From Cacotopias to Railroads: Rebellion and the Shaping of the Normal in the Bas-Lag Universe

By Birns, Nicholas | Extrapolation, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

From Cacotopias to Railroads: Rebellion and the Shaping of the Normal in the Bas-Lag Universe


Birns, Nicholas, Extrapolation


China Mieville's three Bas-Lag novels--Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), and Iron Council (2004)--present an implacable, force-filled universe-to-go, with khepri and Remade to boot, and with all this multiplicity causing optimism rather than pessimism. Not only is Mieville a talented operator on the level of entertainment, but he has the ability to guide the reader through a labyrinth of political disillusionment and yet to hone rather than daunt their hope. Iron Council is the book that most plainly argues Mieville's political vision. It offers a rousing portrait of revolutionary action but also asks searching questions about the nature and even the very viability of such action, especially within the fantasy genre.

It is a perennial question in the analysis of "mainstream' authors as to whether their nonfictional works should be used as a tool in the critical explication of their fiction. For many years, the shibboleth of the New Criticalera, Intentional Fallacy, inhibited linking writers to their works; at the same time, what is known about an author's beliefs can similarly limit analyses of their work, as when Wallace Stevens's poetry is read in conjunction with his aesthetic speculation. On the other hand, it surely helps to know that Gregory Benford is a theoretical physicist in attempting to understand his novels, just as Conrad's seafaring experience informs his use of maritime themes in his fiction. With a fantasy writer such as Mieville--even though from the beginning of his career the political and theoretical valence of his work has been widely recognized--there is also the issue that the fiction he writes is literally set in a different world than his nonfiction, so making links between them is not merely yoking art and biography, fiction and nonfiction, but in effect is a transverse portal between worlds.

Yet it is about the relationship between worlds, as it were, that Mieville's nonfictional work has so far revolved His treatise on international law from a Marxist perspective, Between Equal Rights (2007), addresses an area that has long been vexatious precisely because it is about the conjunction of incommensurables. Each nation not only claims sovereignty over its territory and its population (the latter what Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have labeled 'biopower') but also in effect relies on the notion of sovereignty in order to inculcate awareness of its power among its citizens and among other nations. The very idea of international law takes any number of sovereignties that logically would seem to exclude or nullify each other and insists that they cooperate and acknowledge some overarching norms. They operate, as Wallace Stevens put it, as a mode of "Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles," zones and poles which none of their constituent and now-subject sovereignties have totally authorized. Mieville is critical of the political role of international law, seeing it as a structure utterly complicit with capitalist social organization and hence unable to oppose capitalism's urge for world-domination, expressed most recently in the utopian rhetoric about globalization that was used to conceal continuing worldwide inequality in the 1990s. One need not accept Mieville's critique--which emphasizes more strongly the negative consequences of international law than its liberalizing or decolonizing effects, and in some cases is not dissimilar from conservative views that regard supranational bodies such as the European Union as inherently illegitimate--to instantly realize that Mieville's ideas have a truly radical, unsettling effect on the way worlds relate in his fantasy.

Mieville's ideas about international law call attention to the way fantasy and science fiction literatures enlist the reader's belief in their worlds. A traditional trope of such fiction is some superintending principle of order that will step in if necessary to maintain the continuity and coherence of the universe. …

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