:12 pm

I think it’s sad that so much of the combined comment threads of these essays has been about Tolkein. It’s as though there were a discussion with Iain Banks about his work and everyone insisted on writing about E.E. “Doc” Smith. (I realize that Tolkein was a better writer than Smith, but it was the closest combination of well-known living author and influential dead author in the same subgenre that I could come up with on short notice.)

China Mieville may have brought this on himself by publicly dissing Tolkein in an old essay and then crediting him with “looming over” his own early work. But the only way that Tolkein can presently loom over someone is through the influence of pulp. What’s left of Tolkein in his hordes of imitators and in genre conventions is not what made Tolkein himself arguably great, but all of the tics that went along with it. If Mieville gave up on the thrill of writing within the strictures of pulp, Tolkein would no longer be important.

16

Al 01.13.05 at 11:33 am

In response to some of the above –

On Tolkien:

*‘an impossible world which believes in itself’*

I agree with the points made about too much Tolkien chat, but I’m also intrigued about why this should happen. Both JRRT’s and China’s stuff is built on a dense and coherent body of thought – in Tolkien’s case, Middle Earth lore and legend, in China’s case, Socialist thought, which some might also criticise as ‘an impossible world which believes in itself’. I’m not trying to make any qualitative comparison here (one of the advantages that Socialism has over Middle Earth lore, indeed one of the things that make it opposite to Middle Earth lore, is that it IS useful in the outside world) but I wonder if it is this buried structural kinship is one of the things that drives so much talk about Tolkien when discussing China – a successful changing of the bathwater while retaining the baby.

*‘I would like PSS and IC to read for New Crobuzon as Iain Sinclair does for London’*

Hmm, there’s a problem there. IS riffs on a place that’s been interpreted in multiple different ways; the only way into New Crobuzon is through China. So China’s view of New Crob has more weight in defining the city than IS’ view of London ever will. IS can take advantage of less subverted views of London – and kick against them. China can’t; who’s New Crobuzon’s Trollope? Can we read its equivalent of Cosmopolitan magazine? No… And so the effect of Chinatic grimness is reduced. There’s nothing to compare it with, so it can seem to be a stylistic tic rather than a subversive statement.

However – the broader world of ‘fantasy’ is a separate, vivid, animated-by-multiple-viewpoints world; for me, China’s statement above makes more sense if you replace ‘New Crobuzon’ with ‘fantastic writing’ – a broad, generic place that has many different entry points, many different highways and byways, many different interpretations – much more like London than New Crob is. The grimness of New Crob only begins (for me) to have meaning above and beyond ‘China likes grimness’ when you place it in this kind of context.

Or alternatively, when you use it to measure London itself against; like a coded version of IS’ writing, it rails against consolatory versions of the city, implicitly criticising them by pointing up the grimness that’s buried behind them. So, in a sense, PSS and IC in fact read for London (and, by implication, the world beyond) like Iain Sinclair reads for London.

*‘by writing a story at all one subordinates one’s characters to a narrative, which is, of course, a form of consolation, an imputation of meaning’*

If PSS had been a television I would have been throwing things at the screen when Lin suffered. Not because of any real or perceived sadism; rather, because it seemed to me to be an overly easy and thus ineffective way of dealing with the consolatory narrative problem. Fair enough, she – and those around her – suffer terribly. But (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again) they still do so within the context of a very classic, three act, redemptive structure. The good guys win; the bad guys lose; heroes triumph against the odds; etc. Being brutal to one or more characters does nothing to modify or complicate basically optimistic, consolatory structures – you have to modify or complicate the structures themselves to do that. Or at least do more than the literary equivalent of dropping an anvil on someone in the final pages – anvil ex machina, in fact, perhaps an equal and opposite to deus ex machina and just as aggravating.

And there’s a broader problem here; ‘the fact that the representation of ‘real life’ without abstraction, fetishism and moralism is impossible’ is rooted partially in the limitations of fiction itself but partially in the choice to write within the fantastic, making joyous (and I mean that completely positively, un-ironically, etc) use of the conventions it’s built up over the years. It’s an entirely valid and reasonable choice to make – but then to ‘protest too much’ over the narrative straitjackets it from time to time puts you in seems to me a bit disingenuous – not so much trying to break out of the straitjacket or remake it, rather just filling it with itching powder.

*[Ann-Hari] says to him, in effect, ‘but we’ve actually done it, and we did it for our reasons, whether what you say is true or not’*

This is fascinating; this duality of meaning, of interpretation, and it sits nicely with my (admittedly completely off the mark, if you go by apparent authorial intention) reading of the climax of the book as simultaneously celebratory and despairing. The Iron Council are simultaneously Wrightby pawns and a profoundly independent, self-defined bunch; equally and absolutely both, just as their final frozen howl of defiance is both utterly triumphant and utterly despairing.

