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Iron Council by China Mieville

CoverSimilar to some of China Mieville's other novels, Iron Council has a bit of a rough start. First we meet Cutter and his crew of rebels who are leaving the metropolis New Crobuzon. The city is embroiled in a war with neighboring Tesh, and there is obviously more going on than the governments of both countries are letting on. Two factions in New Crobuzon work towards their goal: One faction believes in a coup, and then there is Cutter's faction, who believes the Iron Council is their only hope.

Among Cutter's group is an older gentleman named Judah Low, who claims to know the whereabouts of the Iron Council. Everyone follows Judah, and he knows too much. None of the rebels know who they can trust, so the opening few chapters are full of code words and doublespeak. Great for the characters, but confusing for the reader.

The novel follows a handful of story lines, the most important being that of the birth of the Iron Council. Twenty some years ago, a businessman in New Crobuzon received government financing to build a transcontinental railroad. The city government believed this would help them in quick deployment of troops, city defenses, and would allow them to bring neighboring territories under their umbrella. The rails and ties went down over miles and miles, destroying everything in their path, all in the name of progress. The slave construction crews, mostly reMade, were typically shackled at night. Mieville's reMade are the criminal class – citizens found guilty of anything from murder to petty crimes to dissent, and sent to the punishment factories where they were thaumaturgically, chemically, and physically reMade into something that may be a mockery of their crime, or may help them in their future as a slave laborer, or may be random, or may be simple cruelty. If they survived the punishment factories, they could look forward to a lifetime of forced labor. No pun intended, but the reMade are a supernova of a trainwreck – you just can't look away from the additional limbs, animal parts, coal fed engines, alien protrusions and the utter insult to the soul these people have been turned into. On purpose I'm sure, reMade are often Mieville's most human characters, especially in The Scar.

Every huge construction project has it's hanger-ons, and the transcontinental railroad is no different. The great worker strike begins when the prostitutes go on strike. Cash for payroll is slow coming down the line, and the girls just won't do it for free anymore. When the employees realize it's not the prostitutes who are their enemy, but the financially pained railroad company, they strike too. After the company militia treat the reMade slaves as scabs, a riot ensues. A lot of violence and a little bit of luck later, the workers, prostitutes, and reMade have taken over the train, leaving the militia behind with one piddly train car and a long ride home. That was the day the Iron Council was born. From here on out, they lay down their tracks in the direction in which they wish to go, and pick up their tracks afterwards. The Iron Council – a socialist community that reflects equal rights for all races, honest justice, and a burning hatred for governments who fear their people. Everyone works, everyone eats, and no one gets left behind or treated like a second class citizen. After a few years, the railroad company goes bankrupt, New Crobuzon stops chasing the Iron Council, and the Perpetual Train becomes a myth prayed to by dissidents.

Judah Low the golemist is intimately involved with the strike. Originally hired by the railroad trust as a scout, he spends time with a tribe of Stiltspears, who teach him their esoteric brand of Golemetry – giving life to inanimate matter for a short period of time. In a true fantasy novel, this would probably be called magic – in a Mieville novel it's called science. Why Mieville has been lumped under the fantasy genre, I'll never know. As the railroad inches closer to Stiltspear land, Judah tries to convince the tribe to leave, and rebuild their homes elsewhere, but they won't leave their ancestral home. The railroad comes, bringing dynamite, militia, and guns with it, and the Stiltspear community is mostly wiped out. Later, it is partly due to Judah's unusual golemetry skills that the strike is successful, however after many years of living with the council, he decides to return to New Crobuzon where he quickly hooks up with the political dissidents. When the dissident faction decide the Iron Council is their salvation, Judah volunteers information on it's whereabouts, but keeps the rest of his tragic history secret. The group treks across the continent looking for the perpetual train, while the New Crobuzon militia has gone by ship around the continent and is also searching for the Council from the other side.

Something I love about the “Mieville style” is the expense his characters are forced to go through – everything costs something, and nothing is cheap. If you really want something to happen, you better really want it, because it's going to cost you something, you can't just snap your fingers and have it. Judah can't just snap his fingers and have a golem at his command, everytime the priest Qurabin requests a secret from the patron god Vogu, it costs Qurabin something – first knowledge, then memories, then senses, then anything that remains.

One of my favorite things about Mieville is that he's got the balls to write stuff I don't think anyone else wants to touch – deviant sexuality, political commentaries on crime and punishment and recovery, amorality, drug use and dependence, obsession and bone numbing fear. Sure, other authors write about all those things and more, but not in the oceanic quantity and intense quality as Mieville. On the other hand, the thing that hurts him the most as an author is that he doesn't seem to feel the need to be fully coherent. His stream of conscienceness synaesthesia-esque M. John Harrison style descriptions mixed with Lovecraftian horror prose can be a painfully acquired taste, and could easily be a turn off to many readers.

I'm often annoyed by political fiction. After enjoyed a novel and telling all my friends about it, I'll learn it was a propaganda vehicle for the authors political platform. Nothing against an author who has a message they want to get across via fiction, but I don't appreciate being turned into an unwitting preacher feeling stupid for falling for a free advertising trick.

That said, Iron Council is a political novel. And I liked it. And I'm telling all my friends about it. It was a major bonding moment when I saw it on a friend's bookshelf. Mieville has some things he needs to say about slavery, human rights, socialism, and criminal justice, and I like the sound of his voice when he says them. He takes “Of course criminals should be punished to the full extent of the law!!”, culture shock, and social class-ism to the nth degree, forcing readers to really think about how people should be treated. Unfortunately, Mieville is probably preaching to the choir, as people who are interested in reading this book probably already agree with most of what he's saying.

This not a book for the squeamish, hawkish, conservative, or those who are perfectly happy with the status quo.


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