"A place I have never seen": Possibility, Genre, Politics, and China Mieville's The Scar.
Genre Fantasy Science Fiction Characterized by Impossibility Possibility Climactic moment Recognition Cognition (or Conceptual Breakthrough) Narrative logic Story Paradigm Form of subjectivity Subject of Subject to
These pairings, as well as the ways in which they interact vertically with their related concepts and horizontally with their apparent opposites, form a major line of inquiry in what follows.
China Mieville's fiction generally, and The Scar specifically, offers an excellent focal point revealing two key issues for the present study. First, Mieville is committed to thematic and formal hybridity. Second, Mieville exhibits clear political concerns. The aforementioned critical assumptions fall into relief once we recognize that even if critics nearly always mention hybridity in their work on Mieville, (2) they nearly always do so through a Marxist lens that brackets this hybridity off from Mieville's politics and thereby renders his fantasy as, at best, apolitical and his science fiction as the political center of his body of work. I am not going too far to state that the issue of politics, wedded to Marxian analysis, has become the dominant preoccupation for Mieville scholars. (3) This preoccupation derives from 1) Mieville's socialist politics, (4) 2) the Marxist tenor of Mieville's own scholarship on international law and genre fiction, (5) and/or 3) the history of Marxism within the academic reception of science fiction generally. (6) However, we can fully understand Mieville's political concerns only when we pay particular attention to how his fiction operates at the limits of genre and beyond. In this context, we see that Marxist analysis of science fiction fails to address (and may actually blind us to) the political potential of fantasy, not only with regards to Mieville, but generally.
In order to make clear how this failing works, I wish to demonstrate how the binaries enumerated above, binaries that ground critical discussions of fantasy and science fiction, collapse under closer examination. The Scar (coupled with Mieville's statements about science fiction and fantasy) offers an opportunity to ground this discussion in a fictional text, one that complicates ideal narrative structures of science fiction and fantasy, using John Clute's definitions of these structures. Bellis Coldwine, The Scar's apparent protagonist, understands herself to be the subject of a Story. As such, she understands herself to be at home in Bas-Lag and to be someone whose life means insofar as it is part of a larger, singular, and true narrative. In Clute's terms, Bellis has Recognized herself in Story, a climactic moment that should precipitate her Healing or Return, her coming into a completed and unproblematic subjectivity. However, The Scar undermines the passage from Recognition (the third stage in Clute's full fantasy structure) to Healing/Return (the fourth and final stage), and thus thwarts this completion, by forcing Bellis to acknowledge that her Story has been false. In fact, she comes to see that she has been something of a bit player in another Story (actually another Paradigm), one that has always been truer than the one provided or created by her false consciousness. This Conceptual Breakthrough, the third stage of Clute's ideal structure of science fiction in which the protagonist integrates what had been Cognitively Estranging in the second stage, impinges on and makes impossible Recognition. Rather than being the Subject Of a Story (which is to say, its Chosen One or Hero who belongs), Bellis learns she has been Subject To a Paradigm (which is to say, its pawn or functionary who merely exists), and subsequently she makes the shift that accompanies such cognition. However, the uncertainty with which the novel concludes undermines even this Paradigm shift and forces upon Bellis and the reader the knowledge that there is more possibility in fantasy than a single Story and that multiple Paradigms can exist simultaneously in science fiction. (7) In the context of my broader argument, through this discussion we come to understand that the distinction between the possible and impossible that continues to inform critical assumptions of science fiction and fantasy cannot hold, nor should it. Progress and history must not be limited by preconceptions about what can and cannot be.
Among numerous other narrative strands, The Scar follows Bellis, a linguist who studies obscure languages, as she flees her home in the city-state of New Crobuzon because of danger she faces there. Her peril stems from her former romantic involvement with a scientist whose preoccupation with crisis energy, discussed below, drives much of the plot of the previous Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station (2000). This form of energy had come to the attention of New Crobuzon's government, who fear its revolutionary potential. As Bellis travels by ship to a distant colony, she is captured with the rest of her shipmates by the pirate city Armada. Prior to the events of the novel, Armada has floated (literally) outside of or beyond the history in which New Crobuzon-- protocapitalist, imperialist, and violent--exists. Now Armada has need of one of Bellis's shipmates, a naturalist specializing in megafauna who will help its rulers raise an avanc, a sea creature so enormous that it will be able to pull the city through the seas at rates previously impossible, thus granting the city the ability to determine its direction and allowing it to enter history and the conflicts thereof. Specifically, the avanc will help Armada reach the Scar, where the world itself has been fractured and a magical energy, Possibility, can be mined. The power of this Possibility (related to but different from the possibility that critics refer to with regard to the genres discussed here) will cause a paradigm shift: Armada will be a world power to match New Crobuzon.
For much of the novel, Bellis remains sure of who she is, of her proper place in the world. In other words, she is certain of story and her function within it. She has recognized herself from the start as a protagonist, reveling in the subjectivity granted her by New Crobuzon's superiority and its position in history. As Farah Mendlesohn puts it, "She is incapable of abandoning a map of the universe that places New Crobuzon at the center even while she is capable of admitting its flaws and self-delusions" (Mendlesohn 56). In a notable scene, Bellis rejects her newfound place in Armada, stemming as it does from her flight from New Crobuzon: "Not for me. It was an escape, a necessary and temporary escape. I was born in Chnum, Johannes. Educated in Mafataon. Was proposed to in Brock March. Broke up in Salacus Fields. New Crobuzon is my home; it will always be my home" (Mieville, The Scar 95). Bellis's association of every meaningful moment of her life with the neighborhood where it took place bespeaks a certainty of self, a knowledge that she belongs in New Crobuzon and that it actively includes her. Others, playing on this certainty, draw her into dangerous situations she does not understand because these situations do not comport with her sense of herself as superior, cultured, and knowledgeable.
First, she is duped by her sometime lover Silas Fennec, an agent of New Crobuzon captured with Bellis and pressganged into Armadan life. He convinces Bellis that New Crobuzon faces imminent invasion by a non-human race that will do horrible, if rather undefined, things to her home if she does not betray Armada. With her help, Fennec sends a message to New Crobuzon, a message that allegedly contains information about the invasion but in fact contains information about how New Crobuzon can find and destroy Armada (and rescue Fennec in the process).
During her trial for the part she played (however unwittingly) in this plot and the costly battle that followed, Bellis thinks to herself, in a line from which I draw the title of this essay: "I have knowledge that I cannot use, on a journey I cannot control, the aims of which I do not share or understand, and I am longing for a home I fled, and for a place I have never seen" (Mieville, The Scar 438). Bellis's confusion here speaks to her at-this-point increasing uncertainty about who she is and where she belongs: in short, her uncertainty about the full subjectivity she expected as reward for saving her home from destruction, a home to which she would be able to return meaningfully. Her certainty suffers further damage when she attempts to confront Fennec. Upon this confrontation, Fennec states coldly:
You're not going to learn anything from me, Bellis. [...] You're not going to get anything out of this. This won't be catharsis, and you won't feel better when you leave. [...] There's nothing special about you, Bellis: you were one of many. I treated you no differently from anyone else. I thought of you no more and no less. The only difference between you and any of the others is that you're here now. And you think there's some point to you being here. That you had to ... what? Have it out? [...] There's no it, Bellis." (485)
The climax of the ideal fantasy text involves a character recognizing her place within story, something Bellis had done since the beginning. Here we find the opposite, namely a minor character's alienation from such story. In a final blow to her sense of self, Uther Doul--a caricature of fantasy's warrior heroes, Bellis's unrequited sexual interest, and perhaps the person most responsible for what ultimately happens in the novel--reveals to Bellis with a look how he too has used her, made her subject to plans she could never have guessed, part of a logic that, if it had a place for her, was a place among other places, no more or less significant: "A great revelatory wave washed over her: a stunned appreciation, and insinuation of the layers and layers and layers of manipulation in which she was caught, frozen, maneuvered, exploited, used and supported and betrayed" (538). Fennec and Doul each force Bellis to confront a paradigm shift, a cognition (analogous but opposed to a recognition) of her situation. What she understood to be the truth was not such; there was always another truth, one that replaces the one in which she previously believed. Mendlesohn notes, "In The Scar [Mieville] pulls a very neat trick by allowing Bellis Coldwine to think she is the Doctor [as in Doctor Who, the one who explains the world], when she is in fact the assistant [the one to whom the world is explained]" (Mendlesohn 70). The Scar thus subverts the fantasy climax by incorporating components of the structure of the ideal science fiction text, the significance of which remains to be seen.
With Bellis's situation in mind, I now turn to John Clute's quadruplestage ideal structures of the two genres in question in more detail in order to (1) address key critical understandings of these genres and their politics, (2) briefly address the shortcomings of much of the critical denigration of fantasy in contrast to the critical celebration of science fiction, and (3) demonstrate the manner in which The Scar undermines and redevelops these politics through genre hybridity. According to Clute, fantasy begins with wrongness, in which a character notices and identifies something in the land that marks that land's diminishment, its departure from its primary, true, Edenic story. Thinning, a process that exacerbates the land's newly inaugurated fallenness, follows wrongness. Before the protagonists can heal themselves and/or the land and thereby return home (healing/return being the fourth and final stage of the structure), they first "begin to understand what has been happening to them [...]. They understand, in other words, that they are in a Story; that, properly recognized (which is to say properly told), their lives have the coherence and significance of Story; that, in short, the Story has been telling them" (Clute and Grant 804). (8) This understanding is the third stage of Clute's structure, recognition, in which a protagonist moves from ignorance to knowledge of her situation and acquires the means by which to improve it. Thus the moment and process of recognition makes possible the completion of story that comes with healing/return. Recognition that the story has been telling the characters in an upstanding manner that grants them meaning and that these characters play roles in a greater drama reflecting the land's original higher nature creates what readers have celebrated (and critics have often denigrated) (9) as fantasy's consolatory nature. Recognition is thus part and parcel of the eucatastrophe, Tolkien's joyous turn away from despair and toward triumph. The three scenes from The Scar just described, and others, detail the denial, to Bellis, of recognition. They reflect the degree to which Bellis, whatever her understanding of events had been up to these points, has not been a protagonist, nor a chosen one, nor a liberal human subject who moves through history, through the quest, as an autonomous, agential, and discrete individual. She has been part of a story, or rather a paradigm, but one incompatible with her understanding of herself.
If story grants ideal fantasy its narrative logic, paradigm does the same for ideal science fiction. A shift from one paradigm to another comes during the third stage of the genre's structure, conceptual breakthrough, a concept Clute draws from Peter Nicholls's entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (for which Clute and Nicholls served as editors). Nicholls writes, "Conceptual breakthrough can best be understood in terms of 'paradigms' [...]" where "paradigm" designates a "way of looking at and interpreting the world" and "consists of a set of often unspoken and unargued assumptions" (Clute and Nicholls 255). (10) Clute develops this term in Pardon This Intrusion, where he deploys it as part of his structure of science fiction. There he writes that this term refers to "the thrust of release when a defective paradigm collapses and the new world--the true world--is revealed. A sense of wonder is often felt, sometimes in spaceships" (Clute, Pardon This Intrusion 27). Conceptual breakthrough does not so much abandon the protagonist to an unstoried or unstoryable world but makes clear that the story, or paradigm, by whose assumptions she has lived her life has been wrong. Whereas fantasy posits a single truth than may become corrupted, science fiction moves through a series of lesser or false truths toward a fuller one (in the name, it would seem, of upstanding rationality and real progress).
