China Miéville

Fantasy As A Challenge

“When people dis fantasy—mainstream readers and SF readers alike—they are almost always talking about one sub-genre of fantastic literature. They are talking about Tolkien, and Tolkien’s innumerable heirs. Call it ‘epic’, or ‘high’, or ‘genre’ fantasy, this is what fantasy has come to mean. Which is misleading as well as unfortunate.

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés—elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings—have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps—via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on—the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.

Of course I’m not saying that any fan of Tolkien is no friend of mine—that would cut my social circle considerably. Nor would I claim that it’s impossible to write a good fantasy book with elves and dwarfs in it—Michael Swanwick’s superb IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER gives the lie to that. But given that the pleasure of fantasy is supposed to be in its limitless creativity, why not try to come up with some different themes, as well as unconventional monsters? Why not use fantasy to challenge social and aesthetic lies?

Thankfully, the alternative tradition of fantasy has never died. And it’s getting stronger. Chris Wooding, Michael Swanwick, Mary Gentle, Paul di Filippo, Jeff VanderMeer, and many others, are all producing works based on fantasy’s radicalism. Where traditional fantasy has been rural and bucolic, this is often urban, and frequently brutal. Characters are more than cardboard cutouts, and they’re not defined by race or sex. Things are gritty and tricky, just as in real life. This is fantasy not as comfort-food, but as challenge.

The critic Gabe Chouinard has said that we’re entering a new period, a renaissance in the creative radicalism of fantasy that hasn’t been seen since the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, and in echo of which he has christened the Next Wave. I don’t know if he’s right, but I’m excited. This is a radical literature. It’s the literature we most deserve.”

China Miéville


I don’t usually post quotes this long, but as I’ve been working on Coal Belly, and after publishing my essay on problematic fiction this quote from 2002 has been kicking around in my head. (Originally from here, but it’s been modified over the years.)

My work has frequently been described as “difficult to categorize”—and while I label the Bell Forging Cycle as urban fantasy for simplicity, it’s no secret that its more accurate description is much more complicated. I revel in this, genre classification is boring at best and writing dangerous or challenging fiction within the “Next Wave” the “New Weird” or whatever we want to call it is exactly where I want to be as a writer.

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5 thoughts on “Fantasy As A Challenge

  1. China Mieville has a point although I believe he has missed a crucial aspect of Tolkien’s fiction: the fact that it’s archetypal.

    All archetypal stories are somewhat boring and predictable; if you’re high on openness and sociability and your main pleasure derives from being surprised by the plot then you won’t get much from them. On the other hand if you’re an introspective person then you might appreciate them for their most important quality – the fact that they reveal the nature of the collective unconscious.
    Depending on their personality and preoccupations, authors may choose to serve what Jung calls ‘the spirit of this time’ – that is the unconventional, questioning, rebellious nature of a modern writer, or ‘the spirit of the depths’ – that which is universally and essentially human.

    I would say China belongs to the first category – the impious questioning type who rejects any moral center, any kind of order and stability (which he labels as ‘hierarchies of the status quo’) and derives his creative power from mutation – imagining what a utopian society could look like. Mieville is a non apologetic socialist and self declared classical marxist belonging to several political organisations; he praised the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; his fiction makes dialectical materialism understandable for the minds of children (see Un Lun Dun).

    Now I’ve got nothing against authors who love to question norms and explore the fringes of society; China however strikes me as an ideologue. He might ridicule Tolkien’s pompous conformity and catholic worldview, but he seems equally preachy and dogmatic in his marxism. At least Tolkien veils his Christianity under some pagan fantasy interface; China’s works are just direct not very subtle metaphors for his political doctrine. Take for instance his other novel in which he resurrects Crawley and other esotherists just to embody some evil nazi cult. It’s childish and oversimplifying to use fiction as an excuse to bash your political opponents, especially when you’re a radical yourself (the Bolsheviks weren’t saints either). Needless to say, he has bad things to say about Lovecraft as well; he wuz raycist and not concerned with social progress enough, although in my oppinion HPL was one of the few authors who refrained from telling us how his ideal society would look like and only focused on the sublime character of cosmic horror.

    P.S. Sorry for the long comment.

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    1. No worries on the length. :) I appreciate all the thought you put into your response. I apologize for my delay, I was at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend, my time was limited, and connections there were spotty at best.

      I find it interesting that whenever this quote is shared Tolkien fans show up and immediately take this as an attack on Tolkien. (I saw so many forum threads on that very subject when trying to locate the source.) For me, I see this as a question—not of Tolkien in particular, but of Tolkien-derivatives. Those who created the same Wagnerian fantasy that dominated the market throughout most of the 70s, 80s, and 90s and told similar stories with similar set pieces. (I’d also argue that Dungeon and Dragons also had a significant part to play in that as well, but that’s another discussion.) These days fantasy as a whole has become much broader in concept and scope—thanks in large part to Miéville, Gaiman, Le Guin, and many of the folks he mentioned back in 2002. It’s exciting.

