In the second part of our interview (first part here), Mr. Miéville discusses his prose style, contemporary comic books, the politics of narrative and his work on international law.
(N.B. See also Bionic Octopus for China's essay on the London bombings.)
JOHN PISTELLI: Where does the question of prose style come in for you? You have a distinctive one, willingness to use jargons, to employ a wide vocabularly based on real or invented sciences as well as a penchant for the “high style” (longer detail-packed sentences, sonorous rhythms) that have earned you comparisons to Dickens, Melville, Faulkner, etc. Could you theorise after the fact about your style?
CHINA MIÉVILLE: There's more than one thing going on there. I'm tempted - as you say, theorising post facto - to think it's a triangulation of two things. On the one hand it's a predilection for the high pulp style that is, intriguingly, shared across genres. Lovecraft of course is its neurotically overblown high priest, but you see the same kind of somewhat overwrought prose in, say, Zane Grey. The fact that 'minimalist' prose in various iterations has been designated the official aesthetic form of acceptable bourgeois fiction, especially its newer hipster versions, is I think the triumph of a rather fatuous notion of a playful text, and it gives a silly but enjoyable radical pulp chic to not playing by those rules. Not that I've any objection to all precise prose, at all - M John Harrison is one of my outstanding literary heroes, and he is a prose scalpel-wielder - but the idea that that is 'how you do it' is absurd. The irony is that this reaction against a certain subset of boojy fiction is _also_ a reaction against a certain tendency in genre. Because a lamentable antipathy to Modernism and formal experimentation has taken some root in sf/f/h. You hear readers say things like 'I'm not bothered so much about the language, I just like to find out what happens.' There's an embedded, mostly untheorised notion that prose should be a window, through which you see, as clearly as possible, that it should be as nearly invisible as possible, to let us get to the content. Not only do I think that's sadly philistine, but it's also, in some sense, a betrayal of what makes fantasy fantasy. That alienation from the everyday can be achieved through form as well as content. So by playing with form like this, you get to link to your pulp heritage as opposed to trying to play by 'mainstream' rules, and paradoxically at the same time distance yourself from the failures of much genre. From Ben Watson, 'Fantasy and Judgement', in Historical Materialism 10, 4: 'The use of a transparent medium for the depiction of 'wonders' and 'ideals' - ... the flat efficiency of the prose of run-of-the-mill romance, horror, porn and fantasy fiction - betrays the fantastic subject-matter.' As not infrequently, I think Ben maybe veers toward the excessively prescriptive, but here I think he's very, very onto something.
JP: So where do you see good "pulp" outside of prose fiction? Films and comics seem full of reactionary rot, but are there exceptions you'd bring to our attention?
CM: I'm almost always disappointed with films. As to comics, I think we're much too easily pleased. There's no discernment. People lump everything in together. Those people who think of themselves as into 'serious' or 'countercultural' comics will often recite the same roll call. Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, et al. Some of them are great, some or much of the time, but the problem with that is there's no discrimination. Frank Miller, for example, who's often in there too, clearly has a great ear for dialogue. Far from being countercultural, though, his aesthetic veers between muscular libertarianism and more or less straightforward fascism. Alan Moore is a giant, who does totally adorable stuff, at his best utterly brilliant stuff, but also some things which I think are tainted by a kind of gender essentialism (Promethea for example). Grant Morrison has had outstanding moments - for me Zenith is still the high point - but I've been much less impressed by his more recent stuff. The most critical comic I've read recently was 'Truth', the revisionist reworking of Captain America by Robert Morales. A truly impressive piece of work. The last time I remember being pleasantly surprised by a film was 'Reign of Fire', which I appear to be the only person in the world to have liked. I'm not saying it was socialist, I'm just saying it rocked.
JP: I'll have to check it out.
ALPHONSE VAN WORDEN: You may be the only person not only to have liked it but to have seen it
JP: My little brother saw it
CM: Post apocalypse. Christian Bale. Dragons. The only film Matthew McConaughey was ever good in. What's not to like?
