China Miéville’s Other Reality

Farrell_36.2_mieville Henry Farrell reviews China Miéville's The City & the City, in The Boston Review:

When Granta compiled its decennial list of the best young British writers ten years ago, it did not include China Miéville, thank to his well-known connections to fantasy and science fiction. Yet it paid him the even greater compliment of including him by name in its salon des refusés. Miéville is unabashedly a writer of the fantastic, but his influences trace back to Bruno Schulz and Mervyn Peake as well as the pulps. Not to mention Marx—Miéville is a committed socialist and has stood for Parliament. And, as Michael Chabon has observed, Miéville’s first instinct toward the conventions of genre is to play with them.

In The City & the City Miéville continues to play, offering a distinctive combination of fantasy’s two familiar flavors. Committed fantasists such as C.S. Lewis embrace the obsessive literalism that the British novelist M. John Harrison has unkindly described as “the great clomping foot of nerdism . . . the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.” They try to make the fantastic seem real in its own right, internally consistent and painfully detailed. By contrast, mainstream novelists who dabble in fantasy—José Saramago in Blindness, Cormac McCarthy in The Road—do not fret about internal consistency or detail. For them, the fantastic provides a device for allegorical comment on some aspect of the real world.

But rather than serving up fantasy as a world in itself or as an allegory subordinate to the real world, Miéville treats the real world (or something like it) as a set of detailed, overlapping fantasies. In The City & the City he takes elements of our own world—the social relationships that organize our lives—directly into his imagined one, and reconfigures them with the machinery of fantasy. Miéville’s task is as complicated as it sounds, but he’s up to it. The result is an innovative way of using fiction to understand ourselves.