On China Miéville’s October

by Corey Robin on June 21, 2017

I just finished October, China Miéville’s turbo-charged account of the Russian Revolution. Think Ten Days That Shook the World, but in months: from February through October 1917. With each chapter narrating the events of each month. Just some quick thoughts here on what has been one of the most exhilarating reading experiences of my recent past.

1.


I don’t think I’ve ever read such an Arendtian account of revolution as this. I have no idea if Miéville has read Arendt or if he counts her as an influence. But if you want a purely political account of revolution, this is it.

There are workers, there are peasants, there are soldiers, there are parties, there are tsars, there are courtiers. Each of them bears his or her class position, his or her economic and other concerns, but it is the political field itself, how it hurls its protagonists into combat, combat with its own rules and norms, its own criteria for success and failure, that is front and center here. This may be the most textured, most concrete, account of what political contest and political combat, literal and metaphoric, feels like. Or what an event-driven account (Arendt was big on events, as is Miéville; it’s nice to see a writer like Miéville prise narrative and events from the hands of Simon Schama) might look like.

While people on the left, particularly the Marxist left, have a big distrust of Arendt, she did get at something about the revolutionary experience itself, which the best Marxist historians have always understood, but which isn’t always well conveyed in Marxist histories of revolution. This book shows you what those accounts are missing.

2.


There’s a famous public dialogue, I can’t remember when or where, between Arendt and a bunch of her readers, in which Mary McCarthy says something like: Okay, I get it, you think politics shouldn’t be about economics or the social question. But aside from war and diplomacy, what would politics in your world be about? It’s one of the big questions that has always haunted Arendt scholars. What should politics in the Arendtian vision be about? What would it look like? (E. M. Forster has a line about Virginia Woolf: “For it [Woolf’s writing] was not about something. It was something.” That’s not a bad approximation of, on some interpretations, Arendt’s view of politics.) Read Miéville. You’ll find out.

3.


I love Miéville’s portrait of Kerensky. His Kerensky seems like a brilliant knock-off of Tony Blair. Vain, vainglorious, fatuous, infatuated, though lacking Blair’s ability to translate his conviction in himself into world-historical action.

4.


The first chapter, the pre-history of the Revolution, is written in the present tense. From Peter the Great to Nicholas II, it reads like one of those newsreels they used to run in theaters before the main show. Then, as the countdown from February to November is launched, and the subsequent chapters begin, the book shifts to the past tense.

It’s a brilliant and counterintuitive use of syntax: as if the preceding centuries were a powder keg waiting to explode, always pregnant with possibility, forever situated in the grammar of the now, only to shift into the past tense once the revolution begins, as if the revolution is the inexorable working out of history, the thing that had to happen.

While Miéville never loses a sense of contingency—making a mockery of all those historians who go on about contingency (or in the case of Niall Ferguson, counterfactuality) as a way of countering the alleged determinism of Marxism—he manages nonetheless to capture a sense of inexorability, of fate, of possibilities that weren’t ever really possible, except in the imagination of Kerensky and his minions.

5.


One element in the book that resonates with our current moment is the inability or refusal of both liberals and the left to lead, where leadership means destroying the old regime. Power is there, waiting to be exercised, on behalf of a new order: the soldiers demand it, the workers demand it, the peasants demand it, but all the parties of the left, including the Bolsheviks, just hesitate and vacillate, refusing to take responsibility for society itself. It feels like we’re in a similar moment, and it could last much longer than the interregnum between February and October 1917. Not because of the power of the old regime—quite the opposite, in fact—but, as in moments throughout 1917, because of the weakness and incoherence, the willed refusal, of the parties that might bury it.

6.


As Jodi Dean has said, the real hero in October is the revolution itself. Trotsky’s there, but mostly in the wings. There’s the familiar tussle between Zinoviev/Kamenev and Lenin, and between Lenin and everyone else. And while Miéville honors and recognizes Lenin’s tactical genius, his antenna for the mood and the moment, Miéville mostly portrays a Lenin who is struggling to keep up and who often gets it wrong. It’s the revolutionary process that has the last word; it is the protagonist.

7.


That said, Miéville’s chapter on April—that’s the chapter where Lenin arrives in Petrograd, having developed his revolutionary theses in exile, far from the crucible of the revolution itself—is sublime. It has this wondrous feeling of condensation, as if the revolutionary precipitant is taking shape right then and there. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the chapter on June, where all that’s solid, and much else, melts into air.

8.


Buy the book. You can read it in a few days. You won’t be sorry.

Update (11:30 pm)

I should add, another Arendtian note: the keyword of the Russian Revolution, in Miéville’s telling, is freedom. It’s the word that keeps recurring throughout the tale. That’s what the revolution is after: freedom.

Also, just listened to this great interview that Chapo Trap House did with Miéville, and he’s got some things to say that are worth listening to.

{ 97 comments }

1

relstprof 06.21.17 at 7:29 am

Yeah, caught the Chapo interview too, and just got the book. Thanks for these notes, Corey.

2

chris y 06.21.17 at 9:21 am

His Kerensky seems like a brilliant knock-off of Tony Blair

I heard George Katkov lecture on the February revolution in about 1970: “I first met Kerensky when he was 40 years old. [Pause] He was an adolescent. I last met Kerensky when he was 80 years old. HE WAS STILL AN ADOLESCENT!!!”

3

Gabriel 06.21.17 at 9:36 am

Seems tailor-made for a symposium, honestly. Hop to it, CT!

4

LFC 06.21.17 at 5:00 pm

There’s a famous public dialogue, I can’t remember when or where, between Arendt and a bunch of her readers, in which Mary McCarthy says something like: Okay, I get it, you think politics shouldn’t be about economics or the social question. But aside from war and diplomacy, what would politics in your world be about? It’s one of the big questions that has always haunted Arendt scholars. What should politics in the Arendtian vision be about?

The last substantive post I wrote before I stopped blogging was a summary of Steven Klein’s article (making an effort to answer this question) in Am Pol Sci Rev of Nov. 2014. Klein’s article is erudite and well argued and makes interesting points, though as I suggested, perhaps a bit too obliquely, in the post, I don’t think his reading manages to salvage Arendt’s flawed (in my view) take on the French Revolution. (Nor am I positive that Klein himself would disagree with that last statement, although he probably would.)

http://howlatpluto.blogspot.com/2016/07/worldly-objects-welfare-state-and.html

5

esther kingston-mann 06.21.17 at 9:01 pm

There are many stories to tell about the Russian Revolution.

It was a time when a Russian women’s movement won a battle for universal suffrage, making Russia the first great power to permit all men and women were permitted to vote. See Rochelle Ruthchild, Equality and Revolution.

1917 was a peasant based revolution –rural men and women re-established communes that introduced agricultural innovations that enabled them to outproduce the collective farms
during the 1920s.

Just sayin’

Esther Kingston-Mann

6

Conrad 06.21.17 at 9:37 pm

Just ordered it. Am looking forward to it immensely.

7

Doug K 06.21.17 at 10:25 pm

thank you for the review – reminded me to buy the book, for my son who has Das Kapital on his phone so he can read while waiting for the school bus..

8

Gareth Wilson 06.21.17 at 11:34 pm

“It was a time when a Russian women’s movement won a battle for universal suffrage, making Russia the first great power to permit all men and women were permitted to vote.”

Yes, men and women ended up with exactly the same ability to choose the government after the Russian Revolution. That’s one thing we can agree on.

9

Tabasco 06.22.17 at 5:47 am

“It was a time when a Russian women’s movement won a battle for universal suffrage, making Russia the first great power to permit all men and women were permitted to vote.”

Those Bolsheviks sure were progressive.
Except that women got the vote on July 20, 1917, which makes it hard for the Bolsheviks to get the credit.

10

reason 06.22.17 at 12:44 pm

“Freedom” – I’m sorry I hate that word. Can’t you find a better one for the concept you are looking for. Freedom means something different to everyone (and some freedoms directly infringe other freedoms).

11

Katsue 06.22.17 at 1:13 pm

@9

I have no idea how you managed to reduce the Russian Revolution to the Bolsheviks, but if you actually read Esther’s post you will note that she didn’t even mention the Bolsheviks, let alone give them the credit.

12

Stephen 06.22.17 at 8:06 pm

Reason: you are quite right, freedom like democracy can mean many things. The Revolution became about freedom in the Leninist sense: freedom to agree with the Party. Alas.

13

MPAVictoria 06.22.17 at 8:06 pm

Just wanted to chime in and add my recommendation for this book. It is a a quick and powerful read. Mieville does great work here.