Hmm, running out of time slightly, so more later… just one more thing:

*Above all, Iron Council is an attempt to marshall the unique resources of the fantastic to allow a revolutionary socialist to write a revolution*

I’m limited by my lack of knowledge of socialist thinking here; I’m not sure exactly what you mean by revolution here, what the theory of revolution is, what its resonances are for you, etc. But I can’t read the ending of IC as writing a revolution in the way that you seem to mean it – rather, I see it as a (rather cunning) use of the old Romantic ‘I saw the infinite, the transcendent – but I cannot describe – words fail me – so you will have to imagine’ trick. We don’t see the Revolution; in the terms that I understand it, you don’t write a Revolution; instead, there’s a Revolution that freezes (for eternity, as far as I can make out – when will they wake? And what will happen then? Hmm…) as the fuse is about to light explosions – and so the question is thrown back on us, what would happen if we chose to believe that the IC would have been successful in revolting New Crob? What would that mean? How would that work? It’s a complicated and interesting narrative device, and it made me as a reader think – but it’s not writing a revolution, unless I’ve profoundly misunderstood what you’re up to (and here I feel like someone discussing Elvish literature with a Tolkien fan; there are parts of your achievement in these books that I will never even register unless I engage with the coherent body of socialist / Marxist thinking that underpins and drives them – events like this very helpful for that, so many thanks to the organisers).

The problem the Romantics had was that Blake had already written the infinite; where they’d held back and left the imaginative spadework to the reader, he’d blasted off into the cosmos and done wonderful, impossible things – so wonderful and impossible that everybody in fact thought he was mad for about 150 years, before they caught up with the places he’d thrown himself out to. Implicit in the holding back is a sense that somebody else will go beyond. If you did write a revolution; if you did use fantasy to write the impossible; if you did choose to make things that never happen, real – what then?

17

Henry 01.13.05 at 12:50 pm

iotar,al

Quick comments on the revolution and the transcendent. First, this is partly my fault – China and I have been conducting an unconcluded conversation on this by email, and China’s essay in its final version partly tries to respond to my (not very coherent) arguments; as he’s said in email, the topic of the relationship between the revolution, the transcendent and the fantastic deserves a very long essay of its own. Unlike China, I’m not a Marxist – although I’m sympathetic to many aspects of Marxism, and think that Marx is an astounding political thinker. But I think that there’s an interpretation of the revolution in _IC_ that isn’t transcendent in the naive sense of the word. This is something I’d like to have talked about a bit in my essay, but it would have made the damn thing incoherent by trying to chase down too many things at once. And of course I could be wrong – but here goes anyway.

To understand what’s happening here, I think we have to look at the telling juxtaposition/contrast in _IC_ between Judah Low’s description of what the IC renegades are going to do after they head into the wilderness, and what actually happens. Just before Judah leaves the train, he ‘prophesies’ that the Iron Councillors are going to find a place in the wilderness where they can hunt, fish, read and write, and create a new society for themselves. His words are very close to being a direct transposition from a very famous passage of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (afair) where Marx describes (perhaps with a little bit of irony) what life is going to be like after the Communist revolution. Unsurprisingly, the society that the Iron Councillors create doesn’t closely resemble the idealized society that Judah Low imagines; it escapes him. From the Iron Councillors’ own descriptions, it very nearly falls apart because of vicious infighting in its early years. Nonetheless, it represents a viable alternative to New Crobuzon, at least for a while. The Iron Councillors don’t create a perfect society – but they do manage to escape from the specific travails of New Crobuzon’s economic and political oppression.

I think that this can reasonably be read (whether China intends this or not) as a comment on the revolution and its aftermath. On the one hand, the miniature revolution that the Iron Councillors have created doesn’t spring them free of the everyday problems of politics, disagreement and violence. They don’t transcend themselves in that way. But on the other, there is something new about the society that it creates – while China doesn’t describe it in detail (I presume for the reasons that he lays out in his response), he suggests that there is the seeds of something new – and in a real way transformative of their material circumstances. Thus, I think that the version of transcendence that’s on offer here is a limited one – life after the revolution would be both different and better, in ways that can’t be described _ex ante_, but it wouldn’t be Sugarcandy Mountain.

Of course, the effort to return the revolution to New Crobuzon fails. But the ‘resolution’ of the book, the final section, is in a very precise sense, dialectic. That is, it isn’t a resolution at all – it’s the creation of a new tension, between the existing oppression of New Crobuzon, and the alternative that is represented by the Iron Council. In a certain way, this does smack of the transcendent, which is why I think the analogy I make to Walter Benjamin works (Benjamin mixed together Marxism and Jewish mysticism so that the coming of the Messiah and the coming of the revolution spoke to each other). But it’s a sort of materialistic transcendence – which is to say that the frozen image of the Iron Council is important insofar as it generates a tension between reality and aspiration, and drives people (perhaps) to create a new revolution. A revolution which, inevitably be disappointing – when you brush the transcendent against reality, it gets dirty pretty quickly – but which nonetheless does offer the possibility of transforming the material conditions of society. Thus, I think the best interpretation of the final section isn’t that the revolution offers transcendence – but that the transcendent idea of the revolution, when it’s brushed against material reality, can generate new political possibilities.

