Thursday, May 17, 2012

Iron Council co-review

Maree (that's me) and I continue our mission to fangirl about all the words from China Mieville. Today we’re talking about”> ‘Iron Council’, the final book in Mieville’s loosely connected Bas-Lag series. Ready? Here we go - spoilers all the way!

M: Iron Council feels like a genre-fuck novel - not as much as The City & The City but it's certainly far from conventional.

J: In
the interview Mieville did with Charles Burns at ‘The Believer’ (the one I sent you originally, capslocking ‘There’s a China Mieville novel that features a GAY PROTAGONIST!’, which is the reason we ended up reading ‘Iron Council before all the other Bas-Lag books) it's mentioned that ‘Iron Council’ is sort of a western, so I guess it's an SF mash-up of that genre. That western SF mash-up is then mashed up again with a whole heap of Russian socialist imagery. I guess most people are kind of familiar with the western SF from programs like ‘Firefly’, films like ‘Star Wars’ and most recently ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ (need to see, DON'T CARE IF IT SUCKS, SF AND WESTERNS WERE MEANT TO BE TOGETHER), so we could say it's building on a foundation rather than creating a new genre crossover.

As I read more of Mieville’s books and I find it interesting to reflect on some of the reactions I’ve seen to the novels he wrote both before and after ‘The City & The City’. Like I said when we were reading”> ‘Kraken’ together, I kept seeing reviews which were all over how original ‘TC&TC’'s genre fucking was and... I mean, I loved that book for so many other reasons (I think we both did, although we were pretty shell shocked by the time we finished”> ‘TC&TC’, but it seems pretty weird to suggest that the genre crossover part is the site of all its originality. It's building on a respected, much more classical tradition of mixing hard-boiled detective elements with SF (come on, if Philip K Dick has done it, it’s a classic approach). It's a great genre-fuck (loving this term, will now over use it) and a great book, but I get kind of itchy when people praise ‘TC&TC’ for the originality of its genre fucking, alongside a critique of the unoriginality/lack of genre redefinition of Mieville's other books. Like, ‘Iron Council’ may be building on an established genre mashup tradition, but I get edgy when I see its sense of originality unfavourably compared to ‘TC&TC’. ‘TC&TC’ is great, but it’s not the second coming - you know?

M: Sci fi and Westerns are like an arranged marriage that actually turns out to be a happy one because come on Star Wars is just a WESTERN IN SPACE. TC&TC is a great book and he's blended two previously disparate genres. It's a genre-fuck but I think originality is overused. Pfffft ... those are the people who don't like Kraken I bet, or call it "conventional." Uh, no. Plus I like the fact he blends genres/fucks with them - like he just expects them to bend to his will  and do whatever he wants with them.

J: This. Hello, westerns and SF just fit. I would love more projects where these genres are actively combined and then messed about with/fannishly critiqued by their own narratives. How did you feel about the combination of Western and Russian in particular?

M: I think that's a great fusion actually. Westerns are - at their simplest level - about good v evil and there's that striving in socialist Russia as well (about which I know next to nothing.) Whatever genre you're writing - or whatever genres you're fusing, good v evil and The Man v the revolutionaries is always familiar. And I don't mean that in a bad way - I think it's a good thing we can recognise those things in Iron Council.

I like how it started out with a quest of sorts like your average fantasy novel, and then Mieville immediately subverts it into something else. To start with, I had no real idea what Cutter was doing or where he was going, but I was fully on board from the start because I LOVE Cutter.

J: How does anyone not love Cutter? He's the emotional heart of this novel (along with Ori, when he appears later on). It’s kind of refreshing to see a novel of Mieville's where there is an honest to god, out in the open, emotional aspect. ‘Kraken’'s emotions are kind of sublimated, at least I thought so. It's all very 'we have feelings, but we don't talk about them until everyone is DEAD'. You feel all that repression, which is what makes the emotional connection with the reader and stops that book from being dead inside, but no one is going to hand you emotional access on a plate (at least that's how it feels to me). ‘Iron Council’ puts at least some of its feelings on the table. Cutter loves Judah. Ori is angry and frustrated. We can get that about them, we can connect in an almost traditional way with them and this is different from the two other novels of Mieville's we’ve read together, where I feel the reader is mostly forced to be disconnected from the character’s inner emotional states.

