Socialist Irrealism: an interview with China Miéville

China Miéville is the recipient of multiple awards for his speculative/science/weird fiction novels, and the only author ever to win three Arthur C. Clarke Awards. His most recent novel, Embassytown, came out in May 2011 and has received enthusiastic reviews. As well as writing fiction, Miéville earned his PhD at London School of Economics in International Law and is the author of Between Equal Rights, A Marxist Theory of International Law (2006).
Known for his radical fictive speculation, China Miéville is also fiercely engaged with radical politics — he stood for the House of Commons as candidate for the Socialist Alliance in the 2001 UK general election — and so is often asked about the relationship between his politics and his writing. He explains that he makes an important distinction between writing fiction to make political points and writing with a political perspective. Overt propaganda, he argues, can easily pull against the grain of a “contradictory, knotted, fully textured piece of fiction.” He says “The alternative to me is to be thinking in terms of exploring political ideas in fiction, to create a world in which the structure of this world is saturated by a certain kind of political texture, in which these worlds have their own kind of integrity. So they are not reducible to their politics, but politics are also not distinguishable from them.” One thinks of all of the phantasmagoric worlds of his novels — from the Bas Lag universe of Perdido Street Station, Iron Council and The Scar, to the weirdly interstitial places of The City and the City and Kraken, and the colonized planet of the Arekei sunk in an impenetrable subspace called the ‘immer’ from his latest novel Embassytown — as such saturated places, all politically inflected, yet never reductive or reducible to a particular polemic.
Alexis and I met up with China in a Los Angeles to London Skype call to talk about anti-capitalism and recent forms of political engagement happening in the UK and the US; race, sexuality and queer politics in his own work; and colonialism and imperialism in the science fiction genre.
J: In a recent interview you called the riots in London “epochal.” We can say that the riots, as well as the current Occupy movement, are quite distinct in their formation, and may even mark a new era of political engagement. This is for some a heady moment, seen as the first time in a long twilight of neoliberalism and rampant speculative capitalism that we have any hope of some substantive change. We are reminded of the revolutionary moments you portray, with all their complexities and failures, in novels like Iron Council. Given that any movement has multiple branches, do you see any aspect of this political moment as marking a sea change, at least in expanding people’s understanding of what is possible? Do you think any of it can be sustained beyond a politics of reform?
C: I do think this movement marks a sea change, and yes, I’m absolutely excited, blown away, buoyed up and freaked out in the best possible way. I am impressed with how savvy the occupiers are. Within the space of a week they’ve massively changed the news agenda. They’ve forced mainstream politicians to recognize the concerns of the protesters, which are of a fairly radical nature; for the most part it’s a reformist radicalism, but radical nonetheless. The occupiers have shifted the terms of the debate onto the terrain of class, though of course they are not using the language of class as I am. The politicians are being forced to accommodate the class rage of people who feel disgusted by the venality of the American ruling elite.
What is also key here is that in the US there has been a huge shift in terms of the way many people understand their relationship to the police. The riots and the occupations are related on this axis, though of course police violence is not news to people of color. The riots and previous riots need to be understood in the context of poverty and alienation, but the crucial issue is the ubiquity of police violence, which is always racialized or drawn along class lines. That’s why I was so pissed off with that Zizek article. This notion that they weren’t demanding anything is bullshit. It’s come up again and again: when the rioters were interviewed, they said they couldn’t let the cops continue to shoot black people with no comeback. The grounds for debate are fallacious.
The Occupy movement was not initially about the cops, but the police reaction has shocked a lot of people. The idea that police are neutral arbiters is no longer feasible to those for whom it may have seemed so before. Someone may go out to a demonstration in the morning thinking, well, cops are our friends, get smacked in the face with a baton and return home with a completely different conception of the role of the police in relationship to Wall Street.
J: Is this moment, or the Occupy movement, explicitly anti capitalist? Or will it most likely be easily retrenched into a kind of toothless reformism?
