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, issues I wish I could engage with at length  and references I’d love to explain,  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: 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).
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? 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.