China Miéville, superstar fantasy novelist, author of King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, as well as a thoughtful theorist and noted Marxist, was kind enough to sit for this interview conducted (via chat session) by myself and Alphonse van Worden. (We interviewers have previously mused upon China's work; see here and here.) In part one, we discuss genre, revolution and Jane Eyre.
JOHN PISTELLI: First, a question about genre. Not only do the Bas-Lag books belong to the genre of fantasy, but the narrative logic of each proceeds according to the logic of another dominant genre: horror in Perdido Street Station, nautical adventure in The Scar and the western in Iron Council. You've discussed in several interviews and essays the revolutionary potential of fantasy and it seems as though you're exploring the latent radicalism of these other genres by imbuing them with a conscious of the material reality that underlies the narratives they generate. In each novel, economic relations give rise to the plot: in PSS a deal between government and organized crime to maximize the profits and the capacity for social control of each results in the horror of the slake-moths, while in TS it's a mercantile economy that inspires the Lovers' quest and in IC the massive capital investment in territorial and market expansion that is the railroad is the dramatic premise. It would seem to imply that genres are what you make of them politically - you can employ them in a politically progressive and constructive way just as you can use them in the reactionary manner so evident in much popular culture. Is this your view of genre or is it more complicated than that?
CHINA MIÉVILLE: Any answer I give has to be understood as theorising after the facts. I grew up reading genre, and though I've become really interested in it at a theoretical level, at a gut basis I'm interested in genre because that's what was formative for me, as a reader. I think that what tends to interest me is the unexamined political assumptions of genre - or to be fair I should say 'usually' unexamined, because there's plenty of self-conscious revisionist genre out there, so there's a relatively easy radical chic to be accrued - and not unimportant just becuase it's easy! - by pointing out, problematising and ideology-critiquing those assumptions. One of the things therefore that I've tended to do is point out the economics that would tend to impinge on 'traditional' pulp or generic plots, like the quest narrative. So in The Scar for example - and with a warning to any readers that this discussion will of necessity include massive spoilers - there's a whole interrogation of the logic of exchange that makes for a 'real' sensible quest, and the frankly psychotic logic that would underly a 'traditional' fairy-tale-type quest. What I wanted to do there was traditional revisionism, with maybe the added twist that it wasn't just 'this is how it really is/was', but that the debate between that revisionist reality and the 'fantasy' assumptions *actually get played out* in the fantasy. So you have one character who really *is* on a fantasy quest, and she's a dangerous lunatic. That kind of game you can play endlessly. In Iron Council, during one of the western sequences, The Cavalry Ride To The Rescue. Of course their motives turn out not to be what they should be in proper white-hat cowboyism, but they *do also actually ride to the rescue*... however revisionist the reasons. At a more general level, I'd shy away from considering genre to contain 'latent radicalism'. I think it does contain perhaps a latent bacchanal, a carnivalesque in what I suppose is a vaguely Bakhtinian way and that is I suppose perhaps latently radical but also potentially reactionary. I think you can make a case that the fantastic aesthetic has a radical core. I'm not sure I'd say the same for genre, which strikes me as more of a tool, usable for various ends of various political stamps.
ALPHONSE VAN WORDEN: Perhaps the radical potential in genre - any genre - is simply that genre is something one can subvert - you can set various values: into the elements of genre, but then every detail and choice is set up as a legible reaction to those values and assumptions: For example you have said elsewhere disdainfully somewhat that killing off a major character in a genre novel is a kind of shortcut to profundity.But the death of Judah Lowe [in Iron Council] is an argument - a straightfoward political argument which is put in play specifically with the manipulation of various elements of a generic situation. Is this question comprehensible?
CM: I think so - I'm waiting till I see a question mark. Shall I go?
AvW: Well its more of a proposal:. the death of Lowe - unfolding through a certain pov - contains the runthrough of all the alternative genre endings, yes?
CM: - that's exactly what I wanted to do...what you have is about four or five different iterations of 'with one bound he was free', none of them true.
