Among a number of contemporary science and speculative fiction writers who identify as left-wing, China Miéville stands out, not only for the quality of his literary production, but also for the critical character of his political commitment, dedicated equally to socialism and to fantasy. In addition to his fictive works, he has written articles and given lectures on the nature and value of speculative and fantasy fiction; edited a collection of essays on Marxism and fantasy in an issue of the journal Historical Materialism; and, not least, published a list of “Fifty Sci-Fi and Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read.” I wish to discuss here the form and thematics of the early novels known (after the alternate world in which they are set) as the Bas-Lag trilogy—which remains, if you take it as a single work, his most ambitious and memorable achievement. But since Miéville is a serious critic and advocate of fantasy fiction, I will approach the books with a brief discussion of his aesthetic positions and program, gathered from essays and talks as well as from his literary works.
Forthcoming in September 2015
In early 1917, as Britain was bogged down in a war it feared would never end, Alice Wheeldon, her two daughters, and her son were brought to trial and imprisoned for plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Lloyd George, who they believed had betrayed the suffrage movement. In this highly evocative and haunting play, British historian and feminist Sheila Rowbotham illuminates the lives and struggles of those who opposed the war. The Wheeldons’ controversial trial became something of a cause célèbre—a show trial at the height of the First World War—based on fabricated evidence from a criminally insane fantasist, “Alex Gordon,” who was working for an undercover intelligence agency. It was a travesty of justice. Friends of Alice Wheeldon is combined here with Rowbotham’s extended essay, “Rebel Networks in the First World War,” that gives a historical overview of the political and social forces that converged upon the Wheeldon family and friends.
Marsh identifies four sources for our contemporary malaise (death, money, sex, democracy) and then looks to a particular Whitman poem for relief from it. He makes plain what, exactly, Whitman wrote and what he believed by showing how they emerged from Whitman's life and times, and by recreating the places and incidents (crossing Brooklyn ferry, visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals) that inspired Whitman to write the poems. Whitman, Marsh argues, can show us how to die, how to accept and even celebrate our (relatively speaking) imminent death. Just as important, though, he can show us how to live: how to have better sex, what to do about money, and, best of all, how to survive our fetid democracy without coming away stinking ourselves. The result is a mix of biography, literary criticism, manifesto, and a kind of self-help you're unlikely to encounter anywhere else.
In the many accolades Pete Seeger received…after his death, there was often something missing—as absent in tributes from admirers who share his revolutionary politics as in those aiming to reclaim him for respectability. That absence is Seeger’s role as an organizer, and, more broadly, the role of music (and other kinds of cultural work) as organizing, which his life exemplifies.… Seeger’s work as an organizer may have been most obvious, its goals most blatant, in the field…. But his work, as a singer, as a song-collector, as a song-teacher, was not any less a labor of organizing in the concert hall. And that’s not exceptional. That…is what makes someone a radical cultural worker. What’s exemplary about Pete Seeger is how damn good at it he was. What we need to pay attention to and learn from is how he did this important work so well.
I attended Camp Woodland, a progressive summer camp in upstate New York, for four summers starting in 1955 when I was ten years old. When Pete died last year, it was my fellow Camp Woodlanders that I most wanted to connect with.… Fortunately, a camp reunion in 2012 had revived many old friendships. “Pete’s music was the soundtrack to our lives,” one former camper reminisced on the camp listserv. “Pete modeled our values and transformed how we lived in the world, just like at camp,” another wrote.
Life is no crystal staircase for Dellarobia, the main character in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior. It is a stirring read, but not as much as her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible, a powerful female-centric story set in the Belgian Congo.… In Flight Behavior, Dellarobia is rearing two small kids in a low-income household, and living in the “right-to-work” (at low pay) state of Tennessee. She is alienated from herself, her husband, and especially her mother-in-law. In an era of U.S. working-class demobilization, Dellarobia is adrift in a loveless marriage. She and her husband Cub married young and became parents before fully getting to know each other.… Dellarobia’s angst develops within monopoly-finance capitalism. Kingsolver, like Emily Dickinson before her, shows and tells the story slant.
Once you were children. If you did not read The Carrot Seed or Harold and the Purple Crayon, probably your children or your friends’ children did. You might have learned internationalism from The Big World and the Little House, or cultural relativism from Who’s Upside Down?, or freethinking and obstinacy from Barnaby. If you did not, it is likely your friends and future comrades did. What you might not have learned is that all these children’s books (and many other progressive favorites) were authored by one or the other or both members of a couple whose left politics inflected their work.… Philip Nel—the editor, with Julia L. Mickenberg, of Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature…—has devoted himself to rescuing twentieth-century radical children’s literature and its authors from relative oblivion.
Leo Cawley (1944-1991) grew up in suburban south Florida and graduated from high school in Jacksonville in 1962, receiving one of two William Faulkner scholarships awarded that year by the University of Virginia, based on two short stories and three poems he had written. He had a bright future as a creative writer.… Instead, he soon he found himself in the Marine Corps and on the front lines in Vietnam, wounded in action more than once. It became the transformative experience of Cawley’s life.… It was in Vietnam that he was poisoned by the defoliant Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. military with little regard for its own troops…. As a result, in 1980 he developed the multiple myeloma that would kill him eleven years later.… In this essay on Oliver Stone’s film Platoon, reprinted below, Cawley points out that the authors of nineteenth-century realist novels, writing in the era of the Industrial Revolution and triumphalist capitalism, sought to tell their readers what quotidian life and work was like.… The critical insights in this piece and in others demonstrate this. His perspective, at once radical and sharp, grows both from his life experience and his formidable talents.
Denise Bergman is the author of Seeing Annie Sullivan (Cedar Hill, 2005), and the forthcoming The Telling. An excerpt of her poem “Red,” about a slaughterhouse in the neighborhood, is permanently installed as public art. Her website is http://denisebergman.com.
Marge Piercy is the author of eighteen poetry books, most recently The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2010 from Knopf. Her most recent novel is Sex Wars (Harper Perennial) and PM Press has republished Vida and Dance the Eagle to Sleep with new introductions.