18

Doug 01.13.05 at 3:03 pm

Mini-idea, amongst all the other big ones here. Trains and revolution, especially semi-socialist revolution, immediately says Zhivago to me. Any other signs that Mieville has read Pasternak and/or tips of the rhetorical hat to the famous physician?

Slightly less mini idea. Europe has had about a dozen revolutions in Mieville’s conscious lifetime. Does this historical experience inform his work and thinking at all? Does the fact that most of them were against self-avowedly socialist states affect that thinking?

I’ve only read PSS, so I’m not the right person to address those questions. But it seems that we’ve seen revolution, and a book about one, written by a contemporary of real revolutions, would have to be affected in some form or fashion.

19

yabonn 01.13.05 at 3:20 pm

They don’t transcend themselves in that way.

Exactly. I took the infighting/un-ideal, then the freezing, as a way to build a transcendence without having the adventure turning to iconography. There is a pilgrimage at the end, but one where pilgrims see the train heroes drooling, in funny positions, etc.

Still wonder how it will turn out. Wether wiped out, and we are retrospectively disappointed, or not, and we have a canned revolution near new crobuzon, an unavoidable theme for all subsequent urban crobuzon books.

I suppose the Trainers could simply be added to the differents crobuzon sects – crobuzon is big, it would be just one more cult – but i find that solution vaguely unsettling, in the retrospectively disappointing kind.

20

PinkDreamPoppies 01.13.05 at 11:18 pm

Even accepting that Lin should meet an unfortunate end, the degree seemed more than was necessary to set her apart from the consumptive beauties. She must be raped, mutilated, and mind-eaten in order for her to no longer be so cold, so pale, beautiful even in death? To avoid being “Ophelia floating in flowers” she must be “Ophelia’s gibbets dumped in the Hudson”? Is it really an improvement to have a woman so brutally disposed of rather than merely killed with a wasting disease? Both, to me, seem to suggest that the best thing to be done with a female character is to kill her to make a point.

The story’s structure did not suggest a resolution so brutal, so when it happened it felt less like the logical extension of the story than like an attempt to make an avant-gardist point, a self-consciously gritty attempt to sneer “This is what life is like. It’s hard. Can you take it?” at all of those readers too “mollycoddled” to face yet another female character in yet another fantasy novel being degraded. At this point, it is both unfair and a cliche but I cannot help but wonder if a male character in Lin’s position would have also been raped and mutilated and mind-eaten.

I’m not saying that this grittier-than-thou is what Mr. Mieville set out to do, but authorial intent and authorial effect do not always coincide.

21

China 01.14.05 at 1:14 am

Thanks so much to all who’ve commented. I’m going to try to cobble together some responses over the weekend.

22

Glenn Bridgman 01.14.05 at 1:53 am

I suppose I should preface my comment by noting that I am one of those odious folk known as libertarians, so my capacity for trafficking in the language of socialist allusion is somewhat limited. Nonetheless, I’ll try to comment without making a total idiot out of myself.

I took PSS out of the library when the first of these posts was published and absolutely devoured it–it was an amazing book. These are my initial, unfermented thoughts:

Mr. Mieville, it seems to me that in your attempt to escape the limitations of genre, you manage to trap yourself just as thoroughly as if you were writing genre-fiction. At the risk of being too self-referential, are you not simply writing for the “gritty genre-rejection” genre? By self-consciously rejecting simple classification, you introduce the same comfortable familiarities as, say, traditional sci-fi—the reader learns to expect the unexpected. Wouldn’t it be better to just write and if you fall into the trappings of genre honestly, so be it?

The strangest part of the novel for me was that you were constantly poised on the edge of making a truly socialist point, but you manage to never quite fall from that tension into political hackery. To my shame, I have to admit that my “crazy socialist” alarm was running for portions of your book, but again, you never actually sparked that reflexive rejection. Despite the presence of many comfortable tropes of the socialist worldview—the bourgeoisie overclass quite literally dealing with the devil was a stroke of genius—the presence of small-scale capitalism seemed to reject a stodgy socialist orthodoxy. Isaac’s offer to buy winged things is met with such success that one could be fooled into thinking you were writing a Hayekian wetdream.

Lastly, I think you miss the point with regards to Lin. By having the slake-moth devour her mind, you are, in a way, forcing her back up onto Holden’s cliff. Rather than rejecting the beautiful, Tragic with a capital T, simplicity of Ophelia, you give that to Lin in perpetuity. At least with the consumptive beauties, there is a respectful transience about them—they will decay and pass from this world. Lin is forced to endure it forever. Is that not infinitely more disrespectful?

23

Glenn Bridgman 01.14.05 at 2:00 am

One additional thing: Mr. Mieville, have you ever read “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin. I ask because, despite some very obvious disagreements on what fantasy should be, there is a definite overlap of ideas between his works and yours.

