Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Iron Council Linkdump

It's not that I'm allergic to spoilers, but I genuinely tend to enjoy reviews--proper reviews, not two paragraphs of plot summary and a brief thumbs up/down--more after I've read the book in question. Which is a problem when you consider that most of the books I read are paperbacks and most of the books that get reviewed in papers and on litblogs are hardcovers--a year's offset at least. I often find myself, after finishing a book that garnered a great deal of attention, trawling the net for reactions and finding more than I can reasonably handle. China Miéville's Iron Council is definitely in that bunch--at some point last year, it seemed that everyone on the net wanted to weigh in about it. Having finally read the book myself (see my own reactions at the bottom of this list), here are a few highlights:
  • As usual, Matt Cheney provides thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary:
    Taken as a trilogy, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council offer a wide view of change, loyalty, and fantasy. Each of the books is about the need for fantasy despite the inevitable ability of reality to shatter all dreams, or turn them into nightmares. It is the process of dreaming that Mieville celebrates, suggesting that when people wish and hope and dream they can create meaningful change in themselves and even the world, though no change is permanent, and ghastly costs may be attached. In each of the books, people place their faith and trust in characters who end up being less or more than they seemed, often to the detriment of the trust -- and yet it is that trust which provided the impetus for the characters to do remarkable things, to dream, to change. Loyalty, then, is worthwhile, even though it often leads to sorrow and danger. New Crobuzon changes in the time from the opening page of Perdido Street Station to the closing page of Iron Council, and it is not a good change, but a reactionary and oppressive one. Great sacrifices are made, but little progress. But there is some potential within the city that lures the wayward back, both in The Scar and Iron Council, that keeps them believing, hoping, dreaming, that illuminates moments of happiness and wholeness. Over and over again characters try to escape New Crobuzon, to find joy in life elsewhere, but always they must return.
  • The folks at Crooked Timber dedicated an entire seminar to Iron Council and Miéville's work in general. Here's John Holbo with a few reservations on Miéville's image as the anti-Tolkien:
    In Miéville’s case, rapid-fire grotesque inventiveness – puppet a page – serves to disguise the conventionality of much of the narrative (although, as per Henry’s post, a case can be made for Iron Council marking a sort of departure.) The disguise holds, largely, but it remains a disguise. And the only problem with our author being a conventional genre storyteller is – well, it just doesn’t fit with the polemic about this more mature, genre-busting sort of fantasy we are supposed to be getting. As Belle puts it in her post, if you are going to let a few absurdly overmatched heroes defeat the slakemoths, there is no obvious reasons why a preposterously successful revolution shouldn’t be staged. The mature sense of ‘history is painful that way’ just doesn’t resonate with the rigged, affirmative (sentimental, call it what you will) ‘Frodo and Sam can make it!’ conventions otherwise in effect. And there is a serious problem going for psychological realism while indulging these action-adventure genre expectations. No real person would be so heroic, so the sense of these characters as real people melts away like wax, when the action heats up, leaving us with … well, genre mannequins. (And after all that painstaking effort to get the wax to look right.)

    In short, just because Miéville’s stories are "gritty and tricky, just as in real life" doesn’t mean they are gritty and tricky in the same way life is.
    Belle Waring takes Miéville to task for the relentless grimness of his plots and his settings, and wonders if it wouldn't be braver for him to explore the possibility of victory:
    I feel that the paralyzed train in Iron Council is emblematic of the arc of Miéville’s novels. It is spectacular and grotesque, studded with the heads of magical beasts, forever moving forward, but quite unable to reach any destination. The long series of weirdness just freezes at a certain point. Nothing is resolved. Isaac saves the world and his only reward is the brutal, worse-than-death destruction of the one he loves. The Toroan revolutionaries kill the mayor, and nothing follows from it. There is a massive revolution, which effects no changes on the polity.

