Fantasy, science fiction, and politics

THE FIRST thing I wanted to talk about is Kraken, since it’s your latest novel and a number of people here in the states are still reading through it. The big question I want to ask is about the power of belief—you might even say faith—in the book. It’s central to both the cosmology and the thematic content of Kraken, and what’s really striking is the way that you look at the various cults, gods, and magics that populate this mystical version of London without falling into the sneering attitude of some of the fashionable new atheism. Can you talk about all this? 

IT’S INTERESTING the formulation you use, because I would definitely say faith. I’m not even wholly convinced that belief and faith are exactly coterminous, but I would have to think about that. As you probably know, I’m an atheist, and have been for most of my conscious adult life, but I’ve always been very, very, very interested in faith. I see it as quite a specific thing and not necessarily solely reducible to belief.

I’ve always been very interested in it as a sociological phenomenon, and as an aesthetic phenomenon. For example, a lot of the poetry that I like most is informed by, driven by, and is indeed an expression of faith. I’m quite an admirer of a lot of ecstatic religious poetry. People like Christopher Smart, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, and others. So I’ve always been interested in faith from that perspective. I’ve also been interested in it from a sociological perspective, the way that faith intersects with political action and rationality and the faux opposition between faith and rationality.

This is where we lead into the thing that you’re talking about with the currently fashionable new atheism. I have extremely little sympathy for the au courant style of crude atheism associated with people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I suppose it’s based on several things. Above all my antipathy is based on the fact that it seems to be extremely bad sociology. It’s also bad and ignorant theology. I’m not interested in theology in and of itself, although their views on theology are very ignorant, but it’s mostly their bad sociology. It’s all predicated on this notion that religious faith is founded on an intellectual error, and that to me is just staggeringly wrongheaded. No matter what else you think about faith, that is not what it is. So to criticize it on those grounds is wildly missing the point.

Now obviously religions do make truth claims, and those truth claims can be evaluated, so it’s not totally divorced from the issue of rationality. But the idea that that is what it’s essentially reducible to, and therefore you can criticize it on those grounds, just strikes me as a willfully naïve or stupid way of understanding the way that faith and religion intersect with everyday life, with perceived reality and political reality and so on.

For me it’s also a question of courtesy. I’m a very polite boy. I don’t think there is any contradiction between being a radical and being courteous. Except with outright enemies. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t my major drive, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t understand why we should be unnecessarily rude to people that haven’t done anything to us. It seems that there’s a kind of swashbuckling to the new atheist posturing that likes the performance, and likes to pitch itself as a kind of embattled minority striking a blow for intellectual freedom. I just don’t think that’s what it is.

This courtesy issue comes in when you see, for example, things like the “Draw a Muhammad Day” that was on Facebook. Loads of people were involved with that—and you’ve got your hard Islamophobes, your hard racists who were around things like the “Ground Zero mosque”—but this “Draw a Muhammad Day” involved an enormous number of people who were not hard racists. A lot of liberals and civil libertarians were involved in this. Obviously if you’re a socialist you have an analysis of Muslims being particularly the target of racism at the moment and it being a sort of political exigency to stand alongside of them. But even if you strip that out, and you take it on its own terms—the terms of that kind of attack—they’re still like, “Oh these people are trying to stop us from drawing Muhammad.” My response is kind of like, “Were you doing a lot of drawing Muhammad? Has this really fucked with your day?”

I don’t want to suggest that it should be illegal to draw Muhammad, but I do think it’s reasonable to act like a civilized person and say—everything else being equal—if you don’t have an urgent need to do something which is going to unnecessarily offend your neighbor, why do it? Again, that’s not my primary political motivation, but I think it’s a baseline kind of decency that’s missing from the debate.

I’ve kind of veered from the subject, but I’m fascinated by faith. I find it very interesting. But there’s also a more meta-textual component in Kraken. One of the standard tropes in SF/fantasy—particularly fantasy for a long time—has been the strange cult. And so, as much as being an examination of real religion, it was intended to be an affectionate investing in that trope of the weird fantastic cults. It’s as much a reference to the Cthulhu cult as it is to do with any sort of religion.