AvW: Okay so then what happens - right - the reason is laid out also in terms of a earthquake under the genre because she doesn't kill him randomly, and she doesn't kill him didactically as a debellare superbos thing or anything, she kills him precisely for his generic condition; and the 'belief' that he can perform this genre function, which implies a take on history.
CM: Absolutely , absolutely, and in case any readers miss that she *tells* him that very specifically - you're precisely right
AvW: So really genre there is necessary for the correct transmission of certain content.
CM: - though we may be spreading the notion of 'genre' a little thin here...It seems to me several things are happening...
AvW: But I mean that there are a set of definite alterantive and a small revision to a detail of the situation remakes the whole situation and comments on the assumptions of the whole genre.
CM: At a very simple level, genre has 'radical potential' in the same way a hammer has radical potential - it depends what you want to do with it. But of course it's not that simple... Because the cultural baggage of genre is so strong that I'd say *any* even remotely thoughtful, let alone critical, work within a generic tradition, cannot fail to have a self-consciousness of its relationship to that tradition, in some sense, however mediated. In terms of embedded politics, what that means is that *any* examination of/shenanigans with 'traditional' genre gives you this kind of immediate revisionist cred, and as I say, so far as it goes, there's nothing wrong with that. However all these counterclichés cliché very fast. Is it, to take one example, *really* doing a very radical job to point out the brutality and unromanticness of the old west any more? In the era where 'Unforgiven' wins 4 oscars, and Cormac McCarthy is feted as one of the all-time great American novelists, surely you could make a case that it would be far more countercultural these days to have a hero with a straightforward white hat but that shouldn't lead to a kind of cynicism about 'the commodification of dissent', because yes dissent is commodified and swallowed by the culture industry but it's still dissent, at least up to a point, and I think that it's a good sign that such dissent _is_ being mass-consumed. It is *both* appropriated and critical. In terms of Iron Council, the 'generic' elements are pretty catholic, and lie over each other in layers. It's a western, clearly but it's also a bible, of some sort, a revisionist one, the Christ of which is told, at the very end, by someone suspiciously like Lilith (although that only occurs to me now) that for his temerity in assuming himself to be Christ/the White Hat, he'll be punished. But, and this is important, *not* simply *because* he claimed that 'generic' role but because his claiming of that role led to him stealing the lives and choices of others: genre's not punishable because of what it is, but what it does - abstract concrete realities which is, when you're dealing with real people, as the book pretends it is and tries to, a truly monstrous thing to do. There is a further irony though, which bespeaks something that I and lots of other writers have to examine all the time, which is the interplay between the necessity of narrative (and genre here is a kind of exuberance of narrative, an unapologetic narrative) and the fact that narrative is not only a lie but is a deeply reactionary ideological lie. as a fiction writer you literally cannot do without the structure of narrative, however critical you try to be, but as a radical you know that is a simplification, a violence, and a consolation that is unacceptable. And the irony, in IC, is that in punishing Judah for his terrible actions - which were also necessary actions, which is one level of paradox - in punishing him for the messianic arrogance he displays by believing himself the lead character in a story she of course gives him precisely the necessary ending to that story. Because narrative is *voracious*.
AvW: in connection with this that you are saying about how this other character now emerges and for this one situation takes the lead this is presented however as disruptive in a particular way because the scene is told throught the point of view of the lover who is obviously still telling the story in a certain way; that is; telling it as a story of Judah Lowe's agrency and powers and the endings are imagined by him - a committed reader; a reader very attached to this narrative and it doesnt even occur to him to give her, the shooter; alternatives - to pray to her - it is the lover who writes those alternative endings.
