The weird socialist

China Miéville interviewed

"The questions I get constantly asked about the relationship between politics and fiction," explains China Miéville at the beginning of our thoroughly enjoyable conversation."For me, it's a complete non-issue: just not something that concerns or worries me." Right. Ho hum. See, I'd wanted to organise my interview with Miéville - the genre-busting Ideas Man of contemporary British fiction, "Weird" or otherwise, who also happens to be an active member of the SWP and a Marxist critic - around the politics of his fiction. The left has run out of ideas - or so we've been told, repeatedly, ever since the "collapse of capitalism" wasn't, um, capitalised upon sufficiently by British reds. Obviously not true! I'd intended to conclude the other end of an explanation, in the author's own words, of the revolutionary leftist conceptions at the heart of his densely shimmering stories. Just look at these novels!

I'd come looking for polemic. I found something much more complicated - and, I think, rewarding.

Which isn't to say, of course, that certain political beliefs and formulations haven't forced their way explicitly into some of the man's work. Iron Council, his fourth novel, the tale of an ever-moving train hijacked by rail-workers and transformed into a revolution-inspiring steampunk Socialist community, the most obvious example of Miéville-politics colliding - noisily - with Miéville-storytelling. I ask if Iron Council could be described as something of a Miéville-experiment, then, but he's not convinced: "It was distinctive from the earliest stage. A book I thought of as engaging quite overtly and specifically with certain issues, so rather than penetrating it with a conception of the world that is political, which is true of all the books, it's about political questions, ranging from issues of solidarity through to a much bigger issue of representation of revolutionary change - it was a kind of bet, that with the tools of the fantastic, you can engage with certain political and aesthetic issues in a way that you can't with so-called realistic fiction. Particularly when it comes to the representation of radical change. But I wouldn't call that an experiment."

Either way, the project wasn't exactly repeated (it never is with China): the latest book, last year's The City & the City, is an eerier, more creeping tale of two cities occupying the same space - "crosshatched" is one of the words frequently used - and two communities of citizens forbidden, on pain of permanent, ambiguous disappearance, from acknowledging each other's existence. Was this another very deliberate change of gear, away from these concrete political questions and into more moral, metaphysical territory?

"I'm mindful of the fact that writers are often the worst people to judge this. But for me, The City & the City is very political because it's all about the logic of nation states and borders and the way borders work. And that question - I take what you're saying, it's about unseeing, and filtering out certain things and choosing what you relate to - but that seems to me to be highly politicised. A question of the individual and the ideologies and structures within which they find themselves. It's not overtly political in that it's not explicitly about a political movement, but I think the things that it's concerned with are political questions. I'd also say that there's not really any such thing as a purely moral question. I think moral questions are political questions, so maybe that's not a disagreement."

It's when I suggest that the novel seems, to me, to knowingly, enthusiastically transcend straightforward symbolism - parallels with, say, East and West Berlin - that he really begins to open up about its politics, though. "I'm very disinclined to have the books be read allegorically," he explains. "I don't like allegory. It's funny that you say what it might be deemed to obviously be about, because equally others have said, 'it's obviously about Jerusalem,' and 'it's obviously really about the Balkans.' For me, I really like metaphoric readings, and I think that, certainly, if you talk about divided cities, immediately a certain set of associations and corollaries are thrown up. I'm not trying to adjure that, or distance myself from that. But it's more a question, I think, of saying I don't want the text to read as if it's reducible to that - why bother writing it as a novel, then? It doesn't make any sense. If it doesn't have a kind of specificity, then it's irrelevant.

"I also think there's a danger of a collapsing reading, as if to say, 'this book is about cities that are divided in unusual ways and Belfast stroke Jerusalem stroke Berlin are divided in unusual ways and this is clearly about that' - and I think that actually, in a lot of these cases, the opposite is true. Having an analogy with Jerusalem is extremely misleading: what's going on in Jerusalem is nothing to do with unseeing, with internalised taboos and norms, it's to do with a much more overt and political project. The book was intended as a reflection: what is the everyday logic of borders and of life in a city? Then to exaggerate and extrapolate. The border between two countries is an absurdity that's true, its narrow specificity, the fact that it might be here rather than two foot to the left, it's very rarely argued on some kind of putative, eternal basis - but those two feet might be the difference between life and death if you're standing on the wrong side."

An absurdity that's true: the basis of the relationship between Marxism and the Weird that Miéville codified in an essay, "Marxism and Fantasy: An Introduction," which appeared in the journal, Historical Materialism, of which he is an editor. "In constructing an internally coherent but actually impossible totality," he argued, "constructed on the basis that the impossible is, for this work, true - [the fantastic mode] mimics the "absurdity" of capitalist modernity." But in many ways, The City & the City is his least "fantastic" work, monster-less and, by Weird standards, positively understated. What can be read into that, then?

