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Iron Council by China Mieville (2004) 471 p.

Embassytown and The City & The City appear to be the books that are giving Mieville his reputation as the Literary Saint of Speculative Fiction, but before reading those I wanted to finish off his Bas-Lag trilogy. His previous outings – Perdido Street Station and The Scar – both displayed tremendous worldbuilding and a capacious imagination, but fell short in areas like plot, characters and dialogue, and demonstrated Mieville’s irritating love of flowery prose.

Iron Council is Mieville’s most overtly political book, and he’s never been a writer to shy away from politics. It opens with a group of characters searching for the legendary Iron Council across the hostile landscapes of Bas-Lag, and then throws the reader into a flashback to show how the Iron Council was formed. A wealthy industrialist from New Crobuzon is sending out railways across the continent, in a long and relatively enjoyable section of the book that’s a sort of crazy fantasy Wild West. After some strikes and demonstrations, the workers revolt and steal one of the trains, tearing up the tracks behind them and laying them down again ahead, to create a perpetually moving train, a free and equal society called the Iron Council. The story jumps around in space and time, linking back with events in New Crobuzon, where many decades of secret rebellion have culminated in open warfare against the tyrannical government.

As I said, it’s Mieville’s most political book, but I think it’s for precisely this reason that it fails. I remember thinking in the early sections that his ability for prose had developed (taking clear inspiration from Cormac McCarthy) but later in the book it shifted from descriptions of the landscape and bizarre creatures, and became solely dedicated to building a sense of drama and importance about the characters and events. There’s not even any of the simple slice of life stuff we saw in Perdido Street Station and even The Scar. Everything the characters say and do is weighted down with attempted emotional anguish. People are rising up against cruel governments or struggling with their misgivings about doing so or arguing about what’s best for the people they’re trying to protect. I could pick almost any random line of dialogue out of this book and see it being acted out by a grizzled-jaw American hunk narrowing his eyes, looking into the distance and intoning something cheesy like, “People need somethin’ to believe in.” I never cared. I’ve read three of Mieville’s books now, and found not a sympathetic or memorable character in any of them, so I frankly don’t give a fuck if they all have to live underneath a dictatorial regime.

You can tell that this is the book he really wanted to write, that he couldn’t wait to write about an open struggle against an evil government, but he lost control of himself and got too swept up in it. He forgot that not everybody else is going to be as invested in that as he is. I liked Iron Council even less than the previous two Bas-Lag books, because those were about characters just trying to get by and handle their own business, people who got swept up in events rather than orchestrated them. Iron Council is weighed down by its political baggage and sense of self-importance. I can understand what Mieville was trying to do here, and it’s nice to see some left-wing content in an inherently conservative genre, but I found Iron Council was one of those books where I was wearily counting how many pages were left until I was done with it.

I’ll still check out The City & The City at some point, but if I don’t like that, I may give up on Mieville and forget about Embassytown.

I’ve been watching Breaking Bad over the last few months, after hearing for years about what an amazing show it is, and particularly after the promotion campaign for Season 4 plastered Bryan Cranston’s terrifying face on the side of buses all over Melbourne (above). It’s hard not to gush, but everything people say about this show is true. It’s the best TV drama ever filmed and deserves all of its praise. It’s easily unseated Lost as my favourite non-comedy ever, and not just because of the weakness of that show’s final two seasons. Whenever I said that Lost was the best show on TV I always had to throw in a disclaimer mentioning that I just loved the concept – I knew the script was hammy, the music awful and the acting second-rate (with a few brilliant exceptions, like roses in cow shit). But Breaking Bad – every bit of it – is art. I have no doubt that if Shakespeare lived in contemporary New Mexico, he would be writing this show.

Given the number of accolades Breaking Bad has received (Bryan Cranston has won Oustanding Lead Actor at the Emmy Awards for three years running), you’ve likely heard of the concept: a high school science teacher finds out he has terminal cancer, and teams up with a dropkick former student to cook meth to provide for his family after he dies. This sounds at first like a hook for a sitcom about an off-the-wall mid-life crisis; indeed, Breaking Bad often verges on black comedy, particularly in the hilariously endearing Odd Couple relationship between Jesse and Walt (whom Jesse still, adorably, refers to as Mr. White). At the same time the show plunges into miserable, gory depths of bleak horror, the stark reality of crime – and that’s just in the first three episodes.


