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On the train home this afternoon I finished Iron Council: China Mieville's fourth novel, his third set in Bas-Lag, his second set in New Crobuzon, and the first of his that I've read. In Iron Council, revolution comes to Mieville's city-state.

I haven't decided how I feel about it yet; it hasn't had time to settle in my mind. But I think I think it was impressive but uneven; there were many sections I liked or loved, but probably an equal number that left me stone cold.

I will now be thoroughly lazy and tack my other thoughts onto other people's reviews.

Geneva said:
As well as reigning himself in stylistically, Mieville has also reigned himself in imaginatively. I don't mean to say that Iron Council is unimaginative - it's very far from that and Mieville is still the most creatively inventive writer around - but that Mieville's inventions in this latest book are inventions that substantially contribute to the story he's telling. In earlier works I sometimes got the feeling that his imaginative creations were almost gratuitous; fancies for the sake of fancies. That's not the case in Iron Council, where the flights of fancy and creative world-building are all instrumental to the tale being told.
Oh dear. I thought Iron Council was fairly full of gratuitous imagination. At times it just got a little tiring, like reading through a D&D bestiary in one sitting; at times I thought it genuinely clogged up the storytelling. The first 125 pages or so, in particular, seemed to drag immensely (Adam Roberts felt the same way, it seems). But then we get the Anamnesis, a long flashback that is almost a complete story in itself.

Matt Cheney said:
The anamnesis section of the book is a minor masterpiece, a story that is emotionally affecting, philosophically interesting, well written, inventive, and gripping. It is a pastiche of various types of writing -- most clearly tales of the Old West -- which also manages to maintain its own integrity. It echoes much labor history, utilizing archetypes from strikes and union battles past. (I couldn't help thinking of the role of railroads in the Mexican Revolution, and I'm sure other readers will think of various parallels.) It is, appropriately, filled with the excitement of underdog stories, of good guys versus bad guys, fueled with a naive (but necessary) belief in wondrous progress.
I agree with all of this, and then some. I found the anamnesis an order of magnitude more engaging than the rest of the novel; perfectly paced, extremely well-drawn, and with the restraint I thought was lacking elsewhere. It helps that I found the Iron Council itself fascinating, whereas New Crobuzon (surprisingly) didn't do a whole lot for me. It is perhaps the only time that I've wished a fantasy novel had a map inside the front cover.

Dan said:
Fittingly, the characters in Iron Council are almost all more human than some of the best in The Scar - there is no superhuman Uther Doul here, no preternatural Brucolac. Instead, we have a jealous and lonely shopkeeper-turned-adventurer, an uncertain and easily led, but genuine and ultimately tragic, political dissident, and a menagerie of other flawed but identifiably 'real' characters who struggle to tackle important issues in a way different to the one in which they are told to deal with them.
I found most of the characters remarkably hard to engage with. I have no real sense of who Ori and Cutter are; the only person in the book who stands out as truly memorable is Judah. This is probably not unrelated to the fact that the anamnesis, in which Judah features proiminently, is my favourite section of the book.

Norman Spinrad said:
You think you know how such a story must end, especially within a political and passionately revolutionary novel, but it doesn’t. Far be it from me to give away the ending even if I could, which I can’t, for it involves magic so convoluted and abstract that I can’t even understand it, not that I really believe Miéville intends me to, but the thematic confusion of it at least must be danced around.


Maybe Miéville has adopted an apocryphal slogan from the Irish Republican Army: "Now is the time for a futile gesture." Maybe this is Mao’s notion of the permanent revolution, that it is the process and zeitgeist of this neverending story that is the true revolution, not the end product.
Whatever my misgivings about the rest of the book, I thought the ending was pretty much perfect--thematically and emotionally right.

a digression )

Lastly, there is a 'virtual seminar' on Mieville and Iron Council available at Crooked Timber (or at least there was, and I hope there will be again when the site comes back up).
coalescent: (Default)
You've got to love the global communications network.

There I was last night, quietly minding my own business, when suddenly I get a call from an unknown number. At the other end of the line is an enthusiastic [ profile] applez: "Turn on Radio 3!" he said. "There's a show you have to listen to!"

