This interview is featured in our fall 2017 print issue, Global Dystopias. Order your copy here.
Writing about China Miéville in the Guardian, fantasy luminary Ursula K. Le Guin opined, “You can’t talk about Miéville without using the word ‘brilliant.’” Miéville is a rare sort of polyglot, an acclaimed novelist—he has won nearly every award for fantasy and science fiction that there is, often multiple times—who is equally comfortable in the worlds of politics and academia. Combining his skills as a storyteller and Marxist theorist, his most recent book, October, regales readers with the key events of the Russian Revolution. In this interview, Miéville discusses the intersections between his creative oeuvre and the political projects of utopia and dystopia.
Boston Review: You are often quoted as saying that you want to write a book in every genre. Nonetheless, many of your books have centered around themes of utopia and dystopia. Do you feel as though dystopia has finally, well-and-truly slipped the bounds of genre?
China Miéville: Dystopia and utopia are themes, optics, viruses that can infect any field or genre. Hence you find utopian, dystopian, and heterotopian aspects in stories across the board: westerns, romances, crime—let alone, more obviously, in science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy.
There has not in living memory been a better time to be a fascist. We live in a utopia: it just isn’t ours.
To the extent that, before anything else, texts are -topias (particularly utopias) narrowly conceived—warnings, suggestions, cookbooks, or proposals—they are mostly uninteresting to me. Still, the often-repeated slur that utopias are “dull” has never been politically innocent: it bespeaks reaction. When Emil Cioran attacks utopias for lacking the “rupture” of real life—“the totality of sleeping monsters”—he ignores the ruptures and monsters that lurk in -topias too. As texts, -topias get interesting to the extent that they deviate, underperform, or do too much. Rather the excess of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, with its cigarette trees and lemonade springs, than the plod of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). In their conflicts, aporias, and surpluses, they can captivate. Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 science fiction novel Red Star, for example, is fairly stodgy gruel until the protagonist, Leonid, veers unexpectedly and seemingly off-script through madness and the pedagogy gets opaque.
None of which is to argue against -topias of any prefix, still less of utopian yearning tout court. They are indispensable. But the -topian drive is more contradictory and succulent than some of its vulgar advocates, no less than its critics, make out.
BR: Do you find, in this moment of political nadir, that your sense of the kinds of utopias or dystopias that you want to talk about has changed? This may be another way of asking, as you do in “The Limits of Utopia,” whether there are better ways to despair or worse ways to hope right now.
CM: It is hard to avoid the sense that these are particularly terrible days, that dystopia is bleeding vividly into the quotidian, and hence, presumably, into “realism,” if that was ever a category in which one was interested. At this point, however, comes an obligatory warning about the historical ubiquity of the questionable belief that Things Have Got Worse, and of the sheer arrogance of despair, the aggrandisement of thinking that one lives in the Worst Times.
But hot on the heels of that, we need a countercorrective to a no-less arrogant assumption that things will likely be alright, out of fear that thinking otherwise would indeed be arrogant. Against surrender to the complacency and historical myopia of steady-state politics—of precluding, as a real possibility, epochal degeneration.
There has not in living memory been a better time to be a fascist. I think these are dreadful, sadistic times, getting worse—though with abrupt and salutary countertendencies—and there is no reason that their end point might not be utter catastrophe. For me, facing that is urgent, as is the deployment (or anti-moralist rehabilitation) of categories such as “decadence” and “Barbarism” (as in “Socialism or . . .”).
It is not as if the world has not long, long been one in which vast numbers live in dystopian depredation. The horizon is more visible now to many who had thought themselves insulated, if they thought about it at all. And dystopia for some is utopia for others. To repeat something I have said elsewhere, we live in a utopia: it just isn’t ours.
The technocratic, centrist, neoliberal project of the Democrats and New Labour is in major crisis. I mourn that project not one iota. It deserves to die.