24

John Quiggin 01.14.05 at 7:03 am

Although I didn’t mention Pasternak, I had him in mind. The armoured train in Zhivago is clearly Trotsky’s.

25

Doug 01.14.05 at 9:27 am

jq, aha, both drawing on the same historical source instead of CM picking it up second hand. Galloping to the past, rather than trotting through art.

26

Colin Brush 01.14.05 at 10:01 pm

Belle Waring’s complaint about the fate of Lin in PSS only scratches at the surface of something that has bothered me since reading that book: namely, that CM unduly punishes his characters, particularly when they make moral decisions that are questionable at best.

Lin is only the most obvious example: by knowingly consorting with a criminal, for reasons to do with her own vanity, she has her mind eviscerated.

Isaac, in his relentless search for a means to create a machine to make a garuda fly, unwittingly unleashes horrible monsters on the city and loses both his livelihood, home, many of his friends and his partner in the process – ultimately, he is forced to flee the city carrying the guilt of what his curiosity did to Lin, his friends and many other innocents.

Judah Lowe condemns hundreds on the train to be frozen out of time, denying them freewill and the life/death they had chosen – for that he is killed by Ann-Hari.

Bellis Coldwine in The Scar is duped into helping the New Crobuzon agent (whose name I forget, I’m afraid) in his attempts to destroy Armada. She enlists Tanner (I hope that’s right), both of them believing that they are saving their former home from a great evil. Their actions inflict a near fatal wound on the city. Both endure punishment – albeit mildly.

Yag the Garuda raped one of his kind. It is his secret and he hides his shame. The chance to fly again is in the machine that Isaac builds, but Isaac refuses, abandoning Yag to the fate decreed on him by his people. His punishment continues.

The remade are men and women that have transgressed the structures of New Crobuzon and so they have been punished by being turned into slave-monsters of questionable use to the society they are forced to serve.

Those last three punishments listed above are meted out by the world and characters CM creates and as such are perfectly acceptable, but placed alongside the continual punishment of his protagonists it seems that hurting his characters is what CM, consciously or unconsciously, is repeatedly drawn towards depicting.

The punishments of Lin, Isaac and Judah are directly attributable to their own actions but because they are protagonists, through whom we see the world, and because their fates could quite easily have been different had CM wished without significantly altering the stories meanings or dramas, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that CM is forcing punishment on his characters.

This may well be, as has been suggested by CM, in part a reaction to most of the feel-good, everything’s-alright-in-the-end endings commercial fantasy usually churns out. However, it does seem to me as dishonest a depiction in its own way as endings that provide ceaseless flights of redemption.

Though I know I am reading a story and it is not life – nor should it be an accurate depiction thereof – but if we are to have complex morality in our fiction then should it not come out of the characters rather than being a system of checks and balances imposed by the author? People do bad things but unless society catches up with them they often get away with it. Having to carry on your life as you left it and living and dealing with the consequences of your actions would seem to me a more satisfying and thoughtful end to some of these characters’ stories.

On a positive note, with Iron Council I was heartened to see that Cutter and Ann-Hari, though thoroughly disillusioned and almost broken at the end, were actually allowed to be the flawed human beings they were without the story visiting further terrors on them.

I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh (and I hope my argument makes some sense), because I have found CM’s books, particularly PSS and Iron Council, to be some of the most readable, inspiring, provocative and – I don’t use the word lightly – dangerous fiction around.

Best

Colin Brush

27

Colin Brush 01.14.05 at 10:02 pm

Belle Waring’s complaint about the fate of Lin in PSS only scratches at the surface of something that has bothered me since reading that book: namely, that CM unduly punishes his characters, particularly when they make moral decisions that are questionable at best.

Lin is only the most obvious example: by knowingly consorting with a criminal, for reasons to do with her own vanity, she has her mind eviscerated.

Isaac, in his relentless search for a means to create a machine to make a garuda fly, unwittingly unleashes horrible monsters on the city and loses both his livelihood, home, many of his friends and his partner in the process – ultimately, he is forced to flee the city carrying the guilt of what his curiosity did to Lin, his friends and many other innocents.

Judah Lowe condemns hundreds on the train to be frozen out of time, denying them freewill and the life/death they had chosen – for that he is killed by Ann-Hari.

Bellis Coldwine in The Scar is duped into helping the New Crobuzon agent (whose name I forget, I’m afraid) in his attempts to destroy Armada. She enlists Tanner (I hope that’s right), both of them believing that they are saving their former home from a great evil. Their actions inflict a near fatal wound on the city. Both endure punishment – albeit mildly.

Yag the Garuda raped one of his kind. It is his secret and he hides his shame. The chance to fly again is in the machine that Isaac builds, but Isaac refuses, abandoning Yag to the fate decreed on him by his people. His punishment continues.