Recognition thus implies a recovery of knowledge about one's proper place in the universe--an anamnesis or re-cognition. By contrast, conceptual breakthrough--which, as a fresh cognition, is opposed to recognition even as it is analogous to it--admits to different stories, to different possibilities. However, only one of these stories, possibilities, or paradigms is true. This truth is an objective one opposed to the full subjectivity of fantasy; each new paradigm replaces the previous one in a manner indifferent to a protagonist/subject's limited, and therefore wrong, knowledge of itself and its meaning. The appearance in the fictional world of a novum (the first stage of science fiction) inaugurates this paradigm shift. Cognitive estrangement (the second stage) follows. During the second stage, what the protagonist thought was true (the old possibility or paradigm) turns out not to have been the case (or, perhaps, to have only been the case because of some flaw endemic to the old episteme, which the novum challenges and destroys). Conceptual breakthrough thus involves a shift to a new understanding of the world--which is more true and therefore the moment of cognition par excellence--that becomes in turn the new possibility or paradigm. The fourth stage involves the protagonist's arrival in a new place, or topia (Clute's term for the final stage of science fiction), which might be "good" (u-) or "bad" (dys-). The distinction between good and bad will be complicated by the question of which paradigm, the old or new, the protagonist adheres to when making normative distinctions. If she comes to terms with the new paradigm she will find herself in utopia. If not, she will enter dystopia.
The narrative logics of each of these general structures (which appear in toto in few, if any, particular texts), dictate that there can only ever be one story or paradigm. In one case, any deviation from story involves the fall; in the other, a deviation from paradigm arises from something new and alien, something that becomes the new, true (or, more precisely, truly revealed) paradigm. We can easily see here the manner in which fantasy can be taken as conservative, reactionary, atavistic, or even fascist, and science fiction as progressive, liberal, and even socialist or communist. The former appears to vilify difference, while the latter appears to sanctify it. However, if fantasy denigrates difference, it does so in fear of a difference it cannot countenance, but intuits as real (and therefore a threat) nonetheless. If science fiction, in this model, celebrates what differs, it does so by rehabilitating the different as truth. Thus for fantasy, there is a constant fear of what might be possible yet must be ruled out as impossible--stories other than the one in which the protagonist recognizes herself--despite the fact that the impossible is precisely what fantasy is supposedly about. By contrast, for science fiction, the impossible (a cognition different than the present one) remains impossible until it isn't, at which point it becomes the only possibility. The question of "possibility" and its apparent opposite "impossibility," which The Scar draws into relief, is of singular importance to the present argument insofar as it dovetails with the critical vocabulary of scholarship on fantastika (Clute's term for the overall genre that includes science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror). Darko Suvin's claims about science fiction and cognition, in 1979's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, connect with "possibility." Following from this connection, "impossibility" might appear to align with recognition. My argument suggests otherwise.
To wrap up the present line of discussion before turning to Suvin, I should note that in The Scar, Bellis had been operating according to the structure of fantasy: her pressganging into Armada was wrong and her knowledge of an impending threat to New Crobuzon thinned her world. The manner in which Fennec and Doul include her in their plans ought to have, in this structure, allowed her to recognize her rightful place in story (which she had expected) and thereby afforded her return home in triumph. However, rather than recognition, Bellis has a cognition or conceptual breakthrough. She comes to understand that she had been operating under false pretenses or assumptions. There can be no return home, to the story that grants her meaning. Instead she finds herself with "knowledge that [she] cannot use, on a journey [she] cannot control, the aims of which [she does] not share or understand, and [...] longing for a home [she] fled, and for a place [she has] never see[n]." But The Scar does not simply replace one structure with another. The novel does not claim any greater truth for science fiction than it does for fantasy, contrary to many Marxist understandings of the genre. Rather, through its deployment of possibility, in relation to recognition and cognition, it allows the genres to bleed further into one another. I shall now turn to a discussion of critical uses of cognition, possibility, and impossibility (concepts that have provided means for scholars to distinguish fantasy and science fiction from one another), before turning my attention back to the novel.
As Mieville himself states and a review of the scholarship attests, Darko Suvin and his discussion of cognition and science fiction "remains enormously influential in the field" (Mieville, "Editorial Introduction" 43). As such, cognition/possibility enjoys a privileged status over recognition/impossibility, a privilege that extends to science fiction vis-a-vis fantasy. Thus while most critics of fantasy have steered clear of Marxism (and other overtly political readings as well) (11), most Marxists have stuck to science fiction, when they have dealt with the several subgenres of fantastika at all. As Carl Freedman notes of his Critical Theory and Science Fiction, "my concern with fantasy is only to establish the essential tendency of science fiction as overwhelmingly more akin to Marxism (and to emancipatory politics and authentically critical theory in general) than it is to fantasy" (Freedman, "A Note on Marxism and Fantasy" 262). Assumptions about this tendency remain dominant to the extent that Marxian and political readings of fantasy, and discussions of the specific ways in which fantasy and science fiction might interact, remain rare. In particular, voluminous scholarship on Mieville has to this point failed to elucidate the important and particular ways in which he makes use of and redefines the boundaries of genre, such as the narrative moves described above (despite recognition of his genre-bending-if-not-breaking narratives by Marxist and non-Marxist critics alike). The play that The Scar enacts among cognition and recognition, possibility and impossibility, suggests a potentially fecund line of critical and theoretical inquiry not only for Mieville scholars but for genre critics more broadly.