14

JPL 06.23.17 at 1:25 am

People’s actions (specifically their interactions) under a community’s socio-economic realm are incoherent with relation to the laws that ought (ideally) to govern those socio-economic activities. How do you get everybody on the same page w/ reg to the latter? (Of course those ideal laws would have to be more than dimly intuited, which is all we seem to have now.) The fresh new ethical organizing principle that was dimly intuited in 1917 Russia has now been supplanted by a much more accurate one the understanding of which is still in its embryonic phase. If the real hero is the revolution, or the revolutionary process, then the revolution should be seen as an objective implicational structure, and the rapid, cascading unfolding of that structure is experienced as realization in the sense of a birth.

15

NomadUK 06.23.17 at 2:04 am

I picked this and several other Russian Revolution-related books up from Verso for half price awhile back. Oktober is brilliant, and reads more like a novel than a history. Reading the first chapter amid the current political climate can’t but give one pause.

16

Crprod 06.23.17 at 2:43 am

I remember when I was in high school seeing Kerensky trotted out on TV to deliver what was accepted as an authoritative opinion on current events in the USSR.

17

Raven 06.23.17 at 6:49 am

My granduncle Alexander Zarudny, a noted defense attorney (among his prior clients: Mendel Beilis and Leon Trotsky) was Minister of Justice in the second coalition of the Russian Provisional Government, and sponsored the law against capital punishment; you may notice that his party affiliation in that table differs from Kerensky’s.

The Wikipedia bio snippet footnotes to the slightly longer entry from the Saint Petersburg Encyclopedia, which notes: “Zarudny took part in the Democratic Conference, where he criticized the Government’s passivity in the matter of making peace, and advocated the restriction of A.F. Kerensky’s power, and the establishment of a large coalition government, including both Bolsheviks and Constitutional Democrats.”

Thus please expand upon your closing phrase in §4, “… Kerensky and his minions.”

18

Anarcho 06.23.17 at 9:08 am

What actually counts is what happens post-October — and that confirmed the anarchist critique of Marxism.

The Bolsheviks quickly recreated a bureaucratic State, from which the masses became alienated. By the spring of 1918, the Mensheviks were making a return — and winning soviet elections. To remain in power, the Bolsheviks started to pack the soviets (with “representatives” from various controlled bodies), delay elections and, when elections were held, disbanding by force the soviets.

Economically, they build the centralised regime they had promised in 1917 — and it became a bureaucratic mess. Lenin turned away from his opportunistic embrace of “workers’ control” (better translated as workers supervision) and in April 1918 argued for State-appointed managers armed with dictatoral power (the influence of Engels’ “On Authority” is obvious). So the Bolsheviks simply handed the economy over to the bureaucracy — and while they may have complained about the factory committees, but the Bolshevik State really showed how to mismanage an economy.

Trotsky — in March 1918 — simply abolished democracy in the armed forces, replacing it with State appointed former officers. These had no problem disbanding soviets, breaking strikes, etc. In December 1917, the Bolsheviks had created the Cheka — whose first offices were those of the Tzarists secret police!

All this before the start of the Civil War at the end of May 1918. By July 1918, the regime was a de facto party dictatorship and State capitalism — and in July 1918, the Bolsheviks packed the All-Russian soviet congress to secure its majority against the Left-SRs.

By the turn of 1919, the Bolsheviks started openly to advocate party dictatorship — proclaiming it as a necessity for ALL revolutions. Zinoviev proclaimed this openly at the 1920 Comintern Congress — as did Trotsky and Lenin in b0oks written for that event (and elsewhere).

So, all in all, a pretty quick betrayal of the promises of 1917 — although if you looked closely, the Bolsheviks were advocating centralisation, party power, a State-run economy during that period too. What they did not advocate was party dictatorship — although that we implicit in there vanguardism (as can be seen from the attitude of the Bolsheviks to the soviets in 1905).

The Bolshevik seize of power in October killed the popular — or “unknown”, to use Voline’s term — of 1917. Sadly, this “unknown” revolution is used to rationalise or justify the Bolshevik regime which took advantage of it before it killed it. Knowingly, in the interests of their Statist vision of socialism.

If interested, section H of An Anarchist FAQ discusses all this (with appropriate references and supporting evidence). A summarised version can be found in a talk a gave on this.

And, of course, Emma Goldman’s My Disillusionment in Russia and Alexander Berkman’s The Bolshevik Myth are still worth reading, as are other works by these and other libertarian socialist writers.

19

Raven 06.23.17 at 9:20 am

(See also historical footnote to my 1991 poem The Dream; the spelling ‘Zaroodny’ is used there because that’s how one of the dedicatees (my uncle Serge) had Anglicized it during his life in America.)

20

Mark H 06.23.17 at 4:07 pm

One thing the review doesn’t mention is that the epilogue (‘After October’) reverts to the present tense. The purpose, I’m certain, is to support Mieville’s contention that October’s “degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars.”

But so swift and breathless is his sketch of post-October history and so dismissive is Mieville of critics of the Bolshevik revolution (“a hundred years of crude, ahistorical, ignorant and opportunist attacks on October”) that, actually, the contingency is squeezed out of the story altogether. Kronstadt, for example, is mentioned only as an example of Bolshevik bad faith (they painted it as a ‘White’ counter-revolution’) rather than a real event, with realisable (and utterly legitimate) demands that might have been granted by a genuinely representative government.

Towards the end of the book Mieville writes, “The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do again.” That, he says, is why the Bolshevik revolution should be celebrated. This strikes me as an oddly anaemic defence of October, amounting to little more than a tautology. In fact the real hero to emerge from the book is not October at all, but February. It’s in the earlier chapters, before Lenin even sets foot in Russia, that Mieville allows us to see the incredible upsurge of popular politics and the exhilarating (and occasionally dangerous) manifestations of the democratic spirit – both in the towns and the countryside of post-imperial and pre-Bolshevik Russia. There’s nothing at all in this book to refute the idea that February marked the real revolution and October the coup d’etat.

How quickly all those possibilities closed down again after the Bolsheviks seized power, as they always tend to do in one-party states.

21

Stephen 06.23.17 at 7:04 pm

CR: in as far as I can make a comment without having yet read the book, I’m puzzled by your statement “Miéville never loses a sense of contingency … he manages nonetheless to capture a sense of inexorability, of fate, of possibilities that weren’t ever really possible”. If the actual course of the revolution was inexorable, how could it have been contingent?

As for “those historians who go on about contingency (or in the case of Niall Ferguson, counterfactuality) as a way of countering the alleged determinism of Marxism”, I’m equally puzzled. Some aspects of Marxism, in its dominating history-is-on-our side inevitable-triumph phase before the collapse of the USSR, do seem to have been determinist: would you not agree?

Also: consider a couple of plausible counterfactuals. Suppose Lenin had been killed in a shooting accident while hunting wildfowl in Siberia, or in a traffic accident while crossing the street in Zurich: neither impossible: would that have made no difference?

22

oldster 06.24.17 at 1:32 pm

“…what would politics in your world be about? It’s one of the big questions that has always haunted Arendt scholars. What should politics in the Arendtian vision be about? What would it look like?…. Read Miéville. You’ll find out.”

Sounds great!

And you *have* read Miéville. So you *have* found out!

Would you mind sharing with us, in a few words, what you found out?

23

Rick Schatzberg 06.24.17 at 2:30 pm

Can’t wait to read this! By the way, if you want to read a brilliant novel by Miéville (hey, it’s summer after all) that is not in the Fantasy/Sci-fi genre he’s best known for, check out “The City and The City.”

24

F. Foundling 06.24.17 at 8:14 pm

@18

While the Bolsheviks eventually reduced the Soviets to nought, they were also the ones who committed to making them the supreme power in the country in the first place. The other socialists, even when they had the majority in the Soviets, did not (in general, most of them simply betrayed their ostensible radicalism and allied with the status quo in one way or another), and as for the anarchists, however good points they may have had in some ways, they – how should I put it – succeeded extremely well in *not* providing a vanguard party. So, basically, everyone involved failed in their own way. Could decentralisation and direct democracy have worked under those historical circumstances? How different would history have been if Lenin had stuck to his State and Revolution / The Civil War in France ideas? I don’t know. Most of human history has been the way it has been because, up to a point and under certain very commonly occurring conditions, authoritarianism really *is* efficient. Efficiency, however, does not equal socialism, and to me, what the whole story boils down to is that most leftist revolutionaries, including, most notably, the Bolsheviks, have been disastrously, truly disastrously confused and uncertain about this particular issue.

@ 20
>In fact the real hero to emerge from the book is not October at all, but February. … Mieville allows us to see the incredible upsurge of popular politics and the exhilarating (and occasionally dangerous) manifestations of the democratic spirit … How quickly all those possibilities closed down again after the Bolsheviks seized power, as they always tend to do in one-party states.

