Enthusiasts of China Miéville’s fiction recognize that cities and revolutions are central among the themes and settings of his 11 novels and two short story collections. For nearly two decades, Miéville has placed his characters in clearly recognizable yet subtly altered versions of London and Paris, as well as in the meticulously created metropolises of Bezsel, New Crobuzon, and Ul Qoma. Many of the stories denouements arrive through some form of urban uprising, whether in King Rat’s confrontation between rats, spiders, and a reanimated Pied Piper of Hamelin in the drum ’n’ bass club culture of late 1990s London, or, in The Last Days of New Paris, through the attempts of surrealist-inspired hybrid creatures (manifestations, or manifs) to drive Nazi occupiers from Paris.
Miéville’s latest book, out from Verso this May, is October: The Story of the Russian Revolution; it’s a history of the Russian Revolution, an event that turns 100 this year. His fiction is informed by his vivid imagination, as well as by London, the city where he was born and still lives, and his deep commitment to the study and practice of leftist politics.
Miéville received a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics, ran for Parliament on the Socialist Alliance ticket in 2001, and is a founding member of the U.K.’s Left Unity party. Given this background, along with the striking diversity of his published work, it’s not surprising that radical publishing house Verso turned to Miéville to write about the Russian Revolution.
He describes October as “a book for the lay reader rather than the specialist” and hopes that his nonspecialist perspective will benefit such readers. The book opens with a “Prehistory of 1917” and then proceeds month by month (following the Julian calendar then in use in Russia), starting with February—when an insurrection in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), the imperial capital, resulted in the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the establishment of a moderate provisional government—and ending with October, when the Bolsheviks seized power, eventually establishing a Communist state under the leadership of Lenin.
Miéville is all too aware of how quickly the idealism of these early days curdled into paranoia and violence, later leading to the horrors of Stalin’s purges, the establishment of the gulags, and the forced collectivization of peasant lands. But Miéville’s aim in retelling this story of urban uprising is to emphasize that “the degradation of the Revolution was not a given”—that there were many points at which things might have turned out very differently. He argues that had Lenin succeeded in removing Stalin as leader, or had any of the other European nations offered the nascent U.S.S.R. friendship rather than hostility, the story might have taken a very different turn.
In the course of writing October, Miéville spent time in St. Petersburg, conversing with Russians he met there. What he found was a society deeply committed to capitalism but also one in which many are nostalgic for the Stalin era. The revolution is remembered as a sort of national epic, when Russia emerged as a great global power. Given that Miéville takes pains in October to point out that the moment of possibility that emerged in St. Petersburg a hundred years ago was not only Russia’s (“It could be ours,” he writes), I asked him what parallels he sees between that moment and the present, particularly with Britain undergoing a series of traumatic political, social, and economic dislocations.
In response, Miéville describes himself as pessimistic about the current situation, at least for those on the left, but he emphasizes that this feeling is not the same as acceptance of the status quo. “You can be pessimistic without being at all resigned,” he says. “Understanding the scale [of the challenges] can be energizing”—as can the knowledge that, while current British, American, and global politics are dismaying, things could change very quickly, as they did in Russia in 1917.
Miéville echoes the words of an eloquent letter, sent by the peasants of an isolated region, Rakalovsk Volost, to the Petrograd Soviet and quoted in October: “We are sick and tired of living in debt and slavery. We want space and light.” To Miéville, these words, probably composed communally and put to paper by one of the village’s few literate inhabitants, display “a utopian—and not at all in the pejorative sense—yearning for equitable relations, in which the haziness of the details is a feature, not a bug.” He adds, “It’s a protean yearning for something that seems almost in their reach.”
In talking about the unfulfilled yearnings that animated the August 2011 riots that briefly convulsed London, then spread to a number of other English cities, Miéville attributes the conventional wisdom regarding these events to politicians and the media. The participants were cast as “feral youth” motivated entirely by a desire for material goods, as “an act of social sadism” on the part of the privileged against what they perceived as a violent and feckless underclass. Moreover, such judgments serve as “a wicked piece of misdirection” by which the public was encouraged to fear and hate those who lacked financial and political power, and thus not only to approve of harsh punishments for their actions but to dismiss their uprising as completely devoid of political consciousness or meaning.
While the events of 2011 did not lead to the dramatic changes of Petrograd’s revolutions, Miéville sees modern London as a city in which the ever-widening divide between the wealthy and everyone else alters the environment in ways that could catalyze some type of radical shift. Having lived in London for more than 40 years, he feels that the city has changed for the better in a number of ways—notably in the lessening of everyday racism and the improvement in the lives of women and LGBTQ people.
But Miéville expresses deep concern about the massive socioeconomic inequality, and by what he sees as “a deliberate policy of making London more like Paris”—pushing the less-affluent residents to the city’s outskirts in a program of “grandiose, middlebrow rebuilding” of the central areas. Even for those who, like himself, have thus far been able to continue to live in central London, these changes have resulted in a loss of contingent, unplanned space, a phenomenon also mourned by Iain Sinclair, whose forthcoming work on the hyperfinancialization of urban space is called The Last London, a title Miéville thinks is apt.
Despite his concerns about the current tenor of national and global politics, Miéville has every intention of staying engaged, not only with activism but with writing. A current project that connects both areas is the journal Salvage, which he recently cofounded. He calls the journal “an aspirational quarterly, in the sense that we aspire to publish quarterly,” and it aims to be “a serious, nonscholarly outlet for radical discussion” that focuses on “the absolute seriousness of how bad the political situation is, without mistaking pessimism for despair.” Salvage will also engage with culture and the arts, and though, Miéville adds, nonfiction contributions appear on its website, “the core of our identity is the print edition, where these pieces come out first, and which includes fiction, art, and poetry that is in print only.”
In the immediate future, Miéville intends to continue to produce shorter works, including essays, stories, and comics, while working on a novel that he describes simply as a “big project.” He is aware that many of his readers are keen for him to return to the city-state of New Crobuzon and its surrounding world of Bas-Lag, where he set three novels, two of which won Arthur C. Clarke awards, but he says that, while this possibility exists, he is reluctant. His concern is that a return to settings or characters from previous works can “dilute and weaken work that you’re proud of.” He adds that “the bar should get higher, not lower” for each successive book in any series. He is also slightly amused by the fact that these and some of his other novels have been widely associated with the subculture of steampunk, a genre in which he professes “a cordial, amused interest, but I feel that it is very much from the outside.”
Early in his career, Miéville expressed a desire to write a novel in every genre. Although he has yet to accomplish that goal, his works of both fiction and nonfiction testify to the idea of contingency and possibility that he sees as inherent in even the most discouraging circumstances. The final image in October is of trains, of railway sidings and branch lines, and of the switchmen who control them. Miéville writes that authorities expect trains to move back and forth according to carefully calibrated routes and schedules, but at times it has happened, as it did in 1917, that “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.”
Natalie Zacek teaches American studies at the University of Manchester.