In "Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectics of SF Theory," Mieville refers to the equivalence, in science fiction criticism if not always in science fiction itself, of cognition and possibility. Certain caveats aside, "'cognition' is generally conceived in terms of, or at least intimately related to, a rigorous and rational--'scientific'--relationship to material reality itself." This claim, notes Mieville, "lies behind the repeated classic distinction that SF's worlds are 'possible' whereas fantasy's are 'impossible'" (Mieville, "Cognition as Ideology" 234). Cognition, of course, has been part of the lexicon of science fiction criticism and theory since Suvin defined science fiction as a "literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment" (Suvin, Metamorphoses 7-8). Suvin defines "cognition" thus:
As used here, this term implies not only a reflecting of but also on reality. It implies a creative approach tending toward a dynamic transformation rather than toward a static mirroring of the author's environment. Such typical SF methodology [...] is a critical one, often satirical, combining a belief in the potentialities of reason with methodical doubt in most significant cases. The kinship of this cognitive critique with the philosophical fundamentals of modern science is evident. (10)
That science fiction involves science and the rationality it implies by definition, and thus offers itself as a reflection of and on reality, makes the genre worthy of scholarly attention, particularly of a materialist and Marxist sort. Conversely, fantasy, as a "sub-literature of mystification" that ignores the cognitive part of "cognitive estrangement" and therefore does not relate to reality--that is, the possible--itself is, tout court, unworthy of consideration (9).
By 2000, however, Suvin softens his stance on the relationship between cognition and scientific rationality, in part because,
for all the mealy-mouthed celebrations of reason, in the practice that determined the life of a huge majority, rationality decayed from the Enlightenment hopes and split into what was reasonable and perfectly functional in terms of goals of personal and sensual goals for individuals and large classes of people (self-determination, shorter working time, use-values) but irrational to the ends of the ruling apparatuses--and vice versa, into what was an apparatus reasoning perfectly meshing with the military-industrial complex. (Suvin, "Considering the Sense" 214)
Thus we find a schism between a "good" or "progressive" rationality/cognition and a "bad" or "regressive" one, the latter being the former's appropriation by the mechanisms of late capitalism. Thus Suvin can no longer associate cognition with scientific rationality per se, given that science has been more often than not fully integrated into an alienating apparatus devoted to profit rather than truth. Hence, Suvin reexamines fantasy as a literature appropriate to an increasingly irrational historical moment, as a "symptom of passage" from one stage of postmodernity to another (in Hardt and Negri's terms). It remains, however, a manifestation of the world's problems rather than a proper critique of those problems.
At the same time, and seemingly independent of this revision of the alignment of cognition with scientific rationality, Carl Freedman develops Suvin's earlier association of cognition with science fiction by arguing that "cognition proper is not, in the strictest sense, exactly the quality that defines science fiction." Rather, Freedman posits a "cognition effect." He writes, "The crucial issue for generic discrimination is not any epistemological judgment external to the text itself on the rationality or irrationality of the latter's imaginings, but rather (as some of Suvin's language does, in fact, suggest, but never makes entirely clear) the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed" (Freedman, Critical Theory 18). In other words, for science fiction, cognition is something internal to the text; it depends on how the text itself understands the question of what is possible or impossible. So long as the text understands faster-than-light travel to be possible, the text remains true to cognition in effect, even if it is false to an external reality where such an understanding would be unscientific and therefore irrational. Thus Freedman solves the problem by which science fiction undermines its own implicit claims to rationality when it describes technologies that defy real science.
Mieville himself covers much of this ground in order to take Freedman's refinement of Suvin to task for "rais[ing] as many problems as it solves" (Mieville, "Cognition as Ideology" 234). He writes, "This reformulated approach to the specificity of SF, in terms of a written-and-read text, means considering SF not in terms of a text's relationship to its own supposed 'cognitive logic' but as something done with language by someone to someone" (235). In other words, "the effect is the result of a strategy, or a game, played by the writer and, often, reader, based not on reality-claims but plausibility-claims that hold purely within the text" (236). As such, "The cognition effect is a persuasion" (238). Insofar as the cognition effect offers arguments rather than axioms, we must understand it as sophisticated rather than dialectical, more concerned with winning the reader to its point of view than to working toward or revealing an objective truth. Freedman's refinement of Suvin thus would seem to undermine claims that science fiction, even as a sort of argument, grounds itself in a given we call "reality," as opposed to fantasy whose starting assumptions manifest ex nihilo.
Beyond Mieville's claims in "Cognition as Ideology," critical discourse on fantasy and science fiction is rife with discussions of possibility and impossibility. Tolkien himself writes, "Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability" (69). Numerous critics follow suit. (12) Science fiction criticism outside of Suvin contains a similar, if more implicit, discussion of possibility and impossibility. (13) Whatever distinctions critics make, Gary Wolfe has argued that the divide between possibility and impossibility does not suffice to define the two genres in question. He writes, "If the delineation of the cognitive element in science fiction has been one of the strengths of the criticism in that field, it is a fallacy to assume with apparent logic that fantasy merely employs the same cognitive principle in reverse--that is, if science fiction deals with what we recognize as empirically possible, then fantasy must be what we recognize as empirically impossible" (Wolfe, "The Encounter with Fantasy" 225)
In the present context, Wolfe draws our attention to the limitations of this distinction for thinking about genre. Consider the following from Stefan Ekman: "Fantasy writers are free to make up whatever they like for their worlds, and change the laws by which these worlds work" (5). Mieville might well exemplify the sort of fantasist who embraces the possibility inherent to the impossible. If one is not limited by mimesis, verisimilitude, social realism, or other such means of relating fiction to reality, one can write anything. Nonetheless, Ekman continues: "but once the laws are in place, even the author is bound by them. The story must remain consistent; it must accord with the laws of its world. Rules can be changed and laws broken, but there must be a reasonable explanation for this--rules cannot change for no reason, without comment" (5). Of course, the capriciousness with regard to following the rules (whether fantastic and constructed or otherwise) that Ekman argues against, and which fantasy generally (generically?) eschews, is part and parcel of the avant-garde, in which rules become anathema. Perhaps fantasy cannot live without "rule" per se, but the possibility Mieville describes in The Scar points toward something more than Ekman offers. Whereas Ekman notes that a fantasy might change the rules, within reason and presumably provided that the new rules replace the old ones (paradigmatically, perhaps?), The Scar revels in the simultaneity of competing systems of rules and competing narrative logics: story's protagonists are the subjects of and paradigm's characters are subject to. This simultaneity becomes visible in the context of both Possibility, a form of magic or power that takes advantage of the plurality of chance, and the difference between Possibility and crisis energy, which derives power from reality's capacity to become what it is not.