THAT SORT of relates to another question about the nature of Kraken in comparison to some of your other work. This book is riddled with all sorts of absurdly comedic elements—the existential crisis provoked by an obsession with Star Trek, or a picket line of pigeons, as examples. Can you talk about how deliberate this move toward comedy in a genre sense was in the writing of this novel? 

YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY right, and it was very conscious. Most of my books, with the possible exception of Un Lun Dun, which is a children’s book, are quite—I hate the adjective “dark” because it always seems aggrandizing and ridiculous, but they tend to be on the bleak side. Which I’m fine with. But for this particular book I wanted to write something that was self-consciously a comedy. I had been reading a bit of Thomas Pynchon, and one of the things that I always found striking about Pynchon was the extent to which a lot of his books are comedies. Against the Day and even Gravity’s Rainbow both have comedic elements. Maybe it’s kind of a wanker thing to say, but there are sections in Gravity’s Rainbow that just make me cackle every time I read them.

One of the things I kept in mind when writing Kraken is that I think there are often structural problems with comedies. A lot of the time they fail for two reasons. One is that they rely a lot on a setup-response sort of construction. It will often go something like: Setup sentence. Beat. And then, “Boom,” you’re going in for the punch line. I think at their worst comedy books can be quite needy, because they always are striving toward the laugh, and the love, and that kind of thing. I find that a bit oppressive, but I love the way Pynchon manages to do it in a way that doesn’t feel needy at all. It feels like you’re pitched into an absurdist universe which is, in and of itself, quite comic. Obviously I come much more out of an overtly pulp tradition than the genre tradition of Pynchon, but something of that I wanted to kind of get into. Particularly because I love the geek culture that I’m part of, but I’m also very aware of its absurdities—the absurdity of the collector, the absurdity of the fan, and all that sort of stuff. (Speaking as an insider I’m allowed to say these sorts of things.)

So, yes, I wanted Kraken to be a comedy, and I like the idea of a comedy about the end of the world. I like the idea of a comedy about a giant squid. I don’t think it will ever be my primary mode. I did it, and I enjoyed it, and I know a reasonable number of readers haven’t been bowled over by it—it’s divided readers. Having done it once now, maybe every few books I’ll try to do something more comedic, but I really wanted to write something that was self-consciously a comedy for the sake of doing it.

CAN YOU talk a bit about the reception to the shifting of gears that you’ve done a little bit of now—jumping from SF to mystery to comedy (Kraken being a comedy, The City & the City being a mystery, and so on)—how concerned are you with alienating your audience, considering how judgmental geek culture can be? 

WELL, I’M concerned at the most abstract level, which is that I have the great fortune to be paid to write fiction, and if I constantly alienate too many people, ultimately I will stop being paid. I would be very sad if I weren’t able to make money as a writer. But that’s a baleful horizon that I don’t think about very often.

For the most part, on the ground, I’m not very concerned about it. That’s mostly because I think I’ve been very lucky with my readership. I’ve been doing this for over ten years now—which, parenthetically, constantly amazes me. Particularly in geek culture you end up with a sort of relationship—perhaps a closer and more direct-feeling relationship—with your readers than in some other fields. I think you can end up with a collaborative relationship with your readers, or, if you want to sound very provocative, you could say that you can train your readers. In fact, many of them are happy to be trained, but I think of it more as collaboration.

I think over the last ten years I’ve been able to establish a relationship with a reasonable hard core of my readers whereby I’m saying, “I’m quite interested in trying to do different things, which will make a much more interesting oeuvre. One of the correlatives of that is that each novel is going to differ from the last. Inevitably, that will mean there will be some that you like more than the others.” I guess what I’m asking of people is that, hopefully, even if you don’t like every book, the project of trying to do different things will be worth it in the long run—and more interesting than the alternative. Even if you don’t love a specific book, maybe you’ll say, “At least I’m glad he’s not just doing the same thing again and again.”

I think I’ve been very lucky with this. I’m not naïve. I think that if I just constantly wrote things that no one liked I wouldn’t be able to do this at all. But I think that my readers have been quite open to me doing a bit of experimentation. I don’t think that’s true of everyone’s readers, but I’m quite lucky.

I also think that you can’t get caught up in the idea of trying to give people what they want as a writer. I really do feel quite strongly that my job is not to give people what they want, but to make people want what I give. I may or may not be successful in that, but that’s the effort. So I never think, “Well, what are people going to enjoy?” I think, “How am I going to make people enjoy and be compelled by the stuff that I’m trying to do?”

Don’t get me wrong; it always makes me sad when some readers don’t like some of the books. I’m as needy as most writers (though I don’t think that everything I do is completely flawless and perfect), but overall I think readers are less hidebound than they are sometimes portrayed to be.

STEERING BACK toward Kraken, one of the most important and interesting characters was Wati—the lead organizer of a general strike of magical familiars. I think that his whole character, and the strike’s portrayal in the novel, is a great representation of the way you stand above some other SF writers in the ability to delve into the class nature of the worlds that you create. It’s something that is hauntingly lacking (at least for socialists) from even the most well constructed of fantastical worlds. There simply isn’t a perspective around what makes society run. My question for you is why do you think that element is so lacking in most SF or fantasy, and how approaching things from a Marxist perspective helps shape your fiction? 

IF I can answer the latter question first, it’s simply not something that I’m conscious of. I never think, “As a Marxist, how do I construct this fantasy world?” I never think of this stuff at all, I just sort of get on with it. I think in a sense, usually when asked about it and it’s considered afterward, it’s a function of the fact that, if you’re a socialist, if you’re a Marxist, then class—and certainly other issues, like racism or sexism, but class in particular—is a structuring mode of society. Thus when you’re constructing imaginary worlds in your head, how can you not focus around that? It’s not an optional add-in in the sense of thinking, “Oh! Got to bring in class into this!” It’s how I see the world.

If you think for example of New Crobuzon [the fantasy world created in Miéville’s Perdido Street StationThe Scar, and Iron Council], you have to think, “What makes New Crobuzon keep ticking?” It’s like the Brecht question in “Questions from a Worker Who Reads.” I think that if you’re a socialist you’ve sort of imbibed that, and it becomes second nature to you. You know, The pyramids, who made them? Who cooked for that king? So this isn’t something that I dwell on but I think it is like second nature, because it’s the way I see the world, and the world I see is filled with questions about oppression and exploitation.

The ways I deal with all that differ project to project. There might be projects where that’s very overt and dominant. Or if you’re coming from a more dreamlike and more surreal perspective it will be more mediated through certain aesthetic techniques and less direct, but it’s always there in the background. It’s in that sense that Trotsky talks about “the social lie.” Combining class with other issues is what determines the degree to which that notion of the social lie permeates the way you envisage the world.

To talk about why it’s missing from a lot of science fiction, I suppose it’s just a function of the fact that it’s missing from a lot of social discussion. It’s very functional to capitalism to pretend that class is fundamentally epiphenomenal and slippery, and if it’s there at all it’s something which is, at best, not very important, or at worst is gauche and vulgar to talk about. It’s like, “Well we’re all terribly mobile anyway, and class is really about the sort of clothes that you wear, ” and so on. So it’s kind of no surprise.

That said, I do think that class does permeate a huge amount of writing (but often in a way that’s not wholly convincing to a socialist), because it’s to do with a reflection. Try as one may, it’s very difficult to sustain the claim that class doesn’t matter, but I think it’s much easier to deflect the lived reality of that and to construct untrue (but not wholly unconvincing) theories of what class is. I think a lot of art and fiction—probably more than ignoring the issue—deals with these unconvincing models of class. So, in a lot of traditional fantasy, class becomes “destiny.” If one wanted to sound like a sort of camp Marxist, one could say that in a lot of radical, petty bourgeois fiction, class becomes a locus for a cultural ressentiment. These are reflections of real things, but are things one might disagree with. This doesn’t mean that these aren’t books that can be enjoyed, but their views of class are not wholly convincing.

I’m really not surprised that a strong sense of class doesn’t appear in most fiction, but I would be wary of parodying this fact. I wouldn’t want to set myself up as a sort of “lone warrior.” There is plenty of really good stuff—including things not written by overt leftists—that is permeated with an awareness of class.

