The radical fantastic: fabulatory politics in China Miéville’s cities of ‘Lies-that-Truth’

Coley, Rob and Lockwood, Dean (2012) The radical fantastic: fabulatory politics in China Miéville’s cities of ‘Lies-that-Truth’. C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings, 1 (1). ISSN 2045-5216

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Over the past decade, China Miéville has established himself as a major talent in contemporary urban fantasy. Fantasy is a notoriously conservative genre. Its promise is one of giving expression to transformative potential opened up by an othering of the world, but the mainline of the tradition has actually been dedicated to capping any transgressive spirit. Dominant currents – for example, the Tolkienesque - have been quick to disinfect the fantastic of what Rosemary Jackson calls its ‘existential dis-ease’. It is to Miéville’s credit that he has consistently sought to champion radical experimentation in fantasy, to explore its political implications and unleash an infectious rebelliousness. In fact, he has chosen to employ the term, ‘weird fiction’, to describe his work, actually a cauldron of genre which also encompasses science fiction and horror. H.P. Lovecraft, the writer most often associated with weird fiction, described the dreadful affect of the weird as akin to that inspired by ‘the scratching of outside shapes and entities’. The dread is that the scratching from ‘outside’ is already inside, infecting, running rampant, warping and deforming human life. Such deformation, in Miéville, is perhaps most explicitly rendered as ‘the Smog’ in his 2007 children’s novel, Un Lun Dun, in which a supergenius cloud seeking to ‘burn and learn’ all books, to assimilate and exploit all human knowledge, invades an alternate London. For Miéville, weird fiction is an expression of the sublime as an alien, predatory, totalitarian threat. In his hands, the fantastic harbours powers which rival such dread but which do not choke off the promise of transformation by seeking closure in some redemptive status quo.

Specifically, we will argue, fiction itself is here recognised as a reality-producing and transforming agent. Miéville’s urban fantasies posit narrative itself as a political tool, conjuring performative virtual spaces immanent to reality. In novels from King Rat (1998) through to Kraken (2010), wars are waged in alternate Londons and various imaginary cities between forces which struggle to subvert the distinction between truth and fiction, each in their own way. His cities are occupied by interstitial societies and kingdoms, shadowing and parodying the actual, diagramming invisible forces. We employ the concepts of ‘powers of the false’, ‘fabulation’ and ‘hyperstition’, from Nietzsche, Deleuze, Bergson and Land, to interrogate these fictions about the catalytic powers of fiction, fiction understood as an ‘abstract machine trafficking between the virtual and the actual’.

We focus, firstly, on The City and The City (2009), which deals with a murder mystery taking place in the breaches between two (or more?) European cities simultaneously inhabiting the same territory in a curiously crosshatched manner. What fascinates us about this novel is the ambiguity in Miéville’s description of the cities. Is there, in fact, something otherworldly and weird about the transposition of these places, or is it something entirely performed (collectively) by their denizens (hence the ability of the policing force of ‘Breach’ to move transversally between them)? Any supernatural elements are grounded in a kind of procedural banality. In other words, what is at stake in the novel appears to be a process of fiction-that-makes-itself-real, signs flattened into non-signifying triggers, namely diagrams that operate on a level beyond meaning.

Our second main example is the confluence of themes of language, city and fiction in Miéville’s most recent novel, Embassytown (2011). The narrative concerns human interactions with an alien race, the Ariekei, which communicates via a form of language akin to Walter Benjamin’s divine ‘Language as such’, in which only the actually existent can be spoken: ‘We didn’t speak, we were mute, we only dropped the stones we mentioned out of our mouths’. That is, until the aliens aspire to Saussurean semiosis, aping the language of man. This event cracks open their world until they move beyond signification, learning, in great crisis, of the ‘truthing’ resources of language, of lie and metaphor, the ‘lie-that-truths’. The ‘new Ariekei’ recognize the productivity of fiction as the condition of new life and production of new truths beyond good and evil. John Holloway has spoken of a double movement of ‘negation-and-creation’ in which the world is cracked open by a prefigurative politics, involving ‘the acting-out of a world that does not exist, in the hope that by acting it out, we may really breathe it into life; or rather, in the knowledge that this is the only way in which we can bring it into life’. Embassytown can be understood as a crack-fiction; in this novel, a city is broken and remade in a weird experiment with freeing language, putting it into contact with the powers of the false, breaking the habit of ‘making sense’ as ordinarily understood.

Keywords:fabulation, Deleuze
Subjects:Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q320 English Literature
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Media)
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ID Code:5926
Deposited On:26 Jun 2012 18:37

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