There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks

by John Holbo on October 16, 2004

A month ago John Quiggin posted about his basically happy experience downloading from Amazon an e-copy (PDF) of China Miéville’s new novel, Iron Council. Let me offer my own happy Amazon/China Miéville’s new novel-related tale.

The novel’s title, Iron Council, refers to the inhabitants of the “Perpetual Train”. The train is literally a steam train; it’s a runaway, in a peculiarly literal sense. New Crobuzon, Miéville’s great phantasmagoric metropolis, wants a transcontinental railway. An aspiring Robber Baron/Captain of Industry takes up the herculean task. But the enslaved and abused workers rise up and seize control of the means of conduction, if you will. They take the train into the wilderness – a very peculiar wilderness it is – by ripping up the track behind them, laying it in front of them, ripping it up behind them, laying it in front of them. The train ‘goes feral’, as the narrator puts it.

Now there are problems. But it is on the whole a quite successful fantasy novel. Matt “The Mumpsimus” Cheney has written a very thoughtful review here, with which I am in almost complete agreement. Cheney focuses on Miéville’s use of ‘anamnesis’ as a section heading:

The various meanings anamnesis has accrued over the centuries often suggest memories that lead to later inspiration, a kind of ethical pre-learning, the basic knowledge or experience known to the subconscious (either personal or collective) that motivates someone to commit ethical actions.

As Cheney notes, this fits with the role the train plays, its function as symbol. For those in the story, as well as for the reader, the Perpetual Train is a dream, a hope. It is an emblem of impossible freedom through force of will, impossibly frozen in … well, I don’t want to spoil any plots. Cheney again:

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.

This brings me to my Amazon experience. Miéville’s train reminds me of two literary precendents – two books, neither of which I can lay hands on at the moment, both of which are accessible using Amazon’s ‘search inside’ feature. Search Alfred Bester’s SF masterpiece, The Stars, My Destination, for ‘rails’ and there it is, on p. 163. I’ll just quote:

Just as the crowd of guests turned to enter Presteign’s home, a distant commotion attracted their attention. It was a rumble, a fierce chatter of pneumatic punches, and an outrageous metallic bellowing. It approached rapidly. The outer fringe of sightseers opened a broad lane. A heavy truck rumbled down the lane. Six men were tumbling baulks of timber out the back of the truck. Following them came a crew of twenty arranging the baulks neatly in rows.

Presteign and his guests watched with amazement. A giant machine, bellowing and pounding, approach, crawling over the ties. Behind it were deposited parallel rails of welded steel. Crews with sledges and pneumatic punches spiked the rails to the timber ties. The track was laid to Presteign’s door in a sweeping arc and then curved away. The bellowing engine and crews disappeared into the darkness. “Good God!” Presteign was distinctly heard to say. Guests poured out of the house to watch.

A shrill whistle sounded in the distance. Down the track came a man on a white horse, carrying a large red flag. Behind him panted a steam locomotive drawing a single observation car. The train stopped before Presteign’s door. A conductor swung down from the car followed by a Pullman porter. The porter arranged steps. A lady and gentleman in evening clothes descended. “Shan’t be long,” the gentleman told the conductor. “Come back for me in an hour.”

“Good God!” Presteign exclaimed again.

The train puffed off. The couple mounted the steps.

“Good evening, Presteign,” the gentleman said. “Terribly sorry about that horse messing up your grounds, but the old New York Franchise still insists on the red flag in front of trains.”

Gully Foyle will have his revenge, and laying tracks of iron to Presteign’s door is a symbol of the absurd lengths to which our hero will go. (I do wonder whether Miéville had this scene in mind, consciously or subconsciously. It is a very memorable scene in an absolutely brilliant novel.)

Second, Tootle, by Gertrude Crampton. Have you ever read this odd little children’s book? It is a failed allegory – twisted anamnesis, if you will: ethical pre-learning, which motivates not ethical action but arbitrary repression. (You can read the first page as an excerpt. And I suggest you search inside and check out a few illustrations.) I’ll give you the bare narrative bones.

Far to the West lies the town of Lower Trainswitch, where baby trains are sent to learn how to be big trains. They learn important lessons like: Whistle Blowing, Stopping for a Red Flag, Waving, Puffing Loudly When Starting, Coming Around Curves Safely, Screeching When Stopping, and Clicking and Clacking Over the Rails. But above all they learn: Staying On The Rails No Matter What. But one day Tootle, our youthful protagonist, is lured off the rails into a race with a black horse. It was then (as someone or other says in the Iliad, I think it was) his mind first turned to Evil. Except that, this being a universe in which anthropomorphic trains can function quite nicely off the rails, it turns out that Stay On The Rails No Matter What is a false – at best an arbitrary – ethical stricture. Tootle frolics like a steam-powered hippy in the meadow. He turns up back at school with a little bit of grass between his wheels. But you know about grass being a gateway plant leading to the hard stuff, like flowers. And so Tootle slides into degradation and iniquity: “… the day after that, the Second Assistant Oiler said that he had found hollyhock flowers floating in Tootle’s eight bowls of soup. …” That’s it. Hollyhock flowers in the soup constitute the extent of the harm done to others by Tootle’s afternoon lying by the water barrel, admiring the butterflies.