M: I like sublimated for Kraken because the whole book does feel kind of submerged almost - like you're reading it through distorted glass, so it's distancing.

J: I actually worry about”> ‘Railsea’ a lot because of that disconnected emotional side of Mieville’s is that going to work in a YA book?

M: You should read his other YA novel, Un Lun Dun - it's really cleverly done and the main character is a kick-ass girl who refuses to give up. I didn't realise that Railsea was YA and based on how much I loved Un Lun Dun I'm even more excited for it - lol.

Anyway, Cutter is definitely the emotional heart that drives the novel, even though I don't think he really has any clue what he's doing or why. He's driven primarily by his feelings for Judah who doesn't even - can we talk for a moment about how irritating Judah is? I get that he was a founding member of the Iron Council and everything but he's a martyr looking for a cause and as for what he DOES to the Iron Council ... I still can't get my head around that.

J: Judah :P I found him mildly irritating during the whole biography section, but the things that irritated me were also things that made me feel sympathetic towards him, if that makes sense. In the sections set in Judah’s past, he is well intentioned (eventually) but he makes mistakes – d’aww. But present Judah is so...present Judah what is your deal? I want to like him, because he’s so on it when  it comes to political activity, but I don’t and I think the book wants to make us distanced from him (Cutter is the reader’s access character right?). He’s just...he acts so saintly. And he’s just helping a friend out when he sleeps with Cutter. Like, how awful is that?! He’s a person so devoid of the capability to give anything of himself to personal romantic relationships, because he’s been swallowed by a cause and it makes him behave like a total marty bastard towards Cutter. But he still seems to love, like really love Ann Hari. Do you think he loves her because she’s so connected to the cause, or because of their shared history, or is Judah really showing a spark of romantic emotion for a person when he’s with her?

M: I do go back and forth on Judah and Ann Hari. They had shared cause when the Iron Council was being formed and he genuinely does seem to have some kind of deep feelings for her, but I - and I'm aware I'm being a bit childish with this - can't like him because of how he treats Cutter, who's so vulnerable to Judah.

J: No, no, I totally get that reaction. His characterisation makes him a very interesting character, even sympathetic, but still not a guy we’re going to crawl all over with love. I’m not sure I’d have the book without Judah, just because he makes everything else so complicated, but from a pure fannish love perspective I for sure wish Cutter wasn’t quite so tied to him.

M: I agree. Judah's kind of a necessary evil. And I don't mean that he's evil but Cutter needs something or someone to drive him to what he does, and that's been Judah for so long, I don't think he even hesitates before following him into god-knows-where.

Cutter is a roil of feelings the whole time and I think he's lonely. He goes out looking for connection after connection, and as much as he loves Judah, he's still looking for someone to reciprocate and that's what he deserves.For me, all through the novel, I feel like Cutter is looking for something. He's so very .... yearning?


J: Maree, I can't even explain how I feel about Cutter and his place in this book articulately. I agree though, he needs...something, but I’m not sure whether it’s love from one person, acceptance from the whole world, a purpose/cause, the ability to believe, or just not be isolated by his spiky nature. Maybe it's all of those things. Maybe Cutter is an everyman character, just trying to work out where he fits into life, like all human beings do. What do you think?

M: He's very much an everyman character. He believes he's fuelled by his love for Judah but is he really or has that consistent rejection just become something of a habit?  I think he's kind of an emotional masochist but I love him for the fact that he never gives up. He loves Judah and that's all there is to it.

J: Ooooooooooooooooo. Good point. This is probably part of why I like him so much. I am awfully into characters who want to make other people feel things they aren't interested in feeling at all. I’m sure that indicates some delightful things about my own psychology.

