Some months ago, Jennifer Howard used a critical review of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to argue that fantasy should be about “high seriousness,” “magic that battles for the soul of the world,” and above all, “the epic sense of Good and Evil, of things larger than ourselves, that makes the best fantasy so powerful and so necessary.” Fantasy allows us to escape the modern age for a little while: “When the news strays so far from the familiar moral contours of the struggle between Good and Evil, it’s tempting to lose ourselves in stories in which this battle is fought in clear terms and on an epic scale.”
Howard’s argument recalls J.R.R. Tolkien’s claim that the function of fantasy is to serve as “consolation,” a counterblast to modernity and industrialization. But the conservatism of much genre fantasy goes beyond fetishizing feudal relations. Fantasy is conservative to the extent that it does what Howard wants it to do, by becoming a kind of storytelling that is disconnected from politics. The fantastic imagination—i.e., the capacity to imagine places where the rules work differently than they do here and now—can help to puncture the spurious sense of permanence on which everyday politics rely, the sense that the way things are now is the way they inevitably must be. The fantastic imagination shows that our guiding principles and power arrangements can be different, and perhaps that they should be different. But if genre fantasy does what Howard says she wants it to do, by creating a hiding place far from the complexities of politics, then it becomes what its critics have always claimed it is—an exercise in escapism.
One way to deal with this tendency toward escapism is to examine it as a symptom of the pervasive fantasies of a consumerist society. Thus the British writer M. John Harrison uses genre tropes and savagely beautiful prose to dissect the fantasies beneath “the beautiful world of the corporate ad, in which dolphins swim alongside our car, simultaneously delighting and blessing us.” China Miéville—who cites Harrison’s work as a crucial influence—takes a different tack. His New Crobuzon novels seek less to interrogate genre fantasy than to remake it, playing out the battle between the fantastic and the political within imagined settings.
Miéville is both inside and outside the fantasy genre. He’s won two Arthur C. Clarke awards, but he also received mention in Granta‘s most recent Best of Young British Novelists exercise, before eventually being consigned to the Salon des Refusés for disreputable genre connections. Miéville’s novels are politically aware, but not in a way that tries to expose fantasy as an ideological confection. Instead, the tension between the political and the fantastic—how the fantastic imagination is trammeled by politics, tries and fails to escape politics, or, most rarely, reimagines politics—gives the books their driving force. Miéville is a Marxist who has written extensively on the form and origins of international law. The politics of his imagined societies reflect, as do our own, underlying relationships of profound inequality. The fantastic imagination not only helps expose the imperfect foundations of these politics, by showing that things need not be so, but is a necessary beginning for thinking through how they might be changed.
If Howard wants to exclude modern politics from fantasy by definition, Miéville gives us a world where fantasy and politics can’t be disentangled from each other. His New Crobuzon trilogy refuses to allow us to enter a safe zone of fantasy, instead thrusting us into a world in which the imagination itself can be a potent political instrument and an object of violent political contention.
We see this first in Perdido Street Station, the novel which introduces his major creation, the sprawling city of New Crobuzon. To itself, New Crobuzon is a metropolis of clashing cultures, equal parts Great Wen, Old Corruption, and mass struggle. It is redolent of London, just as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is reminiscent of rural England. To the outside world, it’s an imperial power, seeking to extend itself through the tools of nineteenth-century colonial mercantilism—railways, conquest, and exclusive trading relationships.
Politics in New Crobuzon is a mug’s game. A grimly effective police state tolerates subversives up to the point where they become a political threat, and then crushes them. So too it subordinates the imagination to its will. The city’s judicial system combines the cruel and sanctimonious whimsicality of the Victorian magistrate with the machineries of Kafka’s penal colony. In a world where human flesh is almost infinitely malleable, criminals can be “Remade” so that their punishment fits their crime, according to obscure aesthetic principles of justice. Magistrates decree that a woman who kills her baby should have its revivified arms grafted to her face as a reminder of her crime, while the vicious crime-lord Motley uses cod-Nietzschean aesthetic theory to justify Remaking his own body into a jumbled teratosis of eyes, mouths, and other parts.
The power to Remake is, in principle, the power to reimagine and reshape. Its abuse by the rulers of New Crobuzon suggests a corruption of the imagination, in which the fantasies of the powerful are written out in the flesh of those whom they oppress, while the fantasies of the oppressed themselves lead nowhere. As Miéville’s fictional art critic Derkhan says, “Remaking is creativity gone bad. Gone rotten, gone rancid … I don’t want to live in a city where Remaking is the highest art.” In a city where the fantastic imagination has been pressganged into the service of the state, there’s little possibility for real escape or change.
