What’s Wrong With Iron Council

This is not a post about the Bechdel test, nor The Frank Miller test (dramatised here), aka the How To Tell If A Male Science Fiction Writer Is Obsessed With Whores Test. This post is not actually about gender representations at all. It does, weirdly, come from my having just read a post that is kind of, sort of, about those things.

You see, a while back I wrote about China Miéville’s novel, Iron Council, and I had some trouble explaining exactly what was wrong with it, stylistically speaking. What I wrote was:

Events that would later be referenced with specificity were described with a dream-like vagueness that often made it difficult to figure out just what the hell was going on. It felt like he was in such a hurry to move the plot forward that he ignored the mechanics of his prose. In addition, he once again made use of the pseudo-stream-of-consciousness interludes that are a kind of trademark of his novels. They are always, always, always the worst parts of his work, and they are a chore to read through, because he’s frankly not very good at the technique.

Reading thene’s post today, in which she referred to those passages as “that wild present-tense 150-page book-within-book that some people hate and I hopelessly adore” got me thinking about the gaps in experience between readers of genre fiction and readers of literary fiction.

I suppose I’m a crossover reader to some extent, but my reading habits are heavily weighted on the literary fiction side, and I only stray into genres like science fiction, fantasy, or crime if I can be assured of the quality of the work (the author has a solid reputation), or something about that specific book has piqued my interest. I find I’m atypical in that respect. Most of my friends who read literary fiction only read literary fiction. I also have a great many friends who are genre enthusiasts, and they will read literary fiction, but pretty much all of them stick to literary works published before the Moderns (ie. before “literary” fiction was established as a marketing category). I hate to generalize, but it seems like a deliberate pact for the two communities to ignore one another. The literary types avoid genre as beneath them (or if you find that too harsh, then “not serious enough”), and the genre types avoid literary fiction as pretentious. Either way, I can just as much count on my friends who are SF fans to have read absolutely nothing by Lisa Moore as I can on my literary friends to not have a goddamn clue who Samuel R. Delany is.

And then it hit me what was really wrong with Iron Council.

James Morrison (the Caustic Cover Critic) recently posted about a gorgeous new series of Margaret Atwood covers designed by Nathan Burton, and had this to say:

[H]er science-fiction (which she goes out of her way to pretend isn’t science-fiction) is usually awful: it has the self-satisfied unoriginality of somebody who hasn’t read anything in the genre from the last 50 years, and so thinks that their daft cliches are new and exciting.

That’s exactly how “that wild present-tense 150-page book-within-book” from Iron Council felt. For those of us who have spent years pouring over Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, hell, even David Foster Wallace and Jeanette Winterson, what China Miéville was doing in those passages was not fresh or wild, it was a fumbling, clumsy-as-fuck attempt to tackle a convention that authors of literary fiction have been refining for something like a century. To a science fiction fan who hasn’t read widely in Modern and contemporary literary fiction, the “daft clichés” I saw in Iron Council probably do seem “new and exciting.”

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that reading more widely outside our preferred genres would be of benefit to us all, readers and writers alike. A diverse gene pool is a healthy gene pool, after all.

On a more personal note, friends of mine from way back will know that I’ve always wanted to write some science fiction and high fantasy, and over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve written reams and reams of plots, character profiles, background information and supporting documents, enough to spawn a dozen novels. And I can assure you that there are more than two female characters, none of them are prostitutes, none of them get raped, they get to talk to each other about things other than men, marriage, or babies, and they even get to have adventures.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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