Iron Council (2004) by China Miéville

ironcouncil1The road is a sentence written on the ground… (p. 199)

And in Iron Council, that sentence is a manifesto. A tale where quest meets unrest, an unexpected journey, there and back again, not to destroy or retrieve a magical talisman, but to unshackle the working class. Told from the third-person narratives of three male revolutionaries, we see the effects of revolution on the individual: how it inspires, how it transcends, how it corrupts.

But it’s a manifesto for Bas-Lag, not Earth. Still not quite the radical fantasy narrative I was promised from this oeuvre, Miéville isn’t asking his readers to align with anything more extreme than basic human rights. I’ve heard some readers recoil at his name due to his political statements (I guess), but these books are safe. That is, unless you think labor rights are a bad thing, in which case, which corrupt, megalomaniacal corporate entity do you represent? And why are you reading this blog?

But the style has always been my problem, and at least this novel did not provoke in me that knee-jerk “who the hell is this person?” response I had with my first attempt at Perdido Street Station, with its snot-laden, bug-popping aesthetics on top of a back-cover vanity shot. This is the Miéville I wish I had started with. The earthy Miéville, the somber Miéville, the “mud and dangerous paths” Miéville (p. 150).

Style Golem

Where Perdido Street Station (2000) is ostentatious and grotesque, and The Scar (2002) more traditionally fantastic, Iron Council is thoughtful and political…but unique phraseology continues to define and distract. From just the first pages:

“with fight-shouts setting in their mouths” (p. 1)

“breath cold-congeals on his beard” (p. 1)

“trustlessly murder” (p. 2)

But the patter eventually calms down and the story takes over…

…until the latter third of the novel, when there were a few times I wanted to throw the book across the room and just forget about it because this is ridiculous:

“Manifestations that killed by toxic ambience” (p.410)

“countless psychonoms of puissance” (p. 410)

“peristalsed maggotlike” (p. 523)

“A vortex of the everyday, the uncanny quotidian” (p. 523)

“like eggwhite in hot water” (p. 528) (I do love a good Miévillian egg metaphor, though.)

“It inspissated, fell in clots, mucal rain” (p. 528)

“a thrombus of feral air” (p. 544)

This book is a thrombus of feral air, I tell myself.

But you’re just here for the word count, aren’t you:

I am cowed by the number of “coweds.”

Golem Golem

Golemetry is an interruption (p. 222). Yes. Yes, it is.

Sound golem, “smoke golem, gas golem, golem of particles and poisoned air” (p. 208), “a golem in darkness or in death, in elyctricity, in sound, in friction, in ideas or hopes” (p. 225), “gunpowder golems” (p. 305), “shade golem” (p. 520), “The light golem was born. It existed.” (p. 552.) “Absolutely unmoving in the body of the time golem” (p. 591).

But it turns out the golemetry is just a D&D joke, (according to Chris, who apparently reads about authors, instead of trying to divine some sort of truth about them from their texts, like I do). (My way is much more fun.) Earth golem, air golem, gun golem…

Make the bullet a golem. And it could fall. Make her clothes golems. They might trip her. Make a golem of those scattered little dead trees. Make a golem of clouds. Of the shadows, of her own shadow. Make another sound golem. Make a golem of sound and time to keep her unmoving. It was very cold. Sing your rhythms again fast to make a golem of still time and stop her up and we’ll go.” (p. 604)

Okay, okay. It’s a joke. But still, 229 golems.

Character Golem

But that’s just style, and there’s much more going on here. A character study in itself, a dissection of three flawed revolutionaries, perhaps a personal criticism of leadership. In the beginning, we meet Cutter, not the leader we first think, but a lovesick puppy chasing after his unresponsive love, the revolutionary Judah. His commitment is disingenuous, more loyal to the man than the movement. Then, we meet Judah, who, in his early life is bothered by his awakening goodness. “It’s a strong goodness in me, he thinks without arrogance, but it’s an intruder,” (p. 225), who becomes the mythbound leader-turned-demigod of this untamed tribe. Between these narratives, we also meet young Ori, impatient with the pedantic readings of the leftist Runagate Rampant. He seeks action and, in his naivete, joins a group that uses his passions for corrupt ends.