Uther Doul reveals Possibility to Bellis through his explanation of his Possible Sword, an artifact of the Ghosthead Empire also known as Mightblade (where "might" refers to Possibility rather than strength). The Ghosthead were a species of beings who formerly ruled Bas-Lag through the mining of Possibility, which they had created when they crashed into the world on their journey from another realm of existence and thereby broke it both physically and ontologically, in terms of its physical constitution and its metaphysical constitution--the rules according to which it makes its rules. To make use of or take advantage of Possibility means to yield to lability, to be flexible with regard to goal, to be open to opportunity and encounter in such a way as to affirm not a single desired outcome but multiple, beneficial outcomes simultaneously, even if these multiple outcomes only arise from pure opportunity and therefore do not take part in purposeful desire. Possibility does not require one to give in to every potential outcome, but allows one to take advantage of those outcomes that, when taken together, mutually affirm the advancement of one's being along multiple paths. Doul explains, after reciting from the Ghosthead's literature: "They had scarred, they had broken the world.
And in so doing, they set free forces that they were able to tap. Forces that allowed them to reshape things, to fail and succeed simultaneously--because they mined for possibilities" (Mieville, The Scar 393-94). He goes on to explain that the Ghosthead could exploit the best of the might-have-beens. They were thus able to "push [these possibilities] into the reality that in its very existence denied theirs, which is defined by what happened and by the denial of what did not" (394). In other words, by mining Possibility, the Ghosthead were able to experience multiplicity and thus force the conventional reality of Bas-Lag, based as it was on the affirmation of a single possibility to the exclusion and denial of all others, to behave in accord with their being. The Ghosthead were able to make reality other, but not just one other. The Ghosthead were able to make reality extend to its beyond by making it others. This manifold reality does not allow for stability, for the single story of fantasy nor the consecutive and exclusive paradigms of science fiction.
Through Bellis we come to understand Possibility in opposition to crisis energy, a form of magic and/or physics pursued by her ex-lover Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, whose preoccupation with it drives much of the plot of the previous Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, as mentioned above. In Bellis's understanding, crisis energy comes about as a result of reality attempting to become what it is not: "It was theoretical physics and thaumaturgy of astonishing complexity. But what she had taken from Isaac's frantic, off-color explanations was his conviction that underlying the facticity of the world, in all its seeming fastness, was an instability, a crisis pushing things to change from the tensions within them" (Mieville, The Scar 396). Possibility offers none of the linearity of crisis, in which one state proceeds to another in what appears to be a dialectical fashion. As such, it horrifies Bellis:
In the possibility mining that Uther Doul had just described Bellis saw a radical undermining of crisis theory. Crisis, Isaac had once told her, was manifest in the tendency of the real to become what it was not. If what was and was not were allowed to coexist, the very tension--the crisis at the center of existence--must dissipate. Where was the crisis energy in the real becoming what it was not, if what it was not was right there alongside what it was? (396)
As a mechanism through which a paradigm that might come into existence becomes the sole replacement to the current one, crisis energy offers a series of stabilities punctuated by revolution. The subject of such crises will need, no doubt, to change in turn, but can feel relatively comfortable about itself--its being, its knowledge, its position in the world--during any particular state as well as with regard to the nature of change, which seems not only to be swift but also to dissipate the tension that produces it. By contrast, Possibility admits to no such progression for the very fact that alternative states exist at the same time and do not preclude the existence of competitive, even contradictory states.
Carl Freedman discusses this scene as an example of the "overall Marxist problematic" in the Bas-Lag novels. He writes, "The point here is that the theory of crisis energy presupposes the ontological priority of the indispensable Marxist category of contradiction, i.e. of 'the tendency,' in Bellis's own words, 'of the real to become what it was not.' Isaac's research, in other words, shows the inner reality of matter and energy to be dialectically structured." Furthermore, Isaac's use of crisis energy to defeat the slake-moths in Perdido Street Station "obliquely allegorizes nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism, i.e. nothing less than the socialist revolution itself' (Freedman, "Speculative Fiction" 36). (14) By contrast, possibility, "rather than clashing in dialectical tension," only suggests the "mere vague pluralism" that horrifies Bellis (who stands in for Mieville, claims Freedman). Thus "possibility mining in The Scar generates no collective triumph like the defeat of the slake-moths but (in a consequence of the individualism at the heart of all pluralism) only the individual martial prowess of Uther Doul" (36-37). Mieville's possibility is an example of the inherent capacity of fantasy to invent or involve anything without regard for its previously presented rules (here crisis energy) or even for rule as such (such pluralism defying conventional observation of reality)--in short an instance of the impossible for which fantasy has been known. Thus it cannot for Freedman offer the political victory that crisis energy (and by extension Marxism, science fiction, and cognition-possibility) can. If, in a turn of phrase variously attributed to Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson, it's "easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism," perhaps such is the case because certain Marxisms limit themselves to a vulgar possible, one that cannot admit the impossible except at a moment when what is becomes what is not, as in the hoped for transformation of capitalism into socialism or communism, for example.
