Consistently praised for his imaginative world building and florid prose, China Miéville is one of the most lauded writers working in genre fiction. However, the praise stops short — along with readers — at one crucial aspect of almost every novel he’s ever written: the ending. The narrative climax of any given Miéville novel is almost identical to any other of his disappointing endings: Just when it seems about to boil over, he suddenly cuts the heat and says, Look, it’s just water.
Sometimes, the reveal is that the all-powerful magical weapon referred to throughout the book is actually a series of legislative reforms, or a police procedural that ends with the revelation that there is no conspiracy, or even a villain really, just politicians acting as they must. Other times Miéville’s endings have enough wit and ingenuity to not seem as pedantic as that, but whether or not they ultimately “work” for an individual reader, his persistent anticlimaxes speak to the ways in which he intervenes not just in the genre he is explicitly working in (science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, salvagepunk, detective procedural, or whatever else) but also in the novel itself as a genre.
In the realm of genre fiction, technocratic determinism or idealism generally reign. But what Miéville does, which tends very reliably to undercut the narrative of his novels right as they are most engaging, is something I will call fantastical materialism. It is distinct from both the idealism of high fantasy, in which the magical is a material expression of the conceptual (the Dungeons & Dragons paladin or cleric class, whose spell-casting abilities are basically reliant on successfully praying to their God of Whatever Concept, are a particularly striking literalization of this trope) and the technocratic realism of most science fiction, in which social relations are deterministically produced by technology and its related commodities. This is visible in the puerile Kurzweilian fantasy (and hideous neologism) of singularitarianism. Subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 8: Other Animals now.
Fantastical materialism treats fantastical tropes as technologies themselves. That is, it takes the stuff of genre, those metonymic objectsa raygun, a wizard staff, a chainsaw, etc. capable of signifying a whole genre simply by their presence and upholds the dialectical tension between the signification and the stuff. The way these specific overdetermined items, by their simple presence, interpolate the text into the feedback loop of genre is acknowledged simultaneously with the way this same mystification is revealed as bad faith.
Perhaps the strongest example in Miéville comes from The Scar, in its depiction of encounters with the grindylow. Coded throughout the novel as the ferocious, mysterious other, they chase the floating pirate city on which the novel takes place, presumably trying to recover a stolen icon that confers the power to refract space, to steal into rooms through the corners of walls and such. This “fierce natives attempt to recover their fetish object” trope becomes fantastical materialism when Bellis, the main character, attempts to return the object to the grindylow and they dash it away. It turns out that they have tracked the icon’s thief to the dangerous edge of the sea not to recover the magical trinket, despite its awesome power, but instead because the thief is also a cartographer and has drawn maps of potential trade routes that will lead to the hostile colonization of their home. The magical totem is therefore not devalued as such — it remains an incredibly powerful and dangerous magic to the humans who stole it — but it is contextualized. By foregrounding the material interests (land) of the novel’s most fetishized characters, this “climax” give precedence to the material reality of the fantasy, to its objects both within their universe and in their function as generic signposts. The idealization that’s often implicit in allegory is undercut.
No matter how potent the trope Miéville plays with — and the essentialized other is certainly a potent trope in the fantasy genre — he maintains a materialist approach to both their generic qualities (how they overdetermine) and their narrative qualities (how they function within the fictional universe). Miéville’s worlds do not revolve around the way in which they are different from our own, a trap that the vast majority of speculative fiction falls into, but have coherent motivation for their own internal structure. Miéville’s apparent disinterest in the specifically fantastical aspects of his works in the end thus actually serves to bolster their intended impact. Instead of fetishizing the fantastical, it is made as material as all other things. The fantastical elements are never reduced to convenient loopholes or boring sinkholes of extra-narrative explication. By not being idealized, they are provided the space to be used as something other than just props in yet another liberal humanist fantasy of emerging (heroic) interiority.