Certainly there are better and worse ways to hope and to despair. Despair need not—should not—mean surrender, as anyone who has read John Berger on Palestinians’ “stance of undefeated despair” knows. And hope, as Terry Eagleton insists, is not optimism. The former is necessary and (because the two are not coterminous) indicated; the latter is a hectoring vacuity, at least as often a fetter as a force for progress.
That is not to say optimism is never legitimate—I am considerably more optimistic since the Jeremy Corbyn Event, the unexpected consolidation of power by a principled socialist at the head of the British Labour Party, than I was scant weeks previously—but it has to be specific to the concrete. Optimism, like pessimism and hope, has to be earned.
BR: The terms “salvage” and “salvagepunk” are often associated with your work. In Railsea (2012), you portray a world in which denizens of the future survive by grazing on the trash of our civilization, finding in those remnants the components they need to make a life. You have also collaborated on launching a magazine, Salvage. What role do you think salvage and bricolage must play in imagining a viable future?
CM: Salvage keeps me going. And obviously not only me: clearly also, for example, my collaborator (and coiner of the term “salvagepunk”) Evan Calder Williams, and my comrades at the journal Salvage, particularly Rosie Warren, Richard Seymour, and Jamie Allinson.
Why is not quite clear: there is always something evasive about why particular metaphors resonate as they do. Which is fine by me. Of the various concepts that are politically/aesthetically powerful and formative—helpful—to me, salvage has for a long time been primus inter pares. Word-magic. A retconned syncretic backformation from “salvation” and “garbage.” A homage to, rather than repudiation of, the trash-world wanderers and breakfasters-among-the-ruins that always transfixed me. An undefeated despair: “despair” because it’s done, this is a dystopia, a worsening one, and dreams of interceding just in time don’t just miss the point but are actively unhelpful; “undefeated” because it is worth fighting even for ashes, because there are better and much, much worse ways of being too late. Because and yet.
This shit is where we are. A junk heap of history and hope. I am done with the Procrustean strategy of whipping playbooks out of our pockets and squinting to make what we see fit their schema. These days—these particular astounding days—I can’t politically take seriously anyone who still refuses to be surprised, anyone faithful to the cosplay radicalism of the know-it-all left, of permanent preemptive certainty. But bricolage precisely because this is not about some arrogant sneer of revisionism, of “new times”–posturing dispensing with tradition: it’s about scrabbling to put its scobs together anew. It’s too late to save, but we might repurpose. Suturing, jerry-rigging, cobbling together. Finding unexpected resources in the muck, using them in new ways. A strategy for ruination. For all of us at Salvage, this is a redoubled radical commitment, a groping for emancipation. (Please subscribe!)
BR: This seems related to an avatar that you propose for our age: the “porcupine angel,” a creature who takes shelter from the winds of history within the wreck of civilization itself.
CM: I mooted the “porcupine angel,” Angelus erethizon, as an exemplary figure chimera-ed from two travelers in the storm of history: Walter Benjamin’s back-blown angel, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s articulation of a Swampy Cree notion of the porcupine bracing itself in a crevice in the face of danger, “to speculate safely on an inhabitable future.” We are buffeted, but still we might brace, and bristle.
We deserve a revolution, an upheaval, an overturning of existing social priorities and dynamics, and the unhesitant demand for it is by far our best hope.
What is most vivid for me in the porcupine angel is its motion. It is too squat and heavy to fly. It stilt-walks, instead, on its wingtips. A motion that seems for a moment quite new, but that we realize we have seen before. When we watch bats crawl. Faced with unusual difficulties, certain animals move in deeply strange, unfamiliar ways, ways that seem abruptly alien, and/but that remain absolutely theirs. Occult motion, part of, hidden in, their quiddities. Watch those bats pick their wingtip ways. Watch octopuses stilt-walk on weirdly stiff limbs, watch hares or horses swim. In those moments utopia feels so close it is hard to breathe.