      As far as Miéville’s politics go, yeah, he’s an ideologue. He fits in well with fantasy authors in that regard. Personally, I don’t see a problem with that, if anything, it’s nice to see a different ideology applied to fantasy fiction.

      Finally, as far as HLP is concerned: the man was a racist. It’s not really a debate, and I don’t think it’s that complicated. Understanding his xenophobia and racism goes hand in hand with understanding both his writing and his approach to cosmic horror. I believe it’s possible to both acknowledge his repugnant beliefs and yet still enjoy his work. Just like I can not be a Marxist and still find enjoyment Miéville’s work.

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      1. “These days fantasy as a whole has become much broader in concept and scope”
        I do agree this is a great thing. It’s interesting to see different ideologies applied to fantasy fiction, although there’s a limit between genuine creativity and propaganda. It’s difficult to tell precisely where that limit lies. One sign of it could be dogmatism; does the author have any doubts or is (s)he totally convinced they found da wae? Are heroes spotless mary sues with flat personalities or do they have internal struggles? Is the conflict manichaean? etc.

        I think the attitude of the author is relevant here; I consider art to be somewhat similar to a research process; you start with some premises, you need to have a question or inner struggle that makes you wonder so you wish to explore it more so you create a work of art in which you embed the premises, you experiment with different routes and playfully combine them until a good balance is achieved and the work of art reaches a strong aesthetic effect and closure. That would be a genuine work of fiction for instance.
        On the other hand, an ideologue starts with a dogmatic narrative and uses fiction as a means to spread it efficiently. There’s no inner struggle, no questions; the outcome is known from the start, so it comes out as preachy and militant. China seems to me like that. There are other authors who have similar ideological commitments, yet their works of fiction are more open and imaginative (Ragnar Tornquist’s ‘The Longest Journey’ saga is a good example).

        Concerning Lovecraft – he was clearly racist, there’s no debate over this. I don’t think that his racism was the main ingredient behind his cosmic horror, and I happen to agree with S. T. Joshi on this matter. He has written a few articles on this topic, you can find them all on his blog:

        August 7, 2016 — Paula Guran on Lovecraft
        November 19, 2015 — More Crusades for the Crusaders!
        August 22, 2017 — NecronomiCon, R.I.P.
        August 28, 2017 — Real and Fake Liberalism
        September 6, 2017 — How Not to Conduct a Debate

        I would be interested to hear what your take on them is.

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        1. I’m hesitant to even comment on Joshi, mainly because any critique always seems to find its way back to him. But, the truth is that I don’t pay much attention to him these days. His early work is fantastic, but his recent penchant for stirring up drama among the weird fiction community—as opposed to participating in respectful engagement/discussion has soured me on his whole message. So, I take my time, energy, and eyes elsewhere. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve seen him go after folks who I respect a great deal. So, I’ll let him do his things and I’ll do mine.

          Cosmic horror is expanding, and as it grows it will become many things to many different people. There’s plenty of room in the genre for a variety of diverse voices. I’d much rather spend my time with those who are excited about exploring the vastness of weird fiction and who are willing to push boundaries rather than worry about those who demand everyone plays according to some arcane set of rules. So, you’ll find me reading people like Jeff VanderMeer, Victor LaValle, Ruthanna Emrys, Cherie Priest, Matt Ruff, K.J. Bishop, Charles Stross, Cassandra Khaw, and yes, China Miéville—and doing so happily.

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          1. No doubt cosmic horror is expanding in many directions, nor have I suggested some fixed set of rules that should be respected by everyone. I just shared my views on art.
            Returning to cosmic horror, although it can mean a lot of different things to different people, it originated with HPL and one can understand fairly well Lovecraft’s views on the matter. The sense of horror derived primarily from his atheism and his mechanistic materialism. He saw humanity as insignificant at cosmic scale and thought that knowledge will reveal the nightmare of our absurd and insignificant existence. That notion is at the core of most of his horror stories; his racist phobias play a much smaller role, which at present is exaggerated by various ideologues with authoritarian tendencies, who wouldn’t limit their activism after the removal of Howard’s picture from the World Fantasy Awards.

            So if anyone wants to take Cosmic Horror in different directions than the original, I’m more than happy to check them out. I really love Thomas Ligotti for instance; he has tied the existentialist sense of horror with nihilism and his stories are great, although I don’t share his nihilism just like I don’t share Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism.

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