    Miéville’s burning desire to not have things end up neatly leads him even to vitiate what accomplishments there are. The heroic journey of the Iron Council is retrospectively shown to be part of Wrightby’s schemes; the Councillors were saved by Drogon’s machinations, not their own efforts. The assasination of the mayor is shown to be the outcome of a single woman’s grudge, and in some sense not a political act at all: "’We done what they wanted. We done what they come here to do.’ ‘Yes’ Yes, but it isn’t the same. It was a sideshow, it wasn’t what you were here for, and that’s different, that makes it different." Even the abortive revolution is revealed to be part of Spiral Jacob’s plan, a useful distraction and nothing more.
    Matt Cheney again, with more reflections on the subversion (or is it?) of good vs. evil in Miéville's novels:
    What Mieville does brilliantly is create anti-heroes, pseudo-heroes, and non-heroes and then place them in situations demanding utter heroism. Thus, the morality becomes “not-entirely-good vs. evil”. This may be exactly the balancing act he needs to write the sort of philosophical romanticism he seems to aspire toward. To muddle the whole “good vs. evil” dichotomy with complexity would be to destroy the heart of the original influence; to shatter one side while holding on to the other is to subvert, but not to obliterate.
    Also, check out John Quiggin, Miriam Elizabeth Burstein, and Henry Farrel, as well as Miéville's gracious and fascinating response.

  • Miéville interviews: with Lou Anders at The Believer:
    "Of all the politics in Iron Council—the big politics, the trade union stuff, the revolution—it hasn’t been talked about very much as a love story. I don’t mean this in a self-aggrandizing way, but I will say that the love story between Cutter and Judah, I will go to my grave being proud of that. I think of Iron Council as much as anything else as a love story. And that element is not an added extra, it absolutely structures it. The depiction of what’s going on with Cutter and the way he loves Judah… I was trying to express something that’s really, really painful and hard and loving. This is a man desperately in love, who knows that it’s not reciprocated in the way he wants it to be, but can’t stop loving anyway. I was expecting people to talk a lot about the gay theme in Iron Council. The main character of Iron Council is gay, and almost no one has talked about it. It hasn’t been the source of controversy or congratulation. And I’m quite pleased with that. I feel like I owe the field and readers an apology, because maybe at some unspoken level, I was thinking, “Ha, now, I’ve written this book and it will challenge you because it is about gay people.” In fact, I think that the genre and readers are much more mature than some of us self-styled radicals and dissidents make them out to be."
    And also with Andrew Kozma in RevolutionSF.

  • At Infinity Plus, Adam Roberts offers his usual cogent analysis in his review of the Arthur C. Clarke nominees (actually the webzine's third bite at the novel--see reviews by Stephen Palmer and Lawrence Osborn), and has this to say about Iron Council:
    The rhetoric of revolution, particularly Marxist revolution, gains much of its potency from the sheer common-sense obviousness of the points it makes (of course it's wrong that 5% of the population should hoard 95% of the wealth; of course revolution is laughably easy -- as Shelley so simply put it: 'rise like lions after slumber ... ye are many, they are few'). The Communist Manifesto is a profoundly commonsensical work, articulating the sense that ordinary life has been bent out of shape by the depredations of capitalism; and that the solution to this state of affairs is, once Marx and Engels have pointed it out, blindingly simple. But Miéville's universe has no room for the commonsensical, or the simple. It is bent out of shape already by the Weirdness of its aesthetic; and the impression of the novels is that life in New Crobuzon is hellish not because of (easily corrected) oppression by ruling classes but because the fabric of its thaumaturgic reality is inherently hellish, perverse, peculiar.

