Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council: Anamnesis: The Perpetual Train

This section of Iron Council is unlike anything seen in the rest of the Bas-Lag novels. The action of the main plot, though separate by geography, is unified roughly by time. But this section, this anamnesis, is more of an insertion, an extended jaunt to Judah Low’s past to see how Judah became Judah and the birth of the Iron Council from a railway strike.

Let’s begin first with the word “anamnesis.” What does it mean? According to Wiktionary, “anamnesis” means remembrance. And that is what this section is, a remembrance of Judah Low’s past and the birth of Iron Council. However, is there a deeper meaning to the usage of the word? Or is Mieville just using an unusual, uncommon word for its strangeness? Perhaps “The Perpetual Train” is in reality an attempt to create a Marxist form of the anamnesis theory from Plato? I do not know.

To be honest, this is my least favorite section of the novel so far. It reads in many ways as a Marxist hagiography, and succeeds only slightly better. It is better than expected, with several powerful moments, but it does seem unnecessary in the larger scheme of the novel itself.

Judah Low is the featured character in this section, his history from a young scout studying the Siltspear to the master of golems is explored. The human side of him is explored, and the messianic/ prophet depiction of him is both confirmed and subverted. Judah Low is generally a passive character, he only reacts to events. And then only if his “goodness” forces him to action. Several times, it is clear that he is not in control of his own actions, that he is operating on an instinctual goodness.

This seems to be a result of the Siltspear elder who touched him, unlocking both his “goodness” as well as his potential for creating golems. Now, the Siltspear are an interesting and amazing species that do not appear for long. Imbued with a strange natural affinity for making golems of amazing forms of matter, the Siltspear are clearly inspired by Native Americans. Though the Siltspear, given their xenian nature, is seemingly incapable of understanding what the coming railroad means for them. That they as a species are doomed to die. Their fate is, perhaps, the most powerful part of the narrative.

The Siltspear are destroyed by the religious, indeed fanatical, belief in the necessity of the transcontinental railroad linking Myrshock, Cobsea, and New Crobuzon. This will open up the interior of Rohagi for New Crobuzon’s trade. And Weather Wrightby is devoted to his vision. This devotion which is also madness.

Iron Council is, in part, a novel of a weird Wild West. And “The Perpetual Train” is heavily inspired by the Wild West. The transcontinental railroad, the boom towns it creates, the wild and lawless atmosphere, infect this part of the novel.

This is best seen in Judah’s relationship with Price How, a great gambler. Price takes Judah on as a butler and sometime bed partner. Their relationship lasts until Price gets into an ever increasing stakes game with an androgynous Maru’ ahm gambler that leads to Judah being placed as a bet. Judah flees and becomes a desperado for a time.

Maru’ahm is an interesting city. The style of government must be chaotic, a casino parliament?  But the nature of Maru’ahm society brings in a colorful bunch of aristocrats who love to gamble. Much like the game on the doomed Orbital in Bank’s Consider Phlebas. Given the distance of Maru’ahm from New Crobuzon, the aristocrat gamblers are aliens, something unknown in those parts.

But it is not just Maru’ahm that is interesting. We see a little of what the hinterland of Rohagi is like. While not stated, there seem to be some minor states in the path of the train (with only New Crobuzon, Myrshock, and Cobsea of any power). And it seems clear that the fate of most of those states will be under the heel of New Crobuzon. What I wonder is: how does New Crobuzon control its extended territory? Does it utilize the Militia or local collaborators who enforce the metropolis’s will? Or is it more along the lines of fealty and tribute rather than direct control? Given the high political position of capitalists in the city, I would not be surprised if the control is not more economic with the threat of Militia force.

With the strike, rebellion, and formation of the Iron Council, it is shown that New Crobuzon can field a Militia force some distance away from the city, although it appears to be a rather small, but highly trained force. And I think that is the power of the Militia, they are hidden, highly trained, and more advanced than their opponents, whether internal or external.

The formation of the Iron Council is an absolutely amazing moment in the novel, a scene of true power. And it does illustrate the problems inherent in collectivist actions. Who is incharge? Is it permissible to circumvent the will of the group? Who decides what? All of these challenges are well displayed.

The de facto leader (though she would deny that) is Ann-Hari, the leader of the prostitutes. From her first introduction, she is a dynamic force for change, possessed of a drive for the rails and for a new way of life, a new way of being. While Judah is the erstwhile protagonist of the section, Ann-Hari is the far more interesting character.

That’s all I have for this section. Next time, we return to Ori in “The Hainting.”

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Posted on July 26, 2011, in Books and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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