Hero-saviors, fate, nobility in war, and the triumph of good over evil are familiar tropes in fantastic fiction, but British writer China Miéville has no time for that noise. While he plumbs the history of horror, science fiction, and fantasy for inspiration, he’s conscious of stale genre conventions, deconstructing and subverting them on almost every page. Of course, Miéville’s first mission is to entertain—and in that he succeeds brilliantly. But in his tour-de-force explorations of his thaumaturgical otherworld, Bas-Lag, first in his attention-getting Perdido Street Station (2001), then in the swashbuckling, steampunk The Scar (2002), and now in Iron Council, he also wants to play with expectations, chart the cultural development of alien races and species, and make a political argument or two.
If escapism’s your thing, Bas-Lag is both comfortable and unsettling. Miéville first introduced us to his world, and to its greatest city-state, New Crobuzon, in Perdido, a frenetic mélange of styles and influences that proved to be as engrossing a feat of world-creation as the best of Tolkien, but without his politically suspect undergirding of racism and inevitable destiny (Miéville’s been a frequent critic for these and other reasons). There’s not much about New Crobuzon and the world around it that makes us want to actually be a part of it, but still, we’re compelled to keep revisiting. The central plot of Iron Council takes place 12 years later, and the events of the first book are recounted as a distant memory (“the dream-sickness all them years ago”) and framed as the catalyst for New Crobuzon’s increasingly tyrannical governance.
War has come, fueled by greed, the thirst for expansion, and the government’s need to control the city’s multiracial inhabitants. There’s an ongoing conflict with the Tesh, a little-understood people from far away whose unfamiliar customs and beliefs, not to mention terroristic pinprick attacks, prod the fears of New Crobuzoners, allowing the government to control dissent and extend its military arms to previously unthought-of distances. But there’s also a civil war stirring, stoked by the oppression that is a by-product (or a central goal) of perpetual war. In New Crobuzon, that means the nighttime abduction of dissidents, the Remaking of criminals (by grafting insect legs, babies’ arms, or machines onto their bodies), and the forced separation of the races.
From the stout vegetable-based cactacae and the winged garuda to the aquatic vodyanoi (who craft everything from weapons to tchotchkes out of water), Miéville brings an anthropologist’s eye to his efforts at creating strange yet believable races that are more than just allegories for human traits. And in describing the ways these peoples are alike and different, he examines the uses and foundations of racism, as he does with the New Quillers, bowler-hatted race-purists who terrorize the city’s alien population, act with the implicit approval of Parliament, and are responsible for New Crobuzon’s own kristallnacht. All are set on a collision course surrounding a liberation myth known as the Iron Council.
New Crobuzon needs heroes. Underground newspapers, crumbled-wall graffiti, and the hushed meetings of illegal seditionists whisper of the return of the Iron Council, a train-town of former slaves and indentured workers who decades ago revolted against their parliamentary masters and carved out a path into the unexplored wilds of western Bas-Lag (“A rolling democracy, Remade arcadia”). There it remains, putting down new track as it rips up the old, over and over, for thousands of miles, in a never-stopping journey of freedom and hope. As such, it is the most powerful revolutionary tool in New Crobuzon, and the most dangerous threat to its government. Revolutionaries and militia are hunting it with equal fervor, each hoping to get to it before the wars at home spiral out of control.
But is the Iron Council more valuable as fact, myth, or neither? Miéville’s politics give a clue: A failed Naderite run for a seat in his real-world Parliament as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance, his vocal distaste for Tolkien, and his self-description as “an actual, genuine Trotskyist” inform but never override his plots. It’s clear that current events have him pissed off, and the occasional comparison to the Iraq war is too strong to ignore, but he’s here to tell a good story, one that shocks with the new but is anchored in fantastic familiarity. This is weird fiction (to use his preferred term) of the most imaginative kind. Sure, “smokestone,” which solidifies and kills, clogs the land, as do creatures who suck the very color from their victims; “animalized rock that hunted as granite must of course hunt“; seas of fire; and fickle, dimension-traversing god-spiders. But it’s all somehow very familiar, and Bas-Lag’s people are ruled by the same forces that rule us: commerce, greed, corruption, and xenophobia. Iron Council challenges, and in some very uncomfortable ways, comments on this reality we’d all occasionally like to escape. Miéville allows this, but never lets us forget that the most terrifying world to be stirred into his mad mix is our own.