Building Worlds: Dialectical Materialism as Method in China Mieville's Bas-Lag

By Cooper, Rich Paul | Extrapolation, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Building Worlds: Dialectical Materialism as Method in China Mieville's Bas-Lag


Cooper, Rich Paul, Extrapolation


China Mieville's Bas-Lag series consists of one short story, "Jack," and three novels: Dickensian Perdido Street Station, piratical The Scar, and revolutionary Iron Council. In his essay "To the Perdido Street Station: The Representation of Revolution in China Mieville's Iron Council," Carl Freedman describes Bas-Lag as "one of the most fully achieved imaginary worlds ever created; it is for instance, vastly richer, more plausible, and more rewarding than Tolkien's Middle Earth" (235). This analysis explores how this rich, plausible, and rewarding world is created. In an interview with Joan Gordon, Mieville confesses he "start[s] with an image, as unreal and affecting as possible" then moves into the Dungeons and Dragons tradition with "maps, histories, time lines, things like that" (357). Imaginary scientific knowledge becomes the predicate and presupposition on which Bas-Lag is built. Therefore fantastic world creation differs from realistic world creation, realism, precisely in this sense: fantastic world creation breaks with representation and presents a world without spatial or temporal coincidence with empirical reality, a world created from its own materials and knowledges. Mieville's distinctive method is apparent when considered in conjunction with Tolkien's foundational methodological text "On Fairy Stories."

Tolkien refers to world creation as subcreation. Before an author begins writing, he must be familiar with the mythologies and folklores that structure the real world, or primary creation. With this information, the artist begins to produce his secondary creation--hence subcreation. Since secondary creation is subordinated to primary creation, the author plays the role of sub-deity. This explains Middle-earth's allegorical aspects: Tolkien's beliefs that myth and language were fundamental to man's conception of his world and that their fragmentation in the modern world was a sign of moral degeneration are evident themes in the literature on Middle Earth. Alternatively, Mieville refuses to subordinate Bas-Lag to "primary creation," and he distances himself from writers who "write when they want to extrapolate to make political points" (Gordon 365). Yet Tolkien's founding definitions linger, spawning theoretical difficulties.

How should world creation be classified generically? As weird fiction? The label seems inadequate to Bas-Lag's complexities and familiarities. One thing is certain: world creation is presupposed to be a sub-genre of the fantastic. Consider Mark Bould's description of Perdido Street Station as "a science fiction story in a fantasy sub-creation" (310). In a dialectical fashion this essay will show how world creation breaks with this subordination and in turn subordinates science fiction and fantasy. As a genre, Bas-Lag is world creation--understood as an ongoing process of presenting and exhausting available generic forms. World creation is generic overdetermination, and Bas-Lag is the radically hybrid result of the heterogenous voices, styles, and genres of the texts that present it.

World creation is an internally consistent process which creates something entirely new in the imagination: a vast, overdetermined and coherent world with fully defined and complex histories, timelines, cultures, politics, and economies, the same material processes that construct empirical reality. In this way Bas-Lag's creative method corresponds directly to the rigorous and specifically Marxist poetics that Freedman argues serve as the theoretical base for Mieville's universe. In "Speculative Fiction and International Law: The Marxism of China Mieville," Freedman recognizes the fundamental yet subtle link: "the theoretical content of the Bas-Lag novels is so thoroughly incorporated into the latter's narrative structures that it remains relatively unobtrusive and may even be missed altogether on a first or second reading" (31). He then compares this seamless integration to the philosophical and political foundations of "the Aeneid, Dante's Inferno, Gulliver's Travels, and the major plays of Brecht" (31). …

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