CM: That is absolutely true. Though it's also Cutter's telling of his own narrative - Cutter is walking through a Love Story and what he hopes desperately is that it is one with a happy ending, but he knows it can't be, he knows it won't be, and what I wanted was for those endings, which come quicker and less and less convincing, which *degrade* as we watch and read to - though Ann-Hari can't help but give Judah a certain kind of generic ending - suggest that this is about something much more concrete, more brute and real. This is an interruption of real life, which mirrors something that Judah did. Because if there is one thing that absolutely defies generic logic, it's not ending. And what Judah does to that train is rip it out of narrative. You're not allowed to end the story on a cliffhanger, and he does. Cutter's jealous of Ann-Hari, on simple 'character' grounds, and the grounds of her place within the love story he's living in - she's the other point of his triangle, the way he tells it, though that is not true, and he knows it, because there never *was* a him-and-Judah the way he wanted there to be, for there to be a third-person to mess up. The aim, obviously, writing fiction you want to be 'realistic' in its own terms (characterisation, etc), political, and conscious of its own structure and traditions, is to try to make it work on all levels. The ending of IC I am probably prouder of than anything else I've ever done because I _believe_ that Cutter would behave that way, and Judah, and Ann-Hari and I also know what it does to the traditions of their stories that they behave that way, and I also know what it means politically that that is how that book ends. So on this one occasion, whatever else I ever do, I really feel like I got it.
JP: Speaking of how genres abstract concrete realities, do you find that their trappings and rules ever get in the way, lead you to suggest things you'd really rather not? In The Scar, you use the grindylow story to satirize imperialist fantasies and propaganda about what 'indigenous peoples' fight for (magic and totems, not land and resources like the rest of us), but the logic of fantasy and the grotesque that you're commited to by genre leads you to present them as revolting floating eel figures. Having created the political resonance of imperialism, does it give you pause to link the reality of imperialism with the fantasy of horrid eel people?
CM: This is very interesitng, and I think to some extent aspects of my response can only really be viscerally understood by an sf/f/h fan. Because the thing is that we love the monsters. OK, that's funny and a cute response etc, but I'm quite serious - this matters. I'm not suggesting for a moment that the grotesquerie isn't key - clearly it _is_. Nor that the grindylow aren't intended to be frightening - clearly they are. But the point is that that doesn't preclude thinking they're wonderful. This is the cake that fantastic fiction, particularly horror-fantasy, uniquely allows us to have and eat. Look for example at the way Lovecraft fans respond to Lovecraft's monsters. People *passionately love* Cthulhu - this giant slobbering gorilla-bat-octopus that wants to kill all of us. Now obviously there are plenty of grotesqueries that I think do serve pretty invidious purposes - the swarthy races overwhelmed by noble norsemen of many fantasies, the demotic-spouting cockney orcs of Tolkien, etc - here the ideology is clear, nor am I suggesting that I'm so virtuoso in my political manoueverings that I"m immune to unthinking reflections of dominant ideologies, but I think in the case of the fantastic aesthetic, the specificity of the grotesque, its utterly exalted status, means that any simple equations of 'grotesque = bad/benighted/unfavoured' just won't work. This is something that concerns me, but I think it can be 'mineswept' - an example: In The Scar, the most horrible monsters are probably the mosquito-women. I loved them, because the grotesquerie was so strong, but I realised that the bloodsucking woman (only female mosquitoes suck) was a fairly fraught figure, in gendered terms. But it was simply too good a grotesque not to have! So - and I can do this uniquely in my genre because the fantastic in-genre both *is concretely itself* and *is inevitably metaphoric* - I dealt with it by having other characters try to make some joke about women being bloodsuckers, there was the proof, and our sympathetic viewpoint character hating that as a banal idiocy. So I tried to sort of nod to the reader in saying 'in _this_ instant, the metaphor that undoubtedly occurs is a red herring, and should be subordinated to the concrete grotesque, which I hope you enjoy'. In the grindylow, by contrast, I think the grotesque is too nebulously related to racist images for me to worry too hard - had I envisaged a race more reflective of such stereotypes I would have been more worried and would have tried some similar tactic. As it was, I thought they were just fucking great, cool, monsters, who also made their political point, by not being subordinate to fetish-loving quest logic.
JP: Fair enough. The charm of monster stories for children and adolescents is often the fantasy of being as cool as the monster, as being other, which has definite radical potential.
CM: Absolutely. We all love the monsters best, even when (because?) they're BAD.