A lot of the radical tendencies of the revolution did survive and develop in various shapes in the 1920s, and some of its progressive aspects even remained part of ‘real socialism’ during all of its existence. October was at least *supposed* to be the ultimate triumph of these possibilities and manifestations, even though it largely failed at that; the February bourgeois regime was what they developed in opposition to in the first place.

25

F. Foundling 06.24.17 at 10:55 pm

@OP

>There’s a famous public dialogue, I can’t remember when or where, between Arendt and a bunch of her readers, in which Mary McCarthy says something like: Okay, I get it, you think politics shouldn’t be about economics or the social question…

>I should add, another Arendtian note: the keyword of the Russian Revolution, in Miéville’s telling, is freedom. It’s the word that keeps recurring throughout the tale. That’s what the revolution is after: freedom.

Of course it was about freedom. Economics is about freedom. The social question is about freedom. They always have been. As one song from the relevant time and place puts it: Makht a zabastovke – lomir, brider, zikh bafrayen! – ‘Let us go on strike, brothers, and free ourselves!’

Or, to take another early example: E noialtri lavoratori vogliam’ la libertà! – ‘And we workers, we want liberty!’

26

F. Foundling 06.25.17 at 12:25 am

And since I’ve already quoted one socialist Yiddish song, I am also tempted to use a somewhat later one, the March of the Unemployed, to illustrate how self-evident it was that an unemployed person could not be considered free: Eyns, tsvey, dray, fir – | ot azoy marshirn mir, | arbetloze, trit nokh trit, | un mir zingen zikh a lid | fun a land, a velt a naye | vu es lebn mentshn fraye – | arbetloz iz keyn shum hant, | in dem nayen frayen land! ‘One, two, three, four – | that’s how we march, | we unemployed, step by step, | And we sing a song | of a new country, a new world, |where free people live | – not a single hand is unemployed | in the new free country!’

27

kidneystones 06.25.17 at 12:29 am

Hi Corey. Thanks for the review – the book looks very good. I’m making a single stop back here to alert the interested to a similarly excellent piece by a former editor of a left-leaning Canadian magazine. I’ll provide the link without comment and hope you’ll click through to read the entire essay:

http://nationalpost.com/news/world/jonathan-kay-on-the-tyranny-of-twitter-how-mob-censure-is-changing-the-intellectual-landscape/wcm/c94cb9be-3eef-4982-9e65-7f4e934c2afb?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+NP_Top_Stories+(National+Po

28

Pavel A 06.25.17 at 2:33 am

@27
I wonder if the phrase “former editor of a left-leaning Canadian magazine” is meant to paper over the fact that Jonathan Kay is a conservative, quit the Walrus over differences of opinion (his were conservative) and currently writes for the National Post, a right-wing Canadian mag that was happy to host the articles of the execrable Mark Stein until he got a little too racist even for them.

Kidneystones (or at least the article he posted) is pushing a particular interpretation of the culture war, one that perceives the idpol left as being composed primarily of authoritarian troll mobs (read: Bolsheviks) that terrify poor liberals (please note that he uses the phrase “champagne socialist” unironically) to the detriment of freedom of expression, etc, etc. While it may be fair to question some of the methods and purity tests imposed by idpol on social media, this is hardly their exclusive domain. Kekistanians, general alt-righters, Daily Stormer mobs and others spend a great deal of their time harassing and in many cases actually threatening and intimidating the left (and the moderate right, ie. “cuckservatives”).

For a more informed and balanced perspective on the emergence of the social media culture wars from within left-leaning and right-leaning geek culture and the some of the unpleasant parallels between the methodology of the two, I would strongly suggest Angela Nagel’s “Kill All Normies”: https://www.amazon.com/Kill-All-Normies-Culture-Alt-Right/dp/1785355430/ref=pd_sbs_14_2?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=1785355430&pd_rd_r=XPMKV1E2VXBDCM83TVPD&pd_rd_w=GS9QT&pd_rd_wg=RB25h&psc=1&refRID=XPMKV1E2VXBDCM83TVPD

For a discussion about how trolling is not at all transgressive and is in fact tacitly approved by the culture at large, I suggest Whitney Phillips’ “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”: https://www.amazon.com/This-Cant-Have-Nice-Things/dp/0262028948

For a discussion on why the internet is built on the model of “bullying as entertainment”, I suggest Whitney Phillips’ “The Ambivalent Internet”: https://www.amazon.com/Ambivalent-Internet-Mischief-Oddity-Antagonism/dp/1509501266

29

Pavel A 06.25.17 at 2:49 am

Purity tests have existed since time immemorial (at least since there were ideological positions that one could occupy), but the internet as a medium can be an engine of objectification and dehumanization that amplifies all such negative impulses.

There is no fundamental connection between the idpol left, Bolshevik history and twitter troll mobs except insofar as the left generally contains a wider array of opinions and therefore has more opinions to fight about (see literally any thread about centrists, liberals, progressives, socialists, left-anarchists and tankies). The right usually just falls in line, which is why there are rarely any serious disagreements between #GamerGaters, Kekistanis, Race Realists, “Atheist” Bros, MRAs, Right-Libertarians, Nazi Furs or whatever (although they all have purity tests of their own, they just don’t need to deploy them as often).

30

Guy Harris 06.25.17 at 3:13 am

Rick Schatzberg:

…if you want to read a brilliant novel by Miéville (hey, it’s summer after all) that is not in the Fantasy/Sci-fi genre he’s best known for, check out “The City and The City.”

The Guardian review by Michael Moorcock doesn’t exactly show it as “not in the Fantasy/Sci-fi genre”:

The City and the City is very different. It takes place in our familiar world, a post-Soviet locale which draws on string theory for its ideas and conventional experience for its story. Apart from one exceptional detail, this book could be a clever mystery story told from the point of view of a Balkan policeman struggling to cope with the problems of a society burdened by traditions and attitudes from its recent authoritarian past. Featureless concrete, rattling trams and antiquated office equipment invoke Greene’s The Third Man and Vienna’s zones of occupation. You can almost hear a zither twanging somewhere in an echoing sewer.

Playing off the current theoretical physicists’ notion that more than one object can occupy the same physical space, Miéville demonstrates a disciplined intelligence reminiscent of the late Barrington Bayley (who specialised brilliantly in scientific implausibilities), helping us to hang on to the idea that the city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other, but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to notice it. They have learned by habit to “unsee”. The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city.

so I guess, as Moorcock states, it’s not in that particular subgenre for which Miéville has become known, but it’s definitely in the fantasy/SF genre.

31

Raven 06.25.17 at 9:26 am

F. Foundling @ 24: “While the Bolsheviks eventually reduced the Soviets to nought….” — Well, yes, the ‘committees’ as such, and then “the Soviets” as in “the Soviet Union” also eventually, 19891991.

32

Rick Schatzberg 06.25.17 at 1:21 pm

@30
We can go down the rabbit hole of genre-semantics on this one, but I’ll try to keep my response a bit broader. The City & The City is written as a police procedural tinged with the fantastic. Despite metaphysical overtones it is clearly set on Planet Earth. More specifically, in an unnamed Eastern European city. (I myself just returned from 3 weeks in Berlin and Prague, and I couldn’t get the book at out of my head, though I read it a few years back, because I could see the blend of those cities as viable, though not precise, models for Miéville.) The book has a very subtle, half-familiar relationship with reality, in a way that books he’s best known for like Perido Street, Scar, King Rat, etc do not. You can call all of it “weird-fiction” (he does), but it’s not as radically weird as most of his other work is. Among the things that make The City & The City so interesting is that half-familiarity; much like its protagonist, it has one foot each in our reality (afterall it’s a crime thriller set in Eastern Europe), and an imaginary realm. But even that imaginary realm is recognizable: aren’t we taught from childhood to “unsee” that which is uncomfortable but which surrounds us, like poverty and prejudice? So I’d say its perhaps Raymond Chandler meets Kafka, with some Orwell and Borges thrown in. I wouldn’t call it SciFi or Fantasy, though you (or the critic you cite) might. There’s so much more I could say, but I’ll leave it here.

33

LFC 06.25.17 at 4:02 pm

Reading F. Foundling’s comments above, I’d add w/r/t

…another Arendtian note: the keyword of the Russian Revolution, in Miéville’s telling, is freedom. It’s the word that keeps recurring throughout the tale. That’s what the revolution is after: freedom.

This is not really “an Arendtian note” unless Miéville means the same thing by “freedom” as Arendt meant — which seems, at the very least, to be quite debatable.

