(Macmillan, £17.99, 480 pages, hardback; also available in trade
paperback, priced £12.99; published 20 September 2004.)
[Editor's note: warning - this review does
contain plot spoilers.]
I have a confession to make: I tried to read Perdido Street Station
but found Miéville's vision of New Crobuzon so claustrophobic
that I had to give up. After that experience
I didn't even attempt The Scar. However, one thing particularly
impressed me about Perdido Street Station -- Miéville's
sheer creativity. I have been a sucker for that sort of thing ever since
I first read Stapledon's Starmaker, so when Iron Council
was published I decided to give Miéville another chance.
Iron Council certainly does not disappoint when it comes to
creativity. It is every bit as richly detailed as Perdido Street
Station, with many of the same species reappearing here -- khepri,
garuda, cactaceae, etc. But many more strange new creatures make their
appearance as Miéville continues to map out the world of Bas-Lag.
It seems the very landscape is infected with the same cancerous mutability
that characterizes its animal species. Even solid stone cannot be relied
upon to retain its form -- it might be smokestone, which can turn to
vapour and solidify again without warning, engulfing unwary travellers
even more swiftly than a sudden lava flow. And at the heart of the continent
lies the Cacotopic Stain -- the 'bad place' that is the epicentre of
the reality distorting strangeness afflicting Bas-Lag.
Of course, no one creates in a vacuum and Miéville is no exception.
Students of mythology will recognize the Egyptian roots of his khepri
and the Russian origin of his vodyanoi. Other elements evoke memories
of earlier science fiction and fantasy novels. For example, the Iron
Council itself, a mobile community travelling through a strange landscape
on rails it picks up behind and lays before itself, reminded me of Christopher
Priest's Inverted World. However, Miéville never merely
lifts ideas from mythology or elsewhere. Everything is transformed by
the strange alchemy of his own creativity.
Miéville's use of language is worth a special mention. It is,
I think, a deliberate reflection of the strangeness of the world of
Bas-Lag. He makes frequent forays into the most inaccessible parts of
the Oxford English Dictionary to create a vocabulary that is rich, dense,
even baroque. The combination of baroque language and vivid descriptions
of one fantastical creature or environment after another makes for an
exhausting roller-coaster of a story. It gives the story a dreamlike
quality -- but I am talking here of a fever dream or a nightmare. There
is no subtlety about it. Miéville's prose grabs you by the ...
throat (!) and drags you into the world he has created.
By contrast, the story line is relatively straightforward. New Crobuzon
is beset by civil unrest and war with the Tesh. The main story line
traces Cutter's pursuit of Judah Lowe (his lover) who has gone in search
of the mysterious Iron Council to warn them that the New Crobuzon authorities
have discovered their hiding place and intend to destroy them. Woven
into this is a second story line describing the gradual descent of New
Crobuzon into civil war through the eyes of a young dissident (whose
own progress from acting in anti-government plays to urban terrorism
reflects the growing violence of the society around him). Eventually
the two strands merge as the Iron Council decides to return to New Crobuzon
to support the dissidents and in doing so uncovers a plot by the Tesh
to use the dissenters to destroy New Crobuzon from within.
The plot is foiled and Tesh sues for peace but the revolution fails
and the New Crobuzon authorities clamp down on the dissidents. In spite
of this, the Iron Council hopes that its return will reignite the spark
of rebellion and bring much needed change to the city. The ending could
so easily have been an unbelievable triumph of the progressive democratic
Iron Councillors over the authoritarian and increasingly imperialist
forces of the New Crobuzon elite. Or it could have been the all too
believable final destruction of the Iron Council by the forces ranged
against it. But Miéville steers the story between these unsatisfactory
options to a third, quite unexpected ending in which the Iron Council's
apparent betrayal by one of its founding members manages to keep alive
the hope that one day the dissidents will see New Crobuzon reborn.
Given China Miéville's credentials as a left-wing political
activist, other reviews will doubtless focus on the political aspects
of the story. However, I was particularly struck by the religious or
quasi-religious elements to be found here. I have already mentioned
two major strands in the story, but there is a third strand interjected
into the story in a very striking way. The story is divided into ten
numbered parts, but between parts 3 and 4 (i.e. immediately after Cutter
and Lowe reach the Iron Council) there is an eleventh unnumbered part.
This part is entitled 'Anamnesis' and tells the story of the creation
of the Iron Council. 'Anamnesis' ('remembrance' or 'recollection') is
a theologically loaded term, being the term used to describe the central
part of the Christian Eucharist -- the moment at which Christ's words
at the Last Supper are recalled and participants are enjoined to do
what they are about to do in remembrance of him. Memory plays a central
part in this story. The memory of the Iron Council's defiance of the
New Crobuzon authorities is a continuing inspiration to the New Crobuzon
dissidents. Like Christ deliberately returning to Jerusalem to confront
the Roman and Jewish authorities, the Iron Council chooses to return
to New Crobuzon. And again, like Christ, the Council is betrayed by
one of its most trusted supporters (whose name, I suggest, is by no
means irrelevant). Finally, that betrayal leaves the Iron Council is
in an ambiguous state of being -- it retains a presence that can inspire
hope in believers but it has not yet come to New Crobuzon in all its
fullness -- a state of being not identical with but certainly comparable
to that of the risen, ascended and not yet returned Christ of Christian
theology. In short, the Iron Council might be interpreted as a strikingly
original Christ figure.
I began with one confession. I might as well end with another --
Iron Council has made me see why so many people have been making
such a fuss about China Miéville. I'm a convert and as soon as
I can find the time I'm going to try Perdido Street Station again.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: