John Newsinger marvels at a revolutionary fantasy.
One review of China Miéville's new novel, while praising it, nevertheless felt obliged to comment on the amount of political baggage that it carried. What the reviewer meant was that he had just read and enjoyed a fantasy novel informed by revolutionary socialist politics and found the experience disconcerting. Of course, all fiction carries political baggage and fantasy more openly than most. Indeed, the politics of most fantasy literature is some variety of royalism. The world is beset by evil and a hereditary monarch appears to put it right. Iron Council is something radically different, a ready-made classic of revolutionary socialist fiction - News From Nowhere and The Iron Heel for the 21st century.
Iron Council is set in the same fantasy world as Miéville's earlier novels, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, both already established as classics of the genre. Once again we find ourselves in New Crobuzon, but now the city is at war, and social and political unrest are on the rise. The protagonists are revolutionaries out to overthrow the city's brutal oligarchy, and the novel chronicles their struggles: Ori, whose impatience to hit back leads him into the ranks of a terrorist organisation; Cutter, whose love for Judah Low is inextricably wrapped up with and indeed transcends his politics; Ann-Hari, the prostitutes' leader; and Judah Low himself. Their fates are bound up with the struggle for power in New Crobuzon, and with the success or failure of the Iron Council.
Is the Iron Council real? Is it just a myth? The stories of a rebel community that escaped from the city authorities and disappeared into the wilderness beyond the Stain, where it governed itself and controlled its own destiny, help sustain resistance. The Iron Council is still out there. Things can be different. It showed the way. But many people are no longer sure if the stories are true or not and, if they are, whether the Iron Council still survives. The city authorities, however, are in no doubt. They are determined to track down and destroy these rebels who are such an affront to their rule. Judah Low and his comrades set out to warn the Iron Council of the danger they are in. Instead of running, the Iron Council decides that the time has come to return to New Crobuzon, to a city in the middle of a revolution.
As readers of Miéville's earlier novels will already know, he writes like an angel (of the dark and fallen kind), and Iron Council is no exception. A tightly controlled narrative takes us through a land full of wonders and marvels, many of which are inevitably carnivorous. There is no one writing fantasy today with a more fecund imagination than China Miéville. What he has produced here is an epic Trotskyist fantasy.
His writing has always had a dangerous edge, but now we find ourselves present at the trials of the New Crobuzon Commune fighting for its life against the forces of reaction. The revolution, the Remaking, was an 'upsurge of resentment, violence, surprise and contingencies, revenges, motives altruist and base, necessities, and chaos and history'. The Crobuzon Collective rises up against its enemies, takes control of much of the city, but the authorities are too strong. The battle is, for the moment at least, lost. 'Order reigns in New Crobuzon', proclaims the revolutionary newspaper, the Runagate Rampant, mimicking Rosa Luxemburg in the moment of defeat. But what of the Iron Council? Miéville manages a marvellous resolution. The Iron Council becomes immanent. It is still coming. It is always coming. One day, we are promised, it will arrive.