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.