China Miéville has written frequently, critically about Tolkien’s reactionary politics, but one of the things that Miéville’s books do is demonstrate, by contrast, that Tolkien is reactionary at an ontological level. It’s not, that is, that Tolkien simply describes or praises a world with a feudal political organization; rather, Tolkien’s world is feudal at its most basic level of organization. Tolkien’s world has a fundamental, hierarchical and static organization. This manifests itself geographically (with civilization in the north west and savagery in the east and south), and biologically (in the fixity of the different species) before it appears politically. Exceptions to these orderings are presented as aberrations: the marriage of an elf and a human caused such a crisis that godlike beings had to step in and force the children of this pairing to chose to be one species or the other, and the evil of Sauron and, later, Saruman consists of a disruption of nature which involves, among other things, the construction of a class of workers and soldiers with no family lineage or ties of place: the orcs.
This is all such a cliché of fantasy that it is easy not to notice it, but Miéville’s Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council) bring it into focus because their own ontology is, in contrast, strikingly modern. At the level of its basic constituents, Miéville’s world is fragmented and mashed up. There’s no hierarchical order, indeed there’s no order of proper discrete entities at all; everything is a mixture and a mixture of which there is no telling what, if anything, are the original constituents (this is why I like to think of Perdido Street Station as a novelization of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature). In Perdido Street Station, this is most apparent in the species of the characters, the insect-like khepri and the weirdly aquatic vodyanoi, which suggest the strangeness of convergent evolution, as well as the Remade, humans who are intentionally aggregated with machines and animals at the whims of the legal system. In The Scar, the scale of this fragmentation increases markedly, with the suggestion that the whole world is the result of a series of vast cosmological collisions (which leave the ontological scar of the book’s title). My favorite example, though, is emphasized in Iron Council, with its treatment of fantasy’s personifications of the material, elementals and golems. Where Dungeons & Dragons interprets elemental creatures as manifestations of a small set of primary, elemental forces (earth, wind, fire, water), Miéville imagines them as real abstractions, in which any force or category can realize itself in this way, presenting us with the image of an attack of flesh elementals, or motion elementals running alongside a train, snapping at its wheels.
This fragmentation and restlessness has an uneasy relationship with another aspect of modernity, in which the lack of fundamental principles, this constant change, is itself made a fundamental principle, the principle of progress. Progress, and its various valences, are the main theme of Iron Council, in particular in one of its most unpleasant forms, expansive imperialism. The story concerns the construction of a railroad, which destroys the lives of those in its path as well as those employed (or enslaved) in its construction. The construction of the railroad is presented by one of the characters, in a messianic mode, as progress, and the book doesn’t exactly demure from this characterization, but it suggests alternative ways of understanding “progress.” The construction of the railroad is, at first, progressive in a very literal sense, proceeding along a predetermined path, and leaving behind a fixed manifestation of this process. However, after a revolt of the railroad workers establishes the Iron Council of the title, the railroad veers off course – but it continues going, becoming a “perpetual train,” which puts down rails in front of itself only to immediately pull them back up after it has traveled over them. It is, in the end, a very literal manifestation of the fractured ontology of Miéville’s world, the metaphysically deranged region called the “cacotopos,” that allows this perpetual train to makes its escape.
The end of the book provides an ambiguous but intriguing payoff in terms of revolutionary theory for this ontological construction, as the Iron Council returns to its starting point, the city of New Crobuzon, in a possibly doomed attempt to bring revolution to the city. Before it can get there, one of the main characters makes the train’s progress itself into a real abstraction, making it the body of a time golem; the train is now perpetually to come, but never arrives. Henry Farrell describes this as an example of Benjaminian messianism, in which the past is “exploded out of the continuum of history,” but I think this is exactly the wrong way round. The time in which the revolutionary train is always about to arrive and never arriving is the time of social democratic progress, which is “unending” and “unstoppable” progress through a “homogenous and empty time.” This is historicism, which, as Benjamin puts it “depicts the ‘eternal’ picture of the past.” The Benjaminian explosion out of the continuum of history is just the opposite of this, when a moment of the past is re-activated and suddenly seems contemporary, when we “take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” And it is this which makes the past no longer appear as the track of progress which stretches off, predetermined, into the distance.