These are flawed resistance leaders. This is no way to recruit for the revolution.

Idea Golem

And who can complain of style when it suggests so much thought? Crammed with ideas, Iron Council puissantifies the mundane. Music, “the taming of time” (p. 227), and rhythm, being “Pulse-magic. What strange calories there are in repeated sounds” (p. 297). “Anamnesis,” a unit title, alludes to the awakening of the person to social and political criticism, in alignment with Enlightenment ideas of the supernatural existence of those inalienable human rights.

And loads of other cool ideas: smokestone, a steam-spider Remade, fReemades, a bull-horned helmet that parts space and time, and the cacotopic stain (basically the Scar, but in the woods). We also see elements of The City & the City (“the tramp kinked the city’s geography” p. 502). And the haints, “ripples. Of an event that hasn’t yet come” (p. 470).

He saw a haint in Syriac. A thick, unopened book in mottling uncolours, turning on spiderthreads of force. It sucked light and shade, killed two passersby before evanescing and leaving only a remnant of bookness that lingered another day. (p. 497)

Look at that. “A remnant of bookness.” Nice.

UnGolem

But there are times when some of these really cool ideas are actually just unideas– unvivid, unPossible, and unimaginably un. Sometimes the originality reaches only as far as the opposite of an idea, subverting fantasy tropes through contradictive means: “uncolours,” “unsound,” ripples of unhappened things. Plus, consider the time golem, bookness, and even the cacotopic stain: things that sound cool, but I can’t really picture them. They are abnaturally unnatural.

There is also the problem of the utter maleness of this novel, especially after I embarrassingly waxed poetic about the awesome Bellis from The Scar who is by far and away one of the few female characters with whom I can relate, regardless of the gender of the author. In Iron Council, there is Ann-Hari, peasant-turned-prostitute-turned-revolutionary, who drives the Collective by her own means, and, while getting little page-time, probably deserves a book of her own.

This absence of SFCs (that’s strong female characters, folks) seems less a circumstance of neglect and more an attempt at a personal journey. Miéville saying, “Look, I’ve done a few books. I’ve been diverse. Imma talk about myself now.” And the common nickname “sister” replacing “brother” being an apology of sorts.

Wash Your Bits Golem

Also be warned that there is a lot of rutting around, primarily to illustrate Cutter’s deep loneliness, and probably to highlight the sexual diversity of the characters. Male on male action is refreshing, (and pretty damn hot, frankly), but, the sex in Iron Council tends to be so careless and convenient (and in the woods, without much bathing) that you have to wonder, amid all the snot and farts, why doesn’t at least one character complain about condom fumbling or an itchy groin? Where is the VD golem?

Message Golem

ironcouncil2But ultimately, people say Iron Council is boring. Even Miéville fans say it’s boring. It’s not exciting, but I kept turning the pages, not for the action, but out of wonder about how this will end. Will it be modeled off a known revolution? Will it go French? Russian? Cuban?

But perhaps I kept turning the pages because I just liked what it had to say. Coming off a superbly disappointing UK election season– a nasty harbinger of things to come on my own planet– Iron Council does contain some nice messages:

“A government for need not greed!” (p. 239)

“IT SEEMS UNBELIEVABLE THAT IN MODERN TIMES SUCH SQUALOR COULD GO UNCHECKED.” (p. 397)

“The Collective. It was a Remaking” (p. 499).

But the ultimate message to take home is in the repeated metaphor of the perpetual train:

The resistance will go on.

Fist Golem.

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31 thoughts on “Iron Council (2004) by China Miéville

  1. AntVicino says:

    Brilliant as always. I’m working on The Scar next. I am hoping for less than five palimpsests. Fingers crossed!

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  2. Like you, I kinda liked Mieville’s social views seeping into the novel… but didn’t think it worked as well as a novel. Not as thrilling as The Scar, and I remember feeling it was like a steadfast plod. Characterization felt weak and underdeveloped — all his other books have one strong protagonist the reader gets to know and relate to, but not this one.