The ending of Miéville’s most recent novel, Railsea, ratchets up the fantastical materialism further. Borrowing heavily from Moby Dick — though Railsea is perhaps more accurately described as a parody of the secondary literature on Moby Dick than the novel itself — the adventure on Miéville’s railsea is initially framed as the hunt for a giant mole or “moldywarpe” called Mocker-Jack, who forced Captain Abacat Naphi to have a cyborg arm installed. Whereas Moby Dick depicts Ahab’s pursuit of the whale as an obsession,A word that, based on my extensive research, doesn’t actually appear even once in the text of the novel. My extensive research: Miéville calls the relation between his captains and beasts philosophies, and every moling captain with the good fortune of having been delimbed by an enormous beast with a distinctive feature (Mocker-Jack is, for instance, “ivory,” or “old-tooth-colored,” or “yellow,”) has one. Both a project and an implicit set of assumptions, a philosophy, in Railsea‘s terms, is something simultaneously detached and ordinary — the exact antonyms of obsession. The implication being, of course, that the beast and the quest for it are far from the exceptional preserve of the individual; they are the very set of implicit assumptions and projected goals that form the structure of civilization. In Railsea, there is even a museum dedicated to captains who have successfully dispatched their philosophies — a testament to Miéville ‘s materialist disposition.
The novel’s organization draws on two tropes that are central to the Western canon, those novels that are supposedly beyond genre, and redeploys them in a distinctively generic and fantastical-materialist way. The first of these is the railroad, the relic that promised unidirectional, tracked progress. With belching smokestack over burning headlamp, the train presses on inexorably. Miéville transforms railroads into the railsea, a clusterfuck of switches and turnouts. Had Anna Karenina made her frantic leap in Miéville’s world, that book would have ended with a scraped knee, an annoyed train, and her possibly being devoured by a pack of carnivorous naked mole rats from beneath the earth.
The second trope is the beast, the radically inhuman being whose blasphemous existence provides the external counterpoint against which the individual can constitute himself. As old as Grendel in the English literary tradition, such beasts figure the threat of the destabilization of the order imposed by civilization. The beast is a structural necessity in any literary attempt to allegorize the production of interiority, functioning as a stand-in for the outside (beastly nature) against which the struggle to develop the inside (the product of the civilizing process) must posit itself.
Without this dialectical tension, the individual may be conscious but never truly self-conscious. Only with the introduction of this narrative can interiority be conceptualized, along with its metonymic counterparts like honor, morality, and individuality. Thus, Mocker-Jack, Railsea‘s beast, whose name itself even signifies that this beast is a troubling presence within this system. Because in Railsea the beast is really just that, a monstrous being outside the civilized world who has no stake in it, despite its stake in him. When it is revealed that his only significant linkage — the act of violence that tore off Captain Naphi’s arm, has been a sham all along (the cyborg arm is only a shell containing her perfectly functioning limb), the outside that provides the condition of possibility for the inside is also delinked, and the dialectical structure of the self is unveiled as nothing more than a tired allegory.
The ending of the novel takes place in a fabled place called Heaven, the rumored end of the railsea. With Mocker-Jack slain, Sham, who had been on the hunt with Naphi, follows the final rail over a massive trestle to the place where the railsea ends. The terminus has no tracks looping back on themselves and no wyes; it has only a machine set up to push trains onto the track. This is the end as the beginning, but without the holistic circle. The two privileged points of nonnarrative materiality, a book’s front and back cover, are revealed to be but one simple system for shoving things back into the world.
The novel climaxes not with a fancy theological tiff but a very material explanation of the world it inhabits, down to how it was financed. Railsea’s anticlimax finds the terminus of Heaven populated with waiting feral bureaucrats, the descendants of the descendants of the crazed railroad tycoons who frenziedly built the railsea in a rash of spending spurred by capitalist competition — an event remembered as the “godsquabble.” These faithful bureaucrats have been keeping records of the costs of the railsea, and nearly kill Sham when he reveals that he hasn’t come to pay the tab. The mythological origins of the railsea within the text are revealed as an allegory that, no matter how fanciful the world is, palls before the ultimate material explanation.
