From International Socialism 2 : 88, Autumn 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
China Miéville is the author of two acclaimed fantasy novels: King Rat (1999), a dark urban fantasy relocating the Pied Piper to contemporary London, and Perdido Street Station (2000), an epic tale of the teeming, multi-species city of New Crobuzon. China also contributed to the Britpulp! (1999) anthology. At the moment he is completing another New Crobuzon novel. He discussed his ideas on fantasy with John Newsinger at Marxism 2000.
JN: Why is fantasy literature of interest to socialists?
China: Fantasy’s of interest to me because I grew up on it, and – along with horror and science fiction (SF), three inextricably linked genres – it’s still the stuff that I love to read.
For socialists in general, it seems to me that there are three main reasons. The first is a question of mass culture. Look at a bestseller list: Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett are up there in neon lights. Tolkien is one of the most popular writers of the century. I think we should be interested in why certain artistic forms and genres are popular, and try to understand them.
The second factor is that fantasy, SF and horror are completely denigrated as vulgar and sub-literary by mainstream critics. I’d say that socialists’ antennae should be raised by counter-cultures, subcultures and alternatives to ‘polite’ taste. I’m suspicious any time the semi-official arbiters of ‘quality’ tell us, with thinly veiled snobbery, that something is beneath their dignity. (I’m not suggesting that marginality is an automatic badge of quality, of course.)
Finally, and most intriguingly, there seems to be an odd affinity between radical politics and fantastic fiction. There are a number of writers of fantasy and SF who have serious left politics of some stripe. Iain Banks is a socialist, Ken MacLeod and Steven Brust are Trotskyists, Ursula Le Guin and Michael Moorcock are left anarchists, and there are plenty of others, right the way back to William Morris and before. Look at Surrealism, arguably the high point of the fantastic in the arts, and a movement many of whose adherents saw systematic socialist politics as inextricable to their aesthetic. Of course, there are plenty of excellent fantasy writers who aren’t political, or who are right wing, but I think the size of the minority at least begs the question as to whether there’s something in the form of the writing that lends itself to radical or subversive aesthetics.
JN: What have Marxists had to say about fantasy and science fiction?
China: Probably the most influential Marxist position has been that of Darko Suvin, the theorist of SF, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979). He’s politically behind SF, seeing it as related to the progressive bourgeois project, especially in its infancy. He says that SF is characterised by ‘cognitive estrangement’ – it operates according to a rationalist/scientific mindset, but it involves estrangement from the here and now so that it can extrapolate creatively. Fantasy, in contrast, he used to argue was ‘a genre committed to the imposition of anti-cognitive laws into the empirical environment ... just another ghoulish thrill ... a sub-literature of mystification. Commercial lumping of it into the same category as SF is thus a grave disservice and rampantly sociopathological phenomenon.’
He’s changed his position these days, and he’s more open minded about fantasy, but his original formulation is still very influential. Speaking to socialists, I still find a lot of people sceptical or dismissive of fantasy because it’s got magic or ghosts or whatever in it, and because as Marxists we don’t believe in them. They see something dubious in literature that pretends they’re real. For me, that’s a misunderstanding of what art is. I’ve written ghost stories – it doesn’t mean for a minute I believe in ghosts. I’m writing a story that doesn’t pretend to be a direct representation of the real world. Suspension of disbelief is crucial.
The only other book length Marxist work on fantasy I know is José Monleon’s A Specter is Haunting Europe: A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic (1990). He sees the fantastic as a reflection of the fact that, to quote the title of one of Goya’s most famous pictures, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’ (1799). I think this is a really useful starting point. Goya’s picture is of a sleeping man menaced from behind by a variety of fantastic creatures. Monleon says – rightly, I think – that Goya is establishing ‘a relation of cause and effect between reason and unreason’.
