The fantasy author gives a talk at Madison’s annual Earth Day conference. (Photo: Miéville, left, in a post-talk Q&A with Nelson Institute director Paul Robbins. Photo by Emily Mills.)
During his talk at the Nelson Institute’s Earth Day Conference Tuesday morning at Monona Terrace, China Miéville’s treatment of environment, social policy, and the concept of utopia reminded me of the way James Baldwin wrote and spoke about race. That is because of the stately yet stinging cadence of Miéville’s lecture, and because Miéville refused to offer the comfort of easy answers and simple moral choices. Just as I can’t shake the piercing insight of a Baldwin polemic by reminding myself that I’m not racist or homophobic, I can’t brush off the questions Miéville posed simply by reassuring myself that I’m liberal and “green” enough, and so forth. With both writers it’s about confronting something much deeper than surface behaviors and policy positions. In Miéville’s case that meant urging us to stay angry and focused as we imagine better futures and fight for them.
The talk was titled “The Limits Of Utopia,” a subject that obviously complements Miéville’s work as a writer of fantasy/sci-fi/weird fiction. But it suits him particularly well, because his novels tend to embrace detailed political and social factors as eagerly as they do whimsical machines and bizarre creatures. One crucial subplot of his 2010 novel Kraken involves a strike by a union of magicians’ assistants (actually, labor unrest is a pretty frequent theme throughout his work). In 2011’s Embassytown, humans share a city with a race of native aliens, and negotiate that relationship through an intricate diplomacy. The three of his novels set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag feature the Remade, convicts who’ve been sentenced to be capriciously fused with machine and animal parts, in a gruesome cross of steampunk fantasy and totalitarian cruelty. He’s even depicted a sort of cracked geo-engineering: In The Scar, from 2002, the leaders of a floating city summon up a massive inter-dimensional whale in hopes of gaining greater mobility and political power.
It helps to point out two main texts around which Miéville framed his talk: “The Renewed World,” a vision of ecological-human harmony by early Christian author Lactantius, and a report in which consultants urged officials in Los Angeles to locate a proposed waste incinerator in a poor neighborhood, reasoning that poorer residents would have a harder time organizing against the incinerator. Elements of both combined as Miéville explained how utopian thinking has at times empowered fascist political movements and environmentally degrading business practices, and how at times our ideas about utopia unwittingly lapse into apocalyptic thinking. While defending the idea of utopia as a way to push humanity toward a better future, he also warned that utopian thinking is easily hijacked by those who would distract us from more practical but politically inconvenient solutions: “We LIVE in a utopia,” he said. “It just isn’t ours.”
Speaking of plural pronouns, perhaps the most forceful theme in Miéville’s talk was that the very idea of “we” can be misleading, at least in terms of planning a future for the whole of humanity. When polluting industries or even environmental activists neglect the world’s poor, he said, it becomes clear that “we are not all in this together,” and if anything “we fight… by embracing our non-togetherness—the fact that there are sides,” in a strategy of tension. He concluded the speech, in fact, by saying the idea that environmental responsibility makes for good business “is the most absurd utopia of all.”
That’s admittedly just a bit of what he said and doesn’t capture all the nuance, but there was something grimly rousing in Miéville’s outlook, and in his attack on the “self-shackling green politeness” that holds back environmental movements. But next time I delve into Miéville’s universe of intrigue and violence, it’ll be with a slightly more optimistic and long view. His idea of utopia as something that can be vital—when coupled, he said, with the proper amount of rage and fury—sheds light on the ending of his novel ‘Iron Council,’ in which a train of utopian rebels becomes frozen indefinitely in time, having spent decades trying to build their own society while on the run from an oppressive government. It’s easy to see that ending as frustrating and bleak—after a novel in which these people fight for existence and inspire a failed rebellion. In light of what Miéville said Tuesday, perhaps we could think of those magically frozen-in-time dissidents as providing a necessary source of provocation and inspiration, obviously a bit short of their goal but preserving an idealistic spirit and combative defiance.