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October, 2004 : Review:

China Miéville's Iron Council

China Miéville's fourth novel, Iron Council, fits securely into his œuvre as a work of dark and relentless beauty, driven by a creativity matched by few contemporary authors. His previous novels, King Rat, Perdido Street Station, and The Scar, map out a steadily rising curve that leads one to expect much from this new novel. It would be difficult for any book to meet this expectation. Iron Council seems to lack the spark that propelled The Scar out of the New Weird into the arms of a wider audience; it's also in search of the freshness that made Perdido Street Station such an ebullient romp; but it is undeniably an important and thought-provoking work deserving of critical attention.

The focus of Iron Council is on revolution. The sprawling city of New Crobuzon labors under an increasingly heavy-handed government that sends militia openly into the streets to quash dissent. At the same time, it is fighting (perhaps losing) a war against the arcane Tesh, and a steady stream of injured and disillusioned returning to the city only fuels a rising dissatisfaction with its rulers. Underground cells plot resistance; plans are hatched. Young rebels like Ori and Cutter participate in the gradual and inevitable spiraling out of control that overtakes the metropolis. But rebellion is never without cost, and neither Ori nor the reader is spared a cent.

Two links connect the book's present to its past. One is a mad derelict befriended by Ori, Spiral Jacobs, who participated in a failed revolution from Ori's childhood. The other is Judah Low, self-styled "bard" of the eponymous Iron Council and expert golem master. Both men play central but very different roles in the plot. To say that railroads are pivotal to Iron Council would be to understate the case considerably, and Low and Jacobs are ties that prevent the twin rails of the novel from warping and uncurling. As structural devices they work well, although the sense that Iron Council struggles under a structure as taut as an over-strained stretch of track remains.

Iron Council
Del Rey, June 2004
$24.95 US, 576 Pages
ISBN: 0345464028

Judah Low, in an earlier time, is first a victim of, then a participant in, a grandiose scheme to link the east and west coasts of the Bas-Lag continent by rail, cutting without qualms through indigenous populations and wild and dangerous landscapes in pursuit of that dream. When the company behind the endeavor folds under the weight of gross corruption and inefficiency, the crews working the line rebel, taking with them not just the train but the track as well, and head out into the wilderness as a united collective. The perpetual train, free of its corporate and social shackles, reorganizes itself on principles of equality and solidarity, and becomes a whispered symbol to revolutionaries back home.

Miéville is a master puppeteer, and in Bas-Lag he has created a fertile playground for his considerable imagination. One gets the feeling that this is a deeply self-examinatory text, testing and plumbing the depths of the author's political ideals that are expressed in various forms through the characters. Miéville's corpus is an extended meditation on the alienation, the anomie, of the modern Western urbanite. His cast is full of refugees and outcasts in search of hopes and ideals but who never quite get there. Ori and Judah both express a kind of postmodern angst, desensitized and inured to violence, where consciousness of "goodness," is an alien thing, "a grub," "an intruder," and acting for change comes either too late or ineffectually. Only towards the conclusion of the book are these characters rescued from being mere ciphers in the service of a polemic of revolt, by the deep sincerity of their emotions. As in The Scar, characters are forged in the agony of doubt—a doubt and hesitation that Miéville exploits ruthlessly, questioning, Hamlet-like, "doth conscience make cowards of us all?"

Iron Council is rich with invention and resonance. Readers familiar with Miéville's work will welcome his return to the baroque backdrop of New Crobuzon, with its manifold races uneasily coexisting: bug-headed khepri, spiny cactus people, water-loving vodyanoi, and aerial wyrmen, all alongside the Remade, cobbled from human, animal, and machine parts as punishment for crimes against the city. Page after page goes by with wonders unfolding—new races, settings, biologies, and thaumaturgies by the dozens; a bewildering, kaleidoscopic tour through a world that has obviously been years in the making.

Readers expect, perhaps even demand, from Miéville the rich, idiosyncratic language of the New Weird. No phrase is left unturned, no rhythm allowed to stand unsyncopated. Sentences come hard and fast, overlapping without punctuation or fractured into rapidfire fragments. Sometimes the welter of words seems to overwhelm itself, devolving into literal lists of oddities: instead of painting word-pictures, he risks leaving the reader with an abstract mess of syllables that fail to capture a scene. Names fly by, sometimes several names for the same thing. It makes for an unsettling, challenging read that risks leaving as many readers cold as it does inspired.

Miéville pushes at narrative and political boundaries, querying them, testing their limits, remaking them into different, uncanny configurations. The book is full of charged momentum, both in its action and in its juddering, at times dislocated, structure—especially the first third, which hangs like a limp, artificial limb from the core of the story. A sustained emphasis on the Weird results in ill-defined or washed-out human characters, as opposed to the lingering descriptions of those who happen to be cactus, insect, or human-machine hybrids. Nevertheless, persistence pays off. The narrative builds up a good head of steam once we reenter the firmer ground of New Crobuzon, and rewards the reader with all the lyricism, imagination, and sheer chutzpah Miéville's readers expect.

Experimentation is to be admired, and Miéville deserves full credit for tackling the clichés and conventions that bedevil the fantasy genre. In a moment of ironic self-reflection, he takes a sly dig at the genre itself and the role of his work within it:

No one was sure what it was they were seeing, this structureless thing of shouts and broken-up lines and noises, and cavalcades of intricate incomprehensible costumes. The puppets were elegantly maneuvered, but they should have been . . . wooden players in traditionalist moral tales, not these little provocateurs whose puppeteers had them speak back tartly to the narrator, contradict him . . . and dance to the noise and mum lewdness as far as their joints and strings would allow.