Capitalism’s early embracing of scientific thought was progressive compared to what went before, and on that basis it projects a claim that it is the triumph of systemic rationality, and that any forces which oppose it are therefore irrational or ‘anti-rational’. But we also know that capitalism throws up, absolutely inevitably, forces which can and must oppose it. It represses just about every human impulse you can mention, which are going to resurface in various forms. Most fundamentally it throws up and represses the working class, and its emancipatory political project. It pretends class conflict is inimical to it, but it’s actually integral. Monleon says, ‘The spectre of revolution, then, seems to be at the base of this reappearance of unreason in general, and of the fantastic in particular.’ So the ‘unreason’ of fantasy is a kind of neurotic counterpoint to capitalism’s ‘rationality’. Capitalism’s ‘reason’ produces its own monsters.
With that framework, he makes sense of the particular shape of the fantastic at different times. So Gothic fears of the ancient and pre-modern (old castles, forests, graveyards, etc.) is a reflection of the fact that, at the high point of Gothic in the late 18th century, the revolts spawned by capitalism were those of a working class still often rural or newly urbanised, whose revolts (like Luddism) were directed in an unclear way against the ‘modern’. Later on in the 19th century, when working class protest became more programmatic, the fantastic often located its ‘monsters’ in the heart of the city, or as a result of the scientific mindset (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an excellent example).
I think the idea of ‘the sleep of reason’ is incredibly helpful in seeing how the fantastic is so tenacious at the heart of capitalism’s rationalism. It allows you to historicise the fantastic, and within the paradigm leaves you plenty of space for more specific analyses, either of particular modes of the fantastic or of individual works. I think Monleon’s book is invaluable for that.
But there are problems with Monleon: he’s too one-sided in focusing on fantasy that is about the ‘monstrous’. And, much more problematically, he uses a reductionist ‘dominant ideology’ theoretical paradigm, and judges fantasy literature on that basis. The paradigm is too simplistic, and it means his political judgement of fantasy is far too negative. He sees it as reflecting concerns but ‘subsuming’ them into literature, and therefore disarming the radical content – ‘a displacement took place that allowed dominant society to control or tame the image of unreason’. So the Gothic, for example, he sees as more or less straightforwardly ‘defending’ the status quo.
And after 1917, when capitalism in war and revolution turned to its own ‘savage irrationalism’ to defend its supposed ‘rationalism’, he sees the ‘irrationalism’ of fantasy as breaking its boundaries, generalising and being ultimately a reactionary reflection of irrationalist capitalism. It’s a Lukácsian position, and it’s artistically and politically philistine. He does hedge it a bit in the last chapter of his book, but it’s clear that he thinks fantasy ended up being sustained by capitalist irrationalism in a direct, almost nurturing way, and sustaining it back as if it was part of a reactionary bourgeois project: ‘The fantastic "reflected" very real threats; on the other hand, it created a space in which those threats could be transformed into "supernaturalism" and monstrosity, thus helping to reshape the philosophical premises that sustained the fantastic and effectively reorient the course of social evolution.’ His reading of the politics of the books is way too one-sided, and he grants fantastic literature social power I don’t think it has. (I wish!)
I think that fantasy’s expression of the tensions thrown up by capitalism in a particularly acute way makes it much harder than Monleon suggests to read it as either ‘reactionary’ or ‘progressive’ – which can be useful shorthand but are very schematic categories. The literature’s more ambivalent and complex, the relationship to irrationalism is less straightforward, and the space for the critical/subversive in the fantastic is much greater than he suggests.
JN: Why has fantasy literature so often appeared to be conservative with a small ‘c’?
China: The quick answer to why fantasy looks so conservative is that for a long time a huge amount of it has been. If you look at stereotypical ‘epic’ or ‘high’ fantasy, you’re talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they’re likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it’s a bad kingdom ...). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters – and often whole races – lining up to fall into pigeonholes with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ written on them.
Although an awful lot of books do fit that stereotype to various degrees, it’s important to remember that you’re not talking about fantasy in general here, but about a particular historical stream within it – a stream which has got massive since the 1960s. You also have to remember that many works within that tradition question or undermine its more conservative aspects. However, it is true that the hold of that conservatism is strong in the genre, and it’s also true that that particular post-Tolkien stream is what most people these days mean when they talk about ‘fantasy’.
