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Iron Council

by China Miéville

(Macmillan, £17.99, 480 pages, hardback; also available in trade paperback, priced £12.99; published 20 September 2004.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

[Editor's note: warning - this review does contain plot spoilers.]

I have a confession to make: I tried to read Perdido Street Station but found Miéville's vision of New Crobuzon so claustrophobic that I had to give up. After that cover scanexperience I didn't even attempt The Scar. However, one thing particularly impressed me about Perdido Street Station -- Miéville's sheer creativity. I have been a sucker for that sort of thing ever since I first read Stapledon's Starmaker, so when Iron Council was published I decided to give Miéville another chance.

Iron Council certainly does not disappoint when it comes to creativity. It is every bit as richly detailed as Perdido Street Station, with many of the same species reappearing here -- khepri, garuda, cactaceae, etc. But many more strange new creatures make their appearance as Miéville continues to map out the world of Bas-Lag. It seems the very landscape is infected with the same cancerous mutability that characterizes its animal species. Even solid stone cannot be relied upon to retain its form -- it might be smokestone, which can turn to vapour and solidify again without warning, engulfing unwary travellers even more swiftly than a sudden lava flow. And at the heart of the continent lies the Cacotopic Stain -- the 'bad place' that is the epicentre of the reality distorting strangeness afflicting Bas-Lag.

Of course, no one creates in a vacuum and Miéville is no exception. Students of mythology will recognize the Egyptian roots of his khepri and the Russian origin of his vodyanoi. Other elements evoke memories of earlier science fiction and fantasy novels. For example, the Iron Council itself, a mobile community travelling through a strange landscape on rails it picks up behind and lays before itself, reminded me of Christopher Priest's Inverted World. However, Miéville never merely lifts ideas from mythology or elsewhere. Everything is transformed by the strange alchemy of his own creativity.

Miéville's use of language is worth a special mention. It is, I think, a deliberate reflection of the strangeness of the world of Bas-Lag. He makes frequent forays into the most inaccessible parts of the Oxford English Dictionary to create a vocabulary that is rich, dense, even baroque. The combination of baroque language and vivid descriptions of one fantastical creature or environment after another makes for an exhausting roller-coaster of a story. It gives the story a dreamlike quality -- but I am talking here of a fever dream or a nightmare. There is no subtlety about it. Miéville's prose grabs you by the ... throat (!) and drags you into the world he has created.

By contrast, the story line is relatively straightforward. New Crobuzon is beset by civil unrest and war with the Tesh. The main story line traces Cutter's pursuit of Judah Lowe (his lover) who has gone in search of the mysterious Iron Council to warn them that the New Crobuzon authorities have discovered their hiding place and intend to destroy them. Woven into this is a second story line describing the gradual descent of New Crobuzon into civil war through the eyes of a young dissident (whose own progress from acting in anti-government plays to urban terrorism reflects the growing violence of the society around him). Eventually the two strands merge as the Iron Council decides to return to New Crobuzon to support the dissidents and in doing so uncovers a plot by the Tesh to use the dissenters to destroy New Crobuzon from within.

The plot is foiled and Tesh sues for peace but the revolution fails and the New Crobuzon authorities clamp down on the dissidents. In spite of this, the Iron Council hopes that its return will reignite the spark of rebellion and bring much needed change to the city. The ending could so easily have been an unbelievable triumph of the progressive democratic Iron Councillors over the authoritarian and increasingly imperialist forces of the New Crobuzon elite. Or it could have been the all too believable final destruction of the Iron Council by the forces ranged against it. But Miéville steers the story between these unsatisfactory options to a third, quite unexpected ending in which the Iron Council's apparent betrayal by one of its founding members manages to keep alive the hope that one day the dissidents will see New Crobuzon reborn.

Given China Miéville's credentials as a left-wing political activist, other reviews will doubtless focus on the political aspects of the story. However, I was particularly struck by the religious or quasi-religious elements to be found here. I have already mentioned two major strands in the story, but there is a third strand interjected into the story in a very striking way. The story is divided into ten numbered parts, but between parts 3 and 4 (i.e. immediately after Cutter and Lowe reach the Iron Council) there is an eleventh unnumbered part. This part is entitled 'Anamnesis' and tells the story of the creation of the Iron Council. 'Anamnesis' ('remembrance' or 'recollection') is a theologically loaded term, being the term used to describe the central part of the Christian Eucharist -- the moment at which Christ's words at the Last Supper are recalled and participants are enjoined to do what they are about to do in remembrance of him. Memory plays a central part in this story. The memory of the Iron Council's defiance of the New Crobuzon authorities is a continuing inspiration to the New Crobuzon dissidents. Like Christ deliberately returning to Jerusalem to confront the Roman and Jewish authorities, the Iron Council chooses to return to New Crobuzon. And again, like Christ, the Council is betrayed by one of its most trusted supporters (whose name, I suggest, is by no means irrelevant). Finally, that betrayal leaves the Iron Council is in an ambiguous state of being -- it retains a presence that can inspire hope in believers but it has not yet come to New Crobuzon in all its fullness -- a state of being not identical with but certainly comparable to that of the risen, ascended and not yet returned Christ of Christian theology. In short, the Iron Council might be interpreted as a strikingly original Christ figure.

I began with one confession. I might as well end with another -- Iron Council has made me see why so many people have been making such a fuss about China Miéville. I'm a convert and as soon as I can find the time I'm going to try Perdido Street Station again.

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