C: Since there are people involved in this who are quite young, or without an explicit politic, trying to pin the movement down as anti-capitalism or not is counterproductive. It is much more fluid than that, in terms of people’s explicit consciousness and in terms of their embedded politics. If you went up to most people and asked them if they wanted to see the overthrow of capitalism, the only people who would say yes are the anarchists, the socialists, those that come out of an organized political movement. Does that therefore make it a reformist movement? No, not at all. If you asked people what they want they’d say things like a fairer society, redistribution of wealth, health care not run for profit, the rich taxed in a fair way. These in themselves are not necessarily anti-capitalist demands, but we denigrate them if we don’t recognize that they push at the edges of a potentially very critical and radical position. This is probably not the death throes of capitalism, but this a movement which is fecund ground for very radical anti-capitalist positions, and I am inclined to optimism rather than pessimism about its trajectory.
J: How did you end up writing the kind of fiction that you do instead of some sort of grim social realism? Your work is very physical and visceral, and full of the grotesque. Are the monsters you create political in any sense of the word?
C: Instead it’s grim social irrealism… I come to the table first as a kid who loved monsters. On an aesthetic level, that comes out of the very strong tradition of horror located in the body and the irreducibility of the body. Monsters are fleshly, and my work is always corporeal, somatic. The moment I am pushed out of my body I become less interested. I’m not one of these guys who want to download my consciousness into the internet and let my body wither; the idea horrifies me. I would love to see the end of physical decay, but I don’t want to become disembodied at all.
There was never a moment I was interested in writing the kind of stuff we can grandly called mimetic, that was “socially realist.” I was always interested in the surreal, the imaginary. Obviously I’m interested in the intersection between this and politics, but it would be misleading to imply that there was a programmatic attempt to marry the two. For me as a writer there is a joy in the making of the impossible. There is something about the carnivalesque creativity of monsters, the pushing into the unknown, the ineffable. I think part of what delights us is that sense of excess, that sense of the monster as not simply a symbol, but a cool weird thing I would never have thought of.
People often read monsters as a challenge to dominant culture’s enforced normative categories that mark variation as deviant. But I think we inflate the potential radicalism of monsters at our peril. The moment one hears the word “transgress,” or “subvert,” one gets all kinds of left-theory excited, thinking about these things as pulling against the grain of dominant culture. I don’t think so; the culture industry sadly has no difficulty commodifying the most transgressive monster.
J: But can’t they be both transgressive and easily commodified? And monsters don’t always represent liberatory deviance, do they. The can also work as metaphors of, say, fascism. You do say there is not a one-to-one relationship between politics and your stories, but certainly there are analogies with race that we can’t help to make with your monsters, especially with regard to the different kinds of beings who coexist in the Bas-Lag universe of Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council.
C: Monsters are metaphoric creatures, they are going to throw off all these meanings. And I’m not saying that there are no resonances with race. The use of these figures in any book is going to resonate in various ways within any culture of racism. But I don’t think critiques of race and racism work well in an allegorical register. You end up with movies like Alien Nation or whatever, which reads aliens and race fairly clearly in that way. District 9, in a kind of cack-handed, ugly and racist way, was kind of trying to make points about racism using these figures. In my books I wanted to start with the fact that racism is produced by capitalism and imperialism and that the racialization of certain bodies is constitutively part of that totality.
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A: Your work is full of weirdly sexed and gendered bodies and deviant desires. Jordana Rosenberg has an excellent essay on “queer durée” in Iron Council, where she looks at your work as bringing queer desire into representations of the history of capitalism. Have you consciously engaged with queer politics and activism in other ways in your writing?
C: Whether the writing is ‘queer,’ in the broadest sense, I think that’s probably not for me to judge. I hope it takes queer politics very seriously. As I said to Jordana — and I say this as someone who is not steeped in queer theory — my only concern is about the extrapolation of the notion of queerness to historical structures and historical durée. On the one hand it may be a really interesting and useful heuristic, but on the other hand I would be cautious about pushing it to an extent that it becomes disaggregated from actual gay politics. If we start to use queer as a general notion of discombobulation of the normative, then we may lose some of the specificity of gay oppression and resistance. That was my only caveat to what I thought was a lovely article and a really interesting approach.