BR: Your new book, October, is a novelistic retelling of the Russian Revolution. You begin it with a quote from Alexander Kaun: “One need not be a prophet to foretell that the present order of things will have to disappear.” If Marx is right that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” does it feel to you as though, on the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Donald Trump’s rise to power on a populist tide represents a farcical betrayal of the spirit of revolution?
CM: We have to be careful about our terms. I’ve no particular beef with “populist” as a shorthand or placeholder, but the problem—especially when it comes before the word “tide”—is that it can imply there is something fundamental shared across all broadly anti- or non-centrist political projects. That is what lies behind the plethora of—maliciously or criminally stupid—headlines conjoining Trump, Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and even Marine Le Pen.
Trump came to power due to a number of factors: a radicalized Republican base drawn by his consolidation of various racist ideologemes, for the propagation of which Democrat leadership, as well as Republican, bears deep responsibility; clusters of previous Obama voters in the Rust Belt flipping in the face of a wretched, contemptuous campaign by an entitled neoliberal hawk; a deeply undemocratic system; and, in places, collapsing voter turnout, thanks to a systemic hollowing-out of democracy that centrists have long been perfectly happy to accommodate. Such specifics tell us a lot more about how we got to this catastrophic situation, and what we might do to get out of it, than a more nebulous anxiety about “populism.”
It is perfectly, abundantly true that the technocratic, centrist, socially neoliberal project of the Democrats and New Labour (to name but two) is in major crisis, and that in the cracks new forms grow. I mourn that project not one iota. It deserves to die, and the jeremiads about its passing are overwhelmingly predicated on elitism and nostalgia. What does not follow, of course—see Trump—is that whatever rises in the rubble is an improvement.
Certainly, for me, a radical, systemic change is the best hope we have for moving away from this system of sadism, and I hold the alt-center’s hope for a return to the status quo ante (rule by “the adults in the room”) to be not only an indefensible project but a doomed one. So yes, a wholly different kind of project—a revolutionary one, an upheaval, an overturning of existing social priorities and dynamics—is what we deserve, and the unhesitant demand for it is by far our best hope.
BR: Is it part of your project in October to reach general readers to inform them, first, of what real political revolution looks like and, second, that it is not a foregone conclusion that revolution ends badly?
CM: I would express the “aims” of my “project” (vis-à-vis writing) cautiously, not because they are not real but because the mediations between intent, text, and reader are so very many and various. With October, I hope, first, that those who wanted to know more about the world-historic moment of the Russian Revolution will be somewhat swept up in the revolution’s rhythms, and come away with a clearer sense of, literally, what happened, when, to whom, and of course why. What those who fought were fighting for. And I hope to make a case that whatever one’s opinion of the politics, or of the revolutionary project’s chances, that the liberal or right-wing nostrum that this utopian yearning was always doomed is not just unjustified, it’s an abdication of analysis. An effort to pick apart what ultimately went so terribly wrong is a universe away from the dutiful, rote assertion that it was always going to go wrong. The revolution remains an intense inspiration to me.
My attitude toward political violence is to never turn necessities into virtues. By any means necessary, of course. Which does not mean the celebration of any necessary means.
BR: Did writing October change (or reinforce) your views about the uses and limits of political violence?
CM: My attitude toward political violence was not particularly altered by the research. I did come away with a reinforced certainty that, however tempting it is to turn necessities into virtues, it is a dreadful mistake. By any means necessary, of course. Which does not mean the celebration of any necessary means, still less the deflation of what counts as “necessary,” still less “by any means.”
BR: In “The Limits of Utopia,” you propose the following route toward progress: “A start for any habitable utopia must be to overturn the ideological bullshit of empire and . . . revisit the traduced and defamed cultures on the bones of which some conqueror’s utopian dreams were piled up.” There is a way in which turning to the past can be a deeply conservative impulse: for example, contemporary evangelicals and biblical literalists contend that they are doing the same, as do many other moralizers, celebrators of the “traditional” family, white supremacists, and men’s rights activists. What guidelines can we use when turning to the past to guarantee that our efforts remain progressive? How do we “overturn the ideological bullshit of empire” without becoming the next empire?