ALPHONSE VAN WORDEN: I don't know if you saw it - but Matt from pasaudela left a comment on Part I, in reply to your remarks on narrative, voracious narrative, genre as narrative exuberance, and he noted this trait is common to genre fiction and political speech. The vast ideological lie that you were speaking of in narrative: this seems especially evident in political speech connected to the Palestinian struggle in which you have been for a long time involved. The sense that an event such as a piece of metal flying through the head of a kid say is incomprehensible in itself, that the narrative will decide its meaning, a narrative going back many years. Do you think fiction can intervene in the conditions which allow this kind of narrative to have such profound affects?
CM: Truly, I sort of doubt it. If so, only in very minor ways, or perhaps more exactly, as a minor factor as part of wider conditions. This is connected with the argument about whether or not fiction is 'activism'. Does it count as political engagement to write a story? It would be foolish to deny that any fiction ever has a political impact, so I'm not saying that, but I do think that there is absolutely no replacement for 'traditional' political activity - left activism. Fiction - specifically fiction which had in some way a dissident relationship with narrative - could maybe only have a really strong political impact if narrative was in some way the driving force behind reaction. I don't think it is. I think, rather, than narrative is an ineluctible part of political reality, like and as a function of ideology, but that the driving forces underlie that. The use of generic narratives by the right is particularly crass right now, particularly uninventive, unsophisticated and unconvincing. I'm sure there are some narrative consumers for whom even this inadequate, sub-pulp narrative is enough. Evildoers, bad men, good conquering all, etc. But actually, I think most readers/people aren't convinced by this. Rather, that all political reality will be given a narrative form is *inevitable* - both on the left and the right. The right, though, pays only the feeblest lip service to making it believable, and instead wants to make it clearly generic not so that consumers will be fooled *but so that they will understand the rules*. For that purpose, the simpler the pulp form, the better.
AvW: Narrative itself skews right; so they have an advantage. There appear to be two strategies available to the left to confront the narrative of the Israeli regime for example. One is counternarrative - another story from another point of view, the other is to challenge the relevance of this framework; the mythic narrative framework. To make this a question rather than a musing I would wonder whether you think the second alternative is possible in the absence of a centrally accepted theory of history?
CM: Well, I suppose I don't think the two are as fundamentally opposed as they might appear. And this is partly because I suspect that narrative is ideology, in an almost Althusserian sense, in that it not only plays into the hands of the right, but that it is more or less inescapable. Doesn't mean you can't struggle against it, but that struggle will only ever be asymptotic. You can't ever win. And that's probably ok, as long as you keep your wits about you. For example...Palestine. Of course, on the one hand, the overriding strategy has to be - as the 'New Historians' like Pappé et al so heroically have - to vigorously undermine the mythic story of zionism. Which in many of its elements is, parenthetically, probably the most preposterously kitsch political myth out there - even more so than the founding pomp of the US. But the thing is, that in destroying that legend, *inevitably*, because humans think and organise information narratively, I think, it's impossible not to organise a counter-narrative. And in fact, Palestine is a particularly vivid example, because more than any other political issue I can think of, it's impossible not to turn it into a narrative - a narrative of utter tragedy. One of the things narrative does is militate against complexity. Often the effect of that is straightforwardly invidious. In the case of Palestine, however, it's a rare example of a time when it needn't be. Because Palestine is one of the very very few political situations I can think of in which the more you research it, the *less* complicated it gets. The claim that 'it's really very complicated' is almost always special pleading by left Zionists. In fact, in this instance, understanding it as a tragic story of dispossession and exile is more or less fucking bang on. That is, I admit, an unusual case.
AvW: Yes. But also there seem to be perils in accepting the burden of proving the counternarrative; given the disparity of resources of dissemination, and in a sense the left hampers itself when it confines itself to this duel, which sort of transforms children in refugee camps into surrogate defendants of their great great grandparents; whose rights are presumed to depend on the ability to prove historical wrongs to their ancestors. It seeems to me that political speech per se is obliged to find something more persuasive than counternarratives even when they are demonstrable and true, as the basis of evaluations of political and social justice. And this is something going weirdly out of fashion.... End musing.
