Revolutionary Possibility

China Miéville’s October depicts the transformative hope of revolution.

Soviet leaders on November 7, 1919, in Red Square, Moscow, USSR, celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution. L.Y. Leonidov / Wikimedia

October, China Miéville’s new book, describes the October Revolution as a moment of possibility. In its closing pages, Miéville explains why he wrote the book, despite the revolution’s aftermath:

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

October depicts a pell-mell avalanche of one event crashing down on another, and men and women trying with varying success to guide the collisions — or at least survive them. Miéville’s novels often show people who thought themselves to be acting freely discovering that instead they have been enacting an inexorable logic, which, while not entirely determining their fates, renders many of their actions perverse or irrelevant. Yet there’s also a thread of counter-argument — a skein of moments in which people turn the tables on structure and write their own history.

In his children’s book, Un Lun Dun, when Miéville’s sinister Mr. Speaker orders his words to take Deeba (the protagonist, but pointedly not the heroine) captive, she responds:

“Words don’t always mean what we want them to,” she said. “None of us. Not even you  . . . Like  . . . if someone shouts ‘Hey you!’ at someone in the street, but someone else turns around. The words misbehaved.”

This is a joke aimed at Althusser’s structuralism — in which ideology “hails” people just as a policeman yells “Hey you there” — but it’s one with teeth. The moments that Miéville is interested in are the moments at which words stop obeying their masters and people find themselves able to forge their own fate collectively. His Marxism is not determinist, but faithful to unexplored possibilities. For Miéville, the moments of possible revolution are not the unfolding of an ineluctable logic of history, but the conceivable escape from this logic into something new and unexpected.

Looked at this way, October isn’t a departure from Miéville’s previous work; it’s a culmination of it. The theme of revolution and what it means runs through Miéville’s work — especially his Iron Council, which is fantasy, and Embassytown, which is science fiction. With October, these novels form a revolutionary triptych, asking what revolution involves and how one can describe a revolution which would by definition be so radical that its outcome cannot be understood by those who have not undergone it.

Iron Council is the most obvious immediate predecessor to October. While its aborted rebellion is not a fantasticated version of the October Revolution (it is both its own thing and the shadow of other revolutions too), in places it rhymes. The last of Miéville’s New Crobuzon novels, Iron Council describes a city fallen on hard times in a harsh war. The city is surrounded by railways, which serve both as a “summation and most striking index of the development of world trade” in an imperialist era, and a source of possible change.

New Crobuzon’s capitalists have built out railroads in a failed effort to extend their networks of trade and influence across the entire continent. Yet this apparently ironbound structure of rails, spikes, and sleepers has also enabled the rebellion of a group of strikers and camp followers, who have hijacked a train — the “Iron Council” of the title — and made their own way into the unexplored depths of the continent, laying down and picking up their own tracks as they move. In the concluding paragraphs of October, Miéville welds quotes about trains from Marx, Lenin, and Bruno Schulz into an argument against the notion that there is a single predestined path that history must follow:

The question for history is not only who should be driving the engine, but where. The Prokopoviches have something to fear, and they police these suspect, illegal branch lines, all the while insisting they do not exist. Onto such tracks the revolutionaries divert their train, with its contraband cargo, unregisterable, supernumerary, powering for a horizon, an edge as far away as ever and yet careering closer. Or so it looks from the liberated train, in liberty’s dim light.

Over a decade prior, in Iron Council, he had already described such a train proceeding along an unregistered branch line of history, until it bursts back onto the main line, returning to New Crobuzon.

Miles of track, reused, reused, it is the train’s future and its present, and it emerges a fraction more scarred as history and is hauled up again and becomes another future. The train carries its track with it, picking it up and laying it down: a sliver, a moment of railroad. No longer a line split through time, but contingent and fleeting, recurring beneath the train, leaving only its footprint.

Through an artifice of Judah Low, the book’s major protagonist, the train is blasted out of the homogenous course of history, frozen in the moment before it reaches New Crobuzon so that it is eternally present yet never quite arriving.

Because it does not arrive, the revolution does not happen. Yet the question of what would have happened, had it arrived, haunts Miéville’s imagined history, just as his real history is haunted by the question of what might have developed had the October Revolution kept its promise. What Miéville looks to preserve is not the often vicious and squalid aftermath of the 1917 revolution, but the possibility that some other revolution might succeed in transforming us, as that revolution did not.

This presents an enormous problem though, both for Miéville and revolutionaries in general. A true revolution would be an escape from the history in which we are trapped, into something wholly different. It would be transformational. As Miéville describes the problem in October:

The revolutionaries want a new country in a new world, one they cannot see but believe they can build. And they believe that in so doing, the builders will also build themselves anew.