The horizon of such hope, says Suvin, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, "can be seen as mutedly triumphalist, expecting a long and difficult but ultimately probable socialist victory" even though this "hope was rapidly becoming untenable even as [he] was wrapping up Metamorphoses in 1979" (Suvin, "Considering the Sense" 213). Because of this untenability, because of the ongoing spread of global capitalism and the capacity thereof to appropriate everything, even its apparent opposites, Suvin acknowledges "a change in epochal experience" that requires critics to deal with genre fantasy for two reasons. First, the amount of fantasy published since his dismissal of it "constitutes a new lay of the land whose sense a materialist critic may to a large extent rightly dislike but cannot treat as not very pertinent to his concerns." The second reason "stems from the evolution of [his] horizons about SF, genre theory, and semiotic meaning in general," namely "the conviction reached in the early 1980s that the parable is a key form for understanding SF and other 'metaphysical' genres, which entails a reevaluation of the significance to be allotted to the textual foreground." In other words, since we can treat fantasy as a parable, even if a "socio-pathological" one (Suvin certainly does not come to like fantasy, even if he acknowledges that we must study it), we cannot dismiss it as readily as he once did. Thus, he revokes his "blanket rejection of fantastic fiction" and notes that the "divide between cognitive (pleasantly useful) and non-cognitive (useless) does not run between SF and fantastic fiction but inside each--though in rather different ways and in different proportions, for there are more obstacles to liberating cognition in the latter" (Suvin, "Considering the Sense" 211).
Nonetheless, Suvin's revision still casts fantasy as more or less symptomatic of postmodern irrationality, in which every possibility might be championed in the name of difference, than as critical of it. To be sure, there are fantasies apposite the Marxist approach to science fiction. In addition to Mieville's Bas-Lag novels, Freedman identifies Samuel R. Delany's Return to Neveryon series as such a fantasy (as does Suvin, briefly), one that contains something of the history with which science fiction concerns itself and thereby identifies itself as critical rather than symptomatic. For, despite its popularity and the necessity of dealing with it as such according to Suvin, The Lord of the Rings (and presumably similar fantasies), for Freedman, can be given at best a "radically symptomatic reading" which interprets that text's "virtually neurotic desperation to avoid history as encoding a properly utopian desire to overcome the material frustration and privation that history has always entailed in class society" (Freedman, "A Note on Marxism and Fantasy" 265). Likewise Jameson, who situates Mieville and Delany within what he calls radical fantasy, states that "sf is the exploration of all the constraints thrown up by history" and that fantasy "is the other side of the coin and a celebration of human creative power and freedom which becomes idealistic only by virtue of the omission of precisely those material and historical constraints." Accordingly, Jameson seeks to read magic in fantasy as "a figure for the enlargement of human powers and their passage to the limit, their actualisation [sic] of everything latent and virtual in the stunted human organism" (Jameson, "Radical Fantasy" 278). (15) Even this reading, however, leaves most fantasy as escapist wish-fulfillment that seeks to relieve the alienation instantiated first with the secularization of the world at the advent of modernity and later with the disintegration, at the advent of postmodernity, of the modern forms of enclosure (the state, the factory, the family, the union, etc.) that replaced religion as the source of meaning in human existence.
Suvin, Freedman, and Jameson double down on history, even in an age that, according to Jameson in another context, "has forgotten how to think historically in the first case" (Jameson, Postmodernism ix). We might here be tempted to ask who it is who seeks healing and return, if not critics who remain committed to a story that has been corrupted or a paradigm that has shifted. More productively, we might follow Mieville's claim that "'Real' life under capitalism is a fantasy," and thus "the fantastic might be a mode peculiarly suited to and resonant with the forms of modernity" because, "in constructing an internally coherent but actually impossible totality--constructed on the basis that the impossible is, for the work, true--[fantasy] mimics the 'absurdity' of capitalist modernity" (Mieville, "Editorial Introduction" 42). We might even go one step further and suggest that beyond such mimicry, fantasy might offer a representative alternative to capitalism, an alternative that science fiction too often renders only as the end of the world. Thus we might ask whether fantasy can ever be more than a symptom, whether its critical nature might be aligned with and complement that of science fiction, if only we can learn to read fantasy once again. (16)
To this end, I suggest that critics of science fiction and fantasy--especially those critics engaged in the intersection of these genres--begin by taking seriously Suvin's pronouncement that the fantasies of Howard and Tolkien "are not Alternative Histories in the sense of the eponymous SF subgenre, but Alternative Worlds forsaking the author's history and society, asking our social time to stop and start again in some other way [...], with a new deal of the cards for the individuals unhappy in our social history" (Suvin, "Considering the Sense" 223). Rather than reading this statement as an indictment of fantasy, or only as an indictment of fantasy, we might read Alternative Worlds as a complement to science fiction's Alternative Histories. With this aim in mind, we might then look to other Marxisms, their histories, and their attendant concepts to complement the already important work being done in this field. (17) Likely candidates include McKenzie Wark's deployment of Situationism and Deleuze, which culminates in his writing, "There are other worlds and they are this one" (Wark [section] 389); Hardt and Negri's conception of multitude as an "inconclusive constituent relation" opposed to a totalizing "people" (Hardt and Negri 103); and Bernard Stiegler's post-Marxist discussions of disbelief and symbols. (18)
To conclude the present argument, I will first return to the diagrammatic comparison of fantasy and science fiction I offered at the start of this essay in order to clarify a point which still remains unclear. I then turn to The Scar's climax as an example of the interaction of possibility and impossibility, cognition and recognition I have hinted at throughout this essay. Above, I presented the following comparison of fantasy and science fiction:
Genre Fantasy Science Fiction Characterized by Impossibility Possibility Climactic moment Recognition Cognition (or Conceptual Breakthrough) Narrative logic Story Paradigm Form of subjectivity Subject of Subject to
At this point it should be clear that the first three sets of terms-- impossibility/ possibility, recognition/cognition, story/paradigm--neatly complement each other, even if this neatness obscures the ways in which they bleed into one another and the ways they therefore assert critical distinctions between the genres that do not hold up under the scrutiny which reveals this bleeding. However, what remains unclear is the necessity of the final pair--subject of/ subject to--which only obliquely appears in the literature itself or the discourses surrounding that literature. As products of modernity, both science fiction and fantasy concern themselves with the manner of being proper to that modernity, with fantasy desiring a full, true subjectivity provided by story and denied by the wrongness that is the advent of history. By contrast, science fiction imagines an historical subject that might assimilate itself with the truths of the objective world, truths which condition this assimilation. Foucault tells us that "There are two meanings of the word 'subject': subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power that subjugates and makes subject to" (781). One can be the "subject of' a story, a hero whose meaning and being are unified in story, or "subject to" a paradigm, a functionary whose being and meaning must be brought into alignment through the vicissitudes of a history over which one has no control. In both cases one remains a subject, under the power of one narrative logic or another. Fantasy may seem to offer a resolution that is escapist and science fiction a potential freedom that is final, but neither can produce that which they desire. Rather, both genres demonstrate the very desirability of these desires and the possibilities that arise when we impossibly consider them together.
