Thursday, 19 September 2013

"There Are Brighter Things Than Diamonds..."

After the horrible experience of reading Perdido Street Station I promised myself I'd never dive back into Mieville's work - particularly not if it involved the world of Bas-Lag - but, well, I got this free in a goody bag and I was in-between Horus Heresy novels to inflict on Fliss, so against my better judgement I decided to give this a go.

Whatever else I might want to say about Mieville, I'll give him this: he's somehow managed to produce a book that's simultaneously worse, better and frighteningly similar to Perdido... all at the same time.
(Spoilers follow, including some for Perdido Street Station)
Firstly, the similarities.  For so unquestionably and delightfully inventive and askance a novelist, Mieville seems - based on my sample size of two - quite happy to leave his basic dramatic thrust essentially unchanged.  Just as with Perdido Street Station, Iron Council is fundamentally a story about how people travel to places, perform the events the plot requires them to, and then die in horribly inventive and utterly unsentimental ways.  As a comment on the unbending horror of human life, I'm not inclined to object to the idea too much, but the assembled effect is one of distance - it's too hard to actually get under the skin of these characters because you're too busy wondering when they'll be drowned by water elementals or bitten in half by caterpillar men or fused into the brickwork of a blasphemous station building.
The result is almost like reading an idiosyncratic history writer taking on a fever-dream of the industrial revolution. This happened, and then this, and then this.  There's no doubt that the thises in question are interesting and well-described, but the emotional resonance is little greater than one might feel reading about the depredations of the Mongol hordes - you know its bad but there's not enough context.
The plot itself is structurally very different to that of Perdido..., but Mieville's icy cynicism is so pronounced that similarities abound, even beyond Sudden Character Death Syndrome.   Both books, for instance, involve a major plot in which the protagonists suffer tremendously in order to save New Crobuzon from annihilation at the hands (proboscises) of forces targetting the city due to the actions of the rich and powerful. In each case, those responsible for the problem (and for many other atrocities besides) end the book just as powerful and unpleasant as ever, whilst the people's saviours go unremarked at best, hunted at worst. Both books are centered around an unconventional romance which ends in the crippling or death of one partner and the utter ruining of the other.

Given this conclusion was what I truly hated about Perdido... then, it's worth noting that this is one of the ways in which Iron Council proves the stronger book.  It's not that the ending is any happier - indeed it would be quite ableist to try and argue that - it's that it makes more sense in context.  The horrific ending to Perdido... is attached at the conclusion specifically to bum people out.  A much happier ending would have required only a tiny tweak to one of the last scenes in the book.  Tragic endings need to be earned no less than happy ones - more so, probably.
Iron Council earns that tragedy.  Perdido... flirted with the political ramifications of the fascist New Crobuzon; Iron Council dives right in.  This proves to be less interesting than Der Grimnebulin and Rudgutter in their various struggles against the slake-moths - the one area in which the earlier novel clearly comes out ahead - but it ties the book into a long, sad history of vibrant egalitarian idealists getting crushed by faceless uniformed goons.  It's not fun to read, but it's not like you don't see the trouble coming down the (perpetual train's) line.
So, like Perdido..., Iron Council is not an enjoyable book. It's a fascinating and moving one - even if that movement is badly muted by, ironically, making things too bad for those we wish to sympathise with.  And if it's not as enthralling as Perdido..., and if it's ending is still pretty depressing, well, at least Mieville has replaced a "fuck you" conclusion with one that says "don't you understand we're all fucked?".
Which rather gets to the heart of what Mieville does so upsettingly well.  For all the wondrous fantastical invention that went into Bas-Lag, things there seem a little too real for comfort. The one question that keeps suggesting itself through these 614 pages is this: when is our own Iron Council coming?  And is it, like tomorrow, like the perpetual train, doomed to be always coming but to never arrive?


darkman said...

Judah Low getting shot counts as a happy ending.

SpaceSquid said...