JN: How would you assess the contributions of J.R.R. Tolkien and Mervyn Peake?
China: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly the most influential fantasy book ever written. It is the paradigm for the kind of cod-epic, conservative secondary world fantasies discussed above. Obviously there were writers before Tolkien who were very influential – Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, for example, were written in the 1930s and they’re hardly politically radical either – but Tolkien brought various elements to fantasy that made him central. More than previous writers he constructed an elaborate history, geography, linguistics, mythology, etc. for his invented world, and fitted his narrative into that. Of course world creation had gone on before – Howard’s Hyboria, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique – but Tolkien saw the building of an internally consistent secondary world as central to the project of what he called ‘fairy’ and what we would now call fantasy.
The sometimes obsessive focus on the secondary world is typical of post-1960s fantasy. It’s easy to mock, but I think it can be a very interesting kind of project. It often involves great creativity and inventiveness, and it’s a very powerful way for effecting the particularly strong kind of suspension of disbelief that fantasy involves. That’s why fantasy fans are often so neurotic about the maintenance of consistency – authors who lose track of their own world and contradict themselves can’t get away with it. (It’s what I think of as ‘geek critique’: ‘In book two of the Elfmoon Quintilogy you said the Redfang mountains were two days ride north of the city, but in book four it takes Bronmor three days to get there ...’)
Tolkien’s worldview was resolutely rural, petty bourgeois, conservative, anti-modernist, misanthropically Christian and anti-intellectual. That comes across very strongly in his fiction and his non-fiction. Michael Moorcock has written brilliantly on this in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987):
The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire [where the protagonist ‘hobbits’ live], are ‘safe’ but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are ‘dangerous’ ... Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class ... If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron [the ‘evil’ dark lord] and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence – the worst aspect of modern urban society represented as the whole by the a fearful, backward-yearning class.
In opposing what he called the Robot Age, Tolkien counterposes it with a past that of course never existed. He has no systematic opposition to modernity – just a terrified wittering about ‘better days’. He opposes chaos with moderation, which is why his ‘revolt’ against modernity is in fact just a grumbling quiescence.
For Tolkien, the function of his fantasy fiction is ‘consolation’. If you read his essay On Fairy Tales you find that, for him, central to fantasy is ‘the consolation of the happy ending’. He pretends that such a happy ending is something that occurs ‘miraculously’, ‘never to be counted on to recur’. But that pretence of contingency is idiotic, in that immediately previously he claims that ‘all complete fairy stories must have it [the happy ending]. It is its highest function.’ In other words, far from ‘never being counted to recur’, the writer and reader know that to qualify as fantasy, a ‘consolatory’ happy ending will recur in every story, and you have a theory of fantasy in which ‘consolation’ is a matter of policy. It’s no surprise that this kind of fantasy is conservative. Tolkien’s essay is as close as it gets to most modern fantasy’s charter, and he’s defined fantasy as literature which mollycoddles the reader rather than challenging them.
In Tolkien, the reader is intended to be consoled by the idea that systemic problems come from outside agitators, and that decent people happy with the way things were will win in the end. This is fantasy as literary comfort food. Unfortunately, a lot of Tolkien’s heirs – who may not share his politics at all – have taken on many tropes that embed a lot of those notions in their fantasy.
Peake is just incomparably better. His writing is textured and lush, his ideas are complex, his characters defy pigeonholes. The politics embedded in the Gormenghast trilogy are sometimes tragic, and never simplistic. Peake is one of the few writers of fantasy that mainstream critics treat with respect. It’s true that Peake doesn’t fit neatly into the genre – though he’s revered by fantasy fans – and didn’t have the sense of writing in a genre tradition, unlike most fantasy writers. He’s inside and outside fantasy at the same time.
I think that’s what gave his writing such a sense of uniqueness – it’s hard to trace influences on Peake (in genre and out). And although his influence has been very strong, it’s been quite diffuse and nebulous. It’s nowhere near as strong, for example, as Lord of the Rings, which was easily and totally assimilated into the genre of fantasy.