Such a consideration appears at the end of The Scar, when we are left to wonder whether we have arrived at the end and whether we could ever arrive at the end of a story or paradigm. After summoning the avanc and acquiring its motor and self-direction, Armada heads for the Scar to mine Possibility. Some in the city, including the vampire known as the Brucolac, reject this direction, this purpose, this reduction of possibility to a single possibility. As the Brucolac tells Uther Doul, "'It won't happen, you know,' he said. 'The city won't allow it. That's not what this city is for'" (Mieville, The Scar 85). Of course, the city is not for this particular quest. At the same time, Armada is not for anything at all if that thing is a particular thing. If Armada is for something it is for being-for-no-particular-thing and therefore open to possibility, perhaps even impossibility, itself.
Prior to reaching the Scar, Hedrigall--a master storyteller and an important citizen of Armada--disappears in his airship. He reappears some days later floating in the ocean. He tells a fantastic story about how he, along with the rest of Armada, in fact had already reached the Scar. In one of the most awe-inspiring passages in a novel replete with such passages, he describes the Scar itself as a gash in the ocean--"That sheer face of water, colors and eddies moving in strata, extended down miles. Perspective defeated me"--the appearance of the avanc as it burst into that gash--"A mile of flesh"--and finally Armada being destroyed as it falls over the edge--"'Steamers reached the edge flat-on, and rolled terribly and ponderously over, houses and towers spilling from them like crumbs, a rain of masonry and bodies, hundreds of bodies, pitched kicking and convulsing into the air and down, down many miles. Past all the inner layers of the world'" (Mieville, The Scar 546-47).
Hedrigall cannot believe that those he meets after his rescue are real. He saw them die. Nor can those to whom Hedrigall tells his tale be sure that he is in fact Hedrigall. He may rather be part and parcel of the Possibility that the Scar emits. Whatever the case, Hedrigall's story provides the impetus for the collective action Freedman celebrates in the novel, an action that results in Armada turning away from the Scar, away from the completion of its quest and thereby toward the open-endedness that had heretofore defined its existence. The reader is left without ever having witnessed healing (scars, as the novel tells us constantly, are both signs of wounds and evidence of a wound's healing) and without having arrived in a place, a topia. Of course, at the same time, the reader has arrived at the Scar, the question of whether this place "really looks like that" being beside the point given that it can only be described in language, as a representation, no matter what the narrative devices that brought Armada to it. In the end we have both seen the Scar and not seen it, something impossible according to cognition. Armada has recognized itself in a story, but not a welcoming story of triumph. Rather this story, which is also a paradigm insofar as it forces a new cognition (which in no way can be reduced to a single truth), allows for multiple directions and possibilities.
Learning to read fantasy again, learning to read fantasy as critical and not only as symptomatic, requires us to know that "there are other worlds and they are this one." It requires us to understand that we will both reach the end of the quest and be healed and that at the same time we will not, just as Bellis will get to return to New Crobuzon, but only after a conceptual breakthrough that leaves her uncertain of what this return will mean, whether New Crobuzon will be for her u- or dystopia, after New Crobuzon becomes, like the Scar, "a place [she] has never seen" but longs for nonetheless. The abstraction she seeks, belonging to a place and with the multitudes of that place--for a home--will complete her and grant her meaning, make her a Subject Of (along with the reader who has been a subject of the reading experience). However, this abstraction also threatens that meaning constantly, making her a Subject To (just as the reader has been subject to a manipulation that grants her a certain finality without closure). Such are the consequences of the radically possible, the consequences endemic to a confrontation with what we can only conceive as impossibility.
(1.) Since work on this essay was completed, there has been a substantial amount of new scholarship on Mieville published, a fuller consideration of which would add nuance to my argument here (without changing its premise or conclusion). See Rhys Williams' "Recognizing Cognition: On Suvin, Mieville, and the Utopia Impulse in the Contemporary Fantastic" (Science Fiction Studies 41.3 : 617-33. Print.), Carl Freedman's Art and Idea in the Novels of China Mieville (Canterbury, UK: Gylphi, 2015. Print.) and the essays published in Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia's edited collected China Mieville: Critical Essays (Canterbury, UK: Gylphi, 2015. Print.), especially those by Sherryl Vint, Dougal McNeill, and Mark P. Williams.