    A lot of the criticism at the time was that it felt “weighed down by political baggage,” and to some extent I think his views came through in Kraken and Embassytown in ways that helped them be more successful novels. Still better than so many other novels, though, even a middling Mieville is better than 90% of the genre. His stupendous creativity and way with words puts him in another class of writer.

    Speaking of politics! Did you ever see Mieville’s recommended list of 50 SF/F Novels Every Socialist Should Read?

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  3. fromcouchtomoon says:

    “A lot of the criticism at the time was that it felt ‘weighed down by political baggage,’” And I’m like, “Psh, I thought people said this guy was political!” I get more radicalism from KSR and Gibson.

    “a steadfast plod” – probably why I enjoyed this book more than most Mieville fans. My favorite kind of novel is the steady, meditative experience, while the thrilling novels always make me feel kind of dirty afterwards, like I fell for a big manipulation of stuff happening. Morning-after book guilt: “I can’t believe I fell for that.”

    “Characterization felt weak and underdeveloped”
    Wow, and we hardly ever disagree, Chris! (Or, at least, I trick myself into believing that.) But my experience with the characters is completely the opposite. I thought these characters felt more real and personal than the previous BIG, CARTOONY characters of PSS and Scar (even Bellis), or the distant, detective trope guy from The City. I thought the Iron Council men were convincing. I felt I knew them. (It occurs to me that I listened to 50% of this on audio, so it may have been the actor who conveyed them so well.)

    Rabindranauth has alluded to this famous book list of Mieville’s, but I haven’t seen it yet. I don’t know why I’m so reluctant. Is Niven on the list? ;-P

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    • And I’m like, “Psh, I thought people said this guy was political!”
      I know right! Mieville, thankfully, doesn’t write rants or tracts, but elements of his beliefs slip into his works. Very mild stuff. Then again, 2004 was a decade back, and a fantasy novel featuring LGBT relationships written by a dreaded Socialist was far more stigmatized even compared to today…

      But my experience with the characters is completely the opposite
      Heh, interesting. My big complaint was that it felt like two novels jammed together (Iron Council/Urbomach), and that neither was given enough time to develop its characters to a point where I really cared about them. Cutter was ok but a bit bland, but Judah I found dull as dry toast and kind of a jerk… it was like their defining traits were their political views and sexual orientation, and I found that a bit disappointing and poorly-realized.

      I didn’t find Bellis all that bad, a cold and calculating fish-out-of-water (er, cat-off-of-land?) waiting for the perfect time to make her move, but to be honest I think she, and Cutter (and most of Mieville’s other protags), wind up as spectators too often. Not that they lack agency or are unable to impact the plot, they just don’t always take advantage of it. Still haven’t read Perdido (it and Railsea are the only published Mieville’s I haven’t read), so I can’t comment on any cartoony characters there.

      Is Niven on the list? ;-P
      No. No he isn’t.

      No Heinlein either, though there is an Ayn Rand under the “know your enemy” header…

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Hestia on Twitter has hinted as much– that Mieville is being sly with the social justice themes. Plus, he seems to work only in dystopias (or, rather, crappy places that aren’t much worse than our own urban civs), so I guess the radical, world-changing stuff that I was expecting doesn’t really belong here.

        I did not get the feeling of two novels jammed together, but it sounds like you know more about the background of the story. (Which, as you know, I hardly ever do, hence my surprise that Kiln People is about golems. Imadummy.) I liked that Cutter turned out to be not the leader we thought he was. I liked that Judah turned out to be unlikeable. I thought there was purpose in that. But I do see your point that they seem defined only by politics and sex… I see more, but I think that’s also ripe for debate about author purpose vs perspective. Hmm…

        The characters as spectators- I like that. It’s less exciting, but more realistic. Most people are just bystanders. Fiction of the people.

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        • I’m not actually sure if it was supposed to be two novels, I just wasn’t sure its two plot threads really clicked/worked together. (Don’t beat yourself up over KILN PEOPLE 😦 !) Then again, take everything I say with a grain of salt since I haven’t read it in like six years.

