John Gray on the disappearance of utopian dreams of social reform in science fiction here. His taste in SF is excellent and he has several good lines.
The role of science has been to gauge the limits of the species, with new technologies and extra-planetary environments being used as virtual laboratories for an ongoing thought experiment. If the mainstream novel employs the lens of the commonplace career – birth and education, marriage and divorce, ambition and failure – SF has pursued the inquiry by abducting the human animal and placing it in alien environments.
is particularly nice. It captures real (if not universal) differences without fetishizing the one as better than the other.
However, the main argument seems to me to say more about John Gray than it does about the genre he is writing about.
Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre. The consoling assumption has been that while civilisation may be flawed and fragile, it can always be rebuilt, perhaps on a better model, if only humans have the will to do it. The possibility that it is the species that is flawed has rarely been explored. …Writing in a seemingly different genre, Mervyn Peake imagined a world without meaning and ruled by impenetrable rituals, echoes of which appear in Miéville and the work of Michael Moorcock and M John Harrison. Not influenced by Peake but like him shaped by life as a child in China, J G Ballard used post-apocalyptic science fiction to show that individual personality is a conventional makeshift that breaks down when put to the text of extreme experience.
Ballard is the pivotal figure here, and not only because of the intensity of his vision. … Ballard challenged this orthodoxy, not by shifting towards pessimism as is commonly suggested, but instead by looking for personal liberation in conditions where co-operation has irretrievably broken down. If science fiction is no longer a viable form, it is because the humanist assumptions that underpinned it are no longer credible even as fictions. … what these styles of writing have in common is an absence of politics. No world-changing project features in any of them. Miéville is an active member of the Socialist Workers Party, but his brand of fantastic fiction has as much to do with his political hopes as Wells’s scientific fables did with his utopian schemes.
This is good on Ballard (unsurprisingly so, given Gray’s interest in Ballard’s fiction), but seems to me to be quite wrong on Miéville. As the man himself said on these pages a few years back:
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.)
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.
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).
This seems to me to cut directly against Gray’s interpretation. Miéville’s novels aren’t agit-prop – but they are very definitely humanist in the sense that Gray argues that they are not.1 Iron Council in particular has everything to do with Miéville’s political hopes even if it doesn’t engage them directly. It’s a way of trying to depict a hoped-for revolution that is, in Miéville’s view, impossible to depict directly for aesthetic reasons (not because revolution is impossible, but because it is unthinkable before it happens, being fundamentally transformative). For Miéville, fantasy is powerful because it can do precisely what Gray suggests it cannot. Nor do I think that he’s abandoned this idea in his recent work. While The City and the City doesn’t offer any arguments about fundamental political transformation (I’m writing a longer piece on it for publication elsewhere, which is horribly overdue), his new – and highly entertaining – romp, Kraken, is clearly humanist (without giving away any spoilers, it has a strong subplot about the importance of certain aspects of human progress).
As an aside – I didn’t link to this very good Nation piece by Miéville on J.G. Ballard when it came out. I’m linking to it now.
Update: Laurie Penny has a great piece pointing out something that I didn’t see and should have – why are there no women and no people of colour on this list? See also Farah in comments (and quoted in Penny’s article at greater length), Cheryl and Niall at Torque Control. Also, William Gibson has an interesting comment on dystopia and the world of Neuromancer in this month’s BookForum, which doesn’t seem to be online yet, but is sort of apropos.
When [Neuromancer] was published, I was often cited for the singular darkness of my dystopian vision. I countered, and have continued to, boringly, by expressing my belief that there are many people in our world who would immigrate to the world of my novel eagerly and with a renewed degree of hope. I don’t belief that to be true of Orwell’s 1984, our greatest literary dystopia to date, and I would propose that immigration henceforth be one test for successful dystopian intent. … One person’s dystopia is another’s hot immigration opportunity (as any real estate agent can tell you). The grass is always more withered, more absent, somewhere else. Dystopia, relatively speaking, is seldom more than a drive away.
1I’d also argue with Gray’s suggestion that M. John Harrison isn’t a humanist (short version – he is clearly interested in how personality and biology are biological constructs, but is also interested in individuals in a way that Ballard -as a writer – very clearly was not).