12
March

Why I want to meet China Mieville

22 Comments

A little while back, I wrote a piece titled “The Peril of the Con­tem­po­rary.” I say a lot of things in that guest post, but the most impor­tant take­away is this: I firmly believe that, once a man­u­script leaves my hands and goes out into the world, I have zero con­trol over its inter­pre­ta­tion. There is no way to “read it wrong.” I will never tell a reader that their take on my work is invalid.

In the guest post, I talk about how this ter­ri­fies me. Most of the feed­back I get is thrilling. There is no expe­ri­ence that matches seeing your own art reflected in another’s expe­ri­ence. It is the most affirming thing I’ve ever felt, a real way to know that you’ve had impact on another person’s life. But there are, inevitably, a few who draw con­clu­sions about me based on my work, assume I’m a person I’m not, take umbrage at implied posi­tions I don’t hold, build a straw effigy and then beat it in the public square.

China Mieville’s pol­i­tics are well known. Per­haps what is most impres­sive about him is his rev­o­lu­tionary bent, his unwill­ing­ness to accept sys­tems that he sees as unjust, no matter how per­va­sive, rooted or socially accepted they may be. If you haven’t read his essay Between Equal Rights, you should. And you can see the rev­o­lu­tion in his fic­tion, in the rough-hewn semi-order of the pirate city of Armada, or the hard-edged polit­ical dis­si­dents of Iron Council. I am try (and fail) to dis­tance the artist from the art, to remind myself that I bring my own biases to the reading. I think Mieville advo­cates rev­o­lu­tion, based on what I know of his work, but I do not know this, and can’t until I get the chance to ask him.

But that’s not why I most want to meet him.

Mieville’s work has, quite lit­er­ally, changed my life. The Scar is one of the books that gal­va­nized my fan­tasy of writing pro­fes­sion­ally into a hard­ened zeal, a com­mit­ment that ulti­mately led me to a book deal and New York City (a gritty urban land­scape that is decid­edly Mievil­lesque). I have read every­thing he’s ever pub­lished (wait, strike that. Haven’t got to Railsea yet). He is, in my mind, one of the lit­erary mon­u­ments of our age.

I am a mil­i­tary officer in the only branch that is also a police force. I am the oppo­site of what I pic­ture Mieville’s rev­o­lu­tionary avatar to be. I wear the uni­form, erasing my indi­vid­u­ality in ser­vice of the state. I waive my opin­ions and mis­giv­ings. I raise my right hand and swear to march to the beat drummed by the poli­cies of my gov­ern­ment. The United States may be a democ­racy, but the guard sure as hell isn’t. I have will­ingly sub­or­di­nated my freedom of speech, of asso­ci­a­tion, of action, all in the hopes that by giving up those free­doms, I can best pre­serve them for every­body else.

When the Occupy Wall Street move­ment reached its fever pitch about a year ago, I spent many a sleep­less night waiting for the phone to ring, bringing word that the guard had been called up to bring order to the chaos. I was ter­ri­fied of the choice I would face, grateful that I didn’t have to make it.

And of course I thought of Mieville’s New Quillers and Runa­gaters, of Isaac’s rogue sci­ence and Uther Doul’s mus­cular rejec­tion of authority. I was hor­ri­fied to think that, when those rev­o­lu­tion­aries rose, I was part of the engine that would be called to put them down.

And this is what I meant in that guest post. Mieville writes a book, pub­lishes it. Never guesses that a guard officer will read it, be forced to con­front his own con­science. I am a mar­itime officer, and I car­ried that lens with me when I read the dra­matic sea battle between Armada and the New Crobuzon navy. There was no ques­tion which side a state-servant like myself would be on: squarely on the deck of the New Crobuzon flag­ship, readying my boarding team, fright­ened but deter­mined not to let my coun­trymen down.

God­speed, chief. Keep ‘em together and keep ‘em moving.”

Aye aye, sir. We’ll show these pirates how the guard gets it done.”

And I would have died with the rest of them, pierced through by a pirate boarding pike, or shot, or fried by thau­maturgy. I would have gone to the bottom of the drink along with the rest of that shat­tered fleet, sucking down brine, flailing in the cold and dark. Because, in The Scar, the pirates are the good guys, and the good guys win.

It is the same dis­so­nance I feel every time I watch a Star Wars movie and find myself iden­ti­fying more with the uni­formed order of the Empire than the pas­tiche of the Rebel Alliance, only it’s stronger, because it hits closer to where I live: in that tense pocket where the forces ensuring state secu­rity brush up against those who seek to bring about change.

And it is a reminder of what I wrote in that guest post: That a writer cannot antic­i­pate or con­trol how a reader inter­prets his or her work. That our expe­ri­ences are as myriad and unique as snowflakes, each a lens that fil­ters the art dif­fer­ently, regard­less of intent.

I know this, because it affects me as surely as anyone else. It’s almost as if The Scar is a novel unique to me, a dif­ferent book than anyone else reads, one in which I fight on the wrong side and die.

This is per­haps the greatest thing about art: It is, by its very nature, par­tic­i­pa­tory, with each receiver pro­cessing the same work dif­fer­ently, arriving at an out­come wholly their own.

And it is fright­ening. I don’t want people to make assump­tions about me based on my work. I don’t like feeling like the antag­o­nist in one of my favorite books.

But that is pre­cisely what makes it worthwhile.

And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

  • http://twitter.com/Mikes005 Michael Grey

    Good fic­tion, no scratch that, GREAT fic­tion is what forces us to ques­tion what we hold as true. It does not matter if you come out the other side with the same set of beliefs, what mat­ters is you looked them square and inspected them. Mieville is one such writer who does that.

    Great article, Myke. But read Railsea, Seriously.

  • anon e. mousse

    The United States may be a democ­racy”? No, sir, the US is most def­i­nitely not a democ­racy. It’s a con­sti­tu­tional republic. Do you think the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is unim­por­tant? Would you take up arms for the will of an Amer­ican democracy?

  • http://twitter.com/PrinceJvstin Paul Weimer

    Good fic­tion *does* make us ques­tion our world, our society, our­selves. China’s work knocks you on your ass. It’s invalu­able that way.

  • Scott Zachary

    Sub-MOA hit with this post, my friend. As a former enlisted member of the Guard, I strug­gled with exactly the same issues when I was called up for civil dis­tur­bance duty many years ago. Even though I knew my job was to keep the peace, the internal con­flict of bearing arms against other Amer­i­cans was … well you already explained exactly how it feels.

    Also, I’ve also always had a soft-spot for the Empire, but could never pin­point why. Thanks for clearing that one up for me. :)

  • Scott Zachary

    Sub-MOA hit with this post, my friend. As a former enlisted member of the Guard, I strug­gled with exactly the same issues when I was called up for civil dis­tur­bance duty many years ago. Even though I knew my job was to keep the peace, the internal con­flict of bearing arms against other Amer­i­cans was … well you already explained exactly how it feels.

    Also, I’ve also always had a soft-spot for the Empire, but could never pin­point why. Thanks for clearing that one up for me. :)