"It was conceived of as a present for my mum, who loves straight crime novels, so it had to be, in certain key ways, as everyday as possible. But hopefully to do something cool or new or interesting with that everyday. You can - it has been done - write terribly good crime novels that also feature robots or dragons or whatever, but that wasn't the project here: here, it was to write a real-world crime novel that just happens to take place in a place that doesn't quite exist, but that is based on real-world logic. Slightly exaggerated. The next book might very well go back to monsters, the one after may leave again, it's completely text-specific. There are different ways of doing the fantastic. One thing I wanted to do in this book was not to have that kind of very overt, exaggerated baroque estrangement from the everyday. To have, instead, a sense of close, but ominous, familiarity."

On several occasions, China draws a definite line between his academic work and his fiction writing - between his "scholarly hat" and his "storywriting hat." And in an interview with The Believer a few years ago, he made it very clear that, "when I write my novels, I'm not writing them to make political points. I'm writing them because I passionately love monsters...and strange situations." Conscious that we are talking too much about fiction and too little about politics, I decide to try to get to the bottom of this rather unlikely binary, this "non-issue." Citing his full-length account of the relationship between capitalism and international law, Between Equal Rights, as an example, I ask whether, by denying the mass-readership that gobbles up his fiction access to progressive ideas that he clearly sincerely believes to be both correct and important, he's missing a trick - an opportunity to disseminate truths as widely as possible, to a loyal fan-base.

"I really don't think I am missing an opportunity. Say my aim is to make a political argument: it may be that I have more of a readership for my fiction than my non-fiction, but fiction, by its very nature, is going to make it extremely difficult to form an argument that will actually change people's minds, lay out evidence, and in such a way that it won't hamstring the fiction. People won't enjoy it, they'll stop reading it, the readership will go down, it's completely self-cannibalising. That's not the same as saying that I don't think you can have good polemical fiction, propaganda fiction - you can, I just think it's extremely difficult, and for me, it's not the main drive and interest in writing fiction.

"'Specificity' is clearly my word de jour. By talking about genre differences, I certainly don't mean to suggest that I don't want as wide a readership as possible for both the fiction and the non-fiction. And I certainly don't mean that I don't want to explore ideas within the fiction and to make fiction as intellectually interesting as possible, and non-fiction as well-written and creative. There's no contradiction there. I do, however, feel reasonably strongly the sense that the job of a piece of argumentative scholarly non-fiction is not the same as the job of a piece of fiction. With fiction, you don't have to answer your own questions, you can have it both ways, you are trying to create images that aren't instrumentalised as part of an argument, that can indulge themselves.

"And if I look at the things that are inspiring me politically, that are interesting and important: say you take the issue of Palestine, I want to make an argument about that - it seems to me that trying to do so within the realm of fiction is tremendously inefficient, it's an inefficient political argument and it's probably inefficient fiction. I would much rather simply not dissemble and say, 'here is a 3000 word article about what I think about Palestine.' So I just don't think anyone's missing a trick, I genuinely don't, and I don't think that means not having politics in your fiction. I think it's a false disparity."

But what, I ask, about, say, the debates that have pursued Avatar - don't you look at this record-breaking, rapt audience and think you might have prompted a much more useful, much less problematic discussion?

"But what has James Cameron done? Let's look at that. With Avatar, it's very clear James Cameron is making a set of arguments, whether consciously or not, about the nature of anthropological interaction and so on. As you know, some people on the left have loved it, said that even though it's very problematic in places, it's genuinely progressive because it's against corporatism and imperialism and so on. Others have said it's an appalling reiteration of racialised clichés about Noble Savages - which is certainly closer to my own position. Then you've got people saying, 'what are you even talking about, wasn't that a great explosion scene?' Or, 'it's got nothing to do with race, they're aliens' - one of my favourite evasive arguments. You have to ask, what does James Cameron want to do, what does he think he's doing and what has he actually achieved? His social purpose is to make an enormous profit, by whatever means necessary, and it really doesn't matter what set of means or tropes he perpetuates. As long as they're not genuinely threatening - and very, very few ideas on their own are genuinely threatening. And even if Avatar's purpose was to investigate political ideas, then it presents them in such a nebulous and unhelpful way that I just don't think it achieved much in those terms."

All in all, it's a convincing formulation. And, I propose, an optimistic one - of fiction clearing and creating imaginative space, and of that often being achievement enough, regardless of the author's politics. "Imaginative space, sure," China agrees. "But imaginative space hopefully leading to political programmatic expression, not necessarily - might happen, but that's not necessarily the point." I finish with a question about whether, bearing these politically open-ended writerly attitudes in mind, the popular image of China Miéville, dissident hard-left novelist-activist, ever becomes irritating. It doesn't, I suggest, tell the full story.

"No no - I'm not sure if anyone has really put me in those terms, but I don't think I'd particularly object. All these different categories are linked, but I think at a deeper level: I think there are fairly strong social, cultural and ideological reasons why 'literary', establishment fiction is validated in certain ways that genre fiction is often not. So at a fairly abstract level, I don't have any real objection to this. And if one's a socialist, one is dissident about a lot of things. But I don't like the idea of generalised dissidence in a kind of facile contrarianist way, I certainly wouldn't want to come across like that. There's plenty of stuff that I don't feel dissident about: I really like tea, I don't have any problem with that. I like lots of paintings. I'm a very friendly socialist."