AvW: Just to point out that there are on the one hand monsters with what are basically proper natural and social history and on the other; the Remade; which are related to these mistake model monsters, you know; something that went wrong, felll in a vat of acid or whatever. That this is kind of position - it seems - if i do not mistake.
CM: Was awaiting a question, but now realise was musing...and I will muse back.
AvW: I mean this is a traditional thing in literature, say Frankenstein -of this thing that went wrong and needs fixing and cleasing as opposed to monstrousness with proper history.
CM: Well, they're traditional, in that they are variegated, and utterly grotesque, and crucially, they are *chimera* - they're not their own bodies, they are human-altered-in-the-following-ways... However, they are in Bas-Lag historicised and politicised - with what's actually an absolutely vulgarly obvious set of political priorities... the denigration of the mob, and the criminal, as the 'monster', is literalised in this world. - the chain-gang, the ASBO, the creative punishment, are extrapolated...
AvW: I didnt mean that remade were traditional -btw - but they comment on that tradition which involves a contrast of two social history models here.
CM: No I think I know what you mean, and I don't mean this defensively. They are very semiotically obvious monsters. But they are also an excuse for endless grotesques...So that's a huge draw for me. I was rather shocked to realise when I finished PSS that I'd had no viewpoint Remade character, so that changed for TS and then in IC, the Remade finally Remake things. I freely admit that none of this is very subtle.
JP: I liked that in The Scar, Tanner Sack found his Remaking liberatory after some time getting used to it and discovering his potential. Does this have some meaning - subtle or not - for the potential of turning what authority does to you to the advantage of your own self-fulfilment or freedom?
CM: Sure. Simply - yes. And again, not very subtle. In very broad ways, I was thinking of for example strike movements of, say, train workers, who strike proudly wearing their uniforms. Now given that these are the social epidermises that mark these people out as wage slaves by the very people they are striking *against*, it's somewhat counterintuitive that this would be strike uniform, but of course it also makes perfect sense - it becomes ours, and a different set of traditions, capabilities and solidarities - that were always there, but were unstressed - become stressed. It's interesting the response to the Remade from readers: those who come out of theoretical-political perspectives tend to like them a lot because of their (almost camply overdetermined) semiotic weight; those who are more traditional SF fans like them because they are cool monsters of a million kinds. I agree with both opinions. Because I am both those people, really.
AvW: I say nothing about subtlety but to clarify it seems to me there is a very distinct argument there also in the various species PLUS the remade, who become a species, have shared elements like a species although this isnt a genetic..
CM: -yes, absolutely.
AvW: So it is the coexistence there and this goes neatly with a certain way you have plot working - protagonist plot, the proper plot -
CM: We're talking about the difference between race and class, or what becomes a kind of people-class -
AvW: running up against very sort of clotted circumstance - plotty circumstance - there is always this struggle between the plot per se and the woven implied plot in which it is embedded with varying degrees of 'freedom' for lack of a better word, leeway for protagonist-proper-plot which then these different metaphors or models of race/ethnicity:class also elaborate, but there is a variety - no monolithic model or explanation and so a dialogic sociology. It happens for the Vodyanoi this way; for the Remade this way - one with 'race' imposed recent historically, the others with race of a kind given biologically but then historically developed....It's a seminar not a lecture.
CM: I hadn't thought of that, so I'm sort of considering as I write...But that makes a lot of sense to me. I'm conscious of two different elements, which maybe I never brought together in my mind...