M: And he just keeps doing it. I could see him - at the end of the book - hooking up with someone else who's just as bad for him as Judah was, because I don't think Cutter knows how to look for someone who's going to make him happy.

What I love is that.... Cutter's gay but it's not ... ugh. Central? I'm having trouble articulating what I mean but it's just there, like the fact of being tall, or having brown hair. He's the central character of the novel and he's gay and it's so RARE but I love the fact that Mieville doesn't make a big thing out of it - like he's just a character and an everyman and it just so happens the person he's in love with has the same anatomy.

J: YES! I don’t think he was ever going to find that person to make him happy in a Mieville world and definitely not in the specific world of ‘Iron Council’, because of this book’s western influences. There’s a particular kind of repressed emotional vibe to westerns and although I don’t know enough to talk about how that translates into westerns which feature gay relationships, I suspect that literature is probably full of ‘You’re not gay, unless you feel something’ narratives. Like I said above, I think Mieville often writes books which put the characters inner emotions beyond the reach of the reader, so factoring that in and recognising the western SF connections, I was pretty sure Cutter would never find a man who wants to be his emotional partner in this book.

I’m finding it hard to parse what feels like the sad narrative inevitability of Cutter’s romantic disappointment in relation to ideas Mieville’s comment in ‘The Believer’ interview, that Cutter and Judah’s relationship is a romance. Like their relationship is tragic; a seriously tragic example of unrequited love and the patronising allowance of attachment. The bitterness created by Judah’s inadequate reaction to Cutter’s feelings is always present. I’m not saying it isn’t a romance, but it’s one of the saddest damn romances in the world.

M: Agreed. Cutter and Judah's relationship is fairly doomed from the start and while I don't necessarily like that for Cutter's sake, I get that it was inevitable. And while it works here, it doesn't mean that I have to like it. I almost wish there was a fix-it story for Cutter's next phase of his life, but does that undermine his character in some way?

J: And I’m struggling to work out how Cutter/Judah’s relationship functions as a depiction of gay characters in literature, when there are still so few books published that include a gay hero. The tragic romance works for Mieville's chosen style and genre. At the same time, Cutter is placed in a position where he’s incapable of finding happiness, which is an uncomfortable place for us to see any gay character right now. I mean the weight of literature is just now in the process of switching from a position where every story with a gay character had to end tragically, to a more hopeful place. Like, is now the right time in history for a tragic story where a gay character’s romantic hopes are crushed and a bisexual character dies? If the tragedy of the book isn’t centred around the characters being gay or bisexual (for example, if the tragedy isn’t something like them being beaten up because of their sexuality, but is a political tragedy they just happen to be involved in) do these concerns need to come into how we evaluate the book?

M: I think that's the central, possibly unanswerable question. Is now the time? But if not now, then when, really? Maybe this is crucial, but maybe it's just another story with a sad ending.

J: Does setting Judah up as a distant saint, who won’t connect with Cutter because of that aspect of his character, rather than a guy who won’t connect with Cutter because he’s ashamed/believes in the ‘fuck don’t feel’ model for men, subvert stuff (oh I’m so specific, sigh this is hard to work through)? Well, yes. And Cutter is alive at the end of the novel so this book avoids defaulting into the ‘dead gay character’ trope (although there’s a dead bi-sexual main character, so...and that death places a lot of tragedy in Cutter’s life that’s relate to his relationship with Judah...). It’s really difficult to judge, so I guess I’ll just offer open ended exploration and wait to hear your thoughts.

M: I was relieved to be honest that Cutter was alive at the end. Broken-hearted, sure, but alive. As for Judah ... he was always setting himself up to be the martyr to the cause. His ending was inevitable in a way, I think.  He wanted to be that for the Iron Council, and that rendered his other relationships - Cutter, and even Ann Hari - moot. I'm possibly projecting because as necessary a character as Judah is, I will never not be angry with him. Ori breaks my heart a little bit - he's so very much the quintessential angry young man looking for something to fight for. I get his frustration with the Double R and why he was so perfect to fall into Spiral Jacob's hands.

