Undoing Messiahs

by Miriam Elizabeth Burstein on January 11, 2005

There’s been some grumbling about China Mieville’s third entry (which, apparently, is the last one he plans to write for a while) in his series of novels about the remarkably filthy city of New Crobuzon. I have to assent to the loudest grumble—namely, that the novel takes too long to get itself in gear: while the ambiguity of the opening chapters is fine in and of itself, narrative tension temporarily collapses under the cacophonous weight of the usual odd creatures. Once things get rolling, pun intended, the pace intensifies noticeably. The narrative itself is divided among three alternating focal characters: Judah Low, a would-be messianic figure who specializes in making golems; Cutter, his lover and most devout follower; and Ori, a discontented young radical. And then there is the “Iron Council” itself, a quasi-utopian mobile city of ex-criminals, ex-laborers, and ex-prostitutes, forever in motion on its stolen train. The plot’s actual workings are much closer to The Scar than to Perdido Street Station, although Mieville continues his cheerful habit of happily killing off or psychologically mutilating his main characters. Two of the novel’s major plot points resolve on complicated double-crosses, albeit not quite so detailed as the one in The Scar.

Mieville gets lumped in with the steampunk novelists on occasion, since Bas-Lag seems to be populated by remarkably twisted and deformed Earth creatures and concepts. In Iron Council, we hit Bas-Lag’s nineteenth century, and the novel offers us a remarkably nineteenth-century figure: the train as metaphor for history, progress, and modernization. I couldn’t help thinking of Walt Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter,” which salutes the train as “Type of the modern! emblem of motion and power! pulse of the continent!” (Or, far more ambivalently, Dickens’ Dombey and Son, with its disruptive, ultimately fatal train.) Iron Council makes the fight for control over the train into a larger political and metaphorical debate. On the one hand, there is Weather Wrightby’s TRT, which wants to lay track across the continent; in Judah Low’s flashback narrative, we see that one of the results will be the destruction of any inconvenient races which happen to get in the way. (Significantly, Judah learns his magic from one such group.) On the other hand, there are the TRT strikers who seize control of the train and randomize its tracks:

Miles of track, reused, reused, it is the train’s future and its present, and it emerges a fraction more scarred as history and is hauled up again and becomes another future. The train carries its track with it, picking it up and laying it down: a sliver, a moment of railroad. No longer a line split through time, but contingent and fleeting, recurring beneath the train, leaving only its footprint. (262)

Instead of the TRT’s proposed directional and utilitarian movement, in which the tracks will clear a path across the continent in order to expand New Crobuzon’s economic horizons, the Iron Council’s “perpetual train” lays transient and ephemeral paths. The perpetual train’s apparently random movement across its territory finds an echo later in Cutter’s desperate cry that “[t]here’s no plan to history” (497); where the TRT’s goals are very much definite and profit-minded, the Iron Council simply seeks to perpetuate itself and its communal way of life. But nevertheless, the perpetual train leaves scars in its wake, “indelible marks” (264) in the landscape. Even the liberty promised by the perpetual train, then, comes at a cost to the territory it occupies.

This is a novel in which radical political movements tend to collapse in on themselves, with debates over ends vs. means peeping through here and there. Ori’s segments contain the most spectacular collapse: he conspires with the famed criminal “Toro” to commit a key political murder, only to discover that the politics were actually a smokescreen for Toro’s real motives. (Attentive readers will realize that we came across Toro in a previous novel.) To make matters worse, he reads another character as a figure of political liberation, only to discover that he actually brings something far more dangerous. Similarly, Judah Low’s Christ-like attempt to “save” the Iron Council, with startling and partly fatal results, results in a martyrdom that isn’t:

…”But we were never yours, Judah. We were something real, and we came in our time, and we made our decision, and it was not yours. Whether we were right or wrong, it was our history. You were never our augur Jonah. Never our saviour. And you won’t hear this, you can’t, but this now isn’t because you’re a sacrifice to anything. This isn’t how it needed to be. This is because you had no right.” (552)

In this unmaking of Christ’s passion, Judah doesn’t play the role of the prophesied figure who will atone for man’s sins by dying for them; instead, he dies for the presumption that salvation was his to offer in the first place. While, at a literal level, he preserves most of the Iron Council from death at the hands of the New Crobuzon militia, his choice eliminates their free will. In the trinity of central characters, Judah comes uncomfortably close to Ori, the misguided revolutionary: he presumes that events set in motion can be kept under control and that motives carry more moral weight than actions. As we learn shortly before Judah’s death, the perpetual train served a purpose far other than Judah thought it did; like Ori, he fails to see that his utopian vision was co-opted from the get-go. But if the novel seems cynical about would-be messiahs and violent revolutionaries, the ending holds out some hope for the spirit of social change itself.