The next act of our tale might be subtitled ‘It takes a village to haze a child.’ Bill, Tootle’s teacher, hatches a plan to trick Tootle into thinking it’s wrong to go off the rails (even though in this fictional universe it is morally right to go off the rails, since it’s pleasurable and harmless.) Everyone in the village gets a red flag and they all go and hide in the meadow and ambush our hapless hero. They trick him into accepting one arbitrary precept by mercilessly pummeling him with another. Such, such are the joys of culture, I suppose.

There were red flags waving from the buttercups, in the daisies, under the trees, near the bluebirds’ nest, and even one behind the rain barrel. And, of course, Tootle had to stop for each one, for a locomotive must always Stop for a Red Flag Waving.

“Red flags,” muttered Tootle, “This meadow is full of red flags. How can I have any fun?”

“Whenever I start, I have to stop. Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place? Why don’t I ever see a green flag?”

Just as the tears were ready to slide out of his boiler, Tootle happened to look back over his coal car. On the tracks stood Bill, and in his hand was a big green flag. “Oh!” said Tootle.

He puffed up to Bill and stopped.

“This is the place for me,” said Tootle. “There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks.”

Hurray!”shouted the people of Lower Trainswitch, and jumped from their hiding places. “Hurray for Tootle the Flyer!”

Obviously this allegory of arbitrary social repression does not mandate a sexual reading. But I do like one line from p. 1: “But the best they can do is a gay little Tootle.” Too true. He was best among them. Too bad they broke the little guy’s spirit so completely, paralyzing him until he couldn’t move anywhere but on those tracks they laid for him.

And so I say that China Miéville has written the ultimate anti-Tootle. There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks. Transvalue that. I mean that in the nicest way.

I’m meaning to write a longer review of Iron Council. I thought it might be a good idea to clear this Tootle stuff out of the way beforehand.

And I do really like Amazon ‘search inside’.



chuchundra 10.16.04 at 5:00 pm

When I read your description of Iron Council, I immediately thought of < href="">The Inverted World by Christopher Priest, the story of a city on rails that must keep moving forward to keep up with a theoretical “optimum”.


Scott Martens 10.16.04 at 7:17 pm

I thought first of Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll. Actually, I just finished reading Iron Council on the plane back from Canada, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban playing as the in-flight movie. It’s quite a contrast, the rather conservative fantasy of Rowlings verses the hard left one of Miéville.

It occurred to me to wonder what Miéville might have made of Hogwarts. Think about it: At Hogwarts, they have pollution-free, environmentally friendly broomstick transportation, which is so safe they let children use them. They have potions that repair limbs and minor illnesses almost instantly. They have remarkable powers animate the inanimate, far superior to modern “smart” machines. And outside of Hogwarts, there’s global warming, the NHS in perpetual trouble, rampant disease in the third world, and masses crushed by dull, manual labour.

And why are these miracles denied to the people who need them? Because “muggles” can’t take the responsibility? It seems that among the wizard bourgeoisie there is nothing but contempt for the inferiority of the mundanes. But nowhere in Harry Potter does anyone even question the system they find themselves in.

If Miéville wrote the next Harry Potter, I imagine Hermione would lead the students on strike until the school hired only competent professors of defense against the dark arts, while Ron set up an underground newspaper exposing the elitism of magical segregation and Harry would betray them all to Ministry of Magic because his own fame, fortune and status is protected only by the existing system. :^)


nnyhav 10.17.04 at 12:15 am

What it brings to mind is the old joke about Soviet leadership on a train in Siberia, which stops when the rails suddenly come to an end:

Lenin: We will lay down new tracks and go irresistably forward!

Stalin: Shoot the conductor!

Khrushchev: We will take up the tracks from behind and put them in front, and then again, and again …

Brezhnev: Let us all sit here and go ‘chugga chugga chugga chugga …’

Gorbachev (head out window): Hey, look! No rails!


pierre 10.18.04 at 5:04 pm

And why are these miracles denied to the people who need them? Because “muggles” can’t take the responsibility?

Yes, exactly. In just the same way, I deprive the neighbors of my taste in house furnishings. I can see the poor devils suffering from the unremitting ugliness of their personal environment without really understanding why, but Prime Directive and all that, you know.

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