No matter how many subtle and erudite interpretations of Arendt one comes up with, the fact remains that she writes unequivocally in On Revolution that ‘the social question’ is about ‘necessity’ not ‘freedom’.

34

Stephen 06.25.17 at 8:22 pm

Freedom being the recognition of necessity? Engels the great foxhunter (I am free to leap this fence, if I fall that was necessity) via Hegel I think, am I mistaken?

35

LFC 06.26.17 at 2:44 am

I see that there is a book on Miéville’s SF novels by Carl Freedman. I became aware of Freedman’s name only recently when I happened to see an older book of his, a collection of essays — which appeared, on the basis of a glance, to be very well written. He’s also written a 2012 book called The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power.

36

Sydir Kovpak 06.26.17 at 3:20 pm

I am old enough to have spoken with people who experienced the 1917 revolution first hand. China sounds like an overly bookish west european aesthete. And more to the point, a science fiction writer. One should always keep one’s genres separated. Oil and water etc.

37

pseudo-gorgias 06.26.17 at 7:55 pm

It’s always useful to remember, when reading romanticized accounts of “revolution”, that revolution, almost always, is bad for the people it purports to serve. Think, for example, of the French, who suddenly found themselves without a king, an officers corps, a civil service, or a functioning system of agriculture. Except for a small claque of Louis-le-Grand alumni, the revolution stunk.

So it’s always useful to remember that the Russian revolution immiserated millions and destroyed a culture that gave the world some of the greatest art and literature it has ever seen, all to usher in a regime that murdered scores of millions of its own people, starved (often intentionally) many millions more, and still consigned millions to slave camps, all while precipitating an extinction level arms race. It’s worth remembering the nothing in the 20th century did more to set back human rights than the soviet union.

38

Gabriel 06.27.17 at 12:12 am

@32

The city(s) in the novel in question are very much named; they do not exist on Planet Earth ™, and the central conceit, while clearly grounded in real issues, is clearly an Exaggeration for Effect in a way that’s entirely typical of literary SF. I don’t understand why anyone would deny C&TC is genre unless they have a bone to pick with genre itself.

39

J-D 06.27.17 at 12:45 am

pseudo-gorgias

It’s always useful to remember, when reading romanticized accounts of “revolution”, that revolution, almost always, is bad for the people it purports to serve.

Does ‘almost always’ mean 99% of instances, or 95%, or 85%, or what? When I thought about it, I surmised the existence of a Wikipedia page ‘List of revolutions’; it turns out that it’s actually titled ‘List of revolutions and rebellions’, although I’m not sure what difference that makes. In any event, I’d guess there’s something like a thousand entries on the Wikipedia list (most of which I expect to discover I’ve never heard of before); how large a sample are you relying on to draw your conclusion that revolutions are ‘almost always’ bad for the people they purport to serve?

40

Donald Johnson 06.27.17 at 1:58 am

Regarding those scores of millions murdered, maybe not that many–

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/03/10/hitler-vs-stalin-who-killed-more/

That said, I am going to read the book, but numbers aside, my view of the Soviet Union is not that different from pseudo gorgias. Whatever exciting things happened before October 1917 won’t change what happened afterwards.

41

Rick Schatzberg 06.27.17 at 2:47 am

@38 Gabriel
No bone to pick with “genre itself” (whatever that means). Sure, the twin cities in the book, Besźel and Ul Qoma, are invented by Miéville. And so what if there is “Exaggeration for Effect?” That’s just storytelling. (What’s up with the annoying caps and the ™ icon, btw?) But these cities are very much of our planet and of the 21st Century, despite their exact location not being specified. The issue of their being coterminous, i.e. different cities sharing the same borders, is what seems to have you hung up on needing to challenge my saying it’s not Sci Fi (I guess that really bothers you.) But the co-presence of the cities has a psychological and therefore purely logical explanation — taken to absurd lengths, of course. It is learned behavior, constructed in the minds of citizens, and strictly enforced. This is beyond the genre of Sci Fi, which I say not to idealize “The City & The City” nor to denigrate science fiction. It’s “simply” that the inhabitants of the two cities are separated by ideologies, not materiality. I don’t much care what you prefer to call the genre. But I do think it would be a mistake if it were shelved in the science fiction and fantasy sections of bookstores.

42

J-D 06.27.17 at 5:16 am

Rick Schatzberg

Despite metaphysical overtones it is clearly set on Planet Earth.

The Invisible Man and The War Of The Worlds are clearly set on Planet Earth. So is John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids. Should this exclude them from being considered science fiction?

43

Peter T 06.27.17 at 6:25 am

“revolution, almost always, is bad for the people it purports to serve”

I have yet to hear of a revolution that did not involve very significant numbers of people. A revolution is not an alien invasion, but an expression of extreme political difference. In the French case, most of the army, much of the urban population and countless peasants were all active in making the revolution. In the Russian case, explicitly revolutionary parties received around 70 per cent of the vote. And, even now, the Russian Communist Party gets most of its vote from those who lived under communism.

44

Rick Schatzberg 06.27.17 at 10:29 am

@41, JD

I don’t know either of those books, J-D, but would agree that being set on Earth is not sufficient criteria by itself. Please see my later comment to @38 Gabriel (just above yours). Beyond this, if you are still bothered by my conclusion — or even if you’re not — I’d suggest reading the book.

45

Raven 06.27.17 at 11:20 am

Peter T @ 43: “I have yet to hear of a revolution that did not involve very significant numbers of people.” — The ‘Revolutionary Cells’, like the ‘Red Army Faction’, were violent but not especially numerous as far as I know, else they might have been even more dangerous. … Oh. Did you mean successful revolution?

> “A revolution is not an alien invasion….” — Mmmm… events over the past few years in Crimea and eastern Ukraine might merit your attention on this point, regarding unmarked uniforms and perhaps the term of art “false flag”.

Regarding high-percentage “votes”: yes, Saddam Hussein also boasted of such votes. I quote Wikipedia verbatim: “In the 1995 referendum, conducted on 15 October, he reportedly received 99.96% of the votes in a 99.47% turnout, getting only 3052 negative votes among an electorate of 8.4 million. In the October 15, 2002 referendum he officially achieved 100% of approval votes and 100% turnout, as the electoral commission reported the next day that every one of the 11,445,638 eligible voters cast a ‘Yes’ vote for the president.”

(For some such reason I am rather less than fully trustful about the career of former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel, elected by the results of his own company’s unverifiable and hackable electronic voting machines, and my current GOP Governor Scott Walker, sustained in office by such machines — as are many other GOP officials.)

46

steven t johnson 06.27.17 at 12:46 pm

Donald Johnson@40 ” Whatever exciting things happened before October 1917 won’t change what happened afterwards.”

Mieville’s (and the OP’s) message received!

47

Gabriel 06.27.17 at 12:48 pm

Rick, ‘ideology’ explains the nature of the city(s) in the novel the way ‘jumping’ explains Superman’s ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

48

Stephen 06.27.17 at 1:22 pm

Peter T: is there any contradiction between

“All revolutions involve very significant numbers of people”

and “Most revolutions turn out badly for those involved”?

49

LFC 06.27.17 at 1:28 pm

pseudo gorgias @37
Think, for example, of the French, who suddenly found themselves without a king, an officers corps, a civil service, or a functioning system of agriculture. Except for a small claque of Louis-le-Grand alumni, the revolution stunk.

One of the proximate reasons the Rev. occurred is that under the Old Regime the “system of agriculture” wasn’t functioning terribly well.

Finding themselves “without a king” is not a count vs the Rev. unless you think there was something valuable about the monarchy as an institution that outweighed its flaws. (A difficult case to make, probably.)

50

Rick Schatzberg 06.27.17 at 1:59 pm

@47
Yes, I see your point in that analogy, Gabriel. Here’s the thing though. This is chiefly a book about xenophobic nationalism. Of course there are no national communities (that I can think of at least) that exist so purely in the imagination. Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” on steroids. But this satiric aspect of the book is very Swiftian, and as with “Gulliver’s Travels,” the fantastic elements are subservient to the satire. As I said in a previous comment somewhere above, categorizing it as science fiction means relegating it to a back corner of the bookstore (mentally or physically), where it can achieve stature within the genre but not in literary fiction and critical thinking more broadly.

51

pseudo-gorgias 06.27.17 at 3:05 pm

In most places they have existed monarchies have been moderating forces on their body politic. They provide the people with a symbol of their highest development and reify the social order. They establish the principle of legitimate difference and common destiny.

Regicide is almost always shorthand for calamity. The French recovered, eventually, in fits and starts. It remains questionable whether the Russians ever will.