The elevator pitch implies this is a show about a good man who is forced to turn to dark things because of the US healthcare system and his own poverty – like so many crime stories, a way of exploring a fascinating criminal underworld through the eyes of a sympathetic, likeable character. Walt is so fucking far from that. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, had the explicit intent to take a protagonist and turn him into an antagonist. It becomes clear in the first season that, in spite of all the bloodletting and murder and threat to not only himself but his family, Walt gets a kick out of doing this. He repeatedly turns down opportunities to get out of the drug trade, and somewhere along the way he comes to see cooking meth as a way of becoming successful – something that he never was in any other aspect of life. Walt is a depressed, crabby old man who believes that life has not given him what he deserves and is obsessed with what others think of him. His more positive aspects as a father, husband or friend are window-dressing. He is a scheming narcissist who will sacrifice anything to further his own advantages and desires.

What makes this character arc so beautiful and interesting is how complex it is – how many other factors are at play. Walt is a human, and contains multitudes. Most of his actions have several motives, and he still sometimes shows hesitation (Jane’s death) and regret (crying to his son about having a punch-up with Jessie). I facetiously compared Breaking Bad to Shakespeare before (although to be honest I never got the big deal about Shakespeare) but there is no Lear or Macbeth in Walt. He is not a character carefully constructed to tell a moral fable, but rather an ineffably human character, who makes mistakes and reveals his flaws and still has something inside him that makes you want him to succeed.

Gilligan mentioned in an interview that I can no longer find that every viewer would have a point where they would turn against Walt, where he would do something they thought was beyond the pale, but that the moment would be different for every viewer. There are a number of obvious candidates – some would say that selling meth is one of them – but for me it had nothing to do with the drug trade. It actually comes in “Over,” an episode late in Season 2, when Walt’s family is hosting a party to celebrate his cancer going into remission – something he is secretly bitter about, as it heralds a return to his quotidian life as a suburban dad. He keeps pouring his son shots of tequila, and at first Hank – his brother-in-law DEA agent, a loudmouth idiot who was at first seemingly inserted into the series to provide extra tension – laughingly goes along with it. As Walt continues pouring his 15-year-old cerebral-palsy-inflicted son shots of tequila, Hank tries to make him stop, only to be met with Walt’s steely-faced resolve. Hank eventually takes the bottle and walks away, only to have Walt scream after him across the yard. He responds in his typical joking manner, and the situation is defused when Walt Jr suddenly throws up. Hank’s reaction is critical – not only does he prove himself to be a more responsible and mature parental figure than Walt, but he tries to preserve Walt’s honour in front of his family by making it out to be a joke. Walt, on the other hand, is so furiously petty about his miraculous recovery preventing him from a life of crime that he’s reduced to getting his kicks out of boozing up his own son. He later apologises to Walt Jr, saying “That wasn’t me,” but the plain truth to any viewer is that this is precisely what Walt is: not a good man forced to do bad things, but a man who is – in any walk of life – a fundamentally bad person.

I find it particularly interesting to compare him to Hank. In the pilot episode, at Walt’s surprise birthday party, Hank is introduced as a brash and arrogant asshole with a badge, the kind of man who thinks he’s much cooler than he really is. Walt, on the other hand, is a meek and henpecked science teacher – more likeable, but not as much of a man. As the series goes on, Hank is involved in some intense work on the Mexican border, which nearly gets him killed and leaves him with PTSD – to the point where he finds himself unable to return and admits, “I’m not the man I thought I was.” Walt, on the other hand, proves himself to be capable of staring down a drug kingpin and demanding $50,000 from him, yet is also shown to be increasingly selfish and unstable. Their positions are entirely reversed. Walt is a strong man, but a bad person; Hank is a weak man, but a good person.