This perhaps has more impact if you know that [ profile] applez is and was in San Francisco, listening via the internet. It made my evening, anyway, and Tom was also impressed.

The show in question was Nightwaves, Radio 3's daily 'culture and ideas' slot:
So why do we still need to maintain the distinction between the literary and the generic, and how do you define the two? That's the big question for the Undercurrents panel on Nightwaves tonight. Mulling over this weighty topic will be writers Brian Aldiss, Justina Robertson, Professor Valentine Cunningham and philosopher and Man Booker judge A.C. Grayling.

You can see why Zac thought I may be interested. And it was a good show: I spammed several of you about it last night, but anyone else who's interested can listen to it here and read the inevitable Third Alternative message board thread here. Zac's also posted about it over in [ profile] ousfg, here.

Points I'm filing away for future reference:

  • Aldiss hints that when he met Margaret Atwood she was quite happy, even keen, to be thought of as a science fiction writer. He then mentions that he thinks this was before she was published...

  • JG Ballard is referenced as saying 'the day science fiction is taken seriously, it will be dead'. Aldiss questions whether science fiction, as an effectively self-invented description, is relevant any more, and even whether it ever did more harm than good. Kim Newman suggests that people unconciously associate science fiction as an american phenomenon, and therefore as crap.

  • Some interesting discussion about whether genres are imposed by readers rather than writers (along with a healthy dose of the usual science fiction reader stereotype, although that was entertainingly rebutted by Robson). Also mention of the obvious influence of publishers. On the other hand, you do get people who want to write SF, or mystery, or [insert description here].

  • Some talk of authors such as Bulgakov (who is a fantasist, not a science fiction writer) and Borges (who has written science fiction and fantasy, but is not a science fiction or fantasy writer).

  • Comments from Ian Jack, the editor of Granta, saying 'he himself is not entirely sure why he wants to exclude fantastic literature'. Trying to reason it out, he suggests that writing within science fiction is self-limiting, and that maybe it lacks the scope of 'non-genre' writing. Justina Robson is asked to comment; you can almost hear her going slightly purple. :-)

  • The inevitable debate about the importance of characterisation. Literary merit is best defined by pointing at it (like science fiction!); strong characters can be one reason a work endures, although they may be stylised rather than multidimensional. Characterisation is not the only dimension of a novel's value.

  • The discussion is chaired by China Mieville. Every so often, I got an image of everyone else playing nice so that he didn't lean over and bang their heads together. :-)

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Somewhat late to the party on this one, but what the hey: Over at the message boards for The Third Alternative, and specifically on M John Harrison's board, there's an astounding discussion about the state of SF, the future of the genre, and all the sorts of things that make me a happy little geek. It's similar to the sort of thing Norman Spinrad suggested in Asimov's - the breakdown (or mutation) of genre - but it's taking it a step or ten further.

It's a discussion about current SF; the fact that in the past five years there have been incredibly exciting developments all over the place, what they represent, who's writing this stuff, and what it should be called. The suggestion (although by no means consensus) is 'The New Weird', and as a movement it's more about attitude than content - a shameless pilfering of styles and ideas from the whole spectrum of fiction, and the wider world. It'll take hours to read it all, but it's definitely worthwhile; I'm about half-way through and so far have come across contributions from M John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, Justina Robson, China Mieville, Paul McAuley, Colin Greenland, Charlie Stross, Richard Morgan, Adam Roberts, Cory Doctorow, and many others. This is the sort of discussion you imagine the neophyte cyberpunks having back in the day, but it's taking place in the open, for all to see. If this 'New Weird' thing takes off, this'll be one hell of a historical document.

The discussion starts here, and continues here, here and here. I'm sure I'm going to have to come back and pull some specific quotes out later, but the bare links will do for now.

Edit: Oh, just the one quote, then.
"You can make similar (and similarly inflated) analogies with the gay movement. We can be the Log Cabin movement of genre - I'm a writer just like you, and if I happen to write about the odd monster or two, well, it's all behind closed doors, we're all fiction under the skin aren't we, what does it matter, why can't we all just get along... or we can be Outrage!. We're Here! We're Weird! Get Used To It! I know which I'd rather be."
-- China Mieville

Always good for a quote, Mr Mieville. :-)

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