ART AND IDEAS IN THE NOVELS OF CHINA MIEVILLE by Carl Freedman – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to further my own education with some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
Those of us writing and reading in the speculative fiction genre might be forgiven for having a bit of a chip on our shoulder over the way the world of literary fiction seems to look down on us as mere genre. (To be fair authors within romance and crime fiction probably feel something similar). I once saw a clip of Patrick Rothuss rebutting some belittling comment about fantasy by rattling off the great historic works of literature that were surely fantasy – from Beowulf through Midsummernight’s Dream to Gulliver’s Travels.
I might argue about the fluid boundaries of genre. Definitions seem best set out, not so much around the well defended clear cut borders between different lands, so much as central nodes (city states perhaps) between which there is a slowly shifting continuum of themes and the emergence of hybrid books that challenge attempts at categorisation.
Fantasy’s and science fiction’s nay-sayers might argue that these works don’t attract the level of critical discussion that would qualify them as works of literature. Which is one reason why Carl Freedman’s book appealed to me – in giving a distinguished and versatile fantasy author an appropriately weighty consideration.
Freedman sets out at the beginning that he considers Mieville a friend in the way that many of us in this internet connected world are friends with people we interact with online and meet occasionally at pre-Covid conventions. However, it is clear that Freedman brings a sharp analytical eye to Mieville’s work – or at least his ouvre to date – and that the evaluation of Mieville’s delivery of themes is assessed with academic rigour rather than partisan friendship.
Freedman takes us chronologically through the first six of Mieville’s novels the debut King Rat, breakthrough Perdido Street Station the other two works in the Bas-Lag universe The Scar and the Iron Council, the digression into speculative crime fiction with The City and The City, and the linguistically challenging Embassytown. Freedman concludes by drawing together the threads of Mieville’s startlingly innovative contributions to speculative fiction and indeed to literature as a whole with a thought provoking conclusion around the union of art and ideas in arealistic fiction.
The chapters on each book include a synopsis of the plot. These sections, while inspiring admiration for Mieville’s creativity – in the necessary delivery of spoilers around the key plot twists – might act as a disincentive to read them. However, Freedman’s writing is entertaining and informative in its own right. Furthermore, where the reader has read the Mieville book (as I had with The City and The City) the effect is sharply illuminating. It is as if the lights had been turned up in an art gallery revealing in forensic detail masterpieces which had previously been appreciated in a more broadbrush manner.
Freedman’s admiration for Mieville’s work is robustly evidenced throughout the book for example drawing comparisons between the wealth of detail around culture, society and economics that Mieville created in the Bas-Lag trilogy and contrasting that with the essentially flat socio-economic landscape of Tolkien. As Freedman notes
“Tolkien’s world succeeds in presenting itself as an alternative reality only through a process of ruthless and radical oversimplification. Middle-earth is like a superficially perfect and extremely light façade.”
Yes, of course Tolkien invented beautiful languages and heroic histories, but I myself have always felt critical of his geography: there is the great river Anduin with mountains on only one side and no recognisable drainage baisin; there are the mountain ranges themselves that appear more like serrated walls than the broad sheets of crumpled tectonic plates which might describe our own Alps and Himalayas. As M.D.Presley pointed out in Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors, geography is the most basic in a hierarchy of aspects of biology, people and culture that constitute deep and immersive world building. Exquisite though Tolkien’s world is, Freedman makes a persuasive criticism of its essential shallowness and, in contrast, a compelling elevation of the depth to Mieville’s inventiveness.
Several themes emerge in Freedman’s analysis in a tribute not just to the range of Mieville’s creativity, but the versatility with which he weaves threads of contemporary issues through his other-worldly plots. As Freedman observes, Mieville seems on a constant quest to challenge himself by never settling in one comfortable genre. Even the linked Bas-Lag works are radically different in their setting, protagonists and substantially unconnected storylines. The City and The City represents a swerve into the world of crime fiction in a demonstration of the hybridity that has previously seen Mieville merge genres of fantasy and science fiction. Freedman identifies so many right-angled changes of direction in Mieville’s writing that one might almost think he had run out of genre dimensions to turn into. Indeed, Freedman notes Mieville’s own description that the protagonist Saul in King Rat is offered a new existence in the city of rats “at right angles to the world of people he had left behind.” Mieville extends the same dog-legged offer of escapist invention to his readers.
