Thursday, April 05, 2018

China Miéville's Iron Council is new weird fiction - in a good way

I have been enjoying China Miéville's 2004 book, Iron Council, and have belatedly discovered that it is part of a whole sub-genre I never knew existed.
It is actually the third book in a loosely-linked trilogy, after Perdido Street Station and The Scar, all of which take place in the Bas-Lag planet or universe, and particularly in and around the main metropolis, the sprawling, seedy, industrial city of New Crobuzon. I won't even attempt to go into the book's plot, which is many-stranded and involves, among other things: revolutionary underground cells in a cloak-and-dagger faction-against-faction conflict ; a "perpetual train" that cannibalizes the rails behind it to make the rails in front, and that is hijacked and absconded with by the railway construction workers (the "Iron Council" of the title); and a shadowy and seemingly endless inter-species war. Suffice to say there is plenty of it (both plot and war), and the political machinations called into play are complex and confusing.
What I was most intrigued with, though, was the imagination used to create the various strange types of beings and environments to be found in Bas-Lag. The general technology and "vibe" of the place is an interesting mix of Victorian-esque steampunk and a vaguely sciencey kind of magic, known there as thaumaturgy. Familiarity and strangeness, cheek by jowl. But the planet is populated by many different species of beings, both intelligent and otherwise, as well as a potentially limitless number of one-off hybrid beings created and enslaved by means of thaumaturgy.
As well as the regular essentially human-esque beings, there are many races of :xenians": the cactacae (large, powerful cactus-men), the vodyanoi (playful amphibious water-dwellers), the garuda (vulture-like nomadic flying beings), the Stiltspear (indescribable beings who have the ability to create "living" golems out of inanimate materials), inchmen (huge, aggressive caterpillars with humanoid torsos), the handlingers (a parasitic hand-like being which incorporates a dead human as its host), the matriarchal, downtrodden and scarab-headed khepri, the semi-intelligent rat-like wyremen, the mysterious and graceful borinatch, and many more.
Perhaps most bizarre of all, though, are the Remade, humans (or other species) that have been thaumaturgically changed or mutated as a punishment, before being used essentially as slaves (part of the plot revolves around the freeing of these beings, and the establishment of rights for them). This results in some bizarre and frightening invented beings, like men with their heads facing backwards, or with insect legs or crab claws or baby's arms protruding from their faces, composite animal-men beings, men fused with machines or with metal tubes or steam engines as body parts, etc. The ideas range from the whimsical to the ridiculous to the disturbing to the poignant, and are often wildliy inventive.
Likewise with some of the settings for the action. Some scenes are set in distinctly Earth-like and mundane places (although from time to time there may be a mention of a passing giant insect or glowing trees, just to jolt us out of anything approaching a comfort zone). Others, though, are exercises in extreme imagination reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, and remind us that we are most definitely not still in Kansas. For example, there are landscapes like the smokestone mountains, an ever-changing region where smoke billows out at random and then almost immediately hardens into rock, and particularly the mysterious and sinister expanse known as the Cacotopic Stain, where an unexplained magical force called The Torque causes random dimensional shifts and physical mutations (what Miéville calls at one point "spliced impossibilities"). It is a place where the normal laws of physics break down, where the ground pitches and yaws unexpectedly, where shadows do not lie in the same plane, and where colours pop and cycle at random. Some of Miéville's ideas here are quite startling.
And speaking of Michael Moorcock, it seems that both he and Miéville are classed as major authors of "weird fiction", a genre I had never even heard if before. Weird fiction is not just horror or fantasy, but encompasses the more macabre, grotesque, supernatural, fantastical, mythical and sometimes even pseudo-scientific stories of authors ranging from H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and Mervyn Peake to the aforementioned Moorcock to the so-called New Weird, a sub-sub-genre which is represented by Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, M. John Harrison and others. The idea is that the genre combines elements of both science fiction and fantasy, and eschews the more romantic tendencies of many fantasy novels for more realistic, complex - but often bizarro and surreal - secondary-world settings. Interesting.

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