AvW: its about determinism it seems to me
CM: OK, well there are two things: i) the anxiety of 'plot', and ii) the anxiety of 'race'
AvW: Which are working in tandem
CM: and yes, they are both about determinism. One thing that happens not infrequently in my books is that people realise that they've been thinking according to plot-logic, and it doesn't work. which is back to genre, narrative, etc. Plot is a constraint, and a lie, and there are in pretty much all the books, including the one I'm writing, moments where one character or another throws up their hands and says 'this looks like it's *plot*, but it was just *things that happened*' With race, I repeatedly talk about how characters are not like the stereotypes of their races and i have characters like Lin [in Perdido Street Station] who have their race, of course, written on their body, but who are rebels from that racial identity. And they have the room to do that - they can be 'atypical' (ie, non-stereotyped) garuda, vodyanoi, whatever. Whereas the Remade don't have that option, because their Remadeness is not only written on their body, but in their social being.*They* may be proud of themselves (those most aren't), but society *actually will not allow them not to be 'typical' Remade*. Because the 'typical' Remade is a thing without rights, and *that's what they are* So the struggle against *that* determinism is both much harder, and vastly more radical when it is won (finally, briefly, in Iron Council).
AvW: I was meaning to say there seems to be a kind of continuous testing of the degree to which men make their own history in conditions handed down etc...but that your portray these conditions themselves as the congealed state of these previous attempts -again the death of Judah Lowe for example... with the third point of the triangle -you can spin that triangle around if you abandon the pov -which then transforms Judah into a piece of histor being contronted by another striving for action - also with a set of choices - we don't run through them but they are implied.
CM: Absolutely, absolutely. That's what I meant about being so happy with that ending - what you're talking about is the political aspect, and that I think makes its points hard. That ending, apart from anything else, is about the perennial debate of when-do-you-act? if people are acting at the 'wrong' time, should teh radical support them, or tell them they've got it wrong?
AvW: Yes perhaps the Rosa L problem is only is something expressible in fiction.
CM: Etc etc etc. Judah was right: he saved the revolution and the revolutionaries. Judah was wrong: he removed all the momentum of the revolution, and the agency of the revolutionaries...
AvW: - And specifically genre fiction because the 'wrong moment' is actually an element of fiction.
CM: And what Ann-Hari says to him isn't just her angry because her project failed, it is absolutely right. Not only did he have no right, but crucially crucially crucially and this I think is something that the left has been uniquely well-placed to theorise, is that in politics, action and analysis can't be separated so judah by saying 'it's the wrong time for them to intervene, there's no hope', stops them intervening, *and makes it impossible for them to win* he created a self-fulfilling prophecy of the 'not-ready-yet'ness of society and while it's perfectly possible that it might have failed anyway, the whole point is that the analysis of what the situation is is *not* distinct from the decision of what we do -what we do changes the nature of hte reality we're trying to understand. I think the left understands this in a way the most sophisticated bourgeois analysis structurally can't get at. And the ending of IC was (among several other things) an attempt to mutter about that.
AvW:Watch out for that infantile disorder there -
CM: You know it! The Bordigists and the Mensheviks joining hands behind the bolsheviks' backs.
AvW: And I think it demonstrates that this is something that is useful about genre narrative specifically
CM: Yes, I totally agree
AvW: Is it is possible to say; look here; the events are laid out - I laid them out myself
CM: Because genre fiction is all about teleology, narrative structure
AvW: We will stop at each knot in the chain and interpret
CM: Which immediately puts those elements up for debate
AvW: And also about the congealed condition of the protagonists - what Rosa L. talked about -
CM: I'd also add that the fantastic is uniquely well suited to examine these issues. I think that there are certain political issues that *cannot* be dealt with by 'realistic' narrative, and for me, revolution is a key one. I've talked about this elsewhere.
AvW: Because the verisimilitude problem of typicality versus exemplary and didactic?
CM: Because a revolution described by someone not in a revolution, let alone a post-revolutionary society so described, cannot be anything other than the palest imitation of the Carnival of the Oppressed that it would be, the earth turned upside down, because our minds are the minds of those living in an earth stubbornly and annoyingly the right fucking way up so if we take seriously the utter radicalism of a revolution and after, it is unthinkable for we who aren't there. It either turns into absurdity or bureaucracy, in our telling - but with the fantastic, *and only with it*, I can literalise, concretise, Rosa's insistence on the revolution's immanence: I was, I am, I shall be.
AvW: But it is humanity then that cannot be imagined
CM: yes. absofuckinglutely
AvW: This is rather sad
CM: yes but is also rather wonderful
AvW: Why wonderful? I mean besides the books which are yummy and arise from this.