Mieville’s novels cover issues of prejudice, discrimination, consent, exploitation, capitalism and complicity. Nowadays western nations are being called upon to re-examine our colonial history, to take off the rose-tinted spectacles through which colonialism is viewed as a benevolent process extending the blessing of western civilisation. A more realistic perspective highlights the exploitive extraction of resources and subjugation of new markets that highjacked the progress of other nations, so creating a hiatus in their own development that fuelled western advance as much as it retarded that of the colonised. These issues can be more easily expressed in the words of speculative fiction characters than in the pages of mainstream or red top media. Freedman pinpoints such a moment in a dialogue between Silas and Bellis in The Scar ‘It is not only, as he says that buying and selling constitute the central driving force in the global system: “There’s no such thing’ he insists, “as exploration or science – there’s only trade.” As we lurch through the crisis of covid, with the alt-right screaming for the economy to reopen and the rest of us wonder if we really needed all that shit we buy, the concept of a humanity enslaved by global trade ring true.
All in all, Freedman’s book is a rich and thought provoking analysis both of Mieville’s work and, using Mieville as a lens, full of insights into our own world. Terry Pratchett famously wrote “Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” Freedman favours the term arealist rather than just fantasy so as to encompass all the genres of speculative fiction. However, he does exclude magical realism, for Mieville’s deep commitment to the rational and consistent interwoven textures of his worlds is in direct opposition to magical realism’s paradoxical injection of inconsistent, unexplained or frankly unreal magic into the real frames of reference in which they are set.
In his concluding chapter, Freedman notes the tension between didactic and poetic writing, that is to say between writing which delivers an instructional message and writing which is elegant and entertaining in its own right and as its sole purpose. It is common to see these aims as being in opposition to each other, with didactic writing portrayed as worthy, ponderous and moralistic. Freedman rails against this “decline in the general reputation of didacticism in literature” which he attributes to the nineteenth century rise of mass schooling with the capitalist purpose of vocational training to best serve commercial industrial endeavours. Freedman quotes Horace
“the successful author mixes the sweet and the useful at once instructing and delighting the reader.”
Indeed literature (like culinary endeavours) attains its apotheosis in works that blend flavours to become more than the sum of their parts. As Freedman says “if the dulce (sweetness) and the utile (usefulness) are really bound together indissolubly – if the relation between art and idea is truly dialectical – then the aesthetic joy that the reader takes in the sweetness … (is) indivisible from the joy of learning itself.”
The drive to deliver writing that is sweet and useful, poetic and didactic, has a heightened contemporary relevance as writers examine their role in a world facing multiple challenges. Judging the Self-published fantasy blog off last year, I remember discussing with one entrant Stephanie Burgis how her novel Snowspelled had been inspired by the trauma of seeing Donald Trump elected in 2016. Her fantasy setting was an alternative Victorian England where only the women did politics (and only the men – supposedly – did magic). It was an interesting novella length story that was cathartic to write and to read. It also illustrated a protagonist coming to terms with a disability – the inability to do the magic she loved – and finding life still had hope, purpose and direction. No author writes in isolation from their context and we all hope that our work says something beyond just telling a story.
The psychologist Baronness Greenfield noted that, more than most other leisure activities, reading builds the skills of empathy through the active engagement of the brain in imagining the reader inhabiting the author’s milieu and characters. This power of empathy building is reflected in G.R.R. Martin’s observation that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, a non-reader lives but one.” However, Freedman identifies a risk that the whole discussion of “dulce and utile” of trying to offer a literary “lived experience” to the reader, may become biased towards literary realism. The perception that only literature seated in our own world and history such as that of Dickens, Eliot, Hardy and others is the form best placed to deliver that sweet spot combination of sweet entertainment and empathic enlightenment. This is a challenge that speculative fiction has long faced since Mary Shelley’s The Modern Prometheus was not so much celebrated as the birth of a new genre, as lured up a side alley of categorisation as lightweight literary levity. As Amitav Ghosh wrote in the Great Derangement, speculative fiction has been consigned to an outhouse of literature, but in the meantime “serious fiction” has found its realist traditions unequal to the task of engaging fully or effectively in the epic challenge of climate change. Arguably arealistic fiction – in being outside the box of conventional realism – is best placed to provide the most profound insights into earth changing environmental and societal issues.
As Freedman observes in his conclusion, the fantastic yet rational and consistent worlds of the Mieville oevre enable him to address issues around capitalism, trade, internal law. In particular Freedman notes that
“coercion and violence are not mere “abuses,” but precisely what capitalism is all about. This insight is central not only to Mieville’s legal theorizing (he has a PhD in international law) but, as this volume in toto has been concerned to demonstrate, to his entire world view.”
Mieville in his genre hybridity and eloquent writing has demonstrated how speculative, or arealistic fiction, has the capacity to deliver dulce and utile and so illuminate challenges of our times. This should not surprise us. After all, what were Aesop’s fables but attempts to deliver key learning points and conflict resolution through the safe medium of anthropomorphised animal conflict? And if a fable is a “fiction that points to a truth” what better aspiration is there for authors of fantasy and science fiction.