Monday, March 7, 2016

Iron Council


I don't like fantasy very much, as a rule. Lord of the Rings bores me. Anything that includes elves, orcs, or dragons repels me. Fantasy, at the least paradigmatic mode, the one derived from Old English and faerie tales, moulded and shaped into unintentional conservative allegory by Tolkien, is politically suspect, myopically focusing on the lineage of kings and other anointed ones, leaving the serfs and soldiers to act out their agency only in service of the throne. The genre reveals its obsession with the pastoral, a constant return to the polite, safe, small realm of the English countryside, the English cottage, while industry and urbanity, through tortured metaphor, come to mean incivility and barbarism. Fantasy could be construed as a consolatory technology, a nursery rhyme to lull the reader into sleep, either literally or figuratively. But perhaps I'm being too harsh. Perhaps I'm painting fantasy with too wide of a caustic brush. After all, fantasy, like any genre, exists only as the lines of its borders move back and forth.

Authors such as China Miéville seem like exceptions, oddly shaped octopi in a vast school of minnows. Even when the specific novel isn't quite as strong as one hopes, Miéville's strength of imagination and refusal to stay in fantasy's well-worn lane all manage to overcome any hesitations I have with praising him. Iron Council, the third and lesser of his Bas-Lag novels, positively vibrates with ideas and ambition. There's an eagerness to impress, a hunger normally absent from third or fourth novels. Miéville's aims extend beyond the quotidian paradigmatic compulsion to replace one king with another; instead, he seeks to depict an entire city and surrounding land in the throes of political and social upheaval. He re-imagines the central motif from The Scar, the floating mobile city, as a train violently appropriated from the city's government and turned into a mobile city, laying tracks and picking them up as the Council sees fit.

The bravura middle section of Iron Council details the building of the rail, extending the power and possibility of the city, and its workers, downtrodden and exploited. Miéville imagines a migratory microcosm economy that builds alongside the rail's construction: prostitutes, selling sex on credit as the city has "trouble" paying the workers on time. Eventually, the prostitutes enact another Lysistrata, refusing the workers sex unless it's paid up front. Their violent sexual revolution is followed by another larger violent revolution as the Remade (the indentured workers magically remade into half-machine, half-workers) and the human labourers unite. This middle section, structured as a flashback, is the strongest part of the novel. The beginning, possibly the worst, with the final third being not much better.

Iron Council's problem is a lack of focus; there's the suspicious sensation that this is three novellas crammed together and woven together unevenly. While they do eventually tie together, as disparate narratives often do, the two present threads feel insubstantial and meandering. There's too much focus on violent skirmishes between groups, with nameless individuals dying in impressively imaginative and varied ways. Certainly, Iron Council is not without an embarrassment of rich ideas; there's a golem made entirely out of gunpowder that hugs the enemies, exploding in spectacular fashion; there's a giant inter-dimensional spider that infects a labourer, turning him into a mad prophet, proselyting for the return of the spider. A lot of these ideas show up only once, quickly introduced and quickly abandoned, as if we're reading Miéville's copious notes for crazy ideas, which is not the same as a fully formed novel.

Perdido Street Station was a masterclass in plotting: the first hundred or so pages set up all the different plot threads, while the remaining six hundred or so are tightly aimed and fired, like a well-oiled gun. The Scar wasn't as impeccably paced or focused, as the novel's ambitions were a bit greater, but still the novel moved at a great clip. Iron Council is scattered and not terribly engaging, despite my partiality towards the ideology and thesis of the novel. For example, with Perdido Street Station, the government feel like a looming presence, the Mayor in Iron Council, an incredibly important character for the city and for the narrative, feels like a cameo; she's not even named until she appears on the scene. While this might have a rhetorical purpose (the assassination of the Mayor is meaningless as she's infinitely replaceable), it loses narrative force.

While Perdido and The Scar have their Marxism as subtext, Iron Council pushes this as hard as possible. One of the narrative threads detail a young revolutionary's slow disillusionment with the current forces as they're not ambitious enough. He falls in with a crowd of "true" revolutionaries, ones more concentrated on the violent overthrowing of the government. He gains their loyalty and finds personal meaning in their revolution. A concurrent narrative strand has a young revolutionary seeking the aid of the fabled Iron Council, to convince them to return to New Crobuzon with the aim of galvanizing the disparate and discrete revolutionary forces into a mighty and righteous hand of rebellion. The two strands converge, with the novel ending in hundreds of pages of bloody battles, bizarre instruments of death, and sacrifices from characters named and unnamed.

The Marxist critical lens asks simply that we understand, as Terry Eagleton puts it in Marxism and Literary Criticism, "literature in terms of the historical conditions which produce it" (v). Understanding the material conditions of production allow us to apprehend, possibly, the ideologies that helped produced those conditions. Eagleton writes that, "to understand ideologies is to understand both the past and the present more deeply; and such understanding contributes to our liberation" (vi). In other words, a Marxist reading of a text can help free the reader from the invisible shackles of ideology that prevent self-actualization. The aim of a critical analysis, I would violently simplify, is to help the reader understand a particular interpretation or perhaps the singular interpretation of a text. This understanding is liberatory: "to understand literature, then, means understanding the total social process of which it is part" (3). The ability to hold the totality in one's head is tantamount to complete freedom, as the tendrils of ideology can be seen and thus averted.

The project in Miéville's Bas-Lag triumvirate is liberatory as well. Instead of hiding a possible Marxist reading in subtext, Miéville buoys the reading right to the surface. Eschewing the conservative escapism and consolatory technology of paradigmatic fantasy is not simply an aesthetic or generic choice. Rather, Miéville seeks to provide the reader with the tools for reclaiming an intellectual and subsequent political freedom from oppression through the trappings of the fantasy novel. The lineage of kings, the most common trope in fantasy fiction, is unimportant, Iron Council shouts, as a progression of kings still shuts out the populace from grasping at prosperity and comfort. Royalty and bourgeoisie are just a self-enclosed ladder, protected from the grasp of the grubby and calloused hands of the poor and downtrodden. Magic and sorcery are not fantasies of power but tools for forcibly reclaiming political power.

J. G. Keely, a critic that mostly operates on Goodreads (but should really be writing for a professional venue; his criticism is a gem in a dismal cave of mediocrity on Goodreads), writes on Moorcock that few authors understand magic. He perceptively observes that:
Magic is a conceptual space. It was created, inadvertently, as a representation of the inner reality of human thought, as opposed to the external reality of the physical world. Human beings saw the physical world around them and, in attempting to understand it, created a matching symbolic world in their heads.
In other words, magic is the physical manifestation of will, literalized as functioning without physical human intervention. Keely praises Moorcock's depiction of magic, writing:
Moorcock draws on many unusual concepts in crafting his world, so that his magic is equal parts quantum mechanics and myth. The result is something wholly unique: a mythology of modern scientific concepts which are just as strange, unpredictable, and awe-inspiring as any ancient god.
Keely is writing on Sailor on the Seas of Fate but this can be extended to a good chunk of Moorcock's conceptualization of magic in his oeuvre: a magic system that stands for both the will and the possibility of humanity without devolving into cheap hero-fantasy. Likewise, the magic in Iron Council and the other Bas-Lag novels is not entirely wish-fulfilment (though, as I will observe later, it is in many ways). Magic is the tool of the struggle. It is a sign and the sign is the arena of class struggle. In this case, Miéville uses magic literally as a sign, as even as a concept, magic comes to represent something other than what it is.

Magic, then, is the tool of the Iron Council, the workers trying for freedom from oppression. However, a detail that complicates this reductive Marxist reading of the novel, is that the State deploys magic to violently repress the rebels. Magic, the literalization of the workers' will to revolt, also exists as the very tools that oppress and restrict their freedom. The New Crobuzon militia employs "thaumaturges" or magicians/sorcerers as an extension of the repressive state apparatus. These magicians the narrator never bothers to name are also labourers in a sense; they're employed by the government to help quash the very people that would liberate the magicians. Here, Miéville is undermining the "magician as sage" trope that permeate paradigmatic fantasy fiction as well as literature of the fantastic in general. In his essay, "Epic Pooh," Moorcock alleges that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were writing explicitly conservative fantasies:
I don't think these books are 'fascist', but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.
Gandalf the Grey (or White, or whatever) works in mysterious ways, with little explanation. His motives are altruistic, or as altruistic as powerful men can be. The same can be said of numerous wizards, such as Dumbledore, old white men who know better. This is one reason why I tend to reject fantasy as a genre: the use of magic becomes hand-waving dismissal of grounded reality for mindless escapism, a tool used by paternalistic representations of the status quo.

However, I'm not 100% convinced of Miéville's position as a (or the) "Marxist fantasy writer." Coincidentally, as I finished the novel and wrote this piece, Mark Soderstrom published a piece on left wing politics in speculative fiction called, "Speculating a Better Future" (over at Jacobin Magazine here). He begins his article with a historical overview of right wing politics that creep through science fiction which he refers to as "speculative fiction" which seems an umbrella term, sheltering fantasy and science fiction. Soderstrom keeps his focus to how sci fi ignores the plight of workers in favour of those who benefit from the exploitation of the worker. Most representatively, he writes that, "In the neoliberal age, even leftish texts find it easier and more compelling to attack the state instead of capital." He then catalogues some instances of texts in which the workers first suffer and then revolt, usually with the revolution coming at the end of the narrative's structure. He finishes the article by providing two relevant and illustrative examples. Firstly, in Sarah Prineas’s Ash and Bramble which argues:
that individual escape from an oppressive system is illusory — that the only genuine way to escape is to change the underlying system through collective action and mutual empowerment.
This feels like a deep truth (and it is) but it is presented with the depth of a platitude, along the lines of empty slogans chanted by the "radical" college-age scions of rich industrialists.

Finally, Soderstrom discusses Iron Council, arguing similarly that the train "literalizes a Marcixt metaphor." However, where he loses me is in his uncritical paean to the novel. He writes that fantastic literature
can furnish us with novel ways to think about those ideas. As Miéville suggests, fantasy provides both a guide to clear political action and a medium for thinking through the challenges we face, considering the fantastic and grotesque nature of reality itself.
If fantasy in this way is meant to be instructive for young burgeoning rebels, then reading Iron Council is the wrong way to go about it. Soderstrom's argumentative mistake is to position the literature of the fantastic as instructive in meaningful ways, when fantasy is not necessarily meant to be taken literally or as metaphorical. There is a danger in imagining that the fantastic has a one to one ratio of signification.

Todorov classified the various forms of the fantastic, observing that the fantastic functions like an uncanny moment, a break in reality that must be sutured with either explanations (rationalization) or rewritten laws of reality. One could argue that drafting new laws of reality could indeed include new arrangements of production and labour, but that elides the mundaneness of the structures of production and capital. As a movement, the Left already has trouble articulating any productive overhaul of the present system, let alone confusing the tools of revolution with actual fucking magic. The Left can barely organize themselves in any meaningful way to confront the vast inequality at the heart of late capitalism. Would Miéville suggest that if the Occupy Movement would simply arm themselves with thaumaturgy and a magical train, the system would be overthrown?

I worry that readings of Miéville's texts as Marxist end up being uncritical odes to his position in difference within the genre. By dint of a lack of left wing radicalism in fantasy, Miéville is possibly overpraised as a Marxist reprieve from the staid Toryism of paradigmatic fantasy. Additionally, Miéville's Marxism might be supra-text rather than found organically within the text. If the Marxist critical lens looks at "literature in terms of the historical conditions which produce it" (as per Eagleton) then we would have to consider Miéville's actual political career. However, if we, like good academics, consider Iron Council without the authorial intentions fallacy, we have a novel that has labourers completely bungle their own revolution and a train indefinitely frozen in time, simply a monument to a failed movement.

I also worry, from a methodological angle, that "smash Semantic Field X with Text Y" style readings overshadow alternative critical analyses of Iron Council and the rest of Miéville's oeuvre. If we can only conceptualize Miéville as a Marxist writer, we risk reducing the political nuance of Marxism to wish-fulfilment fantasies of wielding magic. Magic, in Iron Council, seems to be constructed to avoid the pitfalls of mere wish-fulfilment, but it can't avoid becoming this "cool" thing that animates gun powder into hulking automata (which, if we want to be strict Marxist readers, is problematic as all hell, considering the slipperiness of sentience in Miéville's Bas-Lag universe). By pushing the Marxism from subtext to text, Iron Council loses the very force of possible revolution by literalizing it with magic. Through the reduction of complex politics into cool magic shit, Miéville possibly falls into the same lulling nursery rhyme trap that plagues the rest of paradigmatic fantasy. Reading Iron Council becomes a comforting lullabye, letting Miéville perform the labour of imagining a worker's revolution and absolving the reader of the difficult task of planning the rebellion. After all, if the workers in New Crobuzon couldn't do it with magic, then should we Muggles even bother?

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