ON A related note, I think that one of the strongest aspects of all of your work is the way that politics become a textural aspect of the story, as opposed to being front and center. There’s never any descent into didactic traps, no high-blown polemical soliloquies, and I’m curious what you think of the long-standing debate among Marxists, sparked by the exchange between Bertold Brecht and Georg Lukács over whether revolutionaries need to approach art primarily as a form of political propaganda. What do you think about this relation between the form and function of art? How does your view of that relation play a part in your political activism and how important is it to bring politics into aesthetics? 

THAT’S MORE than one question. On the issue of Lukács and Brecht, anyone who works within the fantastic fiction genre, or in non-realist art, has to have, at best, a very skeptical and combative relationship with Lukács because he was highly sectarian to that whole tradition. Obviously that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn things from him, but his antipathy to the dreamlike, to the non-realist is notorious. The sort of tradition in which I would stand, both as a writer and someone who thinks about literature, is definitely not a Lukácsian one. I think he’s a big presence that needs to be related to, but I wouldn’t agree with him on approach.

In terms of the relationship between writing and activism, again it’s one of those things which—at the level of the lived, day-to-day reality—is a total nonissue for me. I was never one of those leftists who got interested in science fiction as a means of propaganda. I’m someone who grew up reading this stuff and loved it and always wanted to write it. What I’m doing is writing the sort of books that I wanted to read, and there’s nothing mysterious about that. It’s never been an issue to mediate between the two.

I’m obviously aware that lots of my readers are not going to share my politics or will not be interested in them. Maybe they’re in the story for a good monster or an interesting cliff-hanger and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that. Literature’s task is not one of political recruitment. For that reason, it’s never an issue for me.

I like very much your formulation about it having to do with texture, because none of this is meant to disavow the politics of the work. I think of my stuff as very much political and politically inflected, but as you say it’s to do with texture. It’s to do with the fact that the way I perceive the world is political and therefore the way that I perceive the worlds that I write—whether fantastic or not—is also textured by politics. Which is why it’s there, but it’s not defining.

I think it probably is possible to write very good polemical fiction. I don’t want to fall into that liberal argument that art and politics are opposed. Certainly on a couple of occasions I’ve written stories—like a short story I wrote called “An End to Hunger” which is quite consciously a politically polemical story. And there’s the mediated level of something like Iron Council, where it is intended that you don’t need to share the politics to enjoy the story, but it is nonetheless a story that is deeply structured by politics. It does vary project to project, but primarily the desire is to tell interesting or exciting stories within a world that is inevitably constructed with a deeply political texture.

I do sometimes get asked by young left writers about the relationship between my art and my activism, and I feel like, for me, thinking in those terms is a bit of a chimera and is quite dangerous. Art is not a replacement for activism; its job is a different thing. If you want to persuade people of a political position then write a leaflet or give a speech. If you write a fictional book that is saturated with your politics and you do actually change some people’s minds, then that’s terrific. But if you set out with that as the aim then you’re likely to be disappointed, and you’re likely to write a not particularly great novel.

To me politics and art overlap, but they are in no way coterminous, and thinking of them in that light is setting yourself up for trouble.

COULD YOU talk a little bit about J.R.R. Tolkien—whom you once called “a wen [cyst] on the arse of history”—and the question of world building? If I’m correct in understanding what you’ve written of Tolkien, the more reverent side of your views includes an appreciation for the novelty of his constructing a whole fantastical world of remarkable depth. Yet, you’ve also said that, for you, backstory is “irrelevant until and unless it becomes relevant for the text.” How do you approach the world building aspects of writing SF/fantasy, and how is Tolkien a shaping influence on this process? 

THE QUESTION of Tolkien is not so much that I admire the depth of his world—in point of fact I find most of the specifics of Middle-earth sociologically unconvincing (to put it politely). But what I think is very revolutionary about his paradigm is that he has to be given credit for “sub-creation.” He really formalized this in a way that had not been done before. Rather than constructing a world that is subordinate to the exigencies of the plot or theme or whatever, you create a world and then you inhabit it with stories and characters. This is something that non–genre people mock quite a lot, but it is an absolutely extraordinary thing to do. It’s an extraordinary aesthetic project and it can do things in certain ways that other genres cannot.

