Iron Council (2004) is a weird fantasy novel by the British writer China Miéville, his third set in the Bas-Lag universe, following Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002). In addition to the steampunk influences shared by its predecessors, Iron Council draws several elements from the western genre.
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback), E-book|
|Award||Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (2005)|
|LC Class||PR6063.I265 I76 2004|
|Preceded by||The Scar|
Iron Council is one of China Miéville's most overtly political novels, being strongly inspired by the anti-globalization movement, and tackling issues such as imperialism, corporatism, terrorism, racial hatred, homosexuality, culture shock, labour rights and war. The novel won the Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Awards in 2005, and was also nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards the same year.
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Iron Council follows three major narrative threads that join to form the novel's climax. Although Miéville weaves back and forth between narrative, time and space, this summary will follow each narrative individually, discussing their relation to each other toward the end. The novel is set in and around New Crobuzon, a sprawling London-esque city. New Crobuzon has for some unknown time been at war with Tesh, and is attempting to build a railroad across the outlying desert, partially as a new means of conducting this war. Against this backdrop, the novel follows the deeds of three main characters—Ori, Cutter and Judah Low.
Judah's story begins some twenty years before the novel's opening. Judah was hired as a railroad scout for New Crobuzon, charged with mapping terrain and informing the land's inhabitants of the railroad's coming. While doing so, he spends time with the Stiltspear, a race of indescribable creatures who can disguise themselves as trees and conjure golems, living creatures made from unliving matter. Judah attempts to warn the Stiltspear away, but they will not listen and he must settle for making a few recordings and beginning to learn their golemetric arts. Eventually, he returns to the railroad, which does indeed wipe out the Stiltspear. Shortly afterward, Judah, a prostitute named Ann-Hari, and a Remade named Uzman lead a revolution in which the rail workers drive the overseers away, free the Remade, and hijack the train, transforming it into a moving socialist dwelling.
Iron Council, the perpetual train, moves through the desert, gathering track from behind and laying it in whichever direction its citizens decide. The Council keeps moving to avoid the New Crobuzon militia, who are anxious to reclaim the train and destroy the rebellion-inspiring Council. Judah returns to New Crobuzon, where he immerses himself in esoteric golemetry literature, emerging as a master of the art. Eventually, Judah returns to the Iron Council, having spread its word throughout New Crobuzon, and intent on using his golemetry to protect it.
Cutter, whom the reader joins at the novel's opening, was a friend, disciple, and lover to Judah during Judah's return to New Crobuzon. Cutter leads a group consisting of other disciples of Judah in search of the Iron Council, to warn of the impending attack of the New Crobuzon militia. Although the militia was initially defeated by Iron Council, it has amassed a force now capable of destroying the "perpetual train". After living and working with the Council for a while, Cutter returns with Judah and others to New Crobuzon to inspire revolt with the news of Iron Council, which has decided to return to the city and confront the militia on its own turf. After learning of the failed uprising by the Collective, Judah sends Cutter back to dissuade the citizens of the Council from returning. He is unsuccessful, and at the novel's climax, Judah conjures a time-golem to freeze the train in time, thus saving it at the point of attack from destruction by the militia. As the novel ends, Iron Council has become a public monument of sorts, poised on the verge of attacking New Crobuzon's exterior until the undisclosed time in which Judah's time golem will dissipate. Judah is murdered by Ann Hari for halting the Council's attack, and Cutter re-immerses himself in New Crobuzon's underground resistance movements, revitalising the protest publication Runagate Rampant.
Happening somewhat simultaneously with most of the preceding summary are the deeds of Ori, a dissatisfied revolutionary who cannot abide the endless talk of his fellow Runagaters (so named for the above-mentioned publication). Seeking action, Ori is led by Spiral Jacobs, a half-crazed homeless old man, to join the militant gang of Toro. Committing robberies, raids, and even murder, Toro's group proceeds mercilessly on its quest to assassinate the mayor of New Crobuzon, a plan which is later revealed to be personal rather than political. During Ori's struggles with and against his new gang, an uprising by The Collective, a union of revolutionary groups, threatens to finally wrest New Crobuzon from the hands of its corrupt parliament and militia. After several days of fighting, however, the Collective is destroyed. Shortly after the fall of the Collective, Ori learns that Spiral Jacobs is in actuality a powerful sorcerer (a Tramp-Ambassador alluded to very briefly early in the novel) sent from Tesh to introduce a dark, destructive force into the midst of New Crobuzon (doing so with the help of the spiral signs he keeps drawing in New Crobuzon, which are considered by the Collective's supporters to be freedom signs). Here Judah, Ori and Cutter finally cross paths as they unite to stop Spiral Jacobs, who is trying to raise Phasma Urbomach (also called the murderspirit and citykiller), a powerful entity which would destroy the entire city. They finally manage to stop him with the help of Qurabin, a disciple of a Teshi religious tradition whom Cutter and Judah met on the journey to Iron Council; Qurabin, a monk of the Moment of the Hidden and Lost, trades something of his for the knowledge on how to banish the spirit back (during the course of the novel, Qurabin loses his native language, memories of moments, and finally his eyes to help the main protagonists) and finally takes the Tesh ambassador with him 'into the domain of Tekke Vogu'. Ori is killed in the confrontation. Cutter and Judah then leave to rejoin the thread of the Iron Council, depicted above.
Steven Poole reviewed the book for The Guardian and suggested that "in comparison with The Scar, such ideas are fewer and less indulgently elaborated. Iron Council feels more po-faced, more weighed down by its tonnage of political baggage ... Still, fantasy fiction is usually fabulously conservative, and Iron Council – with its implicit trade unionism, as well as the fact that many characters are casually bisexual – stands as a rebuke to the genre's medieval politics." Concluding "It was a good ride." The Washington Post review by Michael Dirda states that "[i]n myriad ways, China Miéville's New Crobuzon is an unweeded garden of unearthly delights, and Iron Council a work of both passionate conviction and the highest artistry."
- "Debating Iron Council." at Crooked Timber (11 January 2005) PDF.
- Lou Anders, "Interview With China Miéville." The Believer (April 2005).
- Birns, Nicholas (2009). Vint, Sherryl (ed.). "From Cacotopias to Railroads: Rebellion and the Shaping of the Normal in the Bas-Lag Universe". Extrapolation. 50 (2): 200–211. doi:10.3828/extr.2009.50.2.3.
- Freedman, C. (2005). "To the Perdido Street Station: The Representation of Revolution in China Mieville's Iron Council". Extrapolation. 46 (2): 200.
- Gordon, Joan (2003). "Reveling in genre: an interview with China Miéville". Science Fiction Studies. 30 (3): 355–373.
- Newell, Jonathan (2013). "Abject Cyborgs: Discursive Boundaries and the Remade in China Miéville's Iron Council". Science Fiction Studies. 40 (3): 496–509. doi:10.5621/sciefictstud.40.3.0496.
- Rankin, Sandy (2009). Vint, Sherryl (ed.). "AGASH AGASP AGAPE: The Weaver as Immanent Utopian Impulse in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Iron Council". Extrapolation. 50 (2): 239–258. doi:10.3828/extr.2009.50.2.6.
- "2005 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 25 July 2009.
- Poole, Steven (25 September 2004). "Review: Iron Council by China Miéville". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 November 2009.
- Dirda, Michael (22 August 2004). "'Iron Council' by China Mieville". Washington Post. Retrieved 5 November 2009.