The godsquabble’s collapse from being a mythological to an allegorical explanation is prefigured in the novel, as one of the Shroake twins offers the material explanation long before it is confirmed. In this way, Miéville stays consistent with his tendency to deny allegory in favor of polysemy, particularly in the field of his monsters — what he has referred to as teratology. By applying teratology, the study of abnormalities, to fiction, Miéville privileges the impulse to taxonomy over the impulse to syncretism that most “literary” reading practices engage in. A monster like Mocker-Jack may share attributes with other literary monsters, and it would certainly be possible to syncretically reduce him to an allegory by cutting him down to his resemblance with other storied beasts in order to slot him into a prepackaged narrative about how his specificities correspond with some universalizable ideal. Fantastical materialism, however, insists that any monster goes beyond this eidetic reading, and so a classificatory system must focus on the specificities of any monster as its irreducible component and proceed from there. Thus for Miéville, teratology and taxonomy supplant allegory.Subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 8: Other Animals now.
Miéville’s embrace of classification is the most appreciable way — excepting, perhaps, the tentacles — that he draws on and exceeds H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s misanthropy (as evidenced most explicitly in his racism) ties him dialectically to the specifically novelistic humanist narrative that makes the human an exceptional animal via its interiority and to a reliance on the novelistic impulse of centering the work on a character’s interiority to the point that in “The Mound,” when describing a Native American ghost story as experienced by a 16th century Spaniard, he has to fabricate a frame in which a white American ethnologist can tell us the story and experience all the terror.
By contrast, Miéville tends to write a very specific kind of weak character who doesn’t really “grow” — another facet of his writing for which he is (gently) disparaged. But his static characters are more a symptom than a sign of technical deficiency. With his fantastical materialism, Miéville works toward decentralizing character in the novel form, in order to replace it with genre itself. In Miéville’s fiction, we see the growth through struggle not of the individual but of the structure that provides the condition of possibility for individuals — in a word, the genre.
The example of Miéville’s Un Lun Dun is relevant here. The novel begins with the discovery of a parallel, magical London by two young girls, one of whom is revealed quickly to be the prophesied savior of the city. When she is subjected to her first trial, however, she fails spectacularly, and the girl who was set up to be the sidekick instead becomes the novel’s protagonist. With this move, Miéville not only undercuts the essentialist “destiny” narrative of much young-adult fiction, he shifts the explicit focus of the novel from the characters within the genre to the way the genre itself determines (and undermines) the characters it subordinates. This shift is accomplished by way of the understanding of novel-as-genre — that is, using the generic tropes of the novel in the service of fantastical materialism.
Railsea provides the most exemplary moment. The narrator, in a metafictional address to the reader, foregrounds the materiality of storytelling by addressing the novel’s most distinctive stylistic tic, the total replacement of the word and with ampersands. According to the narrator, the “&” is a perfect ideogrammatic representation of the railsea itself — a conjunction that mirrors the track’s twists and turns to end almost adjacent to where it began. It is an elegant suturing of style and substance, a veritable fucking point de capiton in which the self-consciously disruptive signifier is sewed into the world-fabric of the novel, making the novel itself only another instance of the materiality of the fantastic.
The novel, like all his others, works in an affective register different from what we expect from literature, especially the stuff tagged with a genre like “science fiction.” To approach them with the implicit hope, no matter how well disavowed, of achieving insight into human nature or of being moved along these lines, must result in absolute disappointment. But to approach these moments as fantastical materialists ourselves, to acknowledge the bankrupt allegorical structure in the face of the structuring automaton of genre and to ride its impersonal logic to its inevitable conclusion, is to open another affective field, one in which the joys of reading can be felt not as an exploration of interiority but in the structures and abstractions that constitute the world.