          Characters as spectators: I agree, as you pointed out in you review of THE SCAR it adds a bit of realism since we’d be doing the same thing… People caught up in events beyond their control. I think other books have trained me to expect a proactive badass protag, when Mieville’s people are important minor actors watching history unfurl before their eyes. Fiction of the people—love it! So true.

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Any list that lacks Heinlein is a good list.

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  4. Kate says:

    I gave up on Iron Council 2 nights ago, and then along comes your review…. Which was excellent, I agree with a lot of what you said. I think I gave up reading IC out of indifference. I could not make myself care about Cutter and his party (oh the relentless, medievalised D&D-ness of these worlds), and only got as far as the first golem who tears the flying handlinger host to pieces. But no further. I loved PSS for its ostentation and invention, and because it had passion, the characters who had someone to care about. I kept reading The Scar for the invention, the plotting, and the fiendish manipulation of loyalties, but not so much because the characters’ stories pulled me along. Bellis – yes, a tremendous SFC – is too closed off from the reader. Tanner wasn’t, even Silas wasn’t, but the characters I wanted to know more about were kept separate and aloof. Iron Council has the same feeling: ‘reader stay in your place and wait to see if I feel like giving you what you want’. I can’t be bothered waiting for his grace and favour!

    I take your point about Miéville’s mad language and style, which I like very much, it stretches expectations and forces the eye back to the meanings of words. The politics have never bothered me (how can anyone be bothered by his politics?), and don’t sound terribly radical, on the whole.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Hey Kate! It sounds like your experience with IC is a pretty common one with most readers. Perhaps my mixing it up with a half-audio read-along livened it up. All I know is I was stuck on some pretty turbulent flights last month and I was completely undisturbed, completely immersed in IC. (And, although I rely quite a bit on audio reads, they usually don’t work for me that well.)

      I dog on his language a lot– easy pickins– but I love it just the same. It wore on me toward the end of this novel. Sometimes it feels colorful, sometimes it feels pretentious. And the politics of these novels should appeal to everyone. I’ll just keep going to Kim Stanley Robinson for my socialist utopian realism fixes.

      I guess I appreciate the closed-off characters. I’ve characterized Mieville as a distant writer since I first attempted PSS a decade ago (hated it then, love it now). But I did love Bellis for all her frigidness, who couldn’t even be bothered with the narrator half the time. I thought she was cool. My kind of woman.

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  5. I’m probably going to have to come back and read this again sometime when it isn’t a holidy and the Small One is jumping about my legs as I try to get intellectual with Mieville criticism, but one note now on the female character thing. So I am knee deep in reading all the things he’s written (I don’t know how this happened, I actually wasn’t intending to read all his things, and now I am over halfway done) and he seems to lack female characters in a hell of a lot of his books.

    King Rat, his debut, was particularly unawesome in this respect. There are three women. Main Character’s Mom, who is dead (duh). Main character’s DJ friend who is snarky and badass, but then just gets used by the villain for the rest of the novel. And this mentally handicapped women who gets snuffed for hanging out with the main character, who blantantly notices he is using her for his benefit, yet doesn’t stop and gets her killed (no real consequences follow that either). There was this triumpherate of sort of supernatural beings–King Rat, Anasi, and The King of the Birds or something–all male. I mean shit, how cool would a female Anasi be? Or a queen of the mother fucking birds? Disappointing, especially after Bellis.

    The City and the City had a similar problem. There is Main Character’s two lovers, but we never actually meet them. Then there is a totally robotic and 2D lady detective, but she is only a sidekick. Oh and we meet another detective’s wife once. The other ladies are either dead (Laura Palmer style with her murder as the reason for the whole story) or missing (though we do get to meet her, but being a lady, bad things happen to her later too). Oh there is one lady professor, so at least he added that, but otherwise another all-dude world.