52

LFC 06.27.17 at 5:10 pm

Not inclined to get into this in detail, but anyone interested should contrast pseudo-gorgias’s statements @51 with, e.g., the devastating judgment on the reign of Louis XIV given by Robin Briggs in Early Modern France 2nd ed., pp. 154-155 (“After the middle 1670s the imaginary and real worlds of the monarchy grew apart, with serious implications. The king who could do no wrong was deified in his own person, as his decisions progressively lost touch with the reality of a country he never saw.”)

53

Stephen 06.27.17 at 7:11 pm

pseudo-gorgias: query how your views fit in with the career of the Roman Republic?

54

William U. 06.27.17 at 7:14 pm

“Regicide is almost always shorthand for calamity. The French recovered, eventually, in fits and starts. It remains questionable whether the Russians ever will.”

On the other hand, it certainly didn’t take the English very long.

55

christian h. 06.27.17 at 8:33 pm

Anti-communism arrives at its logical conclusion in this thread – support for French absolute monarchy and Russian autocracy.

56

J-D 06.27.17 at 8:58 pm

Rick Schatzberg
I have read your comments. I gather that you think the way a book will sell, and more generally the way it will be received, will be affected by which section in the bookshop it’s sold from — more particularly, that it will be affected in one way if it’s shelved with ‘science fiction’ and another way if it is shelved somewhere else; all of which is undoubtedly true. Also I suspect that you don’t want The City And The City to be shelved with science fiction, because of the effect that would have on the book’s reception.

What I don’t get is what are, in your view, the typical characteristics of science fiction which The City And The City lacks; and I’m not going to find that out by reading the book.

57

Donald Johnson 06.27.17 at 9:12 pm

Steven t johnson– i haven’t read the book yet, so your snark went over my head. But I never understood the romance about the Russian Revolution given how badly it turned out. I might have felt hopeful about it at the time.

58

J-D 06.27.17 at 9:27 pm

pseudo-gorgias
‘In most places’ and then again ‘almost always’. How many examples of monarchy — how many examples of regicide — did you consider before reaching these conclusions?

59

Z 06.27.17 at 9:52 pm

Think, for example, of the French, who suddenly found themselves without a king, an officers corps, a civil service, or a functioning system of agriculture.

That’s a highly idiosyncratic evaluation of the French Revolution. I would argue that the historical record is more or less the exact contrary, namely that the French Revolution inherited a deeply corrupted and inefficient patrimonial state apparel and radically, well, revolutionized it to produce in the span of 5 years one of the most efficient bureaucratic system of officer corps and civil service in Europe (with some enduring achievements the metric system or the foundations of the École Normale Supérieure and the École polytechnique). See for instance Ertman’s Birth of Leviathan for details (or just note that Kleber, Hoche, Davout, Bessières, Lannes, Jourdan, Masséna or some guy named Bonaparte were all part of the supposedly inexistent officer corps of the decade 1790-1799).

60

pseudo-gorgias 06.27.17 at 10:01 pm

France did not have an absolute monarchy at the time of the Revolution. It has a constitutional monarchy. The laws were set by the National Assembly and then ratified and executed by the monarchy. The framework for whatever reforms were needed was established. In the final analysis, the revolution was not an overthrow of a tyranny, it was the overthrow of the people and their democracy.

Similarly in Russia there were liberal forces within the government and church that would have set the country on a more generous course than that of the far left that took power. But liberalism, with it’s gentle humanism, is often too staid a force in the face of righteous violence.

61

J-D 06.27.17 at 10:38 pm

pseudo-gorgias

France did not have an absolute monarchy at the time of the Revolution. It has a constitutional monarchy. The laws were set by the National Assembly and then ratified and executed by the monarchy.

The National Assembly existed from 13 June 1789 to 9 July 1789. There was at that time no constitution, and therefore no constitutional power for the National Assembly to set laws.

Similarly in Russia there were liberal forces within the government …

Are you referring to the royal government that existed at the time of the February Revolution, or the provisional government in the period between the February Revolution and the October Revolution?

62

christian h. 06.27.17 at 11:07 pm

I think it is worth pointing out that “pseudo-gorgias” is just making stuff up both about France in July 1789 (no calling an estate general in May 1789 didn’t suddenly transform France into a “constitutional monarchy”) and about Russia in February 1917. Then again what to expect from someone who self identifies by their handle as a troll…

63

bruce wilder 06.28.17 at 12:51 am

France did not have an absolute monarchy at the time of the Revolution.

Obviously, pseudo-gorgias has passed thru to a parallel time-line/universe where reactionary conservatives are not wrong about everything always; another city in the same space indeed.

64

Rick Schatzberg 06.28.17 at 2:22 am

@56 J-D
“What I don’t get is what are, in your view, the typical characteristics of science fiction which The City And The City lacks; and I’m not going to find that out by reading the book.” J-D

Okay, J-D, here you go:
First, it lacks science: no inventions or advanced technology outside the current limits of today’s know-how
Second, it lacks “Fantasy”: no creatures, magic, supernatural elements, alternate worlds or universes

In “The City & The City,” every episode can be interpreted in strictly realistic terms. The peculiar behavioral model of a city divided so purely, is of course “fantastical,” but not supernatural. It evokes other divided cities — Jerusalem, Berlin, gated communities the world over — but in Besźel and Ul Qoma, there is literally no geographic distinction between the cities. It is entirely constructed in the minds of their citizens. Not by magic, but by conditioning and an ideology supported by an elaborate system of repressive state apparatuses.

The brilliance of “The City & The City” lies in the layers that Miéville weaves together expertly: a hard-boiled crime fiction narrative à la Dashiell Hammet; an invocation and lurking feeling of Borges-like metaphysics or Kafka-esque absurdities, which upon close examination vanish; and a political satire at its core. Reading it is pure pleasure.

Genre-splitting is tiring, J-D. I’m just a visual artist. I think Miéville is right to call what he does “weird fiction;” it avoids the tiresome checklists of attributes. David Mitchell is another talented practitioner of this art (“Cloud Atlas,” e.g.). Russell Hoban, the author of the great dystopian novel “Riddley Walker,” had all the tags as well: fantasy, magical realism, science fiction. But really he was one of the godfathers of weird fiction. This was summed up nicely by Anthony Burgess (“A Clockwork Orange”): “Riddley Walker is what literature is meant to be.” Had he lived to read Miéville’s weird fiction, I’m sure Burgess would have been a fan.

65

J-D 06.28.17 at 8:48 am

Rick Schatzberg

Genre-splitting is tiring, J-D.

I find this topic interesting to discuss (although I wasn’t the one who brought it up here); I don’t expect or demand that other people also do so. If you want to leave the subject by saying that The City And The City is not what you consider to be science fiction, even though it seems to me as though it might well be what I consider to be science fiction, that’s fine by me. However, since you have written this —

First, it lacks science: no inventions or advanced technology outside the current limits of today’s know-how
Second, it lacks “Fantasy”: no creatures, magic, supernatural elements, alternate worlds or universes

— I respond that there are plenty of works generally considered to be science fiction to which these two statements apply, including much of one whole sub-genre of science fiction, namely, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. I can imagine you (or somebody) responding ‘I don’t consider apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, as such, to be a sub-genre of science fiction’, and I’m not insisting that anybody has to, but merely pointing out that lots of people do.

66

Raven 06.28.17 at 10:09 am

pseudo-gorgias @ 51: “In most places they have existed monarchies have been moderating forces on their body politic.” — Ah, so they’ve existed because they served some useful purpose to the population at large, not because they were, say, imposed by conquest e.g. England AD 1066 or China 230–221 BC, no matter what the rest of the “body politic” may have wanted….

And, come to think of it, in both cases there were multiple kingdoms in each region, subsumed into one under the new ruler, which had been known to fight each other — the preceding period in China was called the “Warring States” — for their kings’ competing ambitions for further power and land, disregarding what their farmer-populace might have wanted to do other than be sent to war. Did those warring kings “moderate” their farmers?

Then afterwards, with unitary power over their realms — especially once the Chinese emperor could condemn entire regions to starvation by shutting off the water — did the conquerors become even more “moderate”? In China’s case, how many were killed just to eliminate branches of undesirable literature? Conceal a tomb? While building a wall? In Norman England’s case, did the conquest stop there, or did ambition force it outward to Scotland and Ireland?