All in all, this is Miéville's most nakedly political novel, taking stances for or against big business, solidarity, unjust wars, slavery, and social engineering. There are lessons for the real world in Miéville's novels, and many contemporary references dog this one. Echoes of September 11 and the war on Iraq give it the feel of a literary "Fahrenheit 9/11," at times; parallels between New Quillers and Nazis (down to an allegorical Kristallnacht) are obvious; the tactics of the Tesh mirror those of terrorists in the Twenty-First Century. The central image of golemetry—the art of making golems—symbolizes the ideal of revolution, an "interruption," that unshackes the proletariat from the chains of false consciousness—"a potential energy unlocked." Miéville also recognizes that ordinary people lie at the heart of every endeavor. On these individuals, each with his or her own agendas, fears, and desires, is revolution built; on these things does revolution stumble. The conclusion of the novel—the most satisfying, structurally and emotionally, of Miéville's to date—acknowledges that the idea of revolution is sometimes as powerful (and perhaps a gentler force for change) than actual revolution.

China Miéville, Wunderkind

Judah, in a Judas role, both maker of golems and anthropologist, expresses the buried guilt of the imperialist and capitalist machinery, a carrier of Empire, colonization, and destruction. Yet he struggles to make amends through the good fight, for a just cause, by immortalizing the moment before the fall and making legends out of ideals. History, Miéville seems to say, is merciless and inevitable. The wheel always turns: revolutionaries become traitors; freedom-fighters become terrorists. But within the genre of fantasy, there is a space for speculation, a thought-experiment, a place where the moment can be captured in time, immortalized as inspiration, as myth.

Iron Council is itself a golem created by a masterful bard, sending, if not the thing itself, then the idea of revolution as an "intervention." Iron Council becomes the play "wherein to catch the conscience of the king." Whether he succeeds or not is something best left to each reader. Like the conclusion of the story, it is left equivocal, in signature Miéville style, as a final abstinence from moralizing or any easy utopian solutions.

Copyright © 2004, Sean Williams and Kim Selling. All Rights Reserved.

About Sean Williams

Sean Williams is a New York Times-bestselling author and occasional DJ. With Kim Selling, he lives in Adelaide, South Australia, which Salman Rushdie once described as "an ideal setting for a Stephen King novel, or horror film."

About Kim Selling

Kim Selling is completing a PhD on fantasy at the University of Sydney.


Sep 27, 21:16 by John Frost
Discussion of Mieville's new work.

(The review by Sean Williams and Kim Selling can be found here.)
Sep 28, 09:15 by Bluejack
I'm about halfway through the book, so I may have more to say about it later, but it strikes me as being a very different sort of novel than his previous works.

I very much agree with "lacks the spark" and "in search of freshness;" some of the particulars of the plot strike as being more than just a little ridiculous; and while Mieville is kicking the style up a notch, it feels like a raw fusion of James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy -- too raw.

However, the themes of revolution, intervention, and betrayal are powerful ones, and Mieville's treatment of the uneasy desire to belong -- and the fear of belonging -- is subtle and exciting.

So; great review guys, but I'm waiting to see how it turns out before I draw any firm conclusions.
Sep 28, 22:12 by travitt hamilton
More ridiculous than talking bird-men?
Sep 29, 03:21 by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
It's fantasy...what makes a talking bird-man in fantasy particularly ridiculous?

Anyway, a very fair review, I think, and I'd agree that a core theme here is that the idea of revolution can be more important than revolution itself.

Sep 29, 08:19 by Bluejack
No, I don't object to Mieville's synthesis of animals to create new beings -- and in the Scar I thought the mosquito people were particularly interesting. It's not just grafting body parts together that makes his stuff interesting, it's what emerges from that combination.

However, a central plot point through a major part of the middle of Iron Council involves a large group of people stealing a train -- and the tracks it runs on. Building the track before the train; peeling it up behind the train. Even with the magics he posits, I'm afraid you can't make a very convincing escape from an army with cavalry, air ships and the like. A mile a day v. five miles an hour? No. Just... no.
Sep 30, 00:51 by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
The logistics of the Perpetual Train never quite fell into place in my mind either. Among other things, it would mean that people, presumbaly on foot, could carry the tracks ahead of the train's current position faster than the train's movement. Why didn't they just ditch the train and trek, in that case? I wish someone would ask Mieville about this, actually.

Sep 30, 21:10 by Ted Chiang
I presume they wanted to keep the resources that the train contained/embodied.

I also wonder about the Perpetual Train from an economic standpoint. Even though they're now working for themselves, they don't reap any kind of tangible profit by doing so; they have to hunt for their own food now. It'd be one thing if they were charging fees (or bartering) for transporting people or goods on their train, but they're not. Their labor produces no surplus whatsoever; by picking up their rails behind them, they're destroying what they build. It seems very inefficient.

These objections might be answered if they had retrofit the train cars with tank treads. But that doesn't work as well as a metaphor. :)

I presume that in the same way that the idea of revolution can be more important than revolution itself, the symbolism of the Perpetual Train is more important than the practicality of it.

Sep 30, 22:52 by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
Yes. That certainly fits with Mieville's emphasis on creating stories that are believable on their own terms, rather than accurate in 'real world' terms, an approach he shares with M John Harisson.

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