The remade are men and women that have transgressed the structures of New Crobuzon and so they have been punished by being turned into slave-monsters of questionable use to the society they are forced to serve.

Those last three punishments listed above are meted out by the world and characters CM creates and as such are perfectly acceptable, but placed alongside the continual punishment of his protagonists it seems that hurting his characters is what CM, consciously or unconsciously, is repeatedly drawn towards depicting.

The punishments of Lin, Isaac and Judah are directly attributable to their own actions but because they are protagonists, through whom we see the world, and because their fates could quite easily have been different had CM wished without significantly altering the stories meanings or dramas, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that CM is forcing punishment on his characters.

This may well be, as has been suggested by CM, in part a reaction to most of the feel-good, everything’s-alright-in-the-end endings commercial fantasy usually churns out. However, it does seem to me as dishonest a depiction in its own way as endings that provide ceaseless flights of redemption.

Though I know I am reading a story and it is not life – nor should it be an accurate depiction thereof – but if we are to have complex morality in our fiction then should it not come out of the characters rather than being a system of checks and balances imposed by the author? People do bad things but unless society catches up with them they often get away with it. Having to carry on your life as you left it and living and dealing with the consequences of your actions would seem to me a more satisfying and thoughtful end to some of these characters’ stories.

On a positive note, with Iron Council I was heartened to see that Cutter and Ann-Hari, though thoroughly disillusioned and almost broken at the end, were actually allowed to be the flawed human beings they were without the story visiting further terrors on them.

I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh (and I hope my argument makes some sense), because I have found CM’s books, particularly PSS and Iron Council, to be some of the most readable, inspiring, provocative and – I don’t use the word lightly – dangerous fiction around.

Best

Colin Brush

28

Colin Brush 01.14.05 at 10:03 pm

Belle Waring’s complaint about the fate of Lin in PSS only scratches at the surface of something that has bothered me since reading that book: namely, that CM unduly punishes his characters, particularly when they make moral decisions that are questionable at best.

Lin is only the most obvious example: by knowingly consorting with a criminal, for reasons to do with her own vanity, she has her mind eviscerated.

Isaac, in his relentless search for a means to create a machine to make a garuda fly, unwittingly unleashes horrible monsters on the city and loses both his livelihood, home, many of his friends and his partner in the process – ultimately, he is forced to flee the city carrying the guilt of what his curiosity did to Lin, his friends and many other innocents.

Judah Lowe condemns hundreds on the train to be frozen out of time, denying them freewill and the life/death they had chosen – for that he is killed by Ann-Hari.

Bellis Coldwine in The Scar is duped into helping the New Crobuzon agent (whose name I forget, I’m afraid) in his attempts to destroy Armada. She enlists Tanner (I hope that’s right), both of them believing that they are saving their former home from a great evil. Their actions inflict a near fatal wound on the city. Both endure punishment – albeit mildly.

Yag the Garuda raped one of his kind. It is his secret and he hides his shame. The chance to fly again is in the machine that Isaac builds, but Isaac refuses, abandoning Yag to the fate decreed on him by his people. His punishment continues.

The remade are men and women that have transgressed the structures of New Crobuzon and so they have been punished by being turned into slave-monsters of questionable use to the society they are forced to serve.

Those last three punishments listed above are meted out by the world and characters CM creates and as such are perfectly acceptable, but placed alongside the continual punishment of his protagonists it seems that hurting his characters is what CM, consciously or unconsciously, is repeatedly drawn towards depicting.

The punishments of Lin, Isaac and Judah are directly attributable to their own actions but because they are protagonists, through whom we see the world, and because their fates could quite easily have been different had CM wished without significantly altering the stories meanings or dramas, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that CM is forcing punishment on his characters.

This may well be, as has been suggested by CM, in part a reaction to most of the feel-good, everything’s-alright-in-the-end endings commercial fantasy usually churns out. However, it does seem to me as dishonest a depiction in its own way as endings that provide ceaseless flights of redemption.

Though I know I am reading a story and it is not life – nor should it be an accurate depiction thereof – but if we are to have complex morality in our fiction then should it not come out of the characters rather than being a system of checks and balances imposed by the author? People do bad things but unless society catches up with them they often get away with it. Having to carry on your life as you left it and living and dealing with the consequences of your actions would seem to me a more satisfying and thoughtful end to some of these characters’ stories.

On a positive note, with Iron Council I was heartened to see that Cutter and Ann-Hari, though thoroughly disillusioned and almost broken at the end, were actually allowed to be the flawed human beings they were without the story visiting further terrors on them.

I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh (and I hope my argument makes some sense), because I have found CM’s books, particularly PSS and Iron Council, to be some of the most readable, inspiring, provocative and – I don’t use the word lightly – dangerous fiction around.

Best

Colin Brush

29

James Russell 01.15.05 at 10:24 am

Though Lovecraft never saw war…

…he did, however, attempt to enlist in the Great War around the middle of 1917. Fans of “what-if?” speculation can have hours of fun imagining the ramifications for his life and career had this attempt not been blocked.