CM: I realize this is a discussion that could easily and fruitfully extend to books’-length, so this can only be a ludicrously partial and maybe glib placeholder. But I suspect one way to negotiate this might be to reiterate (repeatedly) that neither memory nor prediction, neither mourning nor anticipation, generate radical, emancipatory politics on their own, any more than they do reactionary, sadistic politics. The question has to be what (like metaphor) they provoke in us in particular circumstance, and, more, how they are deployed. The valence of no memory is a given. I see no reason one can’t look both back and forward (and sideways, and diagonally, and inward) to find inspirations.
I honestly don’t know why “overturning the ideological bullshit of empire” should necessary make us particularly prone to “becoming the next empire,” unless the implication is that “revolutions always eat their children,” which is a kind of reactionary tragedianism that I don’t accept. That things might go wrong, sure, but that would always be about specifics, not simply because we would be in a position of having overturned shit. Whatever difficulties would follow—and they would—that would surely be a good problem to have.
BR: Your novels often deal with themes of radical otherness: human protagonists partner with ancient gods and personified oceans (as in 2010’s Kraken), and, in Embassytown (2011), with the alien Hosts, whose prelapsarian language makes them incapable, without intercession, of communicating with humans or even recognizing us as sentient. Do you feel as though the process of puzzling through such fictional relationships has given you any useful insights into how to bridge more commonplace divides between ourselves and those we consider to be other?
CM: I’d be wary of thinking that any facility in representing alterity would necessarily give a person political insights, about everyday divides or anything else. There are plenty of writers of otherness (including very brilliant ones) whose politics cleave in a very different direction, of course. More fundamentally, I would suggest that any convergence of political and aesthetic thought in that manner is either relatively contingent, or, more to the point, that the line of causality does not run at all neatly from the fiction to the social and political. That is just, I think, not how fiction works, for writer or reader. I don’t think, in other words, that it’s writing the fiction that has given me political ideas.
The best I can get at the relation is that my head, like all heads, is a saucepan containing a simmering soup of ideas, drives, desiderata, concerns, fascinations, anxieties, insights, opacities. I dole that broth into different bowls using different ladles and set to with different spoons depending on whether I am doing fiction or nonfiction (or anything else). Different dinnerware, same ingredients.
The political task is to operate with two horizons: that of the immediate aim, the shorter-term, potential gain, the moment-by-moment; and that further, the utter, unsayable.
BR: As both a novelist and a political thinker, what kinds of daily practices do you advocate for and gloss when you use “utopia” as a verb, as in “We should utopia as hard as we can”?
CM: Everyone who holds that, first, this shit isn’t necessarily it, and, second, that it would be better if it were better, is, to some extent, utopia-ing. (Which of course includes those on the right.) For me, all I can say is that, though I have been extremely politically pessimistic at times, my pessimism has always been founded on an absolute belief not only in the possibility, but the urgent necessity, of fundamental radical change. The political task is to operate with two horizons: that of the immediate aim, the shorter-term, potential gain, the moment-by-moment; and that further, the utter, unsayable. We have talked about this in Salvage: if you hold, as we do, that—whatever reforms we can and must fight to instantiate—this system can’t ultimately be reformed out of being one of exploitation and oppression, then we have to mediate that fight for quotidian amelioration with a strategy of tension, an unflinching antinomianism. To reclaim the slogan from the defeated attempt to oppose Greek austerity measures, an Oxi (“no”) underlying all. Precisely because it isn’t impossible; because of the scale of what it would mean; because of how we’d come to other ourselves in the process, changing ourselves to fit the world we would, will, have remade; far, far more than to outline any particular prescriptions, to utopia must be to say no.