China Mieville, Iron Council (Ballantine Books, 2004)

China Mieville's novels -- King Rat, Perdido Street Station and The Scar -- are all remarkable. Perdido Street Station (2001) was probably the first to bring him to the general attention of the science fiction and fantasy community, but his debut novel King Rat (1998) had already won the Bram Stoker Horror Award. He is an authentic wordsmith, a great craftsman of language, and the arc of his work has grown steadily in beauty, power and humanity over the brief course of nine years.

Iron Council was published in 2004, his fourth novel in six years. Like Perdido Street Station and The Scar, it is set in the world of New Crobuzon. New Crobuzon is an old, vast city, corrupt both morally and physically. Its labyrinthine streets are mostly built on its own ruins; the government is thoroughly and efficiently predatory, run by a few for their own enrichment. The inevitable Secret Police are opposed by the equally inevitable rabble of disorganized rebel groups. Most of its multi-species citizens live in the hope of avoiding contact with any of these warring groups, To the capitalist leaders, the Secret Police and the rebels, this struggle is the core of life and vitally important -- Mieville avoids making it a stereotyped political cartoon with exquisite characterizations, a plot as multi-layered as New Crobuzon's own antique paving, and that fascinating touch of strange that has always glowed so brightly in his work.

While humans are a majority, many races live and interact there: sentient mobile cacti, khepri (the bodies of women and heads like giant scarab beetles), dwarfed gargoyles like malign cherubs. The ruling classes maintain a force of slaves, condemned citizens molded into animal/machine hybrids called Remades; there is a horrible whimsy in both their appearance and the trivial crimes that can leave one Remade. Science and magic contest for superiority, and both work. New Crobuzon is a sort of zombie city, grotesquely vigorous in the midst of its own decay, but its citizens are emphatically alive and growing. In Mieville's detailed characterizations, the many strange races of New Crobuzon move through its streets like the tides in an estuary: coruscating life over ancient stinking mud, blooming defiantly in an environment that regards all its denizens as prey.

A revolution is coming to a high boil in New Crobuzon now, its fires fed by a disastrous foreign war, racist pogroms, and the overweening greed of a consortium of industrialists who are draining New Crobuzon's populace and resources to build an intercontinental railroad. This is the Perpetual Train, its track laid by slaves and its cargo so far only supplies for its own continuance -- and when the revolution comes and then promptly founders, its leaders escape by stealing the train and striking out into the depths of the unknown western country.

This is the Iron Council. The train flees into the unknown, tearing up its tracks behind it both to foil pursuit and to lay them down in front for its new road. It is part refugee camp, part revolutionary cabal, part Chautauqua medicine show. It leaves colonies along its way and picks up volunteers as well; it weathers war, treachery, and the horrible transformative magic of the catatopic zone that spreads a trans-dimensional Great Lake in the center of the continent. Ultimately, a metal Ouroborous, the trains returns to New Crobuzon and a tragic, heroic, unexpectedly glorious fate.

And more than that of the plot I will not reveal, because the journey -- for the reader as for the Perpetual Train -- is its own justification.

Mieville's writing is rich and complex but always lucid. The lead characters -- Judah Low, the messianic rebel leader and (like his namesake Rabbi Lowe) a master of golem; Cutter, his melancholy ex-lover and unwilling survivor; and Ori, a neophyte rebel long on anger and short on clear motivation -- are irresistibly fascinating. But so is the supporting cast, whose smaller lives and more fragile hopes are at the mercy of the movers and builders of their world. The many races portrayed here simply prove that humanity is infinitely variable. The politics in which the story is steeped neither distract from nor obscure its emotional richness, because politics is an essential human art.

This is a profoundly humanist story. I am not ashamed to say that the ending moved me to tears -- not for romance, not for beauty, but because of the strength and truth of the story's final vision. Mieville frames the terrible power and beauty of purely human endeavor in wonderful mythic trappings, but never lets the reader lose sight of the essential point of the story's doomed heroes. The fantastic details and baroque backgrounds never obscure that focus, a ruthless burning glass both magnifying and burning the lesson of Iron Council in the reader's mind.

 

[Kathleen Bartholomew]