30

China 01.15.05 at 4:48 pm

My sincere thanks to everyone who posted. It’ll sound sycophantic, but I’ve learnt a great deal. Of course I can’t do justice to most of what’s been said, so I just want to respond to a few points.

Rich Puchalsky: The point about sales-people being the baddies is one that doesn’t hold for IC (Cutter is a shopkeeper). I’m disappointed it seemed so simplistic for the other books, actually.

Colin Brush, Al, PinkDreamPoppies, Glenn Bridgeman: The point about unduly punishing Lin (whether for ‘selling out’ (which I don’t think she did)) or not, is crucial. You’ve all given me serious thought here. What I’m striving for is precisely for bad things to happen to people but that are not punishments. Bad things happen to them, whether or not they did things that are reprehensible. Having said which, I acknowledge that the structure of narrative, particularly tradition three-act narrative is to a certain extent intrinsically moralistic, so whether I intend it or not, that may be a ramification, but fwiw, I’ve been trying not to punish. (Also why IC is furthest from the three-act structure of all the books. I think Colin’s point about the ending of IC isn’t unrelated to that, and may mean that my attempts to inflict but not to punish are becoming more successful.)

The question of whether I’m too harsh on Lin et al is knotty, and I can’t come up with a neat answer. I clearly overstepped a line for some people. All I can plead is that I was always conscious of the line, and if I overstepped it, it wasn’t because I wasn’t aware of the issue. (Worth remembering that it’s never unequivocally stated that Lin was raped – it’s only clear that Isaac believes she has been.)

PinkDreamPoppies, you made me wince with embarrassment with your stuff about ‘’this is what life is like, can you take it?’ In fact, in my house the phrase ‘Can you take it?’ is commonly trotted out as a parody of trite self-important self-styled ‘radical’ (or as I tend to render it in this context, ‘wadical’) ‘gritty’, sneery, etc point-scoring. I blush that I came across that way. Wasn’t intentional. And again, I was aware of the danger, and tried to walk the line. Clearly, for some, I failed.

Glenn Bridgeman: In brief, I only want to say that I’m glad that I never came across as sloganeering to you. (Worth mentioning that your surprise that I evaded ‘stodgy socialist orthodoxy’ may be a function of the fact that many US libertarians seem to have a partial or flawed conception of the socialist tradition beyond a very narrow trench. Of course I can’t speak for you, but in my experience of debating with libertarians, often the viewpoint they’re arguing with is not mine (it’s usually Stalinism of some species, of which I am of course an implacable enemy).)

And thank you for the recommendation, no, I haven’t read Martin, but I know that’s a terrible omission, and many people keep telling me I must. I will, I will…

yabonn: There’s always room for ‘mr miéville, i love your books’. Thank you. And yes, the issue of what happens now with the council is very tricky – any further returns to NC will necessitate politically locating the city vis-à-vis the council. I have some ideas.

agm: Part of my whole approach is to stress that readers can criticize things on grounds I wasn’t conscious of. But yes it’s a grey area, that necessitates judgement calls – on occasion, I may think that someone has simply applied inappropriate criteria (if someone said, for example, that IC sucked because it was a failed attempt to mirror the structure of Huckleberry Finn, I’d say they were wrong), but often it’s precisely the application of things I hadn’t thought of that I learn most from.

iotar: (Hi, btw.) See Henry’s and Al’s responses, which I think are excellent (though of course I disagree with Al about revolution as being an impractical inspiration). I’d add though that basically I think iotar has a point – I think my conception of revolution is touched by the romantic/transcendent. (See my footnote on Harrison.) I think this is related to my unabashedness about Marxism’s relation to the utopian tradition. I’m also very conscious of the dangers of this position – I don’t want to turn into a flake. But I don’t think that conception necessitates being a kind of Marxo-hippy wittering on about transcendant realms. I had an argument once with Ken Macleod during the course of which (as far as I remember – I don’t want to misrepresent) he said that if we couldn’t lay down a fairly clear and detailed blueprint for a post-revolutionary society, it was unconvincing , because after all, we’re the same people who’d be living there so it shouldn’t be unimaginable to us. To which I replied that I disagreed, that I thought precisely we would not be the same people living there, because the experience of transforming the world is one which also inevitably leads to the self-transformation of the transformers. (I think you can see that historically – in feudalism, there were plenty of utopian/egalitarian movements, but it was in the actual processes of radical change that concrete models of alternative societies got most coherently articulated.)

Doug M. et al: I’m sorry, I don’t think I was very clear. I don’t think Tolkien thinks everything is ok, I think he knows it isn’t but wishes it were so he performs a kind of tragic lullaby. I absolutely agree that his vision is tragic, and it’s one of the things that I think makes his view of the world considerably more interesting than that of many of his grandchildren. Also worth noting that a tragic view doesn’t preclude consolation or ‘eucatastrophe’, which was always more complicated than sometimes depicted, and to my mind is more about insisting on the world existing within a meaningful moral schema than about it simply being a ‘happy’ ending.

