Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

"A Place I Have Never Seen": Possibility, Genre, Politics, and China Mieville's the Scar

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

"A Place I Have Never Seen": Possibility, Genre, Politics, and China Mieville's the Scar

Article excerpt

This essay investigates and challenges longstanding critical distinctions between fantasy and science fiction as well as the political lessons that critics derive from each of these genres. (1) Taking The Scar, China Mieville's 2002 novel, as a case study in genre hybridity and thus a focal point for challenging critical binaries, I demonstrate, following Mieville's lead, how critics continue to reduce fantasy as anti-historical-and- thereforepolitically-bad, while they celebrate science fiction as historical-and-thereforepolitically- good. In both cases, certain assumptions underlying these claims go unexamined, and potential understanding of generic forms is undermined by preconceptions about the limits inherent in such forms. These limits, I argue, emerge through implicit and explicit deployment of certain conceptual binary pairs, which I infer from critical and theoretical studies of fantasy and science fiction:

Genre                  Fantasy         Science Fiction

Characterized by       Impossibility   Possibility
Climactic moment       Recognition     Cognition
                                       (or Conceptual Breakthrough)
Narrative logic        Story           Paradigm
Form of subjectivity   Subject of      Subject to

These pairings, as well as the ways in which they interact vertically with their related concepts and horizontally with their apparent opposites, form a major line of inquiry in what follows.

China Mieville's fiction generally, and The Scar specifically, offers an excellent focal point revealing two key issues for the present study. First, Mieville is committed to thematic and formal hybridity. Second, Mieville exhibits clear political concerns. The aforementioned critical assumptions fall into relief once we recognize that even if critics nearly always mention hybridity in their work on Mieville, (2) they nearly always do so through a Marxist lens that brackets this hybridity off from Mieville's politics and thereby renders his fantasy as, at best, apolitical and his science fiction as the political center of his body of work. I am not going too far to state that the issue of politics, wedded to Marxian analysis, has become the dominant preoccupation for Mieville scholars. (3) This preoccupation derives from 1) Mieville's socialist politics, (4) 2) the Marxist tenor of Mieville's own scholarship on international law and genre fiction, (5) and/or 3) the history of Marxism within the academic reception of science fiction generally. (6) However, we can fully understand Mieville's political concerns only when we pay particular attention to how his fiction operates at the limits of genre and beyond. In this context, we see that Marxist analysis of science fiction fails to address (and may actually blind us to) the political potential of fantasy, not only with regards to Mieville, but generally.

In order to make clear how this failing works, I wish to demonstrate how the binaries enumerated above, binaries that ground critical discussions of fantasy and science fiction, collapse under closer examination. The Scar (coupled with Mieville's statements about science fiction and fantasy) offers an opportunity to ground this discussion in a fictional text, one that complicates ideal narrative structures of science fiction and fantasy, using John Clute's definitions of these structures. Bellis Coldwine, The Scar's apparent protagonist, understands herself to be the subject of a Story. As such, she understands herself to be at home in Bas-Lag and to be someone whose life means insofar as it is part of a larger, singular, and true narrative. In Clute's terms, Bellis has Recognized herself in Story, a climactic moment that should precipitate her Healing or Return, her coming into a completed and unproblematic subjectivity. However, The Scar undermines the passage from Recognition (the third stage in Clute's full fantasy structure) to Healing/Return (the fourth and final stage), and thus thwarts this completion, by forcing Bellis to acknowledge that her Story has been false. …

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