A Strategy for Ruination: An interview with China Miéville

Source: Boston Review

Editor’s Note: 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.

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.

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