Even so, Perdido Street Station takes a more hopeful view of the relationship between fantasy and politics than Miéville’s second New Crobuzon novel, The Scar. In this book, we see the city from the outside, through its colonial relations and its willingness to use military force to secure commercial interests. Much of The Scar is set in the pirate city of Armada, and Miéville riffs on the glamour of swashbucklers without ever forgetting the relationship between high-seas adventure and the desire for economic gain. In The Scar, the yearning for fantasy always betrays, either by cloaking relationships of imperial exploitation in the spurious glamour of adventure, or by becoming an endless, ineffectual form of escapism. Either way, it’s a trap.
Thus the exiled scholar Bellis Coldwine is taken in by the stories of an enterpriser-spy, Silas Fennec, who presents his efforts to extend New Crobuzon’s economic grasp to new territories as romantic adventure and winds up betraying her and her friends. Thus, too, the two rulers of Garwater Tiding, the Lovers, plot to reach the Scar, a wound in the world from which limitless possibilities erupt—but their self-obsession and mutual mutilation becomes a sardonic comment on the narcissism of the desire for “adventure” as an end in itself. Uther Doul the swordsman, who tries to avoid the trap of adventure by embracing contractual exploitation, finds himself worse entangled still. No one comes out of it well.
The last novel of the series, Iron Council, works toward a more hopeful conclusion. It revisits New Crobuzon some decades after the events of Perdido Street Station, reinterpreting and perhaps redeeming the death of the subversive publisher Benjamin Flex and the “obscure crusades and anarchic vengeance” of the Remade renegade, Jack Half-a-Prayer. In a changed political context, Flex and Half-a-Prayer’s stories have become myths that allow people to reimagine their own circumstances. These myths provide the seeds of political change. They point to something beyond themselves, a possible future. The fantastic imagination isn’t subordinated to power, as in Perdido Street Station, nor is it a trap for the unwary, as in The Scar. Instead, it becomes a potential means of actual escape and transformation, by reinventing power relations and turning them back upon themselves.
This relationship between myth and politics plays out through the story of the “Iron Council,” a renegade train which has escaped the control of New Crobuzon, fleeing into the wilderness. As the whore-turned-rebel Ann-Hari argues, the act of Remaking can itself be remade:
We unrolled history. We made history. We cast history in iron and the train shat it out behind it. Now we’ve ploughed that up. We’ll go on, and we’ll take our history with us. Remake. It’s all our wealth, it’s everything, it’s all we have. We’ll take it.
Through an act of the imagination, the rebels who take the Iron Council into the wilderness transform their history of brutality and oppression into a source of strength. The train departs the tracks that are being laid down for it to create new ones. At the end of the book, the train is indeed blasted out of linear history, frozen in time so that it is perpetually on the point of arrival in New Crobuzon, but never arriving. Like Walter Benjamin’s Messiah, it creates a dynamic tension with the politics of the city, providing a vision of a messy but genuine utopia. From this tension will come new forms of resistance, and perhaps, one day, the revolution.
Iron Council gives us the necessary clues to figure out what Miéville is up to. He’s Remaking genre fantasy, not as an art-form that is entirely subordinate to given power relationships, nor as a means of escape from them, but as a specifically political act of imagination. He’s arguing that stories, if they’re understood rightly, can allow us to reinterpret our circumstances and think through how to change them. Fantasy is important because it’s potentially political in the most profound sense—it can choose neither to reaffirm politics as they exist today nor to hide from them, but to challenge them. In Iron Council, fantasy can even create a radical break in history, revealing new possibilities of political action.
Of course, Miéville isn’t claiming that writing—or reading—fantasy novels will bring about the revolution. Nor does he use fantasy to construct positive visions of what his ideal Socialist society might look like. Instead, to borrow Russell Jacoby’s term, he’s a negative utopian—in Miéville’s view, we may hope for utopia in our current circumstances, and build toward it, but we cannot imagine what it would be like to live in it.
Even so, Miéville provides us with an understanding of fantasy very different from Howard’s and Tolkien’s. For Miéville, fantasy shouldn’t merely justify what is, in the service of a self-defeating escapism or consolation; to the extent that it does, it’s merely remaking our political world, not Remaking it. Instead, fantasy should become a way of arguing about our social condition, of re-presenting our dilemmas, and creating a space for the imagination in which we can identify new possibilities of action. Fantasy can have a kind of political force that the ‘realistic’ novel can’t, precisely because it doesn’t take the real for granted.
In Iron Council, Miéville puts a famous passage from Marx’s German Ideology into the mouth of his flawed would-be prophet, Judah Low. It’s an act of appropriation that suggests that Marx too was a fantasist in the positive sense of the word, someone who was willing to imagine that things could and must be different from how we experience them in the here and now. Just as Marx’s somewhat hazily imagined Communist utopia was powerful because it stood in violent tension with the world of nineteenth-century capitalism, so should fantasy (in both the narrower and broader definitions of the word) stand in a relationship of tension with the world we inhabit today. To make it otherwise (Miéville tells us), to divorce it from our world, is to rob it of its force.