J: I need to think about what Judah does to the Iron Council at the end some more. See, I didn’t agree with Ann Hari’s direction for the revolution, but then when Judah preserved them I agreed with all her horror and rage. It’s difficult because Judah is a preservationist, but also a historian and I’m pretty tied to history (ex-history student). I understand his impulses to hold onto the council (so much slips away so easily as history progresses and the people who shape historical education/the historical knowledge of regular people, often ‘ensure’ that very particular things slip away - when people say history is written by the winners they aren’t wrong and often the winners are jerks about it). At the same time I have problems with what he does in this particular situation. Does pickling a movement that is still active take away its power/ the potential power of its doomed status, or does it save it from inevitable destruction? Hard.

Like Ann Hari says, we’ll never quite know how the trajectory of history would have turned out if the council had been publicly destroyed. At the same time history is made up of moments that have been averted, or missed, so to say that this intervention is definitely, especially troubling is difficult. Maybe it feels so wrong to me because it’s such an active intervention, whereas we’re used to interventions of circumstances, chance etc?

How are you doing getting your head around that aspect of the novel now?

M: Mmmm ... I can see your point of view. I'm not a historian but I get it, sort of. Also this: "pickling a moment that's still active, does it take away its power ..." that makes me wonder. Because the people of New Crobuzon will be able to see that train every day. At least some of them will know what it was - what it represented. And the Council still has Ann Hari as a living, breathing representation of that history, so maybe it's not as hopeless as it first seems - the ending of the rebellion, I mean. Judah renders the Council inert. But does he do the same for the revolution? Is there still a spark? Is he truly a martyr now?

J: It’s super hard to decide isn’t it? Oh, brain hurts, so let’s move on shall we?;P

The subversion of the quest narrative in this book is gorgeous. There are a couple of quests I think; there’s the quest to find Judah, the quest to find the Council, Ori's quest to find Toro, then his later attempt to stop Spiral Jacobs, the eventual desperate journey to stop the Council. None of these quests ever actually brings the story to though, do they? I feel like traditional quest narratives are usually brought to a head by a dramatic conclusion, which removes the need for further questing. In ‘Iron Council’ each quest ends, but then there's more to be done, more quests to go on. For example, ‘Kraken’ contains a more of a traditional quest narrative (Quest: save the world, Ending: accomplished, or failed). Here there's no ending, even though things end, right?

M: The ending definitely isn't resolved. It's a bit "the more things change the more they stay the same." There's rebellion and revolution no matter what, and a corrupt government running the militia. I did have a "what was the point of that then?" moment but it's so well written I can forgive that. Plus I do like a good subversion.

J: See this is where I think Renay would say stuff that would help us understand the ending, but I’m 90% sure that she will not be reading ‘Iron Council’. I remember things she said after reading ‘Kraken’, like:

‘I can't understand what changed for Dane to make this no-way-back, can't-be-undone decision make sense. You can't keep fighting if you're dead, which means it feels like at this point, the Krakenists simply gave up and decided to go down in a blaze of glory pumped full of delicious, form-altering ink.’

and this comment specifically:

‘I don't want to argue that Leon's death which sets so much in motion, plus the other deaths inflicted by Goss and Subby were less worthy, but they were consequences of getting involved in the Tattoo's business and not avoidable after the fact. Wati's death he made avoidable himself (ugh, I loved Wati, after the ladies he was my favorite). Dane's second (or third? I wasn't sure on the count there) death = totally avoidable! He choose it, so who am I to say, no, don't do it? But Billy was his friend, and did say, please don't do it, and he ignored him. Unfortunately for personal reasons, the book loses me at that point, because there's having a faith that's important to you and then tossing the care and concern of a friend back in their face, right? The book even makes the point that the kraken god doesn't ask them for anything, so what gives?’

and I think, isn’t that exactly what Ann Hari tries to do? She doesn’t think the council can win, but she tries to sacrifice herself anyway.

