July 2004

Adam Lipkin

fiction

Iron Council by China Mieville

I've long been frustrated by China Miéville. He's clearly an immensely talented writer, and I've enjoyed the occasional essay by him. He's long expressed a desire to break fantasy out of its fifty-year long sycophantic need to relentlessly ape Tolkien, something the genre has needed ever since Terry Brooks figured out how to use a typewriter. He's got lofty goals, he clearly loves world-building, and he puts more effort into one of his novels than Piers Anthony has expended in the last twenty years. So what's my problem?

Well, as evinced by his latest novel, Iron Council, my problem is that Miéville is just an abhorrently boring and pretentious novelist. No amount of good intentions or lofty literary goals can overcome this mess of Pynchon-esque muddling mixed with a third-hand political plot. Although not as god-awfully unreadable as the immensely overrated Perdido Street Station (whose popularity can be ascribed to either a massive desire within fandom to break out of the Tolkienesque mold, or a sheeplike tendency to worship the Hot Author of the Day, depending on how charitable one feels), Miéville does his best to undermine every good paragraph with at least two pages of utter junk.

Iron Council is set in and around New Crobuzon, the dark and twisted city-state on a world called Bas-Lag which is, to this day, the single great concept that Miéville has introduced in his novels. An immense and chaotic world with a fully-fleshed oligarchic political system, insect and cactus creatures, and a complex but consistent melding of magic and technology. Given the well-developed religious systems, a class structure that's perfectly suited for Miéville's socialist stances, and an implied history as thorough as anything Tolkien could have dreamed of, this is a world that is just begging for a good story. If Miéville ever decides to work on his storytelling skills as much as his world-building ones, that story might finally be told.

For now, I suppose some will be content with this minor tale of political revolutionaries both within the city and in the countryside around it. We start by following a man named Cutter and the loose group of rebels who have joined with him to try to find their stock messianic figure. We shift between these questers and the underground political scene in the city itself, as a minor rebel named Ori gets enmeshed in the more militant side of the underground movement. Much of what ensues is typical of this sort of novel, although it's focused much more on the struggle of the oppressed versus their oppressors, as opposed to the political backstabbing and intrigues that sometimes become the focus.

The generic plot wouldn't be a problem were it not for the writing itself. Miéville seems to have a thousand ideas that strike him as nifty, and he seems to feel compelled to throw them into the novel at any cost (I can only assume that that the deluge made it impossible for anyone at Del Rey to actually attempt to edit him). Some of it sticks, but then he'll decide to toss out one of those cliched gems (like calling water magic "watercraeft") that makes you realize that he can't help slipping into the role of the fourteen-year-old writing his first masturbatory fanfic. bad fantasy language games (or "languagecraeft," I suppose) and lines like, "I was verity-gauging," are frustrating enough, but it's less any one sentence than the overall structure and flow of these sentences into something resembling a cohesive narrative that makes this such an amazingly slow and painful read. Add in such gems as borderline stream-of-consciousness narration and an inability to avoid any digression, and reading the book just becomes a chore.

What's frustrating isn't that Miéville is a bad writer. He's not. Throughout Iron Council, there are moments of near-genius, in which he nicely nails tough bits of dialogue or characterization. There is an entire section describing a radical play that reads as well as anything Kim Newman or Ellen Kushner could write. The man can write. He just chooses not to. I'm not opposed to experimental storytelling. A great writer could (and should) make their experiments work to forward the plot -- or, at the other extreme, lose the pretense that the plot actually matters. Miéville, however, lets his own desires to examine politics and flout literary conventions get in the way of simply writing a good book.

Iron Council by China Miéville
Del Rey
ISBN: 0345464028
576 Pages