One of the things I have occupied myself with whilst living in the absence of recreational use of the internet is China Mieville’s most recent novel, ‘The Iron Council’. I’ve written in the past about Mieville’s quite excellent evocation of a wholly imagined yet somehow recognisable, somehow real, place, and the philosophically alive yet thoroughly gripping plots, and I am not about to withdraw that praise. However, I will temper it. ‘The Iron Council’ just isn’t as good as either ‘The Scar’ or ‘Perdido Street Station’, and it isn’t as good because it tries to do too much. Mieville is a Marxist, and as such, is particularly interested in the philosophy of history, or at least so it seems from reading ‘The Iron Council’, which, while reasonably compelling, and generally approaching the standard of descriptive writing and characterisation as the two other Bas Lag novels, is too interested and somehow not interested enough in that topic to be as good a novel as the other two.
‘The Iron Council’ tells the story – that’s a spoiler alert, if you want one – of a kind of worker’s collective which escapes first from the grinding oppression of capitalist exploitation, then from the crushing inevitability of its annihilation by the agents of that exploitation, and finally from history altogether, if only by renouncing, in concrete form, the first two victories over its relentless slog through time. It’s not entirely clear – to me at least – what point Mieville means to make with this ending, with the preservation, in an aspic of a sort, of the revolutionary hope that the train, hurtling towards the futile hope of rescuing an already defeated rebellion, represents. Yet he does mean something by it, for it is the climax of a novel which is clearly bordering on obsession with the philosophy of history.
Now, at this point, it is probably tempting to think that the wilfully obscurantist amateur philosopher has been reading far too much into what is, after all, a genre novel. Yet one of the main characters in the novel is, I think, a personification of history: always present, always doing things, without quite ever participating in the sense that the things that are done become a kind of lived experience for him. He is a key motor of the plot, yet he is constantly absent, outside of concrete experience, Other, almost utterly, in a sense, without character, inhuman. He helps create and sustain – by defeating or, in the end, curiously stymieing opposing forces – the train and the possibilities it represents, but only be grasping, in a somehow inevitable way, at opportunities which other genuine actors have created, while the rest of the time being any one of a number of effectively interchangeable extras: either he is a myth or a nonentity, neither of which are truly real. He is not concrete enough, too elsewhere, to be in history, yet through things he does, it advances. He is history.
The other characters in the novel know this: his lover is constantly infuriated by embraces which are not joyless but somehow disengaged, as if there is something larger, greater, which strips them of their immediacy, as if they are not lived but merely passed through, however benignly. This is of course without even mentioning his acquisition of a new and unexpectedly powerful ability to shape the material world to his will, if the inscrutable thing he has could be described as a will, a characteristic of history in Marxism if there ever were one, or his role as envoy of the forces which destroy a less developed community early on in the novel.
This is at points well-done: Judah’s time with the quite alien, uncomprehending, Stiltspear, and his unease at the inevitability of their destruction by the coming railway and his participation in it, is pitched perfectly, for example. However that is not always the case. The moment where the Iron Council is frozen – Judah in the end learns to manipulate time, as he has been able to manipulate physical substance throughout the novel, and takes the train out of time – is clumsy and ill-expressed, visibly only there to make whatever point it is that Mieville is grasping at. It is this – the clumsiness and the obviousness of the philosophical points – that grates, especially when it is in such contrast to the grace and ease with which similar questions dealt with in the other two novels.
In ‘Perdido Street Station’, a crucial moment of the plot – again, that’s a spoiler alert – turns on a number of points about the nature of mind. The central thread of the plot concerns the main characters efforts to deal with a set of rather predatory creatures they accidentally released which strip-mine the minds of their victims for food. In the end, they are defeated by exploiting the fact that whilst human – and in the novel, relevantly similar sentient creatures – minds are both coldly rational calculating machines and structureless streams of magpie conscousness, they are not just the marriage of those two things: the whole is greater than, or at least different to, the sum of its parts. The novel contains characters whose minds – of we would be comfortable describing them as minds – are coldly rational calculating machines and structureless streams of magpie consciousness respectively, yet they have a life in the plot beyond the fact that they are crucial to its denouement. This just isn’t always the case in ‘The Iron Council’ – Judah is too transparent, for one thing, and the weird inevitability of the fate of the train itself is too telegraphed, too unsure of itself, most obviously – and it suffers because of that. This isn’t to say it’s not good: it’s compelling, and I had to ration myself it, to stop myself consuming it all in a couple of sittings. It’s just not as good as I’d have liked.