M: That's an excellent point, yes. In a way, Ann Hari is the true revolutionary - she's stayed with the Council, she rallied the women, she's the one who was going to crash the train into the city.

J: I wonder how Renay would react to Judah keeping the Iron Council from that kind of blaze of glory martyrdom, that ultimately might not achieve anything. The book points at Judah’s actions with horror, but I can totally see why the way he keeps the council from a pointless death could be viewed more sympathetically, even if I still have kind of squicky feelings about Judah’s intervention.

M: I wonder that, too to be honest. I keep cycling back to what he did and going but WHY did you do that? Was it to preserve the Council? Was it because it would mean he wouldn't be the martyr? Was it to save Ann Hari and the others? I can't help thinking his reasons were selfish, but once again, I might be projecting. Or was what he did in some way necessary? I don't know in what way, because I keep going but what was the POINT, Judah? If I ever meet Mr Mieville I'm going to have a list of questions a mile long. Once I can stop staring.

J: OMG, Maree, Ann Hari! ! - that is essentially my reaction to her. She’s amazing/destructive/angry, which I am all over, yet also so determined to martyr herself and her revolution, which is less amazing, more wtf.

M: Oh my god Ann Hari. I have mixed feelings about her but I love how she rallied all the women when they were still building the railroad. I'm running out of time now so I'll send this in a minute and we can get into our feelings properly.

J: I love that aspect of the novel. The prostitute’s revolution is just stunning and there are classical allusions to the Greek play”> Lysistrata, where the women refuse to have sex with their husbands (wouldn’t you know it is one of the few Greek plays we didn’t cover during my two years taking Classical Civillisations – must read). I just have all the feelings about it and the way Ann Hari becomes the leader of the revolution. Her comment that it was never Judah’s revolution to begin with just spoke so hard to me – it was always the women’s cause that came first.

M: Exactly. The women took action and when the men said this isn't your cause, she fought against that with - what was it? Then who's cause is it? We open our legs for you and bear your children, it's our cause moreso than it is yours - and then that's the catalyst for the real strike.

J: Got to say I think there’s a lot of Judah and Ann Hari combined into Dane from ‘Kraken’; her desire to embrace what looks like pointless martyrdom, her warrior nature is in Dane, but there’s also a lot of Judah’s saintliness and his disconnection from the world in that character. Of course Dane is less horrendously patronising that Judah and y’know, hot.

M: Oooo yes. I can see that now. Dane might well be the child Judah and Ann Hari never had, their own worse traits tempered by his own relatively easy-going nature.

J: what else? So much to talk about!

M: I love the different creatures like the Voyaoni (sp?) but oh my god the Remade .. .DDDD:

J: The Remade are the first thing that started me thinking about the ‘Kraken’/ ‘Iron Council’ connection. Don't they remind you of a much more random version of The Tattoo's machine people? I almost feel like ‘Kraken’ is taking place in a world where the Iron Council existed back in history, in another country and parts of it bled into the worldwide culture, but I feel like I'm going to get a lot of flack for that view, because ‘Kraken’'s similarities to ‘Iron Council’ could also indicate that Mieville is just writing the same book again/exploring similar themes again, or that he's run out of ideas. Maybe I'm just being too much like a rabid fan when I think about what those similarities indicate and am excusing writerly failings...

M: Oh my god yes, Tattoo's machine people. I hadn't made that connection but you're right. I don't know. There are similarities but I think we'd need to read the other Bas-Lag novels before we could extrapolate that theory. Maybe he is in a comfort zone now, but it's hard to say without having read his earlier works. It's making me wonder about Embassytown and Railsea, though.

But I agree with you - Kraken and Iron Council could easily be part of the same world.