When the train originally escapes its masters in Iron Council, Judah Low describes such a country, in words that play on Marx’s famous description of communism:

There must be a place beyond this. A place far enough. They won’t follow you. You’ll cross, right across the world. Where there’s fruit and meat. Where the train can stop. You can hunt, fish, rear cattle — I don’t know. You can read, and when you’ve read the books in the library car you should write others. You got to get there.

But neither Low, nor Marx, nor Miéville can describe this country, since they have never been there, and would not be who they are now if they ever got to it.

But Miéville’s other great novel of revolution, Embassytown, examines the problem of revolution from the other side, depicting an alien race who live in a pre-Adamic state where they are imprisoned by language. For the alien Arieki, there is no gap between langue and parole, or the signifier and the signified. Their language (or, as the book denotes it, “Language”) is entirely literal. To be able to use similes, they must see those similes enacted. The narrator, a human woman, acquires a certain social station because as a child, she was chosen to be a simile, the “girl who ate what was given to her.” The Arieki speak with two voices — yet those voices must converge upon a common meaning. They are incapable of lying. Like Mr. Speaker’s words, they are spoken rather than speaking.

This is accidentally disrupted by humans, maneuvering among themselves over who will control trade with the Arieki (as one of the more cynical characters remarks, behind every Lono story there’s “pilfering and cannon.”) The rebels among the Arieki have already been experimenting with shading the truth as a competitive art — now, they struggle between an addiction to hearing lies spoken and the beginnings of an incipient ability to lie themselves. While one human sees the virtuoso Surl Tesh-Echer’s struggles to learn how to lie as the introduction of evil into the paradisiacal Garden of Language, it is actually a necessary strength, a way to move past literal truth into real agency, so that they are no longer like the girl who ate what was given to her, but can make their own choices.

The Arieki begin with a lie that “Before the humans came, we didn’t speak.” Yet this lie in turn becomes a metaphor, and then a truth spoken by the Arieki Spanish Dancer to its people after it has itself found liberation.

Before the humans came we didn’t speak. … We didn’t speak, we were mute, we only dropped the stones we mentioned out of our mouths, opened our mouths and had the birds we described fly out, we were vectors, we were the birds eating in mindlessness, we were the girl in darkness, only knowing it when we weren’t anymore. We speak now or I do, and others do. You’ve never spoken before. You will. You’ll be able to say how the city is a pit and a hill and a standard and an animal that hunts and a vessel on the sea and the sea and how we are fish in it, not like the man who swims weekly with fish but the fish with which he swims, the water, the pool. I love you, you light me, warm me, you are suns.

The Arieki’s liberation from the prison-house of Language, learning how to lie and use metaphor, is painful and confusing. When they emerge, they are so profoundly different that they cannot remember how they once were. Yet it is a necessary revolution. Even if the transformation began with a lie, the lie becomes true, since its truth-value can only properly be reckoned under circumstances that were unimaginable at the moment when it was first uttered.

The argument of Embassytown is itself a simile, struggling to become a metaphor, which is in turn struggling to become a truth. The simile is between the revolution the Arieki undergo and the revolution that Miéville wants to see us embark upon. He depicts the aliens changing through revolution from creatures whose thinking is ontologically different to our own (is, in a sense, not thinking at all), to creatures who share our condition, with all its possibilities and ambiguities. Miéville suggests that if we were to undergo revolution, we would ourselves be as radically transformed as the Arieki, so that the world in which we are now trapped would seem incommensurable and inexplicable to our future selves or descendants. For us, too, the possibility of revolution seems like a lie. Yet that lie can be transformed into a truth.

The hope that revolution promises can never be realized by us as we are now. More profoundly, the hope that it actually embodies is unimaginable, since to be able to imagine it is to have undergone it. From this side, we cannot see what the other side looks like. The promise of revolution is inevitably a lie, right up to the moment when the revolutionary transformation occurs, because the person making the promise cannot possibly understand that to which she is committing.

Understanding this is the key to understanding Miéville’s October. Like the thought of Walter Benjamin, Miéville’s Marxism is shot through with what can only be described as faith. Benjamin notoriously never finished reading Capital, and was attracted by the socialist utopians whom Marx reviled and disparaged, because he saw in them an unrealized hope for a world that would be radically transformed. Thus, the promise of the October Revolution remains with us, like Miéville’s imagined, frozen train, not as an inevitability but as a possibility, which has never properly arrived but may break through at any moment. As Benjamin described it, every second of time is the gate through which the Messiah may enter. The world that the Messiah brings is in principle unknowable to us, yet if we do not hope and work for this now-unimaginable redemption, we will never find it.

It’s superficially easy for more prosaic socialists to sneer at these ideas when they are presented so baldly. We do not live in an age that seems to lend itself to radical transformation. Moreover, such efforts at radical transformation as we have seen in the last century have largely failed, and often failed in terrible ways. Yet it is also true that we have seen enormous transformation in the past, and have no good warrant to believe that we’ve arrived at the end of transformative history.