Is it his time golem that makes you hate him, or did you not like the guy throughout? Either way, I'd firmly put him in the "not someone I wanted to see shot" category, for all his questionable decisions.

Mind you, the middle section detailing his life went on for far too long. If he'd been shot halfway through that, it would have been a blessed relief.

darkman said...

He sells out the stiltspear but he feels really bad about it. When he works on the railroad he is never the first to protest when someone is treated badly. He is not one of the people who takes the initiative to start the strikes yet he feels ownership of the Iron Council and that he can decide it's actions. Then there's the way he treats Cutter. Its obvious that Cutter desperately loves Low and yet Low barely gives him a pity fuck now and then. There's also the fact that being gay is illegal and even the revolutionaries doesn't like it but Low gets a free pass because he is Judah Low. If Low wanted to change their mind about it he probably could but he doesn't even try.
In short, Judah Low is a self righteous asshole.

SpaceSquid said...

With regards to the Stiltspear, I agree completely. I'm less sold on some of your other points. The fact that he considers himself to have the right to timelock the Council is indeed pretty bad, but it's not at all clear to me that, say, Ann Hari is any better. She refuses to respond to Cutter's new information, too desperate to see the Council immolate itself against the militia ranks.

Admittedly that's not so much arguing Judah shouldn't have been shot as Ann Hari should have been as well, but it seems to me much of the point of the book is that revolution is an ideal that quite simply can never be matched by revolutionists. Everyone in the Council had their own angle and their own idea of what is should be, it's just that Judah had the power to put it into practice. If nothing else, it's tough to see how Ann Hari's intended conclusion is any better than Judah's actual one.

As for Judah's treatment of Cutter, I think that criticising the former too strongly takes agency from the latter. Cutter loves Judah and is willing to take the pity fucks he gets. That's not a relationship situation I'd be keen to emulate, but Judah isn't deceiving Cutter in any way. The man is entirely aware of his situation, and chooses to continue with it.

Interesting point on whether Judah could have done more to change the Council's opinions on homosexuality. I must confess that I don't actually remember enough about the Council's stance to say anything one way or another. Are non-Judah gay councillors treated noticeably differently?

darkman said...

The difference between Judah and Ann Hari is that Ann Hari actually actively participated in the strikes and all the risks that entailed. Se also stayed with the Council while Judah went back to New Crobuzon. And it seems like staying in the Stain was more dangerous than staging golem fights in the city. She earned her right to have a say in what the Council should do unlike Judah. And Ann Hari didn't use force to make the Council attack unlike Judah who took away the agency of everybody so he could get his way. Maybe the Council were doomed but it was their decision not Judah's.

About the gay thing. The Iron Council doesn't seem to have a stance against homosexuality but the revolutionaries in the city were against it but made an exception for Judah.

SpaceSquid said...

It's far from clear to me that the Council owes more to Ann Hari than it does to Judah, though I'll certainly agree that in its earlier stages you're certainly right. You're probably also right that Ann Hari risked more personally than did Judah, but whether that's the most relevant metric for deciding who has the greater say, I'm not sure.

I'm also not sure I see a meaningful distinction between Judah removing agency through force and Ann Hari removing agency by not telling the Council exactly how fucked they were heading into New Crobuzon.

Indeed, if we work on the principle that the time golem will eventually fade, one could argue that Judah has simply delayed the attack until it can come at a time the militia aren't expecting it, whereas Ann Hari was determined to fight in the most unfavourable situation possible. Judah's resolution doesn't prevent Ann Hari's, but the reverse is not true.

darkman said...

It seems like Ann Hari really did believe that there was a chance that the Council could prevail and she didn't lie to Council. Cutter was free to tell them how fucked he thought they were. The Council know that they might perish in the attack but choose to go ahead anyway. Judah isn't interested in what the Council wants but what he thinks is right

SpaceSquid said...

I think the implication was that without Ann Hari to back him up, no-one would believe what he said. But I take the point that refusing to help explain why their chances are lower than expected is differnt to actively reducing it to zero.