(2.) Such mentions are too numerous to list. For in-depth discussions of this issue, see Tom Miller's "The Motley & The Motley: Conflicting and Conflicted Models of Genric Hybridity in Bas-Lag" (Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 108 : 39-65. Print.) and Joan Gordon's "Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Mieville's 'Perdido Street Station'" (Science Fiction Studies 30.3 : 456-76. Print.).
(3.) Such is especially the case since the 2009 publication of a special issue of Extrapolation devoted to Mieville, nearly all of which takes on a Marxist perspective of one sort or another, edited by Sherryl Vint (China Mieville. Spec. issue of Extrapolation 50.2 . Print.). We can perhaps trace the cause of this preoccupation to the symposium on "Marxism and Fantasy" that Mieville edited for Historical Materialism in 2002 (Symposium: Marxism and Fantasy. Spec. issue of Historical Materialism 10.4 . Print.).
(4.) Referenced in numerous interviews with Mieville, especially "Fantasy and Revolution: An Interview with China Mieville" (Newsinger, John. International Socialism 88 : np. Print. Available at http://marxists.de/culture/sci- fi/newsinger.htm).
(5.) See Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2006. Print.) and the essays discussed below.
(6.) As Carl Freedman writes, "Marxism has a considerable claim to being the dominant theoretical method in most SF criticism of enduring value" ("A Note on Marxism and Fantasy" 261).
(7.) Clute consistently capitalizes such terms and "Recognition" and "Story." However, because this non-standard capitalization can become distracting, if not exhausting, to the reader, I shall dispense with it from this point forward.
(8.) See entries, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, on Wrongness, Thinning, Healing, and Story for fuller descriptions and the discussions in Pardon This Intrusion, where Clute puts the structure of fantasy in relation to the structures of science fiction and horror and also develops Return as a complement to or replacement for Healing.
(9.) Aside from several of the critics discussed in this essay (namely Suvin, Freedman, and Jameson), see several discussions by fantasy writers Michael Moorcock ("Epic Pooh." Wizardy and Wild Romance. Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain, 2004. Print.) and Richard K. Morgan ("The Real Fantastic Stuff, an Essay by Richard K. Morgan." Suvudu.com. N.p., 18 Feb. 2009. Web. 27 July 2014.) of what they consider Tolkien's facile consolation. Mieville has also been critical of Tolkien along these lines.
(10.) The print encyclopedia does not contain entries on the terms Clute uses to designate the other stages of the structure of science fiction: Novum, Cognitive Estrangement, and Topia. See Pardon This Intrusion for brief descriptions of these other stages.
(11.) See Brian Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. Print.), Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, Ekman's Here Be Dragons, and Michael T. Saler's As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Pre-History of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.). Jose B. Monleon's A Specter Is Haunting Europe: A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic (Princeton, N.J: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.) and Rosemary Jackson's Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion New York: Methuen, 1981. Print.) are exceptions. See Mark Bould's "The Dreadful Credibility of Absurd Things: A Tendency in Fantasy Theory" (Historical Materialism 10.4 : 51-88. Print.) for a discussion of the limitations of Monleon and Jackson.
(12.) See, for example, C. N. Manlove' s Modern Fantasy: Five Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975. Print.), W. R. Irwin's The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1976. Print.), Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy (cited in note 11), and Clute's Pardon This Intrusion.
(13.) See, for example, Ben Bova's "The Role of Science Fiction" (in Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow. Ed. Reginald Bretnor. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print.) and John H. Timmerman's (Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1983. Print.), the latter of whom defines science fiction this way to distinguish it from fantasy. Clute avoids the language of possibility, but nevertheless defines science fiction in terms of its relationship to the laws of the primary world: "The basic premise of sf is that the world depicted in an sf story has an arguable relation to the history of the real world" (26). For a particularly facile and problematic definition of science fiction in terms of possibility, see Michel Butor's "Science Fiction: The Crisis of Its Growth" (in SF: The Other Side of Realism. Ed. Thomas D. Clareson. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1971. 157-65. Print.).
(14.) For a discussion of the slake-moths, which feed on the psychic energies of sentient beings and leave them alive but without intelligence or affect, and their relations to capitalism, see Steven Shaviro's "Capitalist Monsters" (Historical Materialism 10.4 : 281-90. Print.).
(15.) For an excellent discussion of "radical fantasy" and the debates and critics involved therewith, see William J. Burling's "Periodizing the Postmodern: China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and the Dynamics of Radical Fantasy" (Extrapolation 50.2 (2009): 326-44. Print.).
(16.) Gary K. Wolfe argues that "over the last two centuries we unlearned to read fantastic stories" in "Malbolge, or the Ordnance of Genre" (Conjunctions 39 (2002): 405- 19. Print. 406.)
(17.) Studies that have already moved in this direction, highly relevant to the present discussion, include Sherryl Vint's "Possible Fictions: Blochian Hope in The Scar" (Extrapolation 50.2 : 276-92. Print.) and Andrew Milner's "Utopia and Science Fiction Revisited" (in Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Ed. China Mieville and Mark Bould. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 213-30. Print.).
(18.) In, for example, The Hyperindustrial Epoch (Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014. Print.), The Decadence of Industrial Democracies (Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011. Print.), and Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals (Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Print.).
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Mieville, China. "Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectics of SF Theory." Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould and China Mieville. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 231-48. Print.
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Suvin, Darko. "Considering the Sense of 'Fantasy' or 'Fantastic' Fiction: An Effusion." Extrapolation 41.3 (2000): 209-47. Print.
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Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964. Print.
Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.
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|Author:||Robertson, Benjamin J.|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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