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From Genre to Political Economy: Miéville’s The City & The City and Uneven Development

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 13, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 13-30 | 10.1353/ncr.2013.0013

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I

From the beginning, China Miéville’s work has been characterized by the combination of a wide range of generic kinds. “Weird fiction,” his own preferred term for his work (appropriated from H. P. Lovecraft), is in fact an omnibus category that in practice has included elements from such arealistic forms as science fiction, world-building fantasy, horror, surrealism, and magical realism. This list is not exhaustive, of course, and Miéville has also combined weird fiction as a whole with genres that cannot be considered arealistic in quite the same way. To consider, for example, the three volumes of Miéville’s massive Bas-Lag trilogy, his largest and, almost certainly, his most memorable achievement to date: Dickensian urban satire is prominent in Perdido Street Station (2000); The Scar (2002) owes a good deal to the traditional seafaring narrative as developed by Melville and Conrad; and in Iron Council (2004)—for me his finest novel of all—the Western has an important generic presence (Zane Gray is appropriately listed on the acknowledgments page among the writers to whom Miéville expresses a special debt).

In this context, Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & The City marks a significant and even a radical departure from his earlier work. Here, the entire elaborate machinery of weird fiction is mostly—or, as I will argue, completely, or almost completely—dispensed with; what little (if any) remains of it is fused with a quite different generic cluster, one composed of such overlapping, though by no means identical, genres of crime fiction as noir, the police procedural, and (above all) the hardboiled detective narrative. The generic composition of the novel is further overdetermined by the kind of negative utopia invented by Yevgeny Zamiatin in his groundbreaking We (1920), and influentially developed by Zamiatin’s two most important British followers, Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In addition, the nearly unclassifiable influence of Kafka (who is explicitly thanked on the acknowledgments page) faintly but unmistakably haunts the text as a whole.

The most salient difference between The City & The City, on the one hand, and the weird fiction of Miéville’s earlier novels and stories, on the other, is not, however, a matter just of different genres being in play. It is also a question of fundamental generic orientation. To invoke a distinction that I have explored elsewhere, the genres that compose weird fiction are, for the most part, fundamentally inflationary in tendency: which is to say that they incline, in various ways, to suggest reality to be richer, larger, stranger, more complex, more surprising—and, indeed, “weirder”—than common sense would suppose. Weird fiction necessarily insists on going beyond the mundane, and (especially in its science fictional version) may, thereby, create special opportunities for what Ernst Bloch calls the utopian function of art by showing a world beyond the privation and violence of the actual to be not only conceivable but concretely imaginable. This utopian function is, indeed, exercised with rare brilliance in Iron Council. Yet, even when not so overtly utopian, Miéville’s weird fiction, above all as instanced by the Bas-Lag novels, displays its inflationary force—its transcendence of the actual—also by the nearly unprecedented fertility and three-dimensionality of its arealistic world-building. Constructed from the ground up, as it were, in seemingly endless detail and with careful attention to virtually all major forms of human activity (e.g., economic, political, military, legal, artistic, intellectual, religious, sexual, interpersonal), Bas-Lag attains a solidity and a concretely plausible presence that make even Tolkien’s Middle-earth seem flat and impalpable by comparison. So inflationary can weird fiction become in Miéville’s hands that we accept the (alternative) reality of a whole inhabited planet of which no one had ever before heard.

By contrast, the genres of crime fiction, and especially hardboiled detective fiction, tend to be deflationary (and opposed to the idea of utopia). Especially since Dashiell Hammett—the undisputed founder of hardboiled detective fiction and still, arguably, its greatest exponent—the main tendency of crime fiction has been to assume that there is generally less...



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