    Small calls. More comments later cause this review made me laugh and say yeah a lot. Especially liked the ending. Just like in the book. Nice touch. Smile golem.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      You’ve made me realize how very blinded I am by Bellis. I give a pass to City, because I read it is as a riff on detective fiction, which is so distant and macho. But there usually is a female bombshell who steals scenes (and the lead’s attention!), which could also be riffed on. And I just remembered that it did originally bother me in PSS that the silent Kepri women with six-pack abs were characterized as the perfect girlfriends. Part of the reason I felt like I was reading a book written by a kid and never bothered to finish it the first time. Much to think on…

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      • Very, very much to think on. Oh! And I wanted to mention, and forgot, that I also was particularly forgiving of the male focus of characters here not only because of Anne-Hari, but because of the two characters who you are led to believe are men but then turn out to be women. That was a nice touch that I very much appreciated, pointing out the way we assume certain people with certain kinds of power are always men is total bullshit.

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  6. S. C. Flynn says:

    Very good and entertaining review, as usual. I agree with Book Punks on Twitter – “VD Golem” is brilliant.

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  7. nicollzg says:

    Hey-hey. I’ve not yet read anything by China Mieville and I was wondering if you could recommend with which book I should start? Thanks.

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  8. Back for more, as promised (threatened). Still, there is so much to discuss about this book. And pod knows I can’t convince anyone I know on this side of the computer to read the damn thing.

    “I’ve heard some readers recoil at his name due to his political statements (I guess), but these books are safe.” Yeah. I recently was talking to a neighbor about him and his political views and his fiction and letn her The Scar, but realized after that really you don’t see much of those political views in the books themselves. As influence, but never as a thing that takes over, and generally not preachy. Which is good I suppose, though I wouldn’t mind a bit more personally. His views really only seem particularly relevant for deciding to read his work if the work in question is non fiction or an interview. Though obviously all his reading on the subject influenced the Council and the Collective and the way things go down in IC.

    “It’s not exciting, but I kept turning the pages, not for the action, but out of wonder about how this will end. Will it be modeled off a known revolution? Will it go French? Russian? Cuban?” This was exactly the question that kept me going (and getting more and more excited toward the end). I thought, with all his reading on the subject, what will he attempt to convince us would be the fictional outcome?! With that in mind, the ending was almost a cop out, though just as interesting a statement in that way as well.

    The golems are a D&D joke? What?! I know nothing about D&D. So what, we’re supposed to laugh about it? Or just be like, oh look, he’s stealing from D&D? Huh.

    Oh and one more note on the rep of women topic, I am now reading Un Lun Don, and that has two female leads. Though so far neither is particularly well developed, accepting his lack of ladies in some of his other books is easier when I know he has written books focusing on them entirely. Still, it was the “surprise, they’re ladies!” thing I mentioned in my comment above that made me feel like this book gets a pass in that arena.

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    • By the way, EMBASSYTOWN has another strong female protagonist (well, as strong as Mieville’s protags get) to go with those two and Bellis in THE SCAR. So he ends up alternating between male/female leads a little.

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  9. I like my SFF the way I like my politics: Reactionary.

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  10. Joseph Nebus says:

    I was reading a touch too quick and thought that first quoted phrase was “with fish-shouts setting in their mouths”. I know a fish-shout isn’t anything, but now I think it ought to be.

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  11. Kate says:

    Kraken also has a strong woman protagonist. Now that’s a terrifying, gripping, superb urban fantasy novel. Not sure my nerves can take a reread for another year or so, though.

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  12. […] in both of these books was the lack of female characters. I want to, like From Couch to Moon in her review of Iron Council, come to forgiving […]

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  13. […] of those extremes, I shared my thoughts on China Miéville’s third and final Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council (2004). Not as exciting as The Scar (2002), nor as lascivious as Perdido Street Station (2001), […]

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  14. […] superstition. That’s not to say Mieville goes completely realistic on us. With golems galore (229 to be exact, according to fromcouchtomoon), Lovecraftian monstrosities doing flybys, and even a Weaver popping into our plane of existence to […]

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  15. […] “Golemetry is an interruption,” I read somewhere once. […]

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  16. […] annoying style of SF’s little brother, but I enjoyed the chug-chug meditative nature of Iron Council, and I wish it had been my first Miéville. It kept me soothed during a grim trip to Atlanta […]

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