Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review of "Iron Council" by China Mieville

Though never delineated in any descriptive sense, Mieville’s first two books in the Bas-Lag world were set within a loosely-shaped, unspoken corral of ideas.  Potentialities certainly existed, but were not endless; Mieville came across as too erudite for the possibilities of the world to be infinite.  After all, Bas-Lag was not some washed out D&D setting or 46th generation Star Wars sequel that was desperately trying to refresh itself.  The ideas of Perdido Street Station alone so unique, whole series of books and stories could have been told within the confines of New Crobuzon.  One’s head still spins with the plethora of phantasmal notions contained between its covers.  With Iron Council, unfortunately, Mieville unlatches the gate and turns his story loose in the pastures of the infinite beyond.
Telepathy, warlocks casting spells – err, hexes, teleportation, psychic mind control, and a variety of other ill-timed, poorly described, and feebly connected plot devices flood the plot of “Iron Council” and leave it a wet, muddled mess.  Sixty pages til the end and Mieville is still introducing new ideas – miasmas, air elementals, time golems, an “onrushing skeletal insectoid animal thing”, etc.  It’s overdone.  Where he was selective in Perdido and The Scar, balancing elements from the real world with the fantastic, Iron Council’s scales tip heavily in favor of the convoluted.  On all too many occasions I found myself asking: “Well, why didn’t the mind controller just use his skill to stop that…”, or  “That’s funny, nobody thought of using that in Perdido, but here it is so obvious…”  And so while Judah’s golems, the Inchmen, and a few other original ideas fit seamlessly within the scope of Bas-Lag, the vast majority feels like filler intended to impress, but in effect does no more than overwhelm. 
The fact that the book is spilling over with ideas of the fantastic is ironic considering it is the most overtly idealized and political of the Bas-Lag books.  In a return to New Crobuzon, the Vodyanoi’s bloody strike on the River Tar in Perdido has moved to the next degree in Iron Council.  The working class interests of railroad workers versus the corrupt authoritarianism of their overlords is the ideological struggle of the day.  Obviously bringing to bear his Marxist background, Mieville nevertheless treats each with relative equanimity.  Characters on both sides make moral sacrifices, and the resolution of their conflict is not what the reader expects.  That being said, the narrative is heavily weighted in favor of the point of view characters displaying socialist tendencies, while the authoritarian characters fight only in hordes, their evil of the purest black and white.
Story-wise, Iron Council is the tale of Judah Low, an ordinary young man working for the railroad until seeing the effects of Manifest Destiny on the native population.  Learning their magic (in Dances with Wolves style), Judah goes on to use his skills as a golem animator (golemist??) to help the railways workers - cactacae, Remade, and humans among them - fight against the oppressive mercantile backing the railroad’s development.  These first sections of the novel set in untamed and unchartered lands, Mieville reserves the second setting for familiar territory.  Seeming alien and unfamiliar this time around, New Crobuzon is once again the scene of action.  Volunteering at soup kitchens is Ori, a young man with a revolutionist’s heart who feels “there’s too much talk and not enough action” in politics.  The activist group he becomes involved with and their resistance efforts balance what is otherwise a narrative fully occupied by the railroad digging ever deeper into the wilderness, internal conflict abound.  Mieville is able to draw these two settings together to close out the novel, but at the expense of plot plausibility.
Beyond dividing setting, Iron Council also finds Mieville experimenting with style.  Minimalism the desired effect, the story is continuously punctuated by short, staccato blasts of sentence in an attempt to emulate the masters of simplicity (think McCarthy, Gibson or Chandler).  But while The City & the City sees Mieville in perfect stride, the tone suitably sparse yet smooth, Iron Council is unfortunately his baby steps in the arena, every bump felt along the road.  Novel structure is also toyed with.  The best part of the book may in fact be a 150 page flashback in which Mieville performs a nice bit of storytelling, laying out the history of the Iron Council and its perpetual train.
In the end, had Mieville toned down the number of new ideas forced into the plot, been more consistent in style, and more sparing with thematic content, Iron Council could have lived up to the expectations generated by the first two books of Bas-Lag.  Instead, the novel comes across as an unfocussed effort lacking the impact and wholly original worldbuilding of its predecessors.  For thematic aim, however, Mieville cannot be faulted, his intentions pure.  If such inconsistencies are not a bother to you, then Iron Council may be highly regarded.  Otherwise, with iIts devices and themes unnecessarily convoluted, sadly, Iron Council is a train gone off its tracks. (The number of similar elements significant, readers of this novel maybe interested in Ted Chiang's Seventy-Two Letters, and vice versa.)

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