Henry Farrell Reviews the Novels of China Miéville

Over at n+1, Henry Farrell has a piece on China Miéville’s New Crobuzon novels.

New Crobuzon is a metropolis of clashing cultures, equal parts Great Wen, Old Corruption, and mass struggle. It is redolent of London, just as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is reminiscent of rural England. To the outside world, it’s an imperial power, seeking to extend itself through the tools of nineteenth-century colonial mercantilism – railways, conquest, and exclusive trading relationships.

Politics in New Crobuzon is a mug’s game. A grimly effective police state tolerates subversives up to the point where they become a political threat, and then crushes them. So too it subordinates the imagination to its will. The city’s judicial system combines the cruel and sanctimonious whimsicality of the Victorian magistrate with the machineries of Kafka’s penal colony. In a world where human flesh is almost infinitely malleable, criminals can be ‘Remade’ so that their punishment fits their crime, according to obscure aesthetic principles of justice. Magistrates decree that a woman who kills her baby should have its revivified arms grafted to her face as a reminder of her crime, while the vicious crime-lord Motley uses cod-Nietzschian aesthetic theory to justify Remaking his own body into a jumbled teratosis of eyes, mouths, and other parts.

The power to Remake is, in principle, the power to reimagine and reshape. Its abuse by the rulers of New Crobuzon suggests a corruption of the imagination, in which the fantasies of the powerful are written out in the flesh of those whom they oppress, while the fantasies of the oppressed themselves lead nowhere. As Miéville’s fictional art critic Derkhan says, “Remaking is creativity gone bad. Gone rotten, gone rancid …”