CM: Briefly - I agree. I don't mean for a moment to suggest, like some airy postmodernist, that our job on the left is 'to tell different stories, and to tell them better', blah fucking blah. Our job is to analyse, and to uncover, by rubbing history against the grain. All I mean is that it is *to some extent* inevitable that we'll translate some of the stuff we uncover into stories. The left does it all the time...the story of the Tolpuddle martyrs, the story of the revolution besieged, etc etc. This I think is unavoidable, and the danger comes when we think that's the *key* to our politics. It's not. The Palestine situation is I think unusual. And there the facts of our story *have already been proven*. If we get into a dynamic about trying to prove it better, again and again, we'll always lose. We've *won* that debate. The facts are out there. That otherwise intelligent people can, with this issue almost uniquely, wield their ignorance as a bludgeon ('I've never heard that! Prove it!') is evidence that this isn't about debate, but bullying. The question of Palestine is unusual that way. It's even more tainted by bad faith than most political discourse, I think.
AvW: Agreed. This theme as it happens is also relevant to your work on international law - you intervene with theory into a subject which is dominated by chronicling; the study of international law as the bildungsroman of states. You have a book being issued newly in paperback - can you tell us about it a little, the central argument?
CM: The book is called Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. It's published in ridiculously expensive hardback, and it'll be out next year in paperback. In fact in international law though you're right that there is a narrative, it's tremendously half-arsed. The major enemy there isn't narrativism but managerialism: thinking that you're theorising IL by talking about how to 'do' it. The core theoretical argument of the book (because there's also a long historical section) is a triangulation between the towering (and I think much misunderstood) Bolshevik legal theorist Pashukanis and the excellent left postmodern international lawyer Martti Koskenniemi, whose central and I think indisputable argument is that IL is *indeterminate*. You'll never be able to 'apply' it to 'the facts' and come out with an answer as to what is or isn't 'legal'. IL is, rather, a necessary way of arguing - not a solution. What I try to do is use Pashukanis's theory that the legal form is a corollary of the commodity form to historicise and concretise Koskenniemi's insights. The political upshot is, rather obviously for the left, that to look to IL to solve the problems of the world is a hiding to nothing. The last section of the book is called 'Against the Rule of Law'. I was delighted to discover that the book's last sentence - 'The chaotic and bloody world around us _is_ the rule of law' - is now on a page of lefty quotes on znet. I don't know how that happened.
AvW: You have readers!
AvW: Even at 95 dollars a copy!
CM: I know, I know. I'm delighted there'll be a paperback.
AvW: On this question you are notably at odds with Chomsky, among others, who see international legal institutions as possible expropriable instruments -
CM: Yes. I admire Chomsky immensely. But, not unusually for the non-Marxist left, he has what I think are illusions that what the US is doing is 'breaking' international law. You can make IL say anything you want. There are some neocons who don't see that, and who are 'legal nihilists' - Richard Perle, John Bolton. The US dept of Defense, which is Rumsfeld, talking about the US's national defense strategy, just compared those who turn to international law to terrorists. I shit you not. “Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.” But there are also plenty of those like John Yoo who eruditely articulate imperialist strategy in international legal terms. They’re not 'wrong' or lying, which is what the Chomskyite position on law would have to suggest. Which isn’t to say that those lawyers who oppose those interpretations are 'wrong' or lying, either. That’s sort of the point.
JP: Last question: your writings are clearly informed by history. Would you ever write a historical novel?
CM: I'd certainly write a novel set in a historical period. I have one (and a half) in my mind, in fact. But if by 'historical novel' you mean a novel without any fantastic elements, I find it hard to imagine. I mean, never say never, but as a writer, I just never sustain interest in writing stuff that doesn't have monsters and shit in them. So I might well write something set in the past, and lovingly do the research, and render the setting, and all those other 'historical novel' things. But I'd be surprised if it didn't have fantastic elements. My predilection for certain historical settings is less than my predilection for the Weird.