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February 24, 2008

China Mieville, Iron Council

Iron Council is the third book set in the world of New Crobuzon, an ancient, bloated, fantasy-industrial city with more than a hint of the Gothic and the grotesque.  It tells the convergent stories of a democratic revolution within the city and a band of striking railway workers turned legends and nomads outside it.

The law of diminishing returns has hit the New Crobuzon series faster and harder than almost any other recent fantasy.  The first book, Perdido Street Station, was a fine romp.  The second, The Scar, tried to extend the franchise outside the gloriously mad setting of the city, but somehow the magic didn't travel.  Iron Council revisits territory from both of the previous books; but the ground is barren, mined out, and the book's attempts to deflect attention from the lack of substance with heavy-handed style and shocking imagery actually have the opposite effect.  With Iron Council, the series has reached the point of self-parody.

Mieville has a Clive Barker-like aptitude for gross, biological horror, with a sense of whimsy that makes it more horrible still.  Ideas like the Remade, the magics and weapons of war, and so on were dramatic and imaginative when he first used them.  Lacking new ideas, however, Iron Council tries to renew the old ones by making them even more extreme and unexpected.  The effect, unfortunately, is alternately tedious and ludicrous.  For an example of the latter, we encounter one war victim, "his skin erupted and splitting from beneath with dental wedges" because he was hit by a "toothbomb."  A toothbomb?  Sure, it's memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

For an example of the former, whereas Perdido Street Station used character death to create emotion and sympathy, Iron Council uses death the way most books use semicolons.  The book is a cavalcade of mutilation and slaughter, a procession of meaningless, grotesque deaths.  One feels that the author is trying hard to shock, but the cumulative effect is just boredom.  Consider the description of the "cacotopic zone."  This is trailed as a hideous inruption of unreality whose mere name is enough to strike fear into the heart, and when our heroes cross its periphery they do indeed get horribly killed by grotesque monsters, turned into strange biological horrors and sucked into alien dimensions.  Admittedly that may sound bad, but in Mieville's world there's a fair chance of getting horribly killed, turned into a horror or sucked into alien dimensions just opening your breakfast marmalade.  Mieville's world has become so routinely full of grotesquerie and violence that, when he needs to pull out something special, he has nowhere left to go.

The writing style has also moved on to the point of self-parody.  Always grandiose and dramatic, Mieville now drowns almost every sentence in a rich, eggy ambergris of minatory descriptiveness.  "[The sun]'s vividness seemed to green slowly as it sank, as if it were verdigrising."  (Verdigris is a verb now?)  "The snow on its top was a colour snow should not be and was not snow but something alive and tenebrotropic."  "Mussed by that ineffable bad energy, the explosion of shaping, a terrible fecundity.  Vistas."  (Even sentence structure is not immune from the "mussing" effects of Torque.)  A landscape is "liminal... merciless... insinuatory, and fervent, and full of presences, animalised rock that hunted as granite must of course hunt."  (All of the above taken from just one two-page spread, chosen at random, and by no means the best: I can't resist mentioning the despondent chap who "could not map the alterity he felt."  Cheer up mate, at least you haven't had your nadgers Remade into a decorative fountain of the Emperor Napoleon.)  At least this clears up the mystery of who got Stephen Donaldson's dictionary when he decided to go straight.

Finally, the plot.  As with the previous books in the series, the plot is pretty much desultory.  (In fact, there are several plots, all of them desultory.)  This didn't matter in Perdido Street Station because the verve of the telling and the novelty of the setting made up for it, but Iron Council lacks those fig-leaves and at over 600+ pages the story drags.  Even the author seems uninterested: when the main plot looks about to reach a conclusion, he just... stops.  Some authors -- M John Harrison springs to mind -- excel at these "refusal of closure" endings, but Mieville's writing is too in-your-face, lacking Harrison's distancing style and fractured substance, for such an ending to feel appropriate or satisfying.

Fortunately, it looks like Mieville is taking a break from New Crobuzon after Iron Council.  His latest book is a children's book which looks rather jolly and whose market will presumably force him to temper his Barker-Donaldson tendencies.  Perhaps when he comes back to New Crobuzon he will feel reinvigorated; certainly there's a lot of potential left in the setting.  This, on the other hand, is a weary flogging of a dead horse.

February 24, 2008 in Books | Permalink


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