CM: Because actually existing humanity is *already* pretty fucking great, in much of its numbers, much of the time, so just imagine how fucking great the unfettered variety will be. I'm trying to remember the last line of Trotsky's Literature and Revolution: 'From these, new heights will emerge' - something like that, about the astonishingness of the new human
AvW: Silvia Federici - John will recall what she said about Utopias. Whywhywhy can't the circumstances change before we do?
CM: We wouldn't be able to deal with it if they did. This is the very very smart argument of the very underrated Bogdanov Red Star
JP: Yes, Federici wrote that medieval utopias began with humanity's present desires and imagined their fulfillment, unlike post-enlightenment utopias
AvW: I'm down with this
AvW: I believe it
CM: I had this debate with Ken MacLeod, Trot-libertarian SF writer
AvW: Who won?
CM: he said roughly, that he thought we should be able to describe post-revolutionary society, because after all, we'll be living there and I said to him No 'we' won't. It won't be us. And I think I won.
AvW: Mn. John? Will you be there?
CM: I mean, obviously, it won't be us because we'll change in the doing, not that it'll take more generations.
AvW: I'll miss you guys. Really I will
CM: what are you on about?
AvW: In the post revolutionary society
JP: Well, the question is whether or not this present system is all that there is to us
CM: Oh, ha! sorry.
AvW: Yes exactly
AvW: M. Miéville can you just talk about Jane Eyre before you go?
JP: Yes, please
CM: Anything in particular, or just: Jane Eyre, discuss?
AvW: Is this too long an ordeal Monsieur M?
AvW: okay then....
CM: So... Jane Eyre then bed?
AvW: Not in Harrisburg!
CM: Sorry... I'm lost now in reveries of Jane Eyre and bed. I'm in love with Jane Eyre.
AvW: The two of you make me SICK with this woman
CM: what did I do? Oh hold on... is this the 'Jane Eyre is a poor weak woman' argument?
AvW: no way
CM: ah, phew. The number of times I have to have that!
AvW: she's a serial killer
CM: so do you have a question or shall I just riff on Jane?
JP: So what do you like about Jane Eyre, China?
CM: Jane Eyre is the greatest book in English. It exists at an intersection of Gothic, psychological realism and ideology-critique. It features the most searingly flawless powerful-though-disempowered protagonist I know, whose intelligence and self-possession are so extreme as to make her almost autistic in her separation from the world around her. The book contains the most important 'minor detail' in literature since the knocking at the gate in Macbeth that De Quincey wrote about, namely the scene where the baker will not let her buy a bun with her gloves, despite the gloves being worth far more than the cost of the buns, and the baker would rather *let her die* than have commodity economies so destabilised. And then it completely fucks with your expectations by ending *not* with Jane, *not* with Mr Rochester, but with fucking St John, and what's more with the *death scene* of St John, the visionary christian, thereby i) utterly destabilising the supposed 'happy ending', and ii) injecting into that ending a more ecstatic vision by far, the vision of unmediated relations with the godhead, which is the revolutionary vision, and the flipside to Jane's astonishing and gender-radical poise, making her proto-feminism a desperately poignant triumph. And other things too.
JP: Wow, China, that's more positivity than even I can see in it. I like it though!
AvW: Steam rises from the top of my head
CM: What?! What now?!
AvW: Oh never mind
JP: I love its romantic economy, the way all the things Jane fights against inside herself are projected into the novel's texture and landscape...Bertha and Helen Burns and the thunder
JP: please, Alphonse, share!
CM: Alph, bring it on. You don't scare me...
AvW: ecstasy = kill all the pretty girls
CM: excuse me?
JP: I see this. Jane is a sinister character (I think Dickens saw this and took it further in Bleak House)
AvW: I think we save this for later
CM: Yes she's sinister. Is this a bad thing?
AvW: Not to be sinister but somehow she has turned everyone sinister. Later I think for this
CM: later, but I do want to hear it
JP: Me too
AvW: You will
[to be continued...]