China Miéville, Kraken

As the posts of this blog thus far may have indicated, China Miéville stands out a bit among the authors I read. I haven’t regularly read science fiction or fantasy since middle school, but my uncle finally prevailed on me to give a shot at his Bas Lag series this past winter after I got back from India and I became a convert. Iron Council is now listed in my favorite books on Facebook and everything. Not only is he a scifi/fantasy writer, Miéville happens to be a convinced Marxist, and as an activist in the Socialist Workers’ Party (UK) he pretty much shares my politics. Science fiction/fantasy and left-wing politics aren’t usually seen as going together- first of all, it is a geek subculture, and has not attracted much attention from Marxist literary critics let alone actual writers. In my opinion this is a shame, because by its very nature this genre has a unique allegorical power that would serve us well should we desire to explore the political in our creative efforts. Our absence seems to have left the field to the right wing, from the petty-bourgeois medievalist (Tolkein) to the quasi-fascist (Heinlein) to the sketchy free marketeer (Neal Stephenson). I am sincerely glad that people like Miéville are waging the class war in this neglected sphere.

Kraken, which here in the United States will serve as his latest (his most recent, Embassytown, comes out next month, and I plan on reviewing that ASAP to show I am more relevant) is about a giant squid cult. Yes, I found myself slightly incredulous too, despite being convinced of his power to make really weird concepts come alive. But, I managed to bite my tongue, and was handsomely rewarded for my effort. There are a couple reasons why you should too. In the first place, despite the fact they worship a giant squid, the “Krakenists” are pretty normal individuals. Even their beliefs are, refreshingly, somewhat familiar. Their services are reminiscent of Catholic Masses, with a squid in place of the crucifix, and their theology sounds a lot like an old school squid-based Calvinism, in which the worthless devotees of the giant squid pray to It for no other reason than Its awesome power. In the end times, which are fast approaching as we start the book, the faithful may be carried through the universal deluge on Its back into a new life, or not, but what is certain is that the Squid Itself could hardly care about life as pathetic as feeble, ink sac-less, land-dwelling humans.

Second and most obviously, the giant squid cult is well known in scifi/fantasy circles. Those of us who spent some time in their early teens as hardcore atheists will at least know the name Cthulhu, even if they haven’t (like me) read the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft in which a “squid” by that name serves as a bizarre deity. For the record, Miéville gives a historical materialist take on Lovecraft’s fiction in a lecture here, as a function of the political and moral crisis of capitalism in the First World War- wherein the tentacles of squid can be seen as the manipulating forces of this “something new and monstrous.” Of course, we are all familiar with the giant squids and krakens of more popular “mainstream” fiction, from Moby-Dick to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and so have a foretaste of their awesome power.

Finally (and this is the real reason), this is a giant fucking squid we’re dealing with here, and how amazingly baller is that. In fact if you think about it there is really no reason, especially after we’ve found the actual body of a giant squid (in 2008, an incident which Miéville says inspired the book) why you shouldn’t worship that instead of Jesus, and just having been forced to an Easter Mass at 7 AM, I can say that a giant squid has many more appealing characteristics. This speaks to the excellent analysis of religious belief that we find in bits and pieces throughout the book, which I will get into a bit later.

It is kind of hard, like with his other books, to classify Kraken as science fiction or fantasy. In this case I would opt for his own chosen label, “weird fiction,” which he adopted from Lovecraft. Needless to say, since I am not versed in Lovecraft or most of the rest of the genre(s), I probably miss a lot of references and in-jokes. Fair warning on that. Anyway, Kraken begins in our world, with an everyman hero, by the name of Billy, who just so happens to be a researcher at an institute in London where they have the corpse, preserved in a tank, of a giant squid. When the squid disappears, under circumstances that are astonishing not to mention impossible, Billy is plunged into a quest in back allies of his hometown he never knew existed, dominated by cults dedicated to the squid as well Christ Siddhartha, the ocean, ferrets, and many more, complete with magic along the lines of the “thaumaturgy” from the Bas-Lag novels, a police witch, and the most terrifying villains (including a living tattoo) I have seen in whatever brand of fiction Miéville belongs to. I’m trying to make a habit of not revealing plot details except where I have to in these posts, but with a China Miéville novel that would be hard to do anyway, since he relies on the slow, but persistent accumulation of significant events until a breathtaking conclusion. I will just say that it is thrilling in a very punchy and science-fiction-ey style every step of the way, and that anyone who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods will find a book here that shares much in content and spirit.

Having said that, I will turn the rest of this review over to political jabbering. Indeed as mentioned before, Kraken includes some striking insights on the nature of religious belief. This is important for several reasons.

First , given the current (though improving) situation of the worldwide radical left, where we are trying to reestablish ourselves in the working class and mass movements it is perhaps inevitable that some groups develop a religious mentality which paves the way for extraordinary abuses of comrades- look no further than Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party (US) to see a particularly macabre example of this trend. And indeed, a lot of the curious sociological details of the cults will find recognition in anyone who has spent some time on the Left. There are the “cult collectors” for instance, who go from worshipping one strange deity to another in a matter of weeks- much like people who, being dissatisfied with some aspect of Marxist praxis, will drift from organization to organization without really finding a home. In fact the world of religious cults is a perfect way to explore the left in some ways, since it seems at some times that we exist in a confusing political ghetto just as them in the religious ghetto. We can hardly resist nodding in sympathy when the priest of the Krakenists gets angry when Billy, a member of society’s mainstream, chooses to indulge his incredulousness toward the priest’s faith in the coming squid apocalypse, as many scoff when we talk about the Revolution. Of course there are those on both sides of the comparison who would spit blood were it put to them this way, but I deeply respect Miéville for being willing to explore it.

Secondly and more most importantly, Marxists do not exactly have a very good track record when it comes to dealing with religious belief. This goes beyond the Bolsheviks expropriating the Russian Orthodox Church and executing a bunch of priests and nuns (which, I would argue, was mostly justified, though I am much more ambivalent on the later Stalinist atheist crusading). It is rare indeed that you will find a Marxist willing to take religion as seriously as Miéville does in this book. There are not very many Marxist scholars of religion, although it has been hugely influential on just about every other social science discipline. Far too often I will find people pretending to be my comrades while holding views on religion that are no more sophisticated than, and have inspiration from, the childish antitheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris- who by the way, despite their proclaimed opposition to the irrationality of all religion, have all in their own way found Western Christianity to be more “progressive” and enlightened than feudal-fascist Islam, and so help form the left wing of the US Empire’s cheerleading squad. Even those revolutionaries who know that Marx meant a bit more about religion being “the opium of the masses” than he is typically given credit for have surprisingly unsophisticated views of religious belief. I found the following by the Squid Pope to be particularly interesting in this light:

“A giant squid is…” Billy petered out but he was thinking, Is powerful medicine, a massive thing, a big deal. Is magic, is what it is. For knacking. “That’s why it’s been taken. That’s why that tattoo wants it. But this is craziness,” he added. He couldn’t stop himself. “This is craziness.”

“I know, I know,” Moore said. “Mad beliefs like that, eh? Must be some metaphor, right? Must mean something else?” Shook his head. “What an awfully arrogant thing. What if faiths are exactly what they are? And mean exactly what they say? … And what,” Moore said, “if a large part of the reason they’re so tenacious is that they’re perfectly accurate?” (105)

In many ways we have been as blind to religion as we have been to nationalism, a cost we will continue to pay unless we develop an understanding of the key role religious beliefs have in shaping the identity and holding up the self-esteem of billions of working people in a very hostile world. Marx meant, of course that religion helps dull the pain of living in a brutal, alienated society- and this metaphor was by no means uninformed, as he had taken opium on a regular basis for toothaches, which in the 19th century before modern dentistry could be incredibly painful, and opium was the only effective and commercially available painkiller (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut for the above). This is of course an admirable feature of religious belief, though the visions inspired by taking it may turn into nightmares as often as sweet dreams. As the police cult expert in Kraken puts it to the police witch:

“Oh, believe me, I know the story,” he said. “It’s a crutch, isn’t it? It’s a fairy tale. For the weak. It’s stupidity. See, that’s why you’ll never bloody be good enough at this job, Collingswood.” He waited as if he’d said too much, but she waved her hand, Oh please do carry the fuck on. “Whether you agree with the bloody predicates or not, Constable Collingswood, you should consider the possibility that faith might be a way of thinking more rigorously than the wooly bullshit of most atheists. It’s not an intellectual mistake.” He tapped his forehead. “It’s a way of thinking about all sorts of things, as well as itself. The Virgin Birth’s a way of thinking about women and about love. The ark is a far more bloody logical way of thinking about the question of animal husbandry than the delightful ad hoc thuggery we’ve instituted. Creationism’s a way of thinking I am not worthless at a time when people were being told and shown they were. You want to get angry about that bloody admirable humanist doctrine, and why would you want to blame Clinton. But you’re just too young, you’re too bloody ignorant to know about welfare reform.” (257-8)

Of course, as she responds, it isn’t entirely admirable, since it’s “complete fucking bollocks.” And that, I hope, is where we revolutionaries can step in.

Literary qualities: 4/5, Social qualities: 5/5

China Miéville, Kraken: An Anatomy. New York: Del Rey Books, 2010. $26

Similar books: Neil Gaiman, American Gods, Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum.

Next up: Reading some short stories by Thomas Mann, but I do not feel myself qualified to make any comments on them, and furthermore it is awkward to review short stories. Next novel might be A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Muhammad Hanif.

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