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 23, 2008
Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel
Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter is one of the classics of recent fantasy, combining a compelling storyline with a rich, imaginative, genre-redefining setting. Given that, it's understandable that Swanwick has written a sequel, and it's laudable that he held out for 14 years before doing so. It's also inevitable that the sequel falls short of the original.
The Dragons of Babel follows a half-mortal village boy who becomes caught up in a war, escapes into the underworld of a great city, bluffs his way into high society and eventually achieves -- and escapes -- his birthright. The story is conventional enough and its primary purpose is to join together the episodes in which Swanwick shows off his weird and wonderful world.
And those episodes are pretty good. Sometimes they're industrial-era vignettes translated into the vocabulary of Swanwick's Faerie, but even these work pretty well. The segment in the prison camp, for example, is well told, and garnished with just enough eeriness to give it an aura of the fantastic without destroying its impact. Other times they are heroic fantasy tales transposed into a decadent, modernistic context. The segment with the rebels in the underground, riding to battle on horses and motorbikes, provides not only a fun image but ultimately also a telling insight into Swanwick's world.
The problem with The Dragons of Babel is that it is content to live within that world, to take it as a fact and explore it as one would any other fantasy world, from Middle-Earth to New Crobuzon. The Iron Dragon's Daughter, in contrast, teetered constantly on the brink of doubt: its echoes of and references to the real world created a vertiginous sense of ambiguity. Much of the thrill of the earlier novel came from the tension between the fantastic and the real. In The Dragons of Babel that tension is fatally missing. There are some desultory references -- Swanwick reuses the trick of turning quotes that are well-known to the reader into gnomic prophecies -- but ultimately Swanwick's world has become just another fantasyland.
Admittedly, Swanwick had to do something different this time around: he couldn't just trot out the same threads that drove The Iron Dragon's Daughter and change the name of the hero. But instead of trying to find some other way to create the sense of wonder that the earlier novel did, to add another level to the setting, The Dragons of Babel settles for revisiting the surface fantasyland without worrying about what might or might not lie beneath.
Still, as fantasylands go, Swanwick's merits this modest tour far more than most of those that get a three-volume epic. There's no lack of fun to be had here, with clever vixens, ribald centaurs, ennui-stricken lords, clerks by day who are sexy thieves by night, confidence tricksters who are more than they seem, and so on and so on. It's a pleasant enough read, but one which sadly misses the point of what made The Iron Dragon's Daughter so extraordinary.