The nicest thing anyone ever said about Perdido Street Station was that it read like a fantasy book written in an alternate world where the Gormenghast trilogy rather than Lord of the Rings was the most influential work in the genre.
JN: Is fantasy escapist?
China: This is the usual accusation levelled at fantasy by genre snobs, but also by leftists who disapprove of fantasy. This is the simple notion that fantasy is not about the real world, and is therefore worth little. At the same time a lot of those who want to defend fantasy accept that the genre is escapist but try to defend the whole project of escapism.
Again, this comes out of Tolkien. In On Fairy Tales he says, ‘Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?’ The fantasy writer Terry Pratchett puts it very simply: ‘Jailers don’t like escapism.’ The trouble is that, as Michael Moorcock pointed out, jailers love escapism – what they don’t like is escape.
The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore ‘escape’ is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That’s why some fantasies (like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are so directly allegorical – but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can’t help but reverberate around the reader’s awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.
Take a book like Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle. It’s set in a fantasy world, and it involves discussions of racism, industrial conflict, sexual passion and so on. Does it really make any sense to say that the book is inherently, because of its genre form more escapist than what Iain Banks calls ‘Hampstead novels’, about the internal bickerings of middle class families who seem hermetically sealed off from wider social conflicts? Just because those books pretend to be about ‘the real world’ doesn’t mean they reverberate in it with more integrity.
Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the ‘escape’ that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it’s precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world. The problem with most genre fantasy is that it’s not nearly fantastic enough. It’s escapist, but it can’t escape.
So no, I think it’s absurd to say that fantasy in general is inherently escapist. A lot of genre fantasy after Tolkien is escapist, but that’s nothing to do with the form of the literature itself.
JN: Is fantasy inevitably reactionary then?
China: No. Again, that’s to judge fantasy in general by the lowest common denominator of the modern genre. I’d say that writers like Mary Gentle, Mikhail Bulgakov, Jane Gaskell, Steven Brust, Gregory Maguire, Stefan Grabinski, M. John Harrison and loads of others should put paid to that idea instantly.
JN: What do you see as the relationship between literary production and revolutionary politics?
China: When I write a novel I do it to tell a story and describe a world that keeps readers interested in turning pages. My job in that book is not to convince people of socialism – a 700-page fantasy would be a spectacularly inefficient mode of propaganda. But obviously as a political writer of fiction it’s inevitable that I’m a writer of political fiction.
I certainly try to engage with political ideas in my books. By doing so in fantasy, which has such a conservative tradition, you’re engaging both with politics in general and with the politics of the genre you write in. There’s politics in my books because it gives the worlds texture for me, and because I like investigating the ideas. If people do take away some of the politics then that’s great, but I think I’d be setting myself up for serious disappointment as a socialist if that was my first aim with the novels. I don’t think there’s any replacement for traditional political activity and argument for pushing forward socialist politics.
I love weird fiction, ghost stories, horror comics and SF passionately, but they’re not going to change the world. That’s why I’m a novelist and an active revolutionary socialist.
JN: Can you be more specific about the relevance of fantasy to revolutionary socialism?
China: As I’ve tried to explain, my politics are central to my life, as is my fiction writing, but the relationship between the two isn’t one of direct, unmediated influence either way round.
I do think, though, that there’s something fundamentally important and radical about the ability to conceptualise the impossible – the fantastic – for the human mind. A lot of theorists of fantasy and SF try to get at this in idealist terms. Eric Rabkin says, ‘The glory of man is that he is not bounded by reality. Man travels in fantastic worlds.’ The paradox is that in fact you are trapped in reality in that model, so that when you think about the fantastic you transcend it. It’s a model which separates the fantastic and the real.
But look at Marx’s argument in Capital: ‘What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.’ In other words, human productive activity is predicated on a consciousness of the not-real. You have to know how the world isn’t in order to transform it.
In the real world, the not-real separates into the possible, not yet possible and never possible, but you can’t always be sure of those distinctions in your mind. You might set out to do a task without being certain whether it’s possible or not – what you are sure of is that the desired effect is not-real when you start.