There’s a moment in the final episode of Season 4, where Gus – one of the finest villains to ever grace a television screen – is sitting in his car and looking at a building, and we as viewers know that some sort of climax is coming. It would be an unremarkable scene, if not for the music used. If somebody who had never seen the show before saw nothing but that scene, with that music, they’d assume Gus was the hero.

I could go on about this series. Like only a few other artworks (The Assassination of Jesse James comes to mind) it’s a production in which everything – the acting, the script, the music, the cinematography – is individually excellent and comes together seamlessly to create something brilliant. Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito and Dean Norris are all amazing. The show utilises its natural setting to great effect, particularly with the use of light and sound, especially silence – not since “No Country For Old Men” have I seen a movie or TV show accomplish so much with silence. Most importantly of all, the writers are willing to take this story in directions that have never really been seen before on television.

All this gushing isn’t to say that it’s flawless. I don’t think a TV serial can be flawless, because the nature of the medium means that it’s impossible to present a finished product. Season 4 dragged in the middle, and the ending, while morally plausible for Walt’s character at this stage, was logistically sketchy. I found the finale of Season 2 to be a total cop-out, and I absolutely hated the twins in Season 3 – ludicrous action-movie villains who made a mockery of the realism Breaking Bad was founded upon (though they did, at least, climax with one of the most tense and heart-pounding scenes in the entire show.) It’s not perfect. It is, however, one of the greatest TV shows ever filmed, and if you haven’t seen it you need to rectify that straight away. (And you shouldn’t have read past the spoiler warning either, you cheat.)

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883) 258 p.

I read Kidnapped in 2010 and quite liked it, so I figured I’d give Treasure Island a go. Now I’m reflecting on whether perhaps Kidnapped was a book I enjoyed because it provided me with entertainment at a time when I didn’t have much else to do.

Treasure Island is the classic pirate story, a book that spawned thousands of imitators and almost single-handedly created a genre. Young Jim Hawkins, the poor son of innkeepers, is swept up into excitement and adventure after one of his lodgers entrusts him with a treasure map before dying. Jim promptly takes the map to Dr. Livesey, local magistrate and gentleman, and together they assemble an expedition to recover the treasure from the titular Caribbean Island. All doesn’t go to plan, of course, with the crew turning out to be half pirates, and upon arrival on Treasure Island all manner of mutinous hijinks break out in the scramble to seize the treasure.

Treasure Island is a pirate story with 19th century mores, where the good guys are upstanding English gentlemen and the pirates are villainous scoundrels – unlike modern incarnations, where Johnny Depp is cast as a dashing and romantic figure of fun, the script neatly sidestepping the fact that pirates are bad people who do bad things. (I dearly love Mister Gibbs, but I expect he’s raped his fair share.) Treasure Island contains a good amount of betrayal, cold-blooded murder and terrible fates, and to his credit, Stevenson does not shy away from the fact that this is the sort of thing that can utterly ruin a boy’s fantasised adventure:

Although the sun shone bright and hot, and the shore birds were fishing and crying all around us, and you would have thought anyone would be glad to get to land after so long at sea, my heart sank, as the saying is, into my boots, and from that first look onward I hated the very thought of Treasure Island.

And although the book has what you’d technically call a happy ending, it finishes on a dark note, with Jim still haunted by what happened on the island.

These good points aside, I can’t recommend Treasure Island, largely because I had trouble maintaining an interest in it. It starts out and finishes well enough, yet drags in the centre, as Jim’s crew hold out a stockade against the pirates. There’s far too much technical detail, a wholly unnecessary switch to Dr. Livesey as narrator, and it’s all just poorly paced. As the book goes on, far too much time is spent debating the loyalties and power struggles of the various crews, and the men within the crews, with overly-wrought dialogue. I also felt that Stevenson was treating the plot like a chess game, moving pieces here and there, and having certain characters do things which made no sense simply because it was necessary for the plot (Jim sneaking off and recovering the ship against all odds is the prime offender here.) Kidnapped, in comparison, contained a number of unexpected twists and turns which never felt out of place or contrived.

Not a bad book, but not a good one either – certainly a disappointment compared to its reputation, and not as good as Stevenson’s less-famous Kidnapped.

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March 2012