Magazine article Monthly Review

Socialism and Fantasy: China Miéville's Fables of Race and Class

Magazine article Monthly Review

Socialism and Fantasy: China Miéville's Fables of Race and Class

Article excerpt

Among a number of contemporary science and speculative fiction writers who identify as left-wing, China Miéville stands out, not only for the quality of his literary production, but also for the critical character of his political commitment, dedicated equally to socialism and to fantasy. In addition to his fictive works, he has written articles and given lectures on the nature and value of speculative and fantasy fiction; edited a collection of essays on Marxism and fantasy in an issue of the journal Historical Materialism; and, not least, published a list of "Fifty Sci-Fi and Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read."11 wish to discuss here the form and thematics of the early novels known (after the alternate world in which they are set) as the Bas-Lag trilogy-which remains, if you take it as a single work, his most ambitious and memorable achievement.2 But since Miéville is a serious critic and advocate of fantasy fiction, I will approach the books with a brief discussion of his aesthetic positions and program, gathered from essays and talks as well as from his literary works.3

Miéville began his career in the late 1990s, doing battle on behalf of fantasy on two fronts. First, he was concerned to claim, against the influential examples of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, that historically informed fantasy fiction need not be socially and politically conservative. If those authors' works went about aligning the repertoire of romance symbols and conventions with a hierarchical, organic society, Miéville's productions, drawing conventions and imagery more from the Gothic and Poe than from medieval romance, instead seek to instill it with democratic and egalitarian spirit.

On the other front, Miéville has taken as a target the modern distinction between science fiction and fantasy. This division is still sometimes found organizing the shelves of bookstores, and has long been enforced by advocates of science fiction's supposedly superior "critical" value. It is not, Miéville would allow, that the distinction does not obtain in some cases and times, and not that science fiction works cannot possess remarkable powers of what Darko Suvin called "cognitive estrangement."4 But to oppose critical to expressive, estranging to wish-fulfilling functions, and align them with different genres, is to misrecognize and to instrumentalize the nature of romance, an older genre fundamental to both kinds of writing. Miéville would endorse the general tendency of the last few decades, in which the more inclusive category of "speculative fiction" has begun to replace both "science fiction" and "fantasy."

But the genre designation that he and several other writers in fact prefer is "Weird Fiction," a term coined by H. P. Lovecraft. Miéville understands the Weird as registering a shift in the quality of the fantastic or monstrous that dates to the period of Taylorization, in which monsters came to be defined against newly refined forms of positivism and instrumental reason.5 In a further attempt at generic definition, Miéville has described the supernatural object of Weird Fiction as the "abcanny."6 Whereas the uncanny designates the vengeful return, as if from within, of something deeply familiar, something willfully repressed from an original social project, the abcanny involves a return from without of the unfamiliar, of something we would only like to think we once knew, of something left out of the system or plan from the beginning. One might tentatively see the abcanny as a way of reframing the "underside of the system" as the outside, or in terms of psychic or social limits. But it is important to observe that in the essay in which it is introduced, the abcanny not only figures as the opposing term to the uncanny, but as a first step toward a splintering of the monstrous or fantastic, a re-categorization of the uncanny into many kinds of dread (the subcanny, katacanny, etc.), an unstable shifting among multiple heterogeneous affects. …

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