My most sustained engagement is definitely Iron Council, in which the historical structures of sexuality are part of the book. It drew a fair bit on stuff about gay culture in London in the 18th century, the working class tradition of the molly houses and so on. In a lot of the books there’s a hopefully friendly but not particularly sophisticated or in depth engagement with non-pathologized gay characters and queerness. I can think of books that are ostentatiously gay-friendly; there are nice gay characters but they are heavily desexualized. There is still great cultural anxiety about anality, about anal penetration and in Iron Council I wanted to have a gay character who was also a sexual character, who engaged in anal sex and it wasn’t a particularly big fucking deal.
J: It can be argued that science fiction as a genre, from Jules Verne’s aeronef hovering above the “unknown regions of Africa” to Dr. Moreau’s island, developed out of the intertwined enterprises of industrial revolution, scientific revelation, and colonial conquest. We can see the genre as rooted in capitalist expansion and scientific discovery, but it is as deeply rooted in social relations of imperialism and colonialism, drawing many of its foundational tropes from narratives of violent expansion, genocide and conquest. Many authors since have transformed these tropes into critical counter-narratives, exploring them from different perspectives or turning them around; others reproduce in their work the worst of imperialist and settler colonialist ideology and nationalist paranoia. Given that science fiction narratives as a form are involved in a politics of spatial and temporal encounter, between species, worlds and cultural systems, do you see any evidence that such imagined encounters can take place outside of a paradigm of domination and exploitation? Can you talk about how you engage with, or disengage from, forms of domination, colonialism, and imperialism in your work
C: I suspect no, we can’t think outside of those paradigms, and I am quite suspicious of the notion of thinking outside of anything. We can never think outside the paradigm we are in. The notion that one can step outside is sadly mistaken because colonial capitalism, white supremacist capitalism, is a total system. In the case of sci-fi, and narratives of expansion, penetration, and exploration, my suspicion is that those categories are so indelibly part of colonial modernity that you can’t decolonize them, can’t think you are exploring anything without colonialism being in the room with you. But that is not to say it is not also a conflictual and fractured system.
A: What about other work engaged with colonialism in critical ways? The work of Nalo Hopkinson would be a paradigm for that.
C: Most categories with which we think are going to be stained by something pretty toxic. This doesn’t preclude our aesthetic, dialectical or social virtuosity in doing certain things with it, thinking interesting, potentially radical, political and even critical thoughts with it. But it’s utopian in the bad sense to think you can drain the power out of these social relationships. As a writer, being aware that colonialism is in the chair with you can be quite emancipatory. Rather than thinking you’re putting it aside, you can explicitly and implicitly engage with it.
There is a brand of naïve anti colonialism that falls back into the noble savage narrative, that simply replicates a notion of beautiful natives and a place or a past that, if we could return to it, would answer all of our political problems. And it is very difficult to recognize the toxicity of colonial relations without getting caught in this kind of narrative.
This gets back to the way some from within my own stable who defend this genre of fiction — people who work within theories of the utopian tradition, who talk about science fiction texts as presenting fascinating radical alternatives. The idea that a book based in another society is useful to us in a utopian manner to the extent that we can learn from it how we might have a different society — that’s just not how they work. That’s why to me the fundamental category has always been alterity, not utopianism. I think there is something about the sublime, and the sense of the sublime as inhabiting the everyday, that may operate as a copula between a utopian or alterity-based tradition and the critique of the everyday. And the thing about the sublime is that you can see it from the hills you’re on and it’s blowing your fucking mind, you couldn’t possibly describe it and it’s beyond language, and that sense of the unrepresentable, that sense of awe. Awe is a word that in SF we have become embarrassed by and I say let’s rehabilitate it! Let’s have critically rigorous socialist awe, and the locus for that, I think, is a kind of radical quotidian sublime.

Jayna Brown