Balancing Traditions: The Pulp Origins, Muddled Moralities, and Anxious Audiences of China Mieville’s Aesthetic Revolution

by Matthew Cheney on January 11, 2005

When I first wrote about China Mieville’s Iron Council, I wrote, toward the conclusion:

bq. Mieville has stated in interviews that he does not want to create stories with simple “good vs. evil” morality, but that is generally what he does. The government of New Crobuzon is populated entirely with people who operate with as much love and compassion as a Dark Lord . Mieville’s main characters are often conflicted, impulsive, selfish, and wonderfully complex, but they end up fighting against forces that are entirely loathsome, which is a cop-out.

This is an idea that deserves attention and discussion, and I think my original language made the issue seem more cut-and-dried than I know it to be.

Anyone who wants to consider Mieville’s work as something more than just “rip-roaring good yarns” (which they are) has got to keep in mind that he is mixing and melding among genres of popular literature. A collage of covers from pulp magazines should dance through the mind of anyone contemplating the homages Mieville pays to the past: Weird Tales, Startling Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Sky Fighters, Sea War Stories, Ace-High Westerns, Railroad Men’s Magazine. One of Mieville’s grand goals has been to write within those traditions while also transcending them.

What does it mean, though, to write within those traditions while also hoping for thematic complexity and subtlety of characterization, two techniques Iron Council employs? Does transcending “good vs. evil” cause the work to transcend the tradition itself?

I still hold with my original perception that the forces Mieville’s protagonists fight against are “entirely loathsome”, because I think it is obvious that they are presented that way (though less so in The Scar than in Perdido Street Station and Iron Council), but it may be the result of the main characters’ perceptions, and those perceptions may tie into the novels’ central ideas — the double-edged power of passion that both motivates people toward heroic acts and blinds them to the subtleties of the world. We cannot know that there are, in fact, some well-meaning people in the government of New Crobuzon, because, apparently, none of the main characters know this. In Perdido Street Station, the slake-moths are unknowable; in Iron Council, the government is. We know them not through their intentions so much as we do through the effects of their actions, and the effects are horrifying.

What Mieville does brilliantly is create anti-heroes, pseudo-heroes, and non-heroes and then place them in situations demanding utter heroism. Thus, the morality becomes “not-entirely-good vs. evil”. This may be exactly the balancing act he needs to write the sort of philosophical romanticism he seems to aspire toward. To muddle the whole “good vs. evil” dichotomy with complexity would be to destroy the heart of the original influence; to shatter one side while holding on to the other is to subvert, but not to obliterate.

It is one thing for the writer to maintain a balancing act, but what about the readers? Iron Council has gotten the most mixed reviews of the three New Crobuzon books, with many people saying something to the effect of, “Well, it’s good, but it’s no Perdido Street Station,” or, “It’s not bad, but I really liked The Scar.”

Perdido Street Station appeared at a time when people were ready for it; perhaps even hungry for it. A large group of fantasy readers wanted a big, juicy book that was not another cog in a series of Tolkien rip-offs nor a touchy-feely myth in an urban milieu. It had exactly the right mix of ingredients to create its own audience. The problem for any writer who becomes popular, though, is that audiences don’t tend to like change, even when they say they do. Iron Council is a vastly different book from Perdido Street Station, which is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, but that their ideal audiences are not exactly the same. Iron Council is more subtle, less baroque than Mieville’s previous books; it continues to explore the kinds of things he was exploring in the first hundred pages or so of The Scar — life as it is lived, character as it is developed, history as it is experienced before it becomes quantified as “the past”.

Such an approach actually reduces some of the pulpy pleasures later in the book, because we have learned to care about things other than big battles, and yet we’re handed a lot more big battles. This, though, is an inherent part of the tradition — the building of suspense, the culmination of heroic efforts in heroic clashes, the threats to the very existence of the world. In some ways, Iron Council may be such a good balancing act that it is impossible for it to fully appeal to anybody, because the audience that wants shoot-’em-up action will be frustrated by the nonlinear plot, the incantatory prose, the existential angst; and meanwhile, the reader who is thrilled by the growth of Mieville’s skills as a writer — his talent finally seems completely to be in his control — will wonder why they have to slog through yet another clash of titans.

Or maybe Mieville’s grand project is to show that the audiences actually can be the same, that pleasure in shoot-’em-up action doesn’t preclude pleasure in complexities of craft. It’s a mighty goal, one that may prove unachievable, but the attempt itself brings interesting results. For all the chatter about China Mieville’s politics, in the end his revolution is likely to be less political than it is to be aesthetic.

{ 1 comment }


Walt Pohl 01.11.05 at 8:02 pm

What’s an example of a “touchy-feely myth in an urban setting”?

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