J: Were the remade becoming almost normal to you by the end? Like Rahul, the lizard man and Ulmek, the man who has to eat coal because his insides are made of pipes. At first I was horrified by what they'd been made into, but through the course of the book I kind of stopped seeing them as twisted people, who were hurt and deformed, because...they'd become more about the person for me, than the SF punishment. Does that make sense? Then again, at the end when Curdin dies and he talks about how the man inside him might have still been alive, going mad, how he might have been a prison, it brings back the terror of what the government has done to these people. I feel like I got both the humanisation of the people and the awful nature of what the system had done to them, so that by the end my horror at the Remade was all pointed at the institutions that made them, not at them if that makes sense.

M: Curdin is a tragic, horrific figure. As is Toro, once she takes off the helmet. Toro breaks my heart for what happened to her. You're right though - you get used to the Remade and stop being shocked and then Wham! you get a character like Curdin or Toro and you realise that there's this unspeakable horror going on all the time in the background of the novel.

J: Toro and the Mayor are one of my favourite points of Mieville’s subversive behaviour in this novel. We’re all used to genderswap narratives, where a character who has been signposted as male in some way turns out to be female, right, to say this... Even though I often like that technique the genderswap is usually SO heavily signalled and that, plus the cultural build up of these narratives has made the gender switch and bait a big literary cliche. At least, I feel it’s gone from being an entertaining trope to an over-used trope; it’s rare that I see a writer pull off the switch in a way that really makes me go ‘woah, look at you and your assumptions about gender Jodie’.
M: I honestly had no idea Toro was a woman until she took off her helmet, and I wonder if that's a generational thing. I mean, my first exposure really, to a kick-ass woman on television was Xena. In the 90s. I have a lot of, let's call it gender-bias even though that's not quite the right phrase - left over from the 70s and 80s.
J: I know, I was so surprised too. I mean, this could just be a consequence of me being really aware of the trope and the spotting the clues but, personally I feel like the genderswap type of narrative should be absent of clues (even clever, subversive nods). I mean a crucial part of the purpose of disguised gender narratives is the reveal at the end and how it makes you feel, right? Genderswap endings are supposed to make you realise your unconscious ability to tumble into traps about gender. When that element is missing, the conceit becomes close to pointless. When it comes to other kinds of twisty mysteries it’s nice if the reader is given the chance to follow along and guess things if they’re paying attention, but with this particular kind of surprise I think being able to follow planted clues takes a lot of the purpose of setting up the gender switch away.

But for me, Mieville totally pulled off that surprise element. I had no idea Toro would be a woman under that helmet, no idea that the Mayor could be a woman and the fact that I had so easily gone on to assume that these characters must be male, partly because their femaleness hadn’t been commented on and ‘HEY! Male is the default Riiiiight?’ really made me sit bang up straight and assess my biases. Even though I consider myself feminist, it’s great to get that hard slap kind of a reminder, because it’s so easy to slip into unconscious biases, given the world we live in. Reminders to be politically active for the win.

M: Exactly. And for me, part of it is the generational thing but also on Mieville's part that was very, very well-played.

J: Final crammed in thoughts: I’m glad Cutter is a gay character and exists in ‘Iron Council’ because erasure is never the way forward. And I like that while there’s a little bit of uncomfortable feeling from those around him about his sexuality (which upsets him) he is very accepting of his own sexuality. And everyone around him doesn’t treat him as if he’s a leper or anything.

And I love that even though Mieville starts off with Cutter being against more feminine seeming gay men (the dollboys) which again seems pretty traditional for the whole western gay character sensibility, towards the end of the book the doll boys come back as revolutionary fighters who gain respect and affection from people. Of course, it be nice if they didn’t have to prove themselves in this way, but since they do, it’s great how everyone then takes to them and celebrates their bravery rather than falsely deriding them as cowards, just because they exhibit non-traditional gender performance.

M: Oh the dollboys' last stand. That was so amazing and heart breaking. Like it was as much their revolution as anyone's and like ... here. Let us SHOW YOU what we're capable of.

J: Anything else, or shall we let the nice blog readers go home now?:P

M: Heh. I think they can go home now. Snacks to the left, exit to the left ;)

No comments: