‘Steampunk Remade: China Mieville and the Political Potential of Fantasy Literature,’ Dan Hassler-Forest, University of Amsterdam

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Even as the fantasy genre has become increasingly popular and ubiquitous over the past decade, it still continues to be reviled by critical theory for its bourgeois, politically reactionary ideology. And to some extent, one might say this position is legitimate: most varieties of fantasy narrative engage in the kind of nostalgic regression to an imagined sense of pre-modern “pastness” that builds on ossified concepts of culture and identity, and which imparts supposedly universal qualities to gender models, ethnic stereotypes, and class conflicts.

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This is certainly the case for the most popular “high fantasy” texts that have appeared in the tradition of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and even in the work of authors who have sought to transform the genre for a more contemporary audience, such as George R.R. Martin. Generally speaking, these fantasy narratives present thinly veiled allegorical mappings of European geographies, organized as bizarrely utopian feudal economies, populated by cultural stereotypes associated with real-world nation-states, and threatened from the East and South by barbaric, far less developed races that create what Fredric Jameson describes as “the ethical binary of good and evil” that informs fantasy fiction.

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Most critics working in this field therefore voice a strong preference for the style and aesthetics of science fiction, which Darko Suvin has defined as “a literary genre or verbal construct 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.” The elaborate system of estrangement and cognition, through which the text prompts readers to relate to the fictional world in terms of cognitive tension, explains the fondness many Marxist critics have for the science-fiction genre, as it enables a dialectical process that estranges us from the fictional world while opening up a space that invites us to criticize our own empirical surroundings. Science fiction as a genre is therefore fundamentally invested in utopian thought, and its narratives provide opportunities to articulate systems alternative to our own.

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Fantasy, on the other hand, is frowned upon due to its irrational, nostalgic character and what Jameson describes as “the fundamental role it assigns to magic.” Rather than causing cognitive estrangement, fantasy narratives generally produce a coherent and geographically detailed alternative world that functions as the kind of past one wishes Europe might have had. Its classic, most popular texts violently reject nearly all forms of progressive politics, offering instead a reactionary worldview in which every character is defined primarily by specific combinations of race, age, and gender, and a nostalgic yearning for a romanticized pre-modern era in which the white male heroes engage in heroic quests that hardly ever involve the raping and pillaging of foreign cultures.

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Steampunk emerged as a genre, a style, and even a fashion in the late 1980s as a hybrid form that incorporated elements from both fantasy and science fiction, alongside other genres such as horror and speculative fiction. By presenting fantastical alternate worlds in which 19th-century fashions and technologies were re-geared to produce environments that were simultaneously futuristic and nostalgic, steampunk took up a position in relation to its generic “other” cyberpunk that mirrors the antinomy between science fiction and fantasy: while cyberpunk quickly adapted the critical concerns of classic science fiction to the hybrid, fluid identities of the postmodern or even the posthuman, steampunk on the other hand has tended to reify and romanticize the industrial forms of the Victorian era. Rather than producing the kind of cognitive estrangement that critical theory finds so stimulating in science fiction, steampunk has come to be associated primarily with the reactionary tendencies of the fantasy genre: according to Evan Calder Williams, “steampunk is a romanticized do-over, a setting of the clock back to a time of craftsmanship and real (fetishized) objects, remaking the world, not in the mode of the ceaseless slow sprawl of cheap oil but in the Victorian self-aware world-making spirit.”

But genre and style are themselves fluid and deeply unstable categories with poorly-defined borders, allowing space for transgression and subversion even within the most seemingly unsavory genre tradition. From this perspective, I will discuss the work of fantasy author China Miéville, whose books are set within the fantasy and steampunk genres, but which nevertheless succeed in creating the forms of ideological criticism and cognitive estrangement that are not commonly associated with these frameworks. In order to differentiate what is specific about Miéville’s fiction in relation to his generic precursors, Evan Calder Williams coined the term salvagepunk in his book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: “In the place of steampunk, that weak hand-maiden of Obama-era capitalism, is what will be called salvagepunk: the post-apocalyptic vision of a broken and dead world, strewn with both the dream residues and real junk of the world that was, and shot through with the hard work of salvaging, repurposing, détourning, and scrapping.”

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In order to examine this new category of fantasy fiction more closely, I offer a brief discussion of Miéville’s so-called Bas-Lag trilogy, made up of the novels Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), and Iron Council (2004), alongside a few comments on his most recent book, the Young Adult novel Railsea (2012). The three books in the Bas-Lag series are set in a fictional world that answers to the specific mix of genre elements that informs the steampunk genre: a fantasy universe populated by humans and other intelligent species, ranging from the frog-like “vodyanoi” to the human-plant hybrids “cactacae,” using varieties of steam- and coal-driven Victorian-era technology with diverse futuristic uses. Magic, as beloved in fantasy as it is despised in science fiction, takes on a hybrid identity in this genre pastiche, referred to consistently by the term “thaumaturgy” and presented as a mixture of craftsmanship and hard science. But despite the presence of magic in the fantasy world of Bas-Lag, and the absence of any connection to our own empirical world, Carl Freedman points out that “the underlying philosophical assumptions of Miéville’s imagining are unswervingly materialist, as is typically the case with science fiction, rather than idealist in the manner of conventional (or Tolkienian) fantasy.”

Therefore, whereas the use of magic in traditional fantasy and steampunk narratives has a liberating, transcendent effect, its institutionalization in the Bas-Lag series emphasizes the power relations inherent in state-sanctioned uses of such privileged knowledge. The most prominent use of thaumaturgy throughout the novels demonstrates its use as a repressive tool: the deeply sinister and massively bureaucratic government of state capital New Crobuzon punishes those it deems criminals by transforming their bodies through thaumaturgy, inflicting radical surgery that leaves the victims physical hybrids of human and animal, human and machine, or even human and human. The ways in which these so-called Remade are transformed often make up a sadistic reflection of the crime for which they were sentenced:

I was in court the other day, saw a Magister sentence a woman to Remaking. Such a sordid, pathetic, miserable crime …” She winced in remembrance. Some woman living at the top of one of the Ketch Heath monoliths killed her baby … smothered it or shook it or Jabber knows what… because it wouldn’t stop crying. She’s sitting there in court, her eyes are just … damn well empty… she can’t believe what’s happened, she keeps moaning her baby’s name, and the Magister sentences her. Prison, of course, ten years I think, but it was the Remaking that I remember.

Her baby’s arms are going to be grafted to her face. ‘So she doesn’t forget what she did,’ he says.” Derkhan’s voice curdled as she mimicked the Magister.

They walked in silence for a while, dutifully munching candyfloss.
“I’m an art critic, Isaac,” Derkhan said eventually.

Remaking’s art, you know. Sick art. The imagination it takes! I’ve seen Remade crawling under the weight of huge spiral iron shells they retreat into at night. Snail-women. I’ve seen them with big squid tentacles where their arms were, standing in river mud, plunging their suckers underwater to pull out fish. And as for the ones made for the gladiatorial shows …!

Thus, by reframing the context in which magical powers are put to use, Miéville attempts his own form of “Remaking,” transforming the fantasy genre from the conservative narrative form famously described by Tolkien as “a form of consolation” for nostalgic audiences that feel alienated by the forces of modernity and industrialization.

Simultaneously, it overturns the fetishization of bodily transformation that occurs so regularly in the broader steampunk style, where characters are frequently represented with cool-looking industrial appendages and tools. Instead, Miéville’s thoroughly modern appropriation of familiar genre elements brings to mind Foucault’s concept of bio-power as a term to indicate the ways in which state power in capitalist societies seeks to control populations by intervening in the regulation of individual bodies. In his essay “The Political Technology of Individuals,” Foucault writes: “I think the main characteristic of our political rationality is the fact that this integration of the individuals in a community or in a totality results from a constant correlation between an increasing individualization and the reinforcement of this totality.” The Remade of New Crobuzon are the most literal embodiment of this dialectical process, as they make up a form of totality in which every individual member is uniquely altered, but whose presence as an ostracized group within a totality sustains the larger community’s identity through the process of othering. Therefore, rather than pointing away from modern state politics and questions of identity, subjection and ideology, as the use of magical powers in most other forms of fantasy tends to do, Miéville’s use of “thaumaturgy” instead keeps pulling one back towards issues most other fantasy and steampunk narratives work actively to avoid.

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Moreover, the ways in which individual characters are simultaneously concretized and abstracted into members of communities and totalities of various sizes develops further the Foucauldian sense of biopolitics that defines the multiple ways in which the creation of sustained discourses of race operate in order to sustain state power. Besides the many exotic humanoid species that populate the ethnically diverse city of New Crobuzon, and which together make up numerous minority groups that are emphatically treated as such, the state-created minority group of Remade again forms a hybrid caste that foregrounds some of the problems and contradictions of capitalist society. Created by a combination of what book critic Henry Farrell has called “the cruel and sanctimonious whimsicality of the Victorian magistrate” and “the machineries of Kafka’s penal colony,” Miéville’s universe of Bas-Lag continuously recycles salvaged items from Britain’s imperialist past. But rather than fetishizing this Victorian past by using an aesthetic that “rewrites the outcome of late capitalism according to a different, kinder industrial trajectory” (Evan Calder Williams), the Bas-Lag books reveal instead how technologies, identities, and forms of state power are continuously interwoven in past and present, and that neither the historical past nor a fantasy narrative can be isolated from questions of exploitation, oppression, or any of the other contemporary crises of global capitalism. The task that he seems to put to this “Remade” genre of salvagepunk therefore becomes a literal one of salvaging items from the past that can be made useful to our current situation.

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Miéville’s new Young Adult novel Railsea provides some of the most vivid illustrations of this process of crucial salvage-work, on a number of different levels. Most obviously, there is the level of the plot, which is stitched together from some of the great adventure stories of 19th-century literature. Primarily a pastiche of Moby-Dick and Treasure Island, the story involves an obsessed captain’s quest for a pale-skinned giant mole and an orphan boy’s desperate flight from a variety of forces that expect him to lead them to a rare hidden treasure. Written with the linguistic playfulness and almost-too-clever narrative conceits that are familiar from Miéville’s other books, Railsea’s plot at times seems like a salvage project of its own, picking up bits and pieces of literary flotsam and incorporating those items it considers useful.

CaptureBut salvagepunk is as much about discarding the useless as it is about recycling what is useful. When the story’s young hero Sham ap Sharoop is stranded on an uninhabited island in the middle of the vast Railsea, the following passage appears:

Sham rolled up his sleeves, went to the shoreline, & looked out at the ruined trains. With care, effort & bravery, he was able to brace himself on the iron, the ties, the various bits of natural & wrecky business he could reach. He even walked the earth where he had to, dragging a makeshift cart. Sham made it at last to the ruin of some once-grand cargo train, stripped it of fittings. He dug into the ground & hauled out debris.Dangerous work, but he got on with it. He dumped his finds on the shore. Gathered junk. A few more trips out to the wreck & Sham had a yard-load of nu-salvage. As night fell he began to cobble it together. When the sun came up he was standing, proudly, in a hut.

He made it into the old train’s hold where he discovered that, by happy chance, it had been carrying seeds. These he planted. He continued building until he had made a small township of corrugated iron. His crop grew. Sham collected rainwater & wove flax. He tamed local animals & got more stuff from the train. Sham made bread.

In the second year he got a bit lonely & then luckily he found the footprints of another human being on the island. He followed them & met a native, who was astonished but impressed by him & became his happy servant. Together they continued building, & after a few more years Sham managed to build an actual train, & he left the new country that he had founded with the handy discards of his old, & he set out on a journey back to Streggeye, the wind in his hair.

That didn’t happen.

Sham sat, cold, frightened, starving, on the beach. Staring at nothing. His fantasy hadn’t made him feel any better. It hadn’t been convincing at all.

This seemingly inevitable parody of Robinson Crusoe, that archetypal myth of modern capitalist individualism, is picked up by the author as another salvaged piece of narrative, examined, and quickly dismissed for its lack of usefulness. The self-reflexive comment that this “fantasy hadn’t made him feel better,” and that it “hadn’t been convincing at all” is quite obviously meant to be read as a comment on the role of fantasy narrative in relation to real-world politics and ideology. Many of the most popular narrative myths, and particularly those that make up the largest part of fantasy and steampunk narratives, are useless to us because of the fact that they perpetuate offensive myths that should therefore not be salvaged, but must either be transformed or else forcefully discarded.

Only in this way can a path be opened up to a re-articulation of fantasy fiction and the steampunk style along lines that are socially, ideologically, and artistically productive. Miéville’s books demonstrate that this can be done without resorting to the kind of mechanical, programmatic forms of fiction that read like political treatises in thinly disguised narrative form. Miéville’s books are first and foremost fully realized, exciting fictions about monsters, quests, romances, adventures, and magical transformations that one expects from a novel in this genre. The magic –or perhaps I should say “thaumaturgy”—that this author accomplishes is that he is able to do this by salvaging elements that are still worth saving, and by rejecting –or “Remaking”—the more problematic heritage of Neo-Victorian fetishism for which we should no longer have any productive use .

About

Dan Hassler-Forest is assistant professor of popular culture and cultural theory at the University of Amsterdam. His most recent book Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age gives a politically-charged analysis of the post-9/11 superhero film genre. He is currently working on research projects on the topics of zombie theory, fantasy and horror in quality television, and comics development in conflict areas.