But these are only two examples, you may protest, and you’d said “In most places they have existed” — so we could go case by case if you like. Russian Tsars? (Just the name “Ivan the Terrible” hardly hints at the group’s discredit.) The Spanish monarchy? (I was under the impression they sent out the conquistadors to bring back gold for their court; would a democracy have been more savage than that?) Perhaps the French monarchy? (Three of their greatest hits: the Albigensian Crusade on behalf of the Pope, nearly depopulating the southern half of the country; the slaughter of the Knights Templar; the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots — which is what drove that branch of my family from France into Germany, whence they were recruited by Catherine the Great as artisans, resulting inter alia in The Last Day of Pompeii. There’s no reason to suspect these events would have occurred absent the monarchy, as the monarchy was in each case the motivated actor.) … Onward… How well did the Kaiser “moderate the body politic” of Germany, or Japan’s Emperor “moderate” its pre-1945 aggressions?

By contrast, read George Washington’s presidential addresses with a view to whether they display a “moderate” temperament. There’s a non-monarchial head of state (and government) for you.

67

Raven 06.28.17 at 10:49 am

Rick Schatzberg @ 64: “• First, it lacks science: no inventions or advanced technology outside the current limits of today’s know-how; • Second, it lacks ‘Fantasy’: no creatures, magic, supernatural elements, alternate worlds or universes” — This could be said of George Orwell’s 1984 (the telescreen was a little advanced for the time when he wrote it, not for ours), yet it’s science fiction, category dystopia i.e. anti-utopia.

Also, “fantasy” and science fiction are two separate categories; science fiction need not ever have “creatures, magic, supernatural elements, alternate worlds or universes”. Robert A. Heinlein did venture into these areas (e.g. Magic, Incorporated; The Number of the Beast…), but he wrote a great deal of “hard SF” that had no such things, from Rocket Ship Galileo on.

What Orwell did, and many other SF writers did, is sometimes called “soft SF”: speculation not so much about technological changes as about social changes. Not so much “what would happen if we invent sentient self-aware robots?” but
“what would happen if we change our political or socio-economic system in this way?” — and you might get Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, or Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, or Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country… in which technology actually regresses from the current day’s.

So I think you’ve been going on mistaken definitions. SF is about change; tweaking this or that factor (“dial”) and seeing what outcomes may result; delta-arrow-delta.

68

Z 06.28.17 at 12:29 pm

France did not have an absolute monarchy at the time of the Revolution. It has a constitutional monarchy

I was going to dissent very slightly from J-D, christian h. and bruce wilder and point out that, reading pseudo-gorgias with maximum charity, it is indeed correct that France had a genuine constitutional monarchy, absolutely not in 1789 of course, but from September 1791 to August (de facto) or September (de jure) 1792 (its most significant “achievement” was to wage war against Austria). But then I read

In the final analysis, the revolution was not an overthrow of a tyranny, it was the overthrow of the people and their democracy.

and faced with such eloquence, I must confess: that is exactly what happened during the French Revolution. Should be the title of the definitive history of the French Revolution, even.

69

Katsue 06.28.17 at 12:45 pm

@66

It was all going so well until you decided to hail George Washington as a moderate. Washington was, of course, the man in charge during the United States’ first war of foreign aggression, the undeclared war whose Wikipedia page is called the Northwest Indian War.

Anyway, I’ve always found it impossible to have sympathy for the liberals overthrown during the October Revolution given their insistence on continuing to fight the First World War, and their refusal to hold elections based on universal suffrage.

70

Orange Watch 06.28.17 at 1:09 pm

J-D@65:

I think it would be more useful to invoke historical fiction or alternative history than apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novels. And that’s actually not insignificant here, because historical fiction “isn’t sci-fi” but alternative history often is deemed to be. If you want to parse genre splits, that may be a telling faultline between “normal” and speculative fiction. I suspect it may just come down to worldbuilding; the former avoids it while the latter revels in it. Does CatC count as worldbuilding? I can see both sides, as outside the cities things act “normal”, and the cities act (albeit fictive) “normal” (realistic might be a more useful word) aside from co-location and Breech.

However…perhaps a more informative question is this: would the same work by a non-genre author have been counted as sci-fi? On this point, I’m sceptical.

71

bob mcmanus 06.28.17 at 2:52 pm

How well did the Kaiser “moderate the body politic” of Germany, or Japan’s Emperor “moderate” its pre-1945 aggressions?

Okay, since Japan was mentioned, I’ll pop in here to note that I think a focus on the performative presentational ideologized represented form of a polity is very misguided. “One million as one” all agency expressed as the unified will of Hirohito was the propaganda, but was that how that system worked, what happened, how decisions were made? No. Konoe and Tojo and Yamamoto and a cast of (hundreds? thousands? the populace?) were at least as important in decision making as Hirohito (not a figurehead but moreso than Wilhelm, less a figurehead than a British monarch), in internal cooperation and competition, etc. And that is not even to consider implementation of elite policy at lowest levels, that is, complicity.

Now are all these elites and elite decision processes and social implementations alike so that form (monarchy, democracy) doesn’t matter at all? No, they are determined by contingency, history, geography, etc and different. Do they have much in common? Well, there’s the project, comparative history informed by critical theory, for my part.

72

Z 06.28.17 at 9:02 pm

I think a focus on the performative presentational ideologized represented form of a polity is very misguided […] [F]orm […] doesn’t matter at all? No, they are determined by contingency, history, geography, etc and different. Do they have much in common? Well, there’s the project, comparative history informed by critical theory, for my part.

Very well said.

And I would add that this insight is what ignorant historical judgments of historical structures or events often neglect: they proceed as if theoretically possible alternative forms of the structure in question could self-evidently have been actually realized in the specific relevant social and cultural conditions (for a typical example, consider the wonderfully impersonal “The framework for whatever reforms were needed was established” which pseudo-gorgias claims applied both to 1789 France and 1917 Russia, with not even a nod to what turning this passive sentence into an active one would entail).

73

Raven 06.28.17 at 9:17 pm

Katsue @ 69: “Washington was, of course, the man in charge during the United States’ first war of foreign aggression, the undeclared war whose Wikipedia page is called the Northwest Indian War.” — Interesting. Presumably you’ve read that page, or other history of that time, so you know that the Indian tribes/nations had raided the Americans and also helped the British attack… so… “the United States’ first war of foreign aggression”? Surely not one-sided aggression.

BTW, for a dozen years (’66-’78) I lived a couple of houses down a little riverside gravel road from the former site of “Prophetstown”, Tecumseh’s village. I did take an interest in local history and sites, including climbs into “Prophet’s Rock” where Tenskwatawa had preached (sung) war.

74

J-D 06.29.17 at 1:04 am

Orange Watch
Rick Schatzberg wrote that The City And The City is not science fiction for the following reasons.

First, it lacks science: no inventions or advanced technology outside the current limits of today’s know-how
Second, it lacks “Fantasy”: no creatures, magic, supernatural elements, alternate worlds or universes

One of the implications is that stories involving alternative worlds or universes can legitimately be considered science fiction. Therefore, your suggestion that allohistorical fiction is a better counter-example (than apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction) is off the mark. It appears that allohistorical fiction (unlike apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction) falls comfortably within Rick Schatzberg’s implicit definition of science fiction (as well as in practice being generally considered a sub-genre of science fiction).

However…perhaps a more informative question is this: would the same work by a non-genre author have been counted as sci-fi? On this point, I’m sceptical.

Raven mentioned George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both of these are widely considered to be science fiction (I have seen discussions of Oryx And Crake in which Margaret Atwood resists the idea that any of her work can be considered science fiction, for reasons similar to Rick Schatzberg’s, but it’s not something she gets to determine by fiat). On the other hand, they don’t get sold from the science-fiction shelves in bookshops (at least, not primarily). I think it’s interesting to consider both the reasons why some people consider Orxy And Crake to be science fiction while others (including Margaret Atwood herself) take the opposite position, but I don’t need to feel that the question has a unique correct answer; and, likewise, I suppose, for The City And The City.

75

Peter T 06.29.17 at 3:46 am

There’s no particular reason to believe that people en masse are inclined to peace, progress and prosperity and that, therefore, democracies will necessarily be nicer places than non-democracies. The history of the United States should offer sufficient proof to the contrary. Even more, the politics of the more right-wing parts of the US. Being nasty has wide popular support in Mississippi. Beating up foreigners just because has support across the US.

Yet this belief persists. As does its corollary, that violent revolutions are the work of conspiracies or small factions, not widespread movements. Again, any acquaintance with the history tells us otherwise. Lenin had been striking sparks in vain for years; it was the tinder-dry anger of the populace that fueled the conflagration. Our own liberal preferences cannot dictate the course of events.

76

Rick Schatzberg 06.29.17 at 4:21 am

Raven @67 and J-D @65

I innocently began towards the top of this comment section with this:

“Can’t wait to read this! [Referring to Miéville’s October] By the way, if you want to read a brilliant novel by Miéville (hey, it’s summer after all) that is not in the Fantasy/Sci-fi genre he’s best known for, check out The City and The City.”

I’ll stand by that, leave the genre-splitting to the experts, and sign off.

77

Raven 06.29.17 at 11:15 am

J-D @ 74 (and attn: Rick Schatzberg if he’s still reading): “… Margaret Atwood resists the idea that any of her work can be considered science fiction, for reasons similar to Rick Schatzberg’s, but it’s not something she gets to determine by fiat. On the other hand, they don’t get sold from the science-fiction shelves in bookshops (at least, not primarily).”

Yeah, marketing decisions e.g. to get out of the “SF ghetto” in bookstores are one thing; deciding just where in cold disinterested* literary taxonomy the work falls — [*without considering the author’s or publisher’s financial interests] — is another matter.

But there are all sorts of special pleading.

78

Stephen 06.29.17 at 12:53 pm

Peter T

It would be interesting to see you justify your belief that democracies, notably the USA, are not necessarily nicer places than non-democracies. Could you perhaps provide a list of non-democracies that are or have been nicer places than the US? I suspect it might be a very short one.

Also: could you explain why the belief that violent revolutions are the work of conspiracies or small factions is a corollary of the belief that people en masse are inclined to peace, progress and prosperity? I see no reason to doubt that peoples inclined to p, p & p can support a revolution if those desirable things are absent, as they surely were in Russia in 1917 (and for rather a long time afterwards). Directing the violence, now, that is sometimes the work of small factions.

79

Katsue 06.29.17 at 1:02 pm

@73

The fact that the members of the Western Confederacy didn’t immediately surrender all of their lands and possessions to every settler that came knocking hardly makes them the aggressors.

80

Raven 06.29.17 at 1:17 pm

Peter T @ 75: “There’s no particular reason to believe that people en masse are inclined to peace, progress and prosperity and that, therefore, democracies will necessarily be nicer places than non-democracies.”

I’m reminded of C.S Lewis’s short sequel to his devilish correspondence The Screwtape Letters: “Screwtape Proposes A Toast” [online at its first publisher!], in which the speaker tells the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils:

“It is our function to encourage the behavior, the manner, the whole attitude of mind, which democracies naturally like and enjoy, because these are the very things which, if unchecked, will destroy democracy. You would almost wonder that even humans don’t see it themselves. Even if they don’t read Aristotle (that would be undemocratic) you would have thought the French Revolution would have taught them that the behavior aristocrats naturally like is not the behavior that preserves aristocracy. They might then have applied the same principle to all forms of government.”

Screwtape sees things optimistically from his point of view, and we should for our sakes take what he says as a warning though not a hard and certain truth (for the devil is a liar) — many things we like are not good for us; there, for a host of examples, is the whole story of addiction.

But I will note, with regard to the major example I gave earlier, China, that the armies were drafted not volunteered — recall that the Emperor could shut off water to entire regions who refused his orders — and even Sun Tzu (of The Art of War) pointed out the need to let them get back to farming during the proper season lest the nation starve… so war was not a matter of an irrepressible in-dwelling popular impulse.

WWII’s American military buildup had the advantage of a long-known foreign hostility (including torpedoing of civilian ships), capped by Pearl Harbor, and still there was a draft. Korea, a draft. Vietnam, still a draft, and massive draft protests. Finally the draft was overturned, and the volunteer “professional” army had high recruitment standards excluding criminals and political radicals… until George W. Bush’s unjustified invasion of Iraq, and expansion into Afghanistan, long-running campaigns, and needing to add troops, dropping those standards to allow recruits with criminal convictions and known (right-wing) radical connections into the Armed Forces for training and arming… with the entirely predictable outcome of violent abusive incidents during and after service. Leaving now-trained criminals and right-wing radicals on American streets.

> “Even more, the politics of the more right-wing parts of the US. … Beating up foreigners just because has support across the US.”

As with the above-cited Revolutionary Cells and Red Army Faction in Europe (notably Germany), and with al-Qaeda / ISIL terrorists scattered among the world population of Muslims, so with the KKK / militias / unaffiliated violent bigots in the USA: their very violence makes them stand out disproportionately to their numbers — like a cat fighting all out, they look bigger than they are — and that’s exactly the reason for their violence, to exert as much force as they can, given how small they are. They could never win a legitimate majority vote, or else they’d have done that.

It’s the same with the Republican Party’s long desperate struggle to suppress Democratic voters by undercutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act (e.g. the 2013 Shelby decision), closing polling places, demanding voter IDs (which they then won’t issue), kicking registered voters off the registries for spurious reasons, installing unverifiable and unhackable electronic voting machinery, etc., not to mention gerrymandering legislative districts — none of that would they have had to do if they were confident of winning majority votes; they did it precisely because they knew, demographically, they’re steadily shrinking, and these are among their attempts to still hold onto power while weakening their opponents. (Ditto economic sabotage like shanking Medicaid, shifting the tax burden,…. why else do you think Obama’s American Jobs Act never got a vote?)

Compare Trump’s actual inauguration crowd (which he falsely called “the largest ever”) to Obama’s, or to the anti-Trump protest crowds that immediately followed. If there was support for Trump’s hostility to foreigners, would that be the case? Would there have been such huge crowds, including at airports, waving signs in support of refugees, other immigrants, and the non-white / non-Anglo / non-Christian targets of discriminatory action, e.g. “I [heart] My Muslim Neighbor”?

81

Raven 06.29.17 at 1:57 pm

Katsue @ 79: “The fact that the members of the Western Confederacy didn’t immediately surrender all of their lands and possessions to every settler that came knocking hardly makes them the aggressors.”

No, it wouldn’t have, and if that had been the extent of it you’d have a point. But leaving their lands to raid the lands and possessions of other peoples is a different matter entirely, as is joining with the British Army in actively making outright war on them. And since you post the above in response to my having mentioned precisely this, and you yourself recommended an article which gives details (otherwise I’d have linked it), you’re being just a bit disingenuous right now, aren’t you?

82

kidneystones 06.29.17 at 2:04 pm

Some very odd comments re: the French revolutions. The summoning of the Third estates generally makes 1788 the starting point of a series of changes that resulted in improved economic growth; the foundation of a stable national bank; rapid improvements in education, transportation, and communications; a civil code; a constitution, and the removal of any number of archaic and inefficient institutions and practices.

The short-lived constitutional-monarchy was simply a pit-stop on the way to major blood-letting and civil strife from 1792-1794. The Lycée-Louis-Le Grand produced a number of ordinary graduates, but was by no means the only notable educational institution in France, or even Paris during the 18th and 19th centuries. And despite the most fervent wishes of Louis XIV, France’s ‘absolute monarchy’ was not absolute, except in the sense that the vast majority of French people had no power whatsoever. The French nobility and the Catholic Church absolutely did and proved quite capable of confounding royal perogatives (as did the parliaments) on occasion. This, btw, is not expert opinion but rather what we can find in any reasonably good academic history of France.

Re: In the final analysis, the revolution was not an overthrow of a tyranny, it was the overthrow of the people and their democracy.

If one is talking about the penis-free portion of the population, these folks had no power to lose, and the scraps they snatched for a few months post-1792 were quickly stripped away. Napoleon’s dictatorship was just that, until the return of a constitutional monarchy. Efforts to remove these constraints on the power of the monarch post-1824 resulted in the revolution of 1830 and others. Louis XVI and his brothers were products of the 18th century and the last kings to rule France. The ‘people’ had no power before the revolutions and significantly more after, especially the nouveau riche, a fact which bothered old-style aristocrats in France and across Europe no end.

To suggest otherwise runs counter to the historical record.

83

Raven 06.29.17 at 2:07 pm

> “… installing unverifiable and unhackable electronic voting machinery….”

Alas, I meant “hackable”.

84

LFC 06.29.17 at 9:05 pm

@kidneystones

Afaict, no one on this thread has made the claim that French ‘absolute monarchy’ was ‘absolute’ in the modern dictionary connotation of that word esp. w/r/t effective rather than claimed or theoretical power, or that the monarch was the only political actor of any significance. Thus I don’t know who you’re responding to on this point. One author has written that Louis XIV’s effective power (ability to get decisions implemented) was less than that of a prime minister in a contemporary democracy. Assuming that’s true, it does not mean one can’t use the phrase ‘absolute monarchy’ since that phrase refers mainly to the theoretical scope of the monarch’s power, which was indeed expansive.