In other words, the model I take from Marx differs from the mainstream critics in that the not-real isn’t separated from the real. The real is shaped by a process of constant reference to the not-real. Our conception of what is and is not possible directly affects our transformative capacity. That capacity is generally about an oscillation of consciousness between the real and either the possible or not yet possible not-real.
Fantasy is different. When you tell a fantasy story you pretend that things that you know to be impossible are not only possible but real. In that way you create a mental space (a pretended world, or whatever) which redefines (or pretends to redefine) the impossible. That is a psychologically and aesthetically radical thing to do – it allows us a kind of sleight of mind, because redefine the ‘impossible’ and you’re changing the categories within the not-real. And what I’ve tried to argue is that because of the process of cross-reference that Marx describes, change the not-real and that allows you differently to think the potentialities in the real.
I think of this process as sleight of mind, because you’re not really redefining the impossible (fantasy’s predicates are definitionally impossible) but you pretend that you are (because those predicates are claimed to be true). All this is me theorising after the fact. For as long as I’ve read I’ve been in love with weird fiction and for as long as I’ve been conscious of politics I’ve been on the left – a process which led me seven years ago to Marxism and revolutionary socialism. I’m convinced that those facts about me are linked. I’m not sure I’ve got to grips with why, but I’m trying to grope towards an understanding.
This is not a list of the ‘best’ fantasy or SF. Many superb works are not on the list. Those listed below are chosen not just because of their quality, but because the politics they embed (deliberately or not) are of particular interest to socialists. Of course, other works – by the same or other writers – could have been chosen.
Emma Bull and Steven Brust, Freedom and Necessity (1997). Bull is a left-liberal and Brust is a Trotskyist fantasy writer. Freedom and Necessity is set in the 19th century of the Chartists and class turmoil. It’s been described as ‘the first Marxist steampunk’ or ‘a fantasy for Young Hegelians’.
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (1938, trans. 1967). Astonishing fantasy set in 1930s Moscow, featuring the Devil, Pontius Pilate, the Wandering Jew, and a satire and critique of Stalinist Russia so cutting it is unbelievable that it got past the censors. Utterly brilliant.
Jane Gaskell, Strange Evil (1957). Written when Gaskell was 14. Though flawed in places it is still, however, extraordinary. A savage fairytale with fraught sexuality, meditations on Tom Paine and Marx, revolutionary upheaval depicted sympathetically but without sentimentality, plus the most disturbing baddie in fiction.
Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974). The most overtly political of this anarchist writer’s excellent works. An examination of the relations between a rich, exploitative capitalist world and a poor, nearly barren (though high-tech) communist one.
Gregory Maguire, Wicked (1995). Brilliant revisionist fantasy about how the winners write history. The loser whose side is here taken is the Wicked Witch of the West, a fighter for emancipatory politics in the despotic empire of Oz.
Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946–1959). An austere depiction of dead ritualism and necessary transformation. Don’t believe those who say that the third book is disappointing.
Philip Pullman, The His Dark Materials Trilogy (1995–). Only two volumes so far published (Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife). This series deals with moral/political complexities with unsentimental respect for its (young adult) readers and characters. Explores freedom and social agency, and the question of using ugly means for emancipatory ends.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy (1992–1996). Probably the most powerful centre of gravity for leftist science fiction in the 1990s. A sprawling and thoughtful examination of the variety of social relations feeding into and leading up to revolutionary change. (It’s also got Gramsci jokes in it ...)
Norman Spinrad, The Iron Dream (1972). An SF novel by Adolf Hitler ... Spinrad’s funny, disturbing and savage indictment of the fascist aesthetic in much genre SF and fantasy. What if Hitler had become a pulp SF writer in New York? Not a book about that possibility but a book from it: ‘By the same author: Triumph of the Will and Lord of the Swastika.’ Brave and nasty.
Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993). Great work that completely destroys the sentimental aspects of genre fantasy. From within the genre – fairies, elves and all – Swanwick examines the industrial revolution, the Vietnam War, racism and sexism, and the escapist dreams of genre fantasy. A truly great anti-fantasy.
Last updated: 12 December 2016