By China Mieville. Ballantine. 564 pp. $24.95With his shaved head, power-lifter's physique and multiple earrings, China Mieville looks just like a genie newly emerged from Aladdin's lamp. But this dazzling young novelist (born in 1972) isn't doing anyone's bidding. Mieville has reshaped modern fantasy, as readers of the award-winning Perdido Street Station and The Scar know very well, and he's done so by rejecting epic romance a la Tolkien for what one might call Zolaesque magic naturalism. Mieville's signature city, New Crobuzon, is populated by the human, the insectoid, the genetically remade, and altogether teems with the kind of grotesques one associates with Bosch paintings, the gnarly art (both verbal and pictorial) of Mervyn Peake or the night-club scene in "Star Wars." There are no generic happy endings here.
In Iron Council Mieville returns to New Crobuzon with an elegiac paean to Utopian socialism, romantic revolutionaries and the European radical tradition. Mieville has himself been active in left-wing politics in Britain, and knows through university study and street-corner experience whereof he speaks. As a result, Iron Council portrays myriad forms of political dissent, from underground pamphleteering to urban terrorism, from heroic myth-making to the "necessary" murder. Its characters range from the philosophical to the pragmatic to the downright suicidal. To echo the title of Edmund Wilson's classic study of the 19th-century socialist tradition, a tradition culminating in Lenin's famous train journey back to Russia, Iron Council might well be called "To the Perdido Street Station."
Mieville sets up three main narrative threads, two in the present and one in the past. When the book opens, a man is running through Rudewood, hoping to lose the nameless Terminator-like assassin on his trail. Cutter, it turns out, is searching for a gentle visionary named Judah Lowe, who can fabricate immensely strong golems out of nearly any kind of matter. (Judah Lowe's name pays homage to the Rabbi Loewe who made the first golem.) Cutter will accumulate a number of companions as he goes deeper into the outback on his quest for Lowe, the man he loves.
Meanwhile, in New Crobuzon itself, the restless Uri longs to strike a blow for social justice. He participates in a cell of the Runagate Rampant but has come to feel that all his comrades do is talk, talk, talk, unlike the extremist Toro, whose gang acts, even when it's sometimes hard to tell if they are criminals or freedom fighters. Gradually, Uri, like other young men before him, will be drawn ever deeper into the claustrophobic ethos of terrorism and revenge.
Giving meaning to the lives of both these men, and to the city's oppressed and disenfranchised, is the heroic story -- some say myth -- of the Iron Council. More than 20 years earlier, the TRT corporation started to build a railroad around the world. Exploiting the Remade (humans gruesomely altered as punishment for relatively venial crimes or unpopular political opinions), various humanoid species (cactuslike men, flying wyrmen) and some whole humans, the railroad had pushed its way into the wilds, heedless of both the indigenous peoples and the environment. But a strike for back pay unexpectedly leads to armed struggle and the eventual establishment of a workers' commune. Its driving force is the charismatic and eloquent Ann-Hari, a representative of the railroad's camp followers (and a former lover of Judah Lowe's). Think Flora Tristan, Rosa Luxemburg, La Passionara, Evita.
Ann-Hari realizes that the one force that binds this disparate group of workers together is the great train that supplies them with food, lodging and protection. Rather than flee into the hills when the New Crobuzon militia attacks, she persuades her comrades and sisters to fight and, when they win, to build their community around the steam locomotive. And so is born a perpetual train, moving ever deeper into unknown territory, its citizens laying down rails before them as they take up those behind. The nomadic rebels endure, and the rumor of their promethean achievement reaches back to New Crobuzon. These one-time whores, slaves and misfits pass into legend. They become the Iron Council.
Judah Lowe is one of the original Councillors, and his golemic skills help preserve the train and its people from numerous threats. But eventually he recognizes that his calling is to go back to New Crobuzon and spread the story and rallying cry of Iron Council, this locus of long-deferred hopes and dreams.
But, then, after 20 or more years, Judah suddenly flees the corrupt metropolis to rejoin the Council, with Cutter doggedly following, even as Uri stays to take up the gun. Historical forces are approaching a nodal point: The war against the alien Tesh goes on and on, there is rising discontent among the indigenes of the city, uncanny spirals have begun to appear on walls throughout New Crobuzon. It is time, perhaps, for the Iron Council to pass back from the mists of legend into the fire of history.
There's a lot more to this long novel, not least its subtlety of structure and its deep understanding of the revolutionary impulse. Characters act selflessly or selfishly, and sometimes good results, and sometimes bad. At key moments one hardly knows who is right, who is wrong, or even whether such categorical alternatives may be appropriate. Nearly everyone in the book betrays the Iron Council in one way or another -- or becomes its martyr. As one highly ambiguous figure asserts: History "is all full. And dripping. With the corpses. Of them who trusted the incorruptible."
This, then, is a gripping political novel set in a fantastic other-world. But it is almost equally fantastic in its prose, combining blunt-hammered sentences and sentence fragments with an astonishingly arcane diction. For good or ill, Mieville sometimes sounds as if his vocabulary derives from a dictionary, and he is certainly a writer who would make even Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Theroux reach for theirs. Gnathic, striae, unguligrade, indurate, ontic, pavonine -- all good words, but indicative of a fearless, even a dandy, stylist. Many descriptive passages achieve a kind of fustian poetry: "People came back who had become gnawed by the radula of impossibly fast vermiform predators." Eventually, one recognizes the strange beauty of Mieville's uncompromising diction, but it may take a little time.
And just as the reader must be willing to glory in Mieville's idiosyncratic English, so too must one rejoice in his zoological and technological inventiveness. Listen to his description of some of the Remade:
"Here a crawling man spiral-shelled in iron and venting smoke. Here a woman working, because there are women among the Remade, a woman become a guttered pillar, her organic parts like afterthoughts. A man -- or is it a woman? -- whose flesh moves with tides, with eructations like an octopus. People with their faces relocated, bodies made of iron and rubber cables, and steam-engine arms, and animal arms, and arms that are body-length pistons on which the Remade walk, their legs replaced with monkey's paws so they reach out from below their own waists."
In his visionary fiction Mieville creates, with god-like fecundity, khepri women with insect heads, the handlinger parasites who take over their hosts and give them supernatural powers, helmets that allow one to pierce the fabric of space, golems made of clay or air or time itself, and haints and stiltspears and borinatch, monks who must lose something of themselves each time they commune with their deity, and, not least, the uncanny Cacotopic Stain, where a rip in the universe has allowed a mutant leakage into our world. In myriad ways, China Mieville's New Crobuzon is an unweeded garden of unearthly delights, and Iron Council a work of both passionate conviction and the highest artistry. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.