It also comes with certain costs. It is a very strange and very new way of thinking about stories and the way that you and the reader inhabit those stories. Tolkien was the great formalizer of that. So I have a lot of respect for him as someone who thought through this paradigm. So, irrespective of whether you like his work or not—and my opinion on this is a matter of record—there’s no question that that was an extraordinarily important moment in fiction in general and fantasy in particular.

The question of this process for me relates to this: There are various ways of doing world creation, and one of the great problems with world creation is when it becomes an end in itself. When this happens it becomes this desperate and rather neurotic attempt to contain a world and to taxonomize a world totally. Which is of course completely impossible. What you end up with is that clunky fiction where you walk your character through all the places you’ve created simply because you have created them. There can be these endless and pointless excursions, and it doesn’t just make for bad fiction, paradoxically it makes for unconvincing world creation because it is constructed on a notion that the world is knowable in its totality. Some people take this to a sort of extreme.

M. John Harrison, the great British anti-fantasy writer has written brilliant screeds against world creation. He deliberately messes with the reader’s expectations of world creation. He likes to torture us with that nerdy desire we have for a stable secondary world—and I speak as one who shares it. So, for example, the name of the city he’s created in Viriconium changes from story to story with no particular explanation. The map shifts. A character who is dead in one story comes back later on. This of course makes continuity freaks scream in physical pain. I really love this about him. It’s incredibly provocative, and while it’s not the paradigm I write within, I do try to take some of the lessons from that.

What that would mean would be, for example, don’t fill in everything on a map. If you don’t know what’s on a map in the real world, how can you possibly fill one in in a world that doesn’t exist? It’s meaningless. Leave things unknown.

With The City & the City, one of the things that fascinated me was the number of people who criticized it on the grounds of wanting to know how the cities got like that.* Look, I’m not the police, so if not finding out bugged them, and the book didn’t work for them because of it, then it didn’t work for them. Personally that has no traction for me as a reader, partly because I like mystery—I like not understanding things in the books that I read. But also because—and I know we’re not talking about the real world—it’s an equivalent question to asking, “How did London come to be?” “Why is Budapest like that?” It’s a question that demands such an amount of history that the weight of totality is so great that you can’t possibly answer it. Totality evades our complete understanding, not because the world is unknowable, but because there’s so fucking much of it.

For all those reasons, I think one of the most important things in world creation is to leave certain things unsaid. I think there’s nothing wrong with frustrating your readers about that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pissing them off at all, as long as they’re interested.

To mention Harrison one more time, there is a lovely formulation from when he was at his slightly more “world create-y” early on in his career. He has a lovely phrase in the opening of Pastel City where he says, “There were some seventeen notable empires in the later ages of man. None of them concern us here.” And I love that. It’s so cheeky to pitch this historical weight of world creation, but then say, “Well, I’m not going to go into that because it’s really not relevant.” That to me is sort of like the most elegant and funny moment of world creation in speculative fiction in the last thirty years. “None of them concern us here.” That could be the slogan of the epistemologically rigorous world creator.

ONE LAST question—drawn from your essay in Red Planets: Science Fiction and Marxism, where you deal a lot with the relationship between fantasy and SF and the number of people who want to segment one off from the other. The whole essay is an attempt to justify the blurring of distinctions, which you say is a “fact on the ground”; and one of the things I found the most interesting and useful was the ability to say, “Actually, science fiction has the same potential to be backwards looking and reactionary that fantasy does.” So based on that discussion, particularly for readers of SW and the ISR who may not be invested in this world yet, why should they pay attention to science fiction and fantasy? Why is it something that more people should take seriously? 

WELL, FIRST of all, I love the formulation of the SF/fantasy debate, because normally it’s put forward by partisans of fantasy—and I include myself in that—arguing that fantasy can be just as interesting and relevant and forward looking as science fiction, but I love the inversion of that. That another way of looking at it is that science fiction can be just as politically crap as fantasy. (Of course I’m being facetious here.) That rigorous divide, which has been pitched for a long time, is something I have very little time for.

The question of why people should be interested in it.… Well I suppose I would say that they shouldn’t. It’s no comrade’s duty to give a shit about any of this. I am a happy geek, I love this stuff, and I absolutely love it. But I don’t think there’s any reason anyone else should love it. You’re not being a bad socialist if you don’t have an opinion on Star Trek, you know?

