China Miéville has recently joined Neil Gaiman as SF/F's latest it-boy, a writer who pushes the envelope of speculative fiction, stretching it beyond its reputation for stodginess and overturning the perennial images of Asimov's thick grey sideburns or Tolkien's (whom Miéville describes as "the wen on the arse of fantasy literature") equally thick prose. Young, handsome (dubbed "the sexiest man in politics" for his Trotskyite activism by London's Evening Standard), and hip, he joins the ranks of the new wave of speculative fiction writers who are helping shake off the rust the genre has been laboring under since the "Golden Age" of the forties.
Iron Council is Miéville's latest work, hitting bookstores worldwide in hardcover this year. Iron Council is again set in the world of New Crobuzon, the sweltering, politically riven cityscape that has consumed his last three books, Gormenghast-like in its vastness, age, and complexity, decidedly early 20th century in its technology. But fans who have already read Perdido Street Station and The Scar will be pleased to know that Iron Council breaks some new ground. The irony here is that Miéville comes full circle with those Golden Age writers whose parameters he has so skillfully put aside. Like the early work of Heinlein, Sturgeon, and van Vogt, Iron Council is profoundly and deeply political. All of Miéville's work betrays his Marxist sympathies, but Iron Council is an out-and-out tour of two separate revolutions at a grassroots level. It feels far more like Jan Valtin's exposé of Communist thuggery, Out of the Night, than the more subtle feminist strains found in the writings of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Subtle, Miéville is not. Iron Council clobbers you over the head with its politics.
But, oddly enough, that's a good thing. Miéville takes the reader on a tour of two separate insurrections. Your guides are Cutter, a displaced lovesick queer, who is led by the object of his affections to the Iron Council, a mobile city built on the foundation of a hijacked transcontinental railroad project (evocative of the equally shanghaied and moveable city of Armada in The Scar), and Ori, a political dissident whose need to vote with a bullet causes him to lose patience with caucusing partisans and move to the kind of strong-arm tactics that would make Joseph Stalin proud. The two movements spiral and converge, seeking to wrest the city from the control of the same ordered but highly oppressive central government that Isaac struggled against in Perdido Street Station.
Miéville's distrust of and distaste for monolithic public institutions is apparent, but skillfully presented so as not to make the reader feel coerced. While Miéville has failed to hide his political leanings (if that was ever his goal), he avoids the dangerous pitfall of feeling preachy, so the reader is able to absorb the detail and color of one of the most fully built worlds in speculative fiction, to the point where one pulls for the insurrectionists even as they murder, steal, and lie their way to their goals. His use of modern fantasy to explore the calamitous urban political upheaval of mid-20th-century Europe is refreshing and cunning. In the clandestine meetings, secret printings of political tracts, and furtive violence, the race combat of the New Quillers and Runagaters, the baiting of the Flexible Puppet Theatre, we see the early chapters of Shirer's Rise and Fall of The Third Reich documenting the scheming and clashing of the nascent German Communist and Nazi parties.
Miéville is fascinated by the "other," selecting his protagonists almost exclusively from the underclass proletariat and politically disenfranchised so often ignored in speculative fiction. Meisha Merlin may wish to tip their hat to Miéville for greatly advancing the work they set out in their Low Port anthology.
As we've come to expect from Miéville, we're on entirely new ground. He abandons all fantasy tropes, and even defies attempts to lump him into the "steampunk" genre, populating his airships with cactus-people, marshes with stiltspears, and bending our minds around the weird and hungry inchmen that roam the edges of the Cacotopic stain.
Love and sex have their place in all of Miéville's work, but he sticks to his guns in earning his self-affixed label of "weird fiction." Miéville's love interests defy speculative fictional standards: interspecies in Perdido Street Station, fetishistic and bizarre in The Scar, and homosexual in Iron Council. With as politically charged an issue as homosexuality, again Miéville ran the risk in Iron Council of using a novel-length fiction work as a political tract, and again he avoids it. Cutter's relationship with Judah Low is treated with a sensitivity, honesty, and forthrightness worthy of Mary Renault. Miéville's prose backs up his indictments of Tolkien. Page after page of Iron Council is pure poetry. Miéville writes with liquid passion, flying in the face of flat fantasy stylists like David Farland or Raymond Fiest. But where Tolkien's prose is foliant, waxing and transmitting the feeling of age and legacy that makes his work so enduring, Miéville strikes a new chord. His wordsmithing is again hip, vibrant, new, and urgent; poetry in motion where Tolkien is poetry at rest.
Iron Council remains a highly worthy addition to Miéville's stable of works. In its vivid prose, focus on working-class protagonists, detailed fantasy world, deftly presented political flavor, and most importantly its skillfully crafted story, it's an absolute must-read for Miéville fans old and new alike. It is that rarest of opportunities: a book that hardened SF/F haters can dig into, drawn by its poetry and gritty realism, its even-handed treatment of friend and foe alike, and for New Crobuzon itself, which we perceive more fully in all its soot-encrusted glory with each novel Miéville dedicates to its tale.
Myke Cole's fiction has appeared in Weird Tales (Jan-Feb '04), The Book of Final Flesh (April '03), and Writers of the Future Vol. XIX. He is a graduate of the 6th Viable Paradise workshop. He fights competitively and climbs like a crazed monkey in Washington, DC. See more about him on his website, or send him e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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