Iron Council (China Miéville 2004)

February 15, 2010

I went into this book knowing I was going to enjoy it. China Miéville is one of my favorite science fiction/fantasy writers working today. How to describe his writing? He classifies himself as part of the “new weird” movement, which itself is rather nebulous but refers to the early 20th century dark fantasy horror of H. P. Lovecraft. Miéville has certainly taken quite a few pages from Lovecraft’s books, but fortunately has forsaken the ones containing Lovecraft’s misogyny and deep-seated disgust and fear of racial impurity. In fact, Miéville’s politics are one of the things that keep me coming back to his work. Miéville is a professed socialist, and his works betray a deep awareness of contemporary social issues as he reworks them into his world of Bas Lag.

It is because of Miéville’s political bent in particular that I was sure I would adore Iron Council, the third novel to take place in his world of Bas Lag. Iron Council is considered Miéville’s most political novel. The main thread of the novel is the story of a group of underpaid and overworked train workers who rebel against the militia and steal the train, creating a moving city on the run from the oppressive New Crobuzon government. A secondary story is that of a young idealist inside the city of New Crobuzon who tires of waiting for the main anti-government group to organize effectively, and opts into a group of violent anarchists who are at least creating visible results.

What I find fascinating is that Miéville managed to create a socialist western. The western is typically a libertarian genre, but by fashioning his group of outlaws into a sort of utopian worker’s commune, Miéville opens up the genre to a much wider political possibilities. Of course, Miéville’s story is far from utopian, even in regards to the highly idealized Iron Council. One thing I’ve come to count on in Miéville’s Bas Lag stories is a bleak and crushing realism in the final pages.

Another of my favorite aspects to this book is the focus on the Remade. In New Crobuzon, criminals and other undesirables are “remade” by the government; that is, their bodies are altered, often appended with grotesque implants of a biological or mechanical kind. Some Remade are constructed to be suited for manual labor, while others are altered according to the perverse whims of their scientist torturers. The Remade are then used for prison labor, which is why so many of them are the founding members of the Iron Council, the group of laborers that steal the train.

Iron Council Hardcover

The original hardcover image for Iron Council, released in the UK in 2004.

Despite the exciting premise and the favorable politics, Iron Council suffers from two major flaws. The first is poor pacing. There are a handful of scenes in Iron Council that are absolutely riveting, such that I felt unable to take my eyes off of the page. But they were few and far between. Miéville falls into a common trap of the western genre, which is too much description of travel and not enough action (or interaction). Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the only writers I know who was able to pull this off exceptionally, as the last half of The Left Hand of Darkness is all dialogue-less travel and is uniquely thrilling. Miéville does a great job of showing off his unique imagination and his marvelous world of Bas Lag, but in this case I’m afraid he tipped the balance the wrong way.

The second major flaw is in character. Much of the story is told from the third-person limited, following a character named Cutter who I find to be almost intolerable. While the other main characters, Judah and Ori, are at least slightly dynamic, Cutter is as static as they come. His only defining qualities are that he is whiny and alienated, and that he is hopelessly in love with Judah. Ori was boring in the beginning, but at least he changes throughout the book, and ends up a very fascinating and tortured character. Same with Judah. Cutter, however, is stuck in his unending self-hatred and love for Judah, which makes for a very frustrating read.

All in all, I enjoyed Iron Council despite it’s flaws and I recommend it to fellow fans of Miéville, as well as those with socialist leanings who are also fans of dark fantasy/science fiction. But then again, if you fit that description, you should already be a fan of Miéville’s!

Additional Reading:


4 Responses to “Iron Council (China Miéville 2004)”

  1. oh my gosh Cutter was annoying and boring. But I enjoyed the rest of the book, and I’m much more towards the center politically. I like how Mieville shows the consequences of every action, even the ones that look more positive.

    • oddrid Says:

      Geez, I’m glad you found Cutter to be similarly intolerable. I tried so hard to like him and his relationship with Judah, but in the end I just longed for Cutter to do something insane and badass and totally leave Judah behind. But of course, that would definitely break the tone of the story and would be generally out of place. Oh well. Maybe I’ll write a fanfic. Do you hear me China? FANFIC.

      Oh yeah I agree. People call him a fantasy writer, but his works are anything but “fantasies,” at least in terms of escapism. I really like that about his work.

  2. Sighter Goliant Says:

    I have mixed feelings about Cutter.

    Some of my mixed feelings for Cutter come from what ultimately is actually sort of the first time I’ve felt politically alien from Mieville.

    Basically, I feel like Mieville doesn’t do gay characters right.

    I’m kind of glad that he makes the attempt, and he at least strives to be careful, but I think peculiar responsibilities obtain when working in gay characters to a genre that has been largely ignorant of them for a long time. For one thing, the presentation of Cutter as whiny and alienated, basically turns into a big problem I think in that it turns “the gay” into sort of a problem person, someone who can’t be fully integrated, someone broken. At times Mieville raises the tantalizing possibility that it’s just society doing it — but he does so by way of suggesting that Cutter’s fellow insurrectionists don’t really begrudge his sexuality because they feel it’s not his fault that society did this to him. But I sort of feel like Mieville doesn’t leave any room for Cutter as a person beyond society, painting him as so fundamentally wounded that he just…well, I think the presentation doesn’t do gay folks any favors.

    And then Judah is the flip side of why I’m bothered by it, because he’s presented as pretty much the opposite of Cutter when it comes to being a person. He’s integrated as a personality, he is really fascinating, he’s deeply loving and deeply perceptive…he’s, well, good. But he’s also a problem for me because he’s not gay. He’s queer, for sure, and I don’t mean to degrade bisexual and queer sorts of people at all. But in the comparison to Cutter, it almost comes across that part of Judah’s ability to be integrated as a person is that he’s at least not a TOTAL fag. He at least can get it up for women…he can at least “be normal.” And I don’t know that Mieville intends all this, but it seems sort of knit into his work despite himself.

    I haven’t finished it yet, though, but that’s how I feel right now.

    Also, did you know that the second half of Don Quijote was written because Cervantes wrote the first half intending it to be the end but then was super pissed off at the plethora of fan fiction people wrote about Don Quijote so he wrote a second half just to kill Quijote off.

    • Sighter Goliant Says:

      Replying to myself here:

      I said that I feel Mieville doesn’t allow Cutter to be a person “beyond society,” and I want to clarify what I mean by that, because the phrase “beyond society” strikes me in rereading as rather ridiculous apart what I mean.

      Montaigne writes, “Others form man (sic), I relate him (sic)[.]” I think it’s a particularly profound statement that Montaigne makes here, in that it suggests that our persons are ultimately formed by external factors, but any attempt we make to express — that is, to relate — our selves back after formation can quite possibly fundamentally affect that formation. It can change the shape of who we are, the act of relating ourselves to others, and create a sort of circle of praxis in which being shaped and shaping becomes a cyclical, ongoing process.

      Basically what I’m saying is that Cutter seems to abdicate the secondary set of responsibilities, and that’s a choice Mieville makes regarding his character. It may indeed be that this is simply Cutter’s character…and there are a lot of ways in which I am sympathetic to the view that at the end of the day an author striving to realistically represent “reality” — namely, that there are actually people in this world who fail the secondary Montaignean task — must sometimes write a character that seems whiny and annoying. And I’m also sympathetic to the notion that China Mieville doesn’t “owe” any one group a positive presentation of a member of that group, and that at the end of the day any attempt by someone to draw conclusions about a group from one fictionalized representative of that group reflects more on the reader than the author.

      But it still sort of gets under my skin; it leaves me wondering and sort of frustrated.

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