Horizontal and vertical vectors work together to produce the spatial imaginaries of extractive adventure narrative — Extraction Technologies [84]

A 1914 calculation showed that a miner was severely injured every two hours, and one killed every six hours. — Black Gold [154]

Here are two very different kinds of books about the extraction of coal — that is, mining —  but both agree, as Paxman says, that “the history of its extraction is the story of Britain. In no other business were the political issues so stark. A lucky few owned land, and by some fluke of the law therefore claimed possession of whatever lay beneath it. They needed to do nothing to get even richer – and some became spectacularly wealthy” (19-20). Both mention the development of steam engines, their bringing forth coal from the earth, and the society, economics, politics, and culture they produced. Both describe, Paxman in far more detail than Miller, the lives of miners and the horrible mining disasters that happened all too frequently. Both in differing extents relate the story of coal to nineteenth- and twentieth-century British politics, particularly the importance of coal in the British empire. Although Miller’s Extraction Technologies is a work of literary criticism with a political agenda and Paxman’s Black Gold a work that moves from being a history of technology to one in its latter half chiefly about rise and fall of the miners’ political power, both mention and quote some of the same authors. Both, for example, quote John Ruskin’s “Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” W. Stanley Jevons’s The Coal Question, and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.

All these similarities end up emphasizing the fundamental differences between the two books: Paxman, the author of more than a dozen previous books, obviously writes for an audience composed of the intelligent reader concerned with the history of issues that confront us today. He’s very opinionated and delights in harsh criticisms of historical figures he despises. Miller, the author of two books of scholarly literary criticism, in this one writes for a very small, very select audience, one that apparently doesn’t include most scholars, much less students or ordinary readers, of Victorian literature and history, since she goes out of her way to present herself and her writing as highly specialized, accessible only to the select few — an audience, in other words, that enjoys clotted, pseudo-technical phrasings, such as “chromonormativity and repronormativity” (51), “anti-repronormative” (58), “rural extraction-urban consumption dynamic” (71), “pseudo-extractive labor process,” and that “at the front lines of extractive imperialism, anthroturbation becomes cultural practice” (136). As these examples of Miller’s vocabularies make clear, she seems desperately eager to establish her position within a small group of politically engaged literary academics. When near the close of her book she clearly states her political views about the environment, I found that I agree with every one of them. I'm just not confident that Miller effectively advocates for them.

Both books have three sections, though this organization is more explicit in Miller, who discusses what she terms the provincial realist, adventure, and science-fiction novels. Paxman organizes Black Coal by first explaining how coal and steam power developed, after which he devotes a great deal of space to the terrible working conditions of the miners and mine disasters that killed hundreds of people. The book ends with a long section explaining the complex rise and fall of miners’s unions, and the relationships among mine owners, miners, and the British government. It ends with the exhaustion of coal in many mines and the almost complete disappearance of British coal mines and the jobs they had provided,

Unlike Paxman, Miller, who is writing a work of literary criticism interspersed with an environmental polemic, rarely explains any positive effects of coal and steam, so for most of the book it seems solely an example of exploitive capitalism with benefits solely for the very few. About three quarters of the way through Extractive Capitalism she does explain that “two of the major gains that drove the transition to fossil energy are its capacities for saving time and speeding transport across space” (144) — very general “capacities” that seem related only to business. In contrast, Paxman, who incidentally demonstrates the exhaustion of coal more convincingly than Miller, shows the positive effect of coal mining, which goes a very long way to explaining how a nation, a continent, and, indeed, a world became dependent upon it:

Not only did coal free men and women from the cold of the seasons, it also freed them from darkness. By the middle of the nineteenth century, great numbers of British citizens were for the first time able to see what they were doing after sunset. London, Liverpool, Preston and Exeter had installed street lights burning coal gas by 1816. By 1821 there was not a decent-sized town in the country that did not have gas lighting. Two years later, London alone had 40,000 lamps, running along 215 miles of street. Before gas lighting was available, people either accepted the dark or depended upon candlelight and lanterns. [137] . . . .

It would be hard to exaggerate the way that the illumination of homes and cities changed people’s attitudes. Of course it altered working patterns and gave more hours for reading and new forms of leisure activity, assisted the growth of literacy and made it easier to organise trade unions in meeting after dusk. But, above all, it offered a feeling of mastery and refinement. Heat from coal offered freedom from the ravages of frost and cold, which amounted to freedom from the calendar. Gas lighting promised freedom from time itself. It symbolised a hope for a brighter, cleaner future, making after-dark streets available to respectable people and allowing everyone to see where they were going. But there was something more profound. . . gaslight seemed to offer something almost biblical in its implications. Conjured by man from rock, pumped at will and sold at a price, gas epitomised the Victorian grip on the natural world, freeing the human being from enslavement to circadian cycles.

But the power continued to be bought at a terrible price. [143]

One price appears in the way steam power mechanizes human beings. Sure, “steam made it possible to mechanise almost anything, from spinning and weaving, through the manufacture of wire, ships and needles, to the threshing of corn, the tanning of leather and the folding of envelopes.” Victorians claimed that “steam set workers free from the drudgery of repetitive tasks. Too often, the reverse was true: it prevented people working at their own rate and made human beings slaves to a relentless machine” (91).

Another example of intertwined benefit and “terrible price” that neither mention comes in coal’s relation to suburban life, or at least to workers’ living outside central London and other cities: the same coal that produced killing smog also powered steam-powered trains that permitted working people to live in new and far better housing once slum clearance ripped down their old homes to make way for middle-class homes, forcing workers to move to healthier, more comfortable dwellings — a change that increased public health, greatly reducing mortality.

One particularly skewed part of aspect of Extraction Technologies appears in its continual, in fact relentless, emphasis on “extractive capitalism.” Apparently Miller remains unaware of the obvious fact that Tzarist and Communist Russia and Communist China, Nazi Germany, and various empires around the world, including the indigenous ones she discusses, all mined extensively. If she wanted to emphasize that British capitalism began mining of coal, and this created all the evils that followed, she both should state this and explain how it differs, or doesn’t, from other extractive empires. By not doing so, she unnecessarily makes Extraction Technologies seem a one-sided polemic instead of the scholarly critical text it is for the most part. Such combinations of omitting important facts with a lack of rhetorical strategies that might cover for them weaken an intriguing and often convincing argument. For example, at one point Miller dismisses India as a source of diamonds apparently unaware that before the discovery of diamonds at Kimberly Rajastan was the chief source of diamonds in the world. As the 2014-2015 exhibitions at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert in London demonstrate, diamonds were certainly in abundance. (The V&A exhibition had photographs of bejeweled men and boys of a maharajah's or sultan's family that showed both the astounding amount of gems worn and the enormous wealth carried on the persons, young and old, of those in power. This power was of course the legacy of imperialism — the Persian imperialism that conquered South Asia before the British.)

Failing to know the role of diamond mining in South Asia is perhaps a very minor point, but failure to understand the British Empire’s relation to Africa is more serious. Miller tells us that the discovery of gold and diamonds drew “Britain into two Boer Wars” (88), which may be partially true but neglects the fact that the Boers believed in slavery, specifically in their right to enslave members of African tribes, while the British had long committed a significant portion of their defence budget to stamping out slavery — they had ships patrolling the African coast, capturing slave ships, and freeing slaves. England therefore had to stop the expansion of Boer territory. Equally important, Britain’s main interest in Africa lay much farther north because it needed to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal, the lifeline to its richest colony, India. It repeatedly extended imperial power into territories south of Egypt and the Sudan, fearing for the safety of the canal. Imperialism it surely was, but it had nothing to do with extraction.

Miller frequently quotes scholar critics with whom she agrees and in general displays rare generosity to recent articles and books upon which she has drawn, but like many authors who position themselves as offering a crucial new understanding that other readers have missed, Miller condescends to earlier critics, telling us, for example, about King Solomon’s Mines that “the novel’s extraction plot has for the most part not figured into critical accounts of gendered landscape, which is perhaps symptomatic of literary critics’ general neglect of the mineral substrata that undergird social relations” (127). How much has neglecting “mineral substrata” actually distorted our reading of, say, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now?

Despite such a lack of broader knowledge of nineteenth-century history and her salting her pages with jargon, Miller has a great many interesting and informative things to say about the fiction she discusses. For instance, unlike so many books emphasizing non-literary contexts, Extractive Technologies does not confine itself to the usual four or five canonical works. In addition to discussions of canonical works like Nostromo, Heart of Darkness, Sons and Lovers, The Mill on the Floss, and Hard Times, the book introduces us to Fanny Mayne’s Jane Rutherford: or, the Miners’s Strike, H. Rider Haggard’s Montezeuma’s Daughter, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s feminist utopia, Sultana’s Dream, and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race.

Miller deserves praise for her willingness to take new approaches to literary works. As she explains, “Extraction Technologies sets out to show that industrialization of underground resource extraction shaped literary form and genre in the first century of the industrial era, from the 1830s to the 1930s, just as literary form and genre contributed to new ways of imagining an extractive earth. I interpret literary form and genre as signals for habits of mind and ways of thinking about the world that have material causes as well as long-term effects” (2-3). Her more daring point is that the “voice of optimism and progress . . . often drowns out the voice of exhaustion” — the sense that industrial Britain was “living on borrowed time” (9). The major sign of the book’s ambition is her claim that “novels that might not seem to be about extraction, such as The Mill on the Floss and News from Nowhere, emerge as extractive literature when placed in the context of environmental history and considered from the standpoint of genre” (22).

She makes an interesting observation when she points to the fact that “the overlap between adventure and children’s literature is important because of adventure literature’s reliance on the epistemology of the constrained narrator; child narrators can easily inhabit such a role, as with Jim Hawkins, but even adult narrators of adventure literature are touched by the genre’s association with naivete” (123). Similarly, she convincingly argues that “in the widespread debate about coal exhaustion in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, speculative fiction came to depict energy transition as a source of social transformation” (150). Although all her readings of individual novels are both interesting and point to aspects of the books in question that others may not have noticed, they do not always convince and too often appear to depend upon peripheral or minor points. I don’t find that the absent or non-existent treasure in the “empty” pit in Treasure Island is “exhausted” or that it “explodes the fantasy of open-handed nature” (110), nor do I find convincing that Nostromo, a novel in which a supposedly exhausted mine turns out to be rich in silver, fits her scheme, in large part because of the book’s emphasis upon its protagonist and Decoud. One has to agree with her statement in the conclusion that “if capitalism fosters extractivism, it does not follow that getting rid of capitalism would, at this juncture, eliminate the need for extraction” (203).

Links to Selected Passages from Books under Review and Related Material


Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn. Extraction Technologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 221. xiv + 285 pages.

Paxman, Jeremy. Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain. London: William Collins, 2021. 376 pages.

Last modified 24 November 2021