From the category archives:

Mieville Seminar

Pirgs, Mieville auf Deutsch and Iraq

by Henry Farrell on December 15, 2006

I’ve been away without ordered leave from the blogosphere for the last couple of weeks – the joys of end-of-semester committee crunch and grading. But two things that I’ve wanted to link to:

“Greg Bloom”: has another series of posts on the ways in which the Fund for Public Interest Research has resisted unionization efforts. The way in which many purportedly lefty organizations refuse to let their workers bargain for decent conditions is pretty shameful.

Alexander Mueller, fresh from porting over Susanna Clarke has translated the China Mieville seminar “into German too”: Great stuff.

Finally, I’ve been meaning for a while to link to this “Nir Rosen piece”:, which is the best and most detailed on the ground discussion that I’ve seen of Iraq’s descent into civil war. I see via “TPM Muckraker”: that Rosen is venturing into the blogosphere.

Debating Iron Council

by Henry Farrell on January 11, 2005

China Mieville is one of the most interesting people writing in the field of science fiction and fantasy. His first novel, “King Rat,” riffs on drum’n’bass, Max Ernst, Robert Irwin and contemporary London. His second, _Perdido Street Station_, took the genre by storm; an urban fantasy written with vigour, wit and ferocious intelligence. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. As Michael Swanwick said in the Washington Post in 2002, “It’s a little cheeky of me to declare as classic a book that only came out two years ago, but I think I’m on safe ground here.” His third novel, “The Scar,” received equal acclaim. He’s an official member of the “salon des refusés”: of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” list. China is also active in socialist politics – he ran for Parliament in the last election. His book, “Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory Of International Law,” based on his Ph.D. thesis, is being published this month by Brill.

China’s most recent novel, _Iron Council_ was published in August. Michael Dirda of the Washington Post “describes it”: as “a work of both passionate conviction and the highest artistry.” A few months ago, the Mieville Fraktion within CT decided that it might be fun to put together a mini-seminar around _Iron Council_, and to ask China to respond. He very decently said yes; you see the result before you. We’ve invited two non-CT regulars to participate in the mini-seminar. Matt Cheney blogs on literature and science fiction at “The Mumpsimus”:; he also writes for “Locus”: magazine and “SFSite”: Miriam Elizabeth Burstein blogs at “The Little Professor”:, and teaches Victorian literature at SUNY Brockport. Miriam very kindly agreed to join the project in its later stages, revising a long comment/review that she had already written (and that China had independently cited to).

The essays are posted in the order that they are mentioned in China’s response (people who haven’t read _Iron Council_ yet should be aware that spoilers abound). “John Holbo”: begins his essay with comments on the relationship between Mieville and Tolkien; he goes on to use Bruno Schulz’s discussion of escape and the fecundity of inanimate matter to argue that Mieville can’t decide whether he prefers political economy or Expressionist puppetry as modes of expression. “Belle Waring”: complains that the unrelenting grimness of Mieville’s urban settings and characters’ fates is a little formulaic; he should let his characters get somewhere and perhaps even succeed in something. Matt Cheney “partly revises”: an “earlier essay”: where he argued that Mieville needed to represent his villains a little more realistically; he discusses some of the reasons why Mieville might have done this, and talks about how Mieville reconciles pulp and avant-garde literature in his work. My “essay”: compares Mieville’s reworking of history, myth and revolution with Walter Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history. Miriam Elizabeth Burstein “examines”: how Mieville reworks ideas of martyrdom and messianism through the figure of Judah Low. Finally, John Quiggin “talks about”: _Iron Council_ in historical context, arguing that just as the eponymous train of the novel becomes a myth that may return to ‘save’ us, so too the revolutionary traditions of the nineteenth century that are celebrated in _Iron Council_ may continue to inspire.

China’s response, which speaks to all the above, and more, is “here”:

We’re opening up all of the essays, and China’s response, to comments. We expect that the main conversation will take place in the comments section to China’s essay; however, if you have specific points that you want to address in the individual essays, feel free to comment there. Note that offensive or inappropriate comments will likely be deleted – as always, we’re more interested in conversation than flamewar.

