Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Iron Council by China Mieville


*Some Spoilers Below*

Iron Council is one of those books that you don't so much read as tussle with. It's an adventure, a quest, and I often feel like there are underlying themes deeper than the obvious ones, ones that make me wish Perdido Street Station, in particular, was more recent in my memory. I feel that the three New Crobuzon books I've read hang together as a commentary about revolution and rebellion. 

Even the parts I got are marvellously complex, and if I feel like there are still pieces just outside my reach, it's not in a frustrated way, but in a contented one, knowing that rereads will help build upon the understanding I have now, and that's the way it should be.

In this book, rebellion is still fomenting in New Crobuzon, even as they struggle on the outskirts of a war with a neighboring power, Tesh. In the city, some are engaging in direct and violent action, while others decry them as moving too quickly, acting too rashly, not stopping to plan. They shoot back that planning has gone on long enough. Both are probably right, and there's something here about both how popular movement work and how they fragment, on how hard it is to agree on tactics, let alone principles and hierarchies of concern. 

Meanwhile, a small group of revolutionaries have left the city in search of a man who inspires them, some politically, some personally. This is Judah Low, an enigmatic figure who is seeking the Iron Council, followed by a man who is his occasional sex partner and unrequited-to-the-level-he-desires lover and other members of one of the revolutionary cadre in the city. They are seeking the Iron Council. 

The book then flips backwards to when Judah was working on an advance team for a railroad being carved into the landscape outside New Crobuzon, and his disillusionment, his growing ability to to make golems, and eventual part in a worker's revolt after no pay and bad treatment brings them to the breaking point. 

The Iron Council has existed outside the city as a legend of for many years, staying ahead of the New Crobuzon militia by venturing close to an area within which mind and matter alter fundamentally, and continuing to build railway in front of them by pulling it up from behind as they pass. They're a ghost railroad, travelling through the country.

When Judah reaches them, they debate whether or not to return to the city and help with the fight there. Distances in this book are great, and travel not quick, so one of the largest threats is the sheer passage of time. 

This is all a vaguely Victorian time, from railroads to distance to gay men being described as "inverts," to the working class making rumblings that terrify the authorities. This is something I'd like to examine in more depth on future rereads.

There is the need for different voices, and yet at the same time, the feeling that if there could just be unity, for a second, something might be done. But in unity comes silencing, in the demand for purity exclusion. Mieville does a really interesting job capturing all that, all the moments where of course the political is personal because the political is made up of people.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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