Socialist Worker

Redefining what is possible

China Mieville, top selling fantasy writer, spoke to Beccy Reese about his latest novel, Iron Council.

Issue No. 1921

Was it a conscious decision to make your new book, Iron Council, very political?

When I was writing the first two books in this series, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, I always knew that the third book was going to be the political culmination.

I knew there was going to be an explosion of politics in it. I wanted to write a fantasy novel that put revolutionary politics seriously at the heart of the story.

But at the same time I couldn’t let the politics get in the way of it being a good story. Socialists will find things in the novel that speak to you. But Iron Council is an exciting story as well.

I always wanted to write a story with the politics to the fore.

I wanted to write an exciting novel about trade union politics, one that draws on strikes in the 19th century American West and the Paris Commune.

The idea of solidarity is very important in Iron Council. It is difficult to write about how solidarity can overcome social barriers without sounding moralistic and finger wagging.

It is an interesting challenge to express the way people’s consciousness and the way they relate to other people changes through struggle, without thinking that is simplistic or unrealistic. I want to show how extraordinary situations change people. This book is a culmination of the other books, not a departure from them.

Do you draw on any traditions within science fiction?

If all you want to do is make a political argument you should just write an political article.

We don’t have to apologise for writing science fiction, with spaceships and monsters. Science fiction should revel in the strange, the weird, the hallucinatory—that’s why we love it.

Science fiction must tell a good story or it fails. Much of the best science fiction is written by people whose politics I don’t share at all. But there is a tradition of people writing ripping yarns which are also politically informed.

One outstanding group of writers who are a great influence on me started writing in the late 1960s. They were around a journal called New World, edited by Michael Moorcock.

They were writing at a time of great political upheaval. Britain’s place in the world was collapsing. There was militancy and despondency. There was a reaction against the right wing, gung-ho writing of the 1950s.

These writers developed sophisticated politics alongside their more sophisticated literary techniques.

One of them, M John Harrison, said a couple of years ago that his writing was hugely invigorated by watching the anti-capitalist protests in Seattle and Gothenburg.

There is no question that there has been a great upsurge in British science fiction recently, and that lots of the new writers are very polticial.

They are writing great novels that also deal with issues about capitalism, refugees and gender.

There is a sense that anything is possible. I do think this is linked to potential in social life. In a very direct way, this is post-Seattle fiction.

Whether or not the writer is a left winger, the writing is embedded with a sense of potentiality.

This is a time when the social imagination is expanding again, which is massively exciting.

Is there anything in science fiction or fantasy writing that makes it easier to redefine what is possible?

I suspect that there is something in fantastic fiction that lends itself to writing that pitches itself against reality in a dissident way.

Fantastic fiction has a strong tradition of utopian fiction, that says the world could be different, and dystopian fiction, which says if we’re not careful we could end up in a mess.

Just writing fantasy means you imagine the world not as it really is. You are holding up reality as something that can be questioned and redefining what is possible.

As a great science fiction writer, Philip K Dick, said, this kind of writing has a healthy disrespect for reality. There is right wing and apolitical fantasy writing, but I think there is something in the fantasy aesthetic that is inherently subversive and dissident.

It is part of a tradition of dissident visionaries whose visions made them critical of everyday life, like William Blake.

There is a radical kernel in the heart of the fantastic which is huge fun to tap into, both for the love of the strange and as a way to discuss politics.

Iron Council is available from Bookmarks, for £17.99. China Mieville will be speaking at Bookmarks on 9 November. Phone 020 7637 1848 for details.

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Sat 2 Oct 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1921
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