This seminar is being made available for distribution under a Creative Commons license, without any prejudice to the ownership of any material quoted under standard ‘fair use’ principles from _Iron Council_ or from John Curran Davis’ translation of Bruno Schulz’ _Cinammon Shops_. For those who would prefer to read on paper than computer screen, we enclose a “PDF”: of the discussion.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

1 Three Things About Miéville

This post will be substantially pastiche of others I’ve written about China Miéville; remasticated bits encrusted around critical consideration of his new novel, Iron Council. No plots spoiled.

I’m going to pose a few questions for the author. I am not usually
one for sniffing out intentionality behind the scenes, mind you. (Not
that I think there is anything indecent about that angle.) But
unusually, in this case, I find I am curious what the man can have been
thinking. How admirably the world is arranged, since – oddly – he may

Now a brief statement, not of my thesis, but of the obvious, to which my thesis hopes to bear a sturdy relationship.

1) Miéville is a superlative subcreator, to use Tolkien’s term of
art for the art of fantastic world-building. 2) Miéville is a polemical
critic of Tolkien – more so: of Tolkien’s generic legacy – on behalf of
an allegedly more mature conception of fantasy as a genre. 3) Miéville
himself tells stories which are substantially in line with generic
fantasy conventions, in terms of overall form, also in terms of many
types of detail.

So a critical question about Miéville is whether 1) suffices to back
2), with some to spare; for 3) has a notable tendency to corrode the
credibility of 2).

One possibility also to be considered is that 2) is just snarky fun Miéville had, being a punk blowing steam on a webpage. Then 1) and 3) needn’t fight each other by proxy, knocking over and propping 2), but can simply be considered side by side.

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WARNING: This contains massive spoilers to Iron Council, The Scar, and Perdido Street Station.

It seems bizarre that I might write literary criticism which the author might plausibly read. This never happens when I write about Petronius. And so, because much of what I have to offer is criticism, I feel the need to begin with some lavish praise. China Miéville is a writer of astonishing creativity. The material in the average two-sentence Miéville observation would serve a more parsimonious author of fantasy as the meat of a trilogy. (Or more: just consider that there are about 18 Robert Jordan novels, none of which contains a single thought not pilfered, feebly, from Tollkein or Stephen Donaldson.) The roster of novelists whose work I ever feel inclined to employ as the setting for an idle daydream, a fantasy proper, with Lake
Como moved to Rome and so on, is very short, and most of the luminaries joined when I was younger than 15. So, when I tell you that I press Bas-Lag into this service, I am saying that Miéville’s works have captured my imagination in the most literal way.

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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.

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An Argument in Time

by Henry Farrell on January 11, 2005

_Iron Council_, like Mieville’s earlier novel _The Scar_ has a lot to say about betrayal. However, the most important betrayals of _Iron Council_ have less to do with personal deceit than the the more subtle treachery of political mythology; its ambiguous consequences and necessary faithlessness to the individuals whose struggle is mythologized. On the one hand, political myths hold out hope and inspire action, on the other, they don’t reflect the aspirations of the individuals whose actions gave rise to them. _Iron Council_ has at its heart an unresolved and unresolvable argument about the relationship between revolution, myth and history.

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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.

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Remaking the past (and future)

by John Q on January 11, 2005

Science fiction and speculative fiction have always been as much about the past as about the future. Buck Rogers, reawakening in the 25th century, liberates his oppressed compatriots by refighting World War I, complete with artillery barrages. A step up from this kind of pulp, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series inaugurated the “future history” genre with a replay of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Then there are the innumerable translations of medieval romances, sea stories and Westerns into various mixtures of SF and fantasy.

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With One Bound We are Free: Pulp, Fantasy and Revolution

by China Mieville on January 11, 2005

Warning: Enormous spoilers to Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, follow.


I am deeply flattered by and grateful for the attention that the Johns, Belle, Miriam, Henry and Matthew have paid to my stuff, and by their invitation to respond. Even more than having your work liked, having it thought about means a huge amount.

It puts me in a slightly awkward position, though. I don’t generally publicly respond to reviews, no matter how wrong-headed or perspicacious I think them. Nine times out of ten, writers’ responses to critics seem to me at best undignified. One of the usual arguments authors level is the foolishness that ‘I know better than you because I wrote it’. To make my position absolutely clear: authorial intention be damned. I do not necessarily know best. Which is to stress that this unusual and gratifying opportunity will inevitably be a Response To My Critics, and I beg them not to read it as defensive. Where I disagree, I say so in the spirit of open-minded debate.

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