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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
But 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.