85

kidneystones 06.29.17 at 11:51 pm

@84 Thank you for the correction. I’ll stick with my own reading of the period and the issues, if I may. The ‘people’ of France and Britain had no political power whatsoever under the law prior to the late 18th century. The ‘English’ revolutions of 1640-1662, 1688-9, and 1776 served as case studies for French revolutionaries. The power of the law to constrain the authority of the monarch was a widely-studied and hotly debated topic in both France and Britain. The notion of governing with the consent of the governed was never intended to include the enslaved among the ranks of the governed. In the legal sense, French monarchs during the 17th century, in particular, the Stuarts in Britain, and Cromwell, all subscribed to the notion that the monarch, or dictator, was not legally constrained by any earthly power. All change was forced upon them by the rich who had no intention of being denied their own rights to exploit the poor free of the monopolistic aspirations of a ‘monarch.’ The poor, of course, were enlisted, induced, or compelled to fight for limiting the authority of the monarch and a few were deluded enough to believe they were fighting for greater freedoms and rights for themselves. This was only occasionally true. The reforms that did occur, occurred to improve the chances of making the inventive and greedy rich, or richer. A number of happy byproducts resulted – such as better dentistry and cheaper consumer products.

To fast forward to the present, we now enjoy immensely more freedoms and a free press. Cambridge and Oxford now allow women to enter and graduate, although we have wait another few years to witness the first century of this practice. The English and French revolutions did accomplish a great deal to move us forward, but it was the calamitous events of 1914-1920 that really tipped the scales towards greater political equality.

86

Peter T 06.30.17 at 6:49 am

My try to be clearer about my point above. Democracy is about the extent of the political nation – what proportion get a say in political matters. It has quite a few dimensions – what counts as political, what counts as a say, at what level participation is permitted and so on. Groups inside the political nation get better treated than those outside, which is, of course, why people fight to get in (or to exclude). So wider participation is definitely better for most people, provided they are on the inside.

What direction a political collectivity takes is another matter, and the empirical foundation of any posited connection between wider political participation and peacefulness is very weak. A democracy can be warlike or peaceful, expansionist, dedicated to common prosperity or to some other goal. The British Empire expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century as Britain itself became more democratic, and this was a source of largely unquestioned pride and satisfaction to the British. Ditto for the United States, or for many others. Warlike republics have a long history.

87

Raven 06.30.17 at 11:13 am

LFC @ 84: “… no one on this thread has made the claim that… the monarch was the only political actor of any significance.”

For instance, above I mentioned (and wiki-linked) “the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots — which is what drove that branch of my family from France”… an act of the monarchy, to be sure, but not necessarily started by the monarch himself:

Traditionally believed to have been instigated by Queen Catherine de’ Medici, the mother of King Charles IX, the massacre took place on the wedding day of the king’s sister Margaret to the Protestant* Henry III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France).

(* That is, Henry III was a former Huguenot, having decided that “Paris is worth a Mass.” Catherine apparently had decided to cut off any retreat.)

88

Raven 06.30.17 at 11:19 am

And fans of The Three Musketeers will surely remember that “red eminence” Cardinal Richelieu….

89

Raven 06.30.17 at 11:38 am

Peter T @ 86: “Groups inside the political nation get better treated than those outside….”

Ah, no, foreign aristocrats were treated far better than native peasantry in Royalist France… oh wait, now you’re talking about what happens in democracies, right?… so how were the Russian diplomats received in Trump’s Oval Office, and how were disabled Americans received in the Senate just this past week?

90

Continental 06.30.17 at 12:35 pm

67: Incidentally, Margaret Atwood has objected to some of her works being labeled science fiction. There are real controversies about these questions, though I don’t care much about them.

91

Pavel A 06.30.17 at 5:11 pm

Peter T @ 75: There’s no particular reason to believe that people en masse are inclined to peace, progress and prosperity and that, therefore, democracies will necessarily be nicer places than non-democracies.

The argument about democracies being better than non-democracies rests on the idea that democracies are (theoretically) better at redistributing power. Both singular and groups of individuals are corruptible, but it’s a question of scale. Democracies will often be short-sighted and be driven by whatever cultural failures drive individuals (I’m sure this argument partly goes back to Aristotle, frankly). However, they shouldn’t let power be concentrated too tightly, preventing the establishment of corrupt, entrenched dynastic lines. The argument isn’t that the mass of citizens in a participatory democracy won’t make errors, it’s that more of them are required to do so for the system to express this as policy. Participation in the political process is also supposed to have some positive side-effects on the citizens themselves, but this is more difficult to prove.

92

Stephen 06.30.17 at 6:22 pm

Peter T

Thanks for your clarifying reply. If I understand you rightly, what you are saying is

(a) there are actually no examples you can think of non-democratic governments being better for the people in their states than democratic governments, even those of the deplorable USA; but

(b) the democratic governments of the USA, etc., were not good for peoples outside their states.

As far as the westward expansion of the US is concerned, I doubt if many would argue with you. The remaining question is whether being overcome and ruled by the US was better or worse for the victims than the prospect of being overcome and exterminated by their neighbours. Depends on who’s doing the exterminating, I suppose. I do realize that with regards to, say, the Civilised Tribes that is a false dichotomy.

A similar argument applies to European colonialism in other places, I think.

93

Raven 06.30.17 at 7:59 pm

Continental @ 90: Already addressed, see #77.

94

Raven 07.01.17 at 3:18 am

Pavel A @ 91: “However, [democracies] shouldn’t let power be concentrated too tightly, preventing the establishment of corrupt, entrenched dynastic lines.”

Alas, the USA Republican Party (since Goldwater let the John Birch Society in, and especially since Nixon’s Southern Strategy) has gone in the very opposite direction.

To the extent that the events noted in my comment #89 can be attributed as not a fault of “democracy” as such, but a fault of specifically the “radical right” movement (wherein what might be called “neo-Confederate revanchism” justifies every evil deed up to and including betraying this nation’s larger interests to its adversaries in exchange for specific partisan gains); “neoreaction” is not only anti-democratic but explicitly monarchist.

95

J-D 07.01.17 at 4:41 am

I went to the public library today to collect a book I had reserved, and while I was there I also looked for, found, and borrowed The City And The City; but I imagine by the time I have read it and can express an informed opinion on it, this discussion will have closed.

96

Peter T 07.01.17 at 8:09 am

Stephen

Not quite. I’m saying that groups with a greater share in power get treated better than those with less (so yeomen get a better deal than serfs, or bourgeois than peasants, or citizens than aliens). So, generally, the mass of people in democracies get a better deal than those in autocracies or oligarchies. I’m sure I could find the odd benevolent oligarchy or autocracy, but it would take some searching. And a large collectivity can be as oppressive to outsiders as a small group (see US South as an example).

But there’s no necessary connection between democracy and un-belligerence or liberalism. There are plenty of examples of relatively democratic polities deciding that their collective interest is best served by pillaging the neighbours. As for examples in US history of this phenomenon, one does not have to pose a choice between tribal warfare and US rule – the Philippines, Cuba and any number of Central American interventions will serve as well. China? Black ships to Tokyo Bay? Imperialism is often a popular choice.

Linking back to revolutions, my emphasis is on the agency of ordinary people. A revolution usually offers a large and varied political menu, with the outcome determined by which most people pick (and with what enthusiasm they pursue their choice). Just as many people pick imperialism so, very often, few people pick liberalism. It’s better, in my opinion, to try to understand why than come up with stories about how they were misled or mistaken.

97

F. Foundling 07.01.17 at 7:26 pm

@91: I don’t find ‘corruption’ and morality to be relevant to this matter at all. Five ‘corrupt’ individuals making a decision together are more likely to reach an agreement that distributes benefits fairly among them than a single unaccountable ‘corrupt’ individual making a decision for all five.

Which also solves the issue of 75, about people being ‘inclined to … prosperity’. I have yet to meet a person who isn’t ‘inclined’ to *their own* prosperity.

As for being inclined to peace – people don’t generally want to die or risk dying all that much. To make them want it, you need poor conditions at home plus propaganda. Neither of these two factors is brought about by democracy – the first one is usually to a great extent the result of exploitation of the population by the elite, the second one is always the product of the elite-controlled media. Blaming democracy for the effects of the remaining non-democratic aspects of society is a common trick.

@81
>But leaving their lands to raid the lands and possessions of other peoples is a different matter entirely, as is joining with the British Army in actively making outright war on them.

*Whose* lands were the Indians raiding again? The Indians’ lands that the settlers were in the process of taking away from them or had already taken away from them and which were the constant source of new settlers and encroachments? Or – if you insist on talking about their joining the *anti-secessionist* British forces during the Revolutionary War, even though the Western Confederacy was formed after it ended – the lands that according to the/a common understanding of legitimacy at the time belonged to the British Crown? Or perhaps both? But sure, I’ll agree that Washington was a perfectly normal ‘moderate’ in continuing the colonisers’ centuries-old campagin to steal the continent from the Indians.

Comments on this entry are closed.