22 June 2007

Books Update: Great Western Trains

After boasting back in May that I'd read 18 books in 18 weeks, I've since managed a rather unimpressive nearly two. This brings me up to 20 (nearly) in 25, suggesting that if I want to keep up my book-a-week-for-2007 score I either need to read a lot of very short books in the coming months, or else take some time off work.

I actually finished Iron Council about a week ago, and have since embarked on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. (Weirdly, they both have golems in them.) Collapse I'm still working through, but I've very nearly finished the penultimate chapter, so I'm on the home stretch now.

Iron Council was splendid, all weird geography and earnest politics -- a return to form for China Miéville after the rather disappointing The Scar which I reviewed here. (Hmmm. I see I spent a large portion of last summer reading a Miéville book in parallel with a Jared Diamond, as well.)

Based on what others had told me, I was expecting Iron Council to be a fantasy Western, and it's true that there's a lengthy interlude in the middle of the book (in itself probably the length of a novel in pre-Tolkien terms) which conforms to that description. For most of the time, however, we're back in Miéville's byzantine / gothic / dickensian city-state, New Crobuzon, and it's this setting which is his true masterpiece. Returning there felt nostalgic, like visiting somewhere you spent some time a good many years ago (well, to be fair, Perdido Street Station is a bloody long book) and finding it different, but with its spirit of place entirely unaltered.

The story combines exploration and the frontier spirit with left-wing revolutionary rhetoric, which is an intriguing mix. The central image of a "free" train -- roving wherever its occupants decide, as they continually lay the track ahead of them and take it up behind -- is a powerful one, and a strong metaphor for a successful anarchistic society. Some of the action sequences could have been clearer (notably the big "golems vs elementals" battle, which would have benefited from a clearer definition of the difference between the two before it started), and the lack of resolution is frustrating (though intentionally so -- revolution, like resolution, is deferred indefinitely), but on the whole I found Iron Council a really satisfying read.

It was, however, an incredibly dense one. Miéville's prose is intense and convoluted, engaging the reader so urgently and passionately it feels more like wrestling than argument. Going from that to Michael Chabon's clear, calm prose is like stepping from a dark and claustrophobic closet into a light and airy attic room.

I should be able to review Collapse properly after I finish it, but I've found it a compelling read. As with Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond's fascination with the minutiae of agricultural production has been tiring at times, but the book's overall thrust (which is essentially oh god oh god we're all overconsuming and wasting our natural resources and polluting our water and air and soil and ravaging our natural environment and if we don't do something about it RIGHT NOW we're all going to die) isn't really the kind of thing I feel I can afford to ignore.

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