What I do think is three things: One is that anyone who is interested in modern culture, whether they like it or not, does in fact have to have some understanding of SF and fantasy, simply because they are becoming such tremendously powerful default cultural vernaculars. That’s just a fact. It’s like, if you want to be an educated person about books, you probably want to know a little bit of something about crime novels because they’re very important culturally. This is a fact. You may bemoan it. You may celebrate it, or whatever. But it is a fact that science fiction and fantasy are very powerful cultural forms.

The second one, which is a little bit deeper and closer to my heart, is that—even while different people are going to have different favorite things and have every right to love the things they want to love and ignore the stuff that they would ignore—I do think that we still suffer from a certain type of snobbery. Even among some on the left, some of our more Lukácsian-inclined comrades, who feel that there is something infra-dig [beneath one’s dignity], and sort of silly or unworthy of attention in all of this. I suppose I would say, yes, there is an awful lot of crap written within these paradigms (and those of us who love them probably love quite a bit of the crap even though we know it’s crap), but there are also writers—even those one would not agree with politically—who are worth paying some mind. Gene Wolfe is one of my all-time favorite SF/fantasy writers and he’s a conservative Catholic and it shows, but I think simply in terms of quality writing, in terms of the fiction that matters today, I would urge people that maybe think “this stuff is not for me” to look at people like Wolfe, like Harrison, like John Crowley, like Luke William, like Octavia Butler, like Kelly Link—there are great number of SF writers out there who are among the most important people working in any field. And I think that it’s an exciting time in the world of SF and fantasy. The fantastic tradition in general is doing really well. There’s a lot of really good stuff going on in it.

One of the nicest things that people say to me occasionally is, “I never read science fiction, but I love your stuff.” That’s lovely, but I would really hope that I could operate as a kind of gateway drug in, rather than a conduit out, and say, “You really might find that there’s a lot of really interesting stuff there,” for both cultural and political reasons.

The final things I would say on this, and this is me at my most provocative and partisan for the genre, and I say it tentatively, is I do also think that there are specificities to the fantastic mode which are uniquely well suited to engaging with the lived reality of modernity in a way that the best—and there is much very brilliant—realist fiction cannot do. I think, as well as everything else, that there is something uniquely interesting about the fantastic as a modern literary form.

WOULD YOU qualify that statement as a potentially more interesting literary form? 

YES.... I would, but it’s a kernel that exists within even the most degraded fantastic. I’m not saying that makes it better than a really, really good realist novel. What I am saying is: A realist novel, of whatever brilliance, is always limited by its relations to reality because of the paradigm in which it’s working. Whereas the fantastic is able to do certain things—and obviously ninety-nine percent of it doesn’t do those certain things, but it is potentially in its form able to do those things in a way that nothing else can. Adorno supposedly said somewhere, I’ve never been able to find the quote, but supposedly Adorno said, “Kafka is the only writer capable of writing about the twentieth century.” I suspect that was meant as an encomium to Kafka particularly, but to the extent it is true, it is true because of the mode in which Kafka was writing, which was a non-realist, fantastic mode—even if an eccentric kind. I think there is something in the fantastic which has the potential to engage with the lived reality of modernity in a way that the supposedly realist cannot.

Those are the three reasons I would say to the culturally curious and open-minded leftist, “Come on in. The water’s fine.”

*  The two cities featured in the novel, Ul Qoma and Beszel, exist in ways both “overlapping” and side-by-side. Characters in the book might be on a street in one city, yet walking across the street from, or even next to, people who are “in” the other city. Social and legal mores force those in one city to consciously “unsee” those from the other city in order to maintain these boundaries.


Issue #71

May 2010

The education shock doctrine

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The next debt bubble

    Petrino DiLeo reviews The Buyout of America: How Private Equity will Cause the Next Great Credit Crisis by Josh Kosman
  • Eyewitness to revolution

    Dennis Kosuth reviews The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Michael Meyer
  • Women in the American gulag

    Lee Wengraf reviews Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States edited by Rickie Solinger, Paula Johnson, Martha Raimon, Tina Reynolds and Ruby Tapia
  • Real data on same-sex marriage

    Ragina Johnson reviews When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-sex Marriage by M. V. Lee Badgett