Let’s ignore the compendious bestiaries of elementals, golems, and parasites. And not get caught up in those bridges erected from solidified color, the town constructed on the back of a tortoise, or the dwellings composed of extant plaster—insects to be exact. Denuded of the garments that tuck sci-fi away from too many literati, there emerges more than a gigantic imagination, more than a meticulous plotter. True, China Miéville’s novels—King Rat(1998), Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002)—skirt the low shelf life of (unconventional) thrillers. But they skirt it in a manner akin to Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Aside from his high-end prose style, Miéville’s characters, with their conceits and weaknesses abraded as moral choices play themselves out, secure their author’s place among the top-flight novelists of today.
Miéville fans will recall the words that opened the first chapter of Perdido Street Station (the first novel to be set in the city of New Crobuzon), reinstated in the sixth chapter of Iron Council: “A window burst open high above the market.” Two decades have passed since the events of Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but freshmen will be fluent in the city-state’s mores soon enough; like its predecessors, Iron Council can be read on its own.
Amid rising unemployment and political disenfranchisement in New Crobuzon, a patchwork of left-wing dissidents,The Caucasus, seeks to unseat the repressive government and immunize the populace from an emerging threat posed by the right-wing New Quillers party. As the city smolders beneath Weimar-type tensions, a war rages between New Crobuzon and the mysterious Tesh, further corroding the city’s already volatile situation. The New Crobuzon government seeks to repay a grudge against the former employees of the Transcontinental Railway Trust who, years ago (owing to the slave status of some and the unmerited service of others), bankrupted the TRT by absconding with its train, finding asylum in the hitherto nearly impassable lands near Tesh, and assembling themselves as the rebellious Iron Council.
Apprised of his government’s plan to squelch the I.C., the charismatic Judah Low, a golemist, leaves New Crobuzon in search of his erstwhile comrades. Low’s mission is undertaken for political as well as humanitarian reasons;in the interval since the I.C. was established, it has become a mighty symbol in the imagination of the oppressed.As a young man, Low was a scout for the TRT working in the swamps beyond New Crobuzon. There he was accepted into the communal life of the non-humanoid “stiltspear,” who taught him how to fabricate golems. Anguished by the TRT’s disregard for the habitat and lives of the stiltspear, Low nevertheless honors his contract with the TRT, providing it with maps and notes on the village so that it may be razed.Why? To curtail any homesickness the stiltspear may feel for their abandoned land.
Low’s character is one of the book’s great enigmas. Though he is often described as possessing near saint-like qualities, his hamartia is built upon his blindness to the will of others as he endeavors to act on their behalf. Nowadays, it is a point worth considering; however, one shouldn’t suggest that Miéville is laboring beneath the brow of self-important allegory. While the author’s real world political concerns do find an outlet in the novel’s rendering of a society where inequality is abetted and political commitment is predicated on an inevitably shape-shifting moral calculus, the monsters aren’t there to be sidestepped.