You’d Better Free Your Mind Instead
I didn’t know China Miéville was about to publish his book October about the 1917 Russian Revolution when I wrote my most recent novel Woodland Revolution.
In early reviews of Miéville’s book (published last week) much is made of his adroit handling of his material, professing no original research but telling a compelling narrative with all the skill that this gifted author has. But as I read the reviews, and contemplated buying the book, I grew increasingly aware of the fundamental difference between my concept of revolution and that of others.
In Miéville’s epilogue to his book he notes that the Russian Revolution didn’t have to end the way it did, with Stalin and the gulags. On Radio 4 today he spoke eloquently about the role of women in the October Revolution, and the subsequent bullying of them back into the position of second class citizens, by what continues to be one of the most repulsively misogynistic societies on the planet. But the facts remain. There was no liberal government after 1917, there was no long-term emancipation of women, and there was no hope. There was in fact all the things we remember from that era: authoritarianism, genocide, murder, nuclear weapons, macho posturing and war, war, war.
Why might this be? Although Miéville is undoubtedly sincere in his admiration for the Russian Revolution, I wonder if he is looking at the most fundamental description of that event. It was without doubt a vast, wide-ranging and cataclysmic thing, but did it occur at the most fundamental possible level of change? Well, I don’t suppose Miéville believes that it did, but in my opinion his book adds to the wealth of work which presupposes that a revolution of social order counts as a true revolution. I don’t think it does. 1917 merely exchanged one vile social structure for another one, and it was always going to be that way. Miéville argues that revolutions are a form of hope, a kind of large-scale social optimism, and he thinks they are therefore a good thing. But what is a revolution?
My most recently written novel Woodland Revolution was inspired in exactly the opposite way to Miéville’s book. Whereas Miéville takes a world-shattering event as the reason for writing his book – ten days that shook the world – my novel was inspired by seeing a dead fox on the side of the road on my way to work one morning. The fox had been hit by a car: roadkill. Half of its body was mangled and flattened, but the other half, brilliant orange-red in the morning light, remained pristine. This tiny event had an enormous impact upon me. It led to the title of my tenth novel No Grave For A Fox – a phrase which dropped into my mind seconds after driving past the fox – but it also led to the gelling in my mind of a novel I’d wanted to write about animals, life and death, and revolution. Over April this year I wrote that short novel.
In Woodland Revolution, a wolf and a dog see wolf roadkill at the side of a road. The wolf discoverer is very young and has no grasp of the meaning of death (for this section, Sylvia Anthony’s book The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After was useful), whereas the dog, a little older, does grasp the basic meaning. Through the novel, which uses a mythic structure over the notional duration of the wolf’s life (and through one notional year) a couple of “revolutions” occur, one from an ancient social system and one from the new system to one newer still. In the latter stages of the novel however the wolf grasps that such “revolutions” are in fact no such thing; they are merely the exchange of one inhumane structure for another. And so, through the act of living her life, this wolf brings about a true revolution.
All the characters in this novel are animals, which I suppose makes it count as a fantasy, though, as usual, I can’t imagine what my long-suffering fans are going to make of it. But I’m an author who follows his muse – I go where it leads.
The Russian Revolution was a revolution only in name. True revolution can only come from within. Change follows as a consequence. Social structures in Russia – the autocracy of the Tsars, the authoritarianism of Communism and then Stalinism, the death-dealing stranglehold of Putin – are all identical systems, each one a manifestation of a still deeper force in society, of its most fundamental level. If and when such manifestations fade away we’ll have humane societies – should we survive as a species that long. But we won’t have them before then. Not even in Russia.