    In part this is a more general generic problem with Weird writing. For weirdness to register, there needs to be a normality against which it can be measured. When everything in a text is weird nothing is. Particularly in the first 120 pages of Iron Council this becomes something of a problem. Bizarreness after bizarreness harries the hardy band of travellers, all of them rendered with Miéville's impressive ingenuity and inventiveness. But there's so much of it, and it's rendered so densely, that the effect is one only of sluggishness, an effortful slog through oddity piled on oddity.
  • If you'd like to see Miéville speak, the cable SF magazine Fast Forward has made an 18-minute interview with him available online (scroll down the list on this page to the September '04 entry. The interview is available as a 17.7 MB .mov file or as an MP3). Not a great deal is said that can't be found in other text interviews like the ones mentioned above, but it's very rare these days to see a favorite author on TV and Miéville is a gracious and well-spoken interviewee.
And my own reaction? I have to agree with the many reviewers who say that Miéville's novels are yielding diminishing returns. Perdido Street Station was superb. The Scar was good but not great. Iron Council isn't quite good, in spite of the fact that it is probably Miéville's most technically polished novel to date. There are none of the problems with pacing--slow beginning, breakneck ending--that plagued his two previous novels. Unlike The Scar, Council isn't episodic. Most importantly, there's very little bloat. But what seems at first like a genuine improvement in Miéville's style turns out to be a flattening of it--the lows in Iron Council aren't as low, but the highs aren't as high. None of the characters are as interesting as Bellis Coldwine or as compelling as Isaac dan der Grimnebulin. No single sequence has the pulse-pounding resonance of the attack on the Glasshouse or the capture of the avanc.

What's really missing in Iron Council, I think, is a palpable sense of place. For all its many flaws, Perdido Street Station was remarkable because its main character was the city of New Crobuzon itself. The people in the book may have been less than fully realized, but the city had a heft that made it as believable as London or New York. The Scar's Armada couldn't replicate that heft--when I first read The Scar I wrote that Armada was broad and shallow where New Crobuzon was concentrated and multi-layered (which was appropriate for the two cities' respective histories, but no less disappointing for this appropriateness). Compared even to Armada, however, the perpetual train in Iron Council barely even shows up on the page--its inhabitants have a presence, but the Iron Council itself, as a place, a community, an idea, doesn't really make an appearance. Which is especially problematic when you consider what happens to New Crobuzon in the book. In Perdido Street Station, this cruel and heartless city had an undeniable logic. Its individual citizens might suffer, but as a whole the city worked. The New Crobuzon of Iron Council is dying--a cancerous, self-destructive entity far along the path to its own undoing. One of the first things lost in this undoing is the city's personality, and it is that ability to convey the personality of a place that is arguably Miéville's greatest strength as a writer.

One of the things that made Miéville a superstar in and out of the fantasy genre was that he constantly worked to confound his readers'--and his characters'--expectations, using their own familiarity with the fantasy genre, and with stories in general, against them. It's not only Saul Garamond who has read one too many prince-in-hiding stories, and therefore falls for the Rat King's spiel--it's the readers themselves. For the same reasons, we're convinced that Yagharek must have been falsely convicted (the fact that he nobly asserts his guilt is merely fuel for the fire), and that Silas Fennec is telling the truth about an imminent invasion of New Crobuzon. If such a perverted story exists in Iron Council, it is a grim one that most of us have learned to doubt--the notion that a people's revolution can genuinely bring about a golden age of equality and justice. We aren't taken in along with Ori and the Iron Councillors, and the result is a distance between us and the characters. Which leads me to wonder: what happens when we start expecting an author to confound our expectations?


Rich said...

Perdido Street Station was superb. The Scar was good but not great. Iron Council isn't quite good, in spite of the fact that it is probably Miéville's most technically polished novel to date.

Oh dear - I got a hundred pages or more into The Scar before I put it down, insufficiently compelled to continue. The Iron Council may then be not even worth that token effort.

The China Miéville of Perdido Street Station was like a latter-day Mervyn Peake of Gothic decay and human (and near-human) imperfections. In the later books, he seems to be imitating himself instead. Maybe he's at heart a frustrated graphic novellist or something.

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