There’s a very interesting comment by Sebastian Holsclaw after John H’s essay where he quotes Tolkien on consolation. It’s noteworthy that Tolkien says that the joy and grace of eucatastrophe (far more powerful and religiose (in this context I don’t mean that as a diss) than just ‘everything turns out nice’) are ‘miraculous’, ‘never to be counted on to recur’: but he also says of eucatastrophe that it is the ‘true form’ of fairy-tale (which here also means his kind of fantasy), its ‘highest function’, and that crucially, he’d almost insist that ‘all complete fairy-stories must have it’. In other words, it can never be counted on, except that you have to have it. I’m not trying to score cheap shots, I’m trying to say he was trapped in a conceptual conundrum, whereby he wants consolation both to be truly redemptive grace, which necessitates its non-inevitability, but he also needs it there as a policy prescription for fantasy.

Al: Al makes several excellent points in his long post, particularly I’m very impressed with his corrective to me vis-à-vis my invoking Iain Sinclair. Al’s quite right, without someone writing uptown NC, my writing downtown is always partial. But I’m also impressed with his alternative suggestions, that my writing downtown NC is more meaningful in terms of locating it within ‘the broader world of “fantasy”’, and that NC is coded London. Phew – now that’s my kind of criticism: one that contains its own get-out clause. Al, I’m in your debt. And yes, the Butch Cassidy reference was deliberate.

Doug: Yes, the history of real revolutions was in my mind, but at a conscious level at least, didn’t loom as large as, say, the Paris commune. Perhaps in part precisely because the aestheticising effect of fiction is somewhat analogous to that of history.

This is already far too long – I’ll draw it to a close with thanks again.

China

PS: I’ve kept this response to david g to a postscript, because his points are more like political provocations and have little to do with the books. Nonetheless, here for anyone interested I respond in brief. This could easily lead to a long and fruitless political debate, which isn’t suitable to this forum, so in this context I’ll probably let these be my last word on these matters. This isn’t a ‘refusal to debate’ but an attempt to respect this particular forum’s purpose.
i) ‘Fallen human nature’ is of course the most common argument against socialism, and is to my mind utterly inadequate. Presumably, if we’re going to marshall that vague, nebulous, untheorised and unfalsifiable ideal-type to ‘explain’ social forms, then ‘human nature’ must ‘explain’ not only the presumed failure of socialism, but also the success of capitalism, the constant failure of capitalism, the crisis of feudalism, the preceding several centuries of success of feudalism and its hierarchies, the clan/tribal structures of ‘dark ages’ Britain, their later collapse, the rise of the Roman republic, the fall of the Roman empire, the egalitarianism of many gatherer-hunter societies, and America’s war in Iraq. Anything which explains everything like that explains nothing at all.
ii) In case it needs to be said, I am neither unmindful of nor unmoved by the many millions dead at the hands of self-styled socialist regimes (and am insulted by the perhaps unintentional insinuation that I am). I have historical analyses for what happened in these cases.
iii) To say that WW1 was a unique trauma has nothing to do with suggesting that it was ‘the worst war ever’ or that those who fought suffered ‘worse’ than, say, those in the Thirty Years War (what would those statements even mean?). The point is that WW1, occurring as it did, after decades of misplaced faith in the ‘rationality’ of capitalism, being the first global war to turn the very progressive powers of capitalism to mass slaughter on a huge industrialised scale, represented a trauma in Modernity’s self-conception. I take this from, among other places, José Monleon’s excellent book (though one with which I have all sorts of arguments) ‘A Specter is Haunting Europe: A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic’.

31

Rich Puchalsky 01.15.05 at 7:28 pm

Interesting responses. China Mieville (how do you write that accent mark in a comment box, anyway) clearly is putting a lot of effort into getting his work closer to his artistic vision. Accordingly I’m sorry that I haven’t yet read IC and am still basing my comments on PSS and The Scar.

The most important comment I’d have at this stage is that the word “pulp” seems to be concealing a multitude of artistic virtues and sins. A lot of what CM writes about is the struggle to avoid the expected, the stereotype, whether it’s the cheap morality of characters being punished for their actions, or the trite sneering of a wadical (love that word) saying “can you take it?”

But pulp is nothing but a set of these expected stereotypes. When CM writes that it was inevitable that the Cavalry Would Ride to the Rescue in Iron Council, isn’t that just like saying that it’s inevitable that the capitalist characters are all baddies and that Lin the sellout was going to get it? What gives one set of stereotypes value, and makes the other a set to be assiduously avoided?

32

Glenn Bridgman 01.15.05 at 11:20 pm

So, erm, that was a touchy response. I think you miss my point. Regardless of which particular brand of socialism you practice, there were a multitude of points throughout the book where you could’ve twisted the socialist knife to make your point, whatever it was–likely plunging the book into a Rand-esque polemic. The fact that you manage to stay on that edge gives the book a delicious tension which vastly enhances it.

33

China 01.15.05 at 11:57 pm

Glenn: Touchy? Gah. Wasn’t meant to be. Sorry (I don’t think I’m very good at communicating tone on this sort of medium). Rich, I’m still chewing over your (very good) pulp points. Sorry not to be able to come up with a good response yet (ever…?).

34

amberglow 01.15.05 at 11:58 pm

This has been great, and fascinating–thanks all of CT and to China (and a great big hug to you for Cutter and Low’s relationship).

The freezing of the train–Low’s godlike move (which is fitting given his slippery power in and outside of the Council–we always need golems, but they’re so limited and flawed), the doomed revolutionaries, the already-failed revolution in town, the already-existing status of the Iron Council as an enduring myth and symbol of the power of the people and its success in that much at least (which was to be its most lasting success i think)…i could go on for ages on all this.

A great and ultimately very chewy and satisfying novel on so many levels…and i wondered when i started reading it (the swampland stuff, etc)–it came together so surprisingly, yet so like life in many ways. : >

35

amberglow 01.16.05 at 12:03 am

China, you’re definitely on my ideal dinner-party (and manning the barricades) companion list.

36

Rich Puchalsky 01.16.05 at 1:26 am

With regard to the pulp points, I’ve been thinking about my own question, and I have a possible answer. Maybe the pulp stereotypes are valuable if what you’re trying to do is reimagine the world of childhood fiction as if it had always had a socialist cast.

Let me illustrate what I mean with an analogy using the Residents, my favorite musicians. Ordinarily I’m not much for people doing covers of other people’s work, for the same reasons that I find repetition and imitation to be generally bad in most art. But the Residents have done covers of parts of most basic American pop music: 60s-70s pop, James Brown, Hank Williams, Gershwin, Sousa, Elvis, etc. And it works, because listening to it you can almost start to imagine an alternate universe in which all American pop music was inflected in their style — in which the Residents versions were the originals. It’s the ultimate in escapism, because it invites you to imagine that all the background music of your culture was interesting and countercultural rather than ordinary.

So, back to pulp. If what you really like growing up is pulp of one kind or another — Westerns, say — there come three distinct modes through which you might have to sadly give it up. One mode is when you get tired of the *structural* elements of the pulp. That’s when you say hey, the cavalry always ride to the rescue, and I’m so tired of that predictability. Another is when you get tired of the *technical ability* of the people writing the pulp, where you say that you still like the cavalry, but they’re always described the same way. The last is when you get tired of the *politics* embedded in the pulp, where you say the cavalry always ride to the rescue in the books, but in reality they were vicious killers and I’m tired of them being glorified.

So let’s say that you’re a good writer yourself, and therefore don’t face the second failure mode for pulp because you can write your own stuff. And you’ve hit the third failure mode but not the first. Why not, then, re-write pulp as if its politics always had been good? You can start to imagine a whole pulp universe as if it had been written by the Paris Commune (or whatever other entity that you agree with).

This is getting too long, and I hope I haven’t been insulting (with the “growing up” business). It would be an interesting project, if this is really what’s going on. I for one would love to see, say, E.R. Burroughs re-written with a feminist absurdist bent (the hapless Earthman always arrives to find that the Martian Princess has rescued herself, and after awhile gives up and turns to writing poetry while she dispatches the guards in an exciting fight sequence somewhere). Or E.E. “Doc” Smith re-done with the good guys being the anarchist drug-lords. Wait, Iain Banks already did that one.

But I don’t think the project can finally be sucessful unless you finally give up on the strictures of the pulp and start using it only as a source of — flavoring, let’s say. E.E. “Doc” Smith had a simple sequence of technological advances going ever bigger and better that Iain Banks thankfully doesn’t put us through. And, as previously remarked, his bad guys aren’t always fully bad.

I for one would much rather have seen, say, the Mayor in PSS be a “good” guy, and have seen how none of that mattered because hey, he can’t go against the profit motive and the property rights of the guy with the slakemoths. If you nationalize the slakemoths, what will be next? In that context personal “goodness” just becomes another inadvertant weapon of the system; it is, after all, easier to fight against people who really are killing the workers for their eyes.

37

Jackmormon 01.16.05 at 9:14 am

Thanks to the organizers and to China Mieville for courageously participating (and of course for the books).

I have one question to throw out: why does The Scar seem to provoke less analysis than the New Crobuzon centered books? And if Mieville himself is still out there, I’d be interested in hearing how much of that novel was planned before the ugliness of 2001 and 2002.

38

Doug 01.17.05 at 10:45 am

The Paris Commune! Of course — kicks self for not having spotted it earlier.

In re rich puchalsky, China, I hope you don’t resolve the tension between the pulps and the politics because the struggle has been great for the work and will definitely keep me coming back for more.

Comments on this entry are closed.