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.