Golem of Memory: Revolutionary Interruptions, Railway Imaginaries, and China Miéville’s Bas Lag
I. Trains of Thought
The railroad has been an icon of orderly progress for two centuries. Tracking commentary on it is like reading a greatest hits album put out by the Patriarchs of Social Theory—Marx, Weber, Foucault, Latour—for all of whom it symbolizes a certain association between rationalization, progress, cohesion, and capitalism. It is an association Lenin invoked when he claimed that the railway industry revealed the deep and mutually constitutive history of imperialist violence and capitalist development. On this, Gandhi agreed with Lenin, noting that trains had been a vector for colonial difference on the subcontinent, and that anyone who thought the railroad would eliminate differences, as many members of the liberal intelligentsia did, was like an opium eater who advocated addiction because it would teach people that addiction is bad. It wasn’t his most thought-out analogy, but it was certainly a vivid one.
Scholars since then have developed theses on railroads from all across the postcolonial world, arguing that railroads (and other such vast infrastructure projects) initiated a dramatic transformation in both productivity and subjectivity. Manu Goswami, for instance, talks about the “magical agency” of railways, and describes what a protean signifier they have been in the subcontinent. Brian Larkin, similarly, argues that an attention to such infrastructure helps us diagnose what he calls the “colonial sublime,” the feeling of awe and helplessness instilled in colonial subjects by such dramatic enactments of imperial power. In Larkin’s reading, infrastructure projects like railroads stabilize the social contract of imperialism by managing both populations and their imaginations; they’re the crystallized enactment of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot once called the management of imagination.
Trouillot argues that Western imperialism was sustained by the twin projection of alterity and identity in generating spatial and temporal distance between the West and the Rest, even as global production flows and labor migration steadily implicated ever larger portions of the globe:
In creating the ‘West” the European Renaissance shaped a global geography of imagination. That geography required a “Savage Slot,” a place for the inherently Other…. That geography of imagination went hand in hand with a geography of management that made possible—and was in turn fueled by—the development of world capitalism and the growing power of North Atlantic states. . . . It is in the interplay of these geographies that we are likely to identify the joint production of sameness and difference that characterizes dual expansion of the North Atlantic and of world capitalism.
Most intellectuals until about the mid-19th century conceived of progress incrementally; to them, science was one index of steadily and reliably improving reason. The railroad engendered a dramatic rupture within that imagination since it suggested the possibility of a future utterly unlike the past. It accelerated time. The railroad introduced the sense of a liminal present, of being caught between a lost past and an unknown future. In the metropoles of imperial power as well as in the colonies, the railroad nurtured a profound sense of liminality, of a present always about to be surpassed by the arcane application of bureaucratized technology. The railways ushered in what we now call techno-utopian thinking, the idea that the future will be manifestly wondrous (or manifestly hideous), even if we don’t quite understand how or why it comes to be.
Techno-utopian thought cultivates what Lorraine Daston once called the epistemology of the hidden, the possibility that something can be both rational and yet completely inexplicable because it is the product of necessarily mysterious causality. Daston argues that this epistemology, and its attendant interest in “wonder” as an object of thought, was characteristic of the “preternatural philosophy” of early modernity. While wonder itself was subsequently exiled from the ideology of scientific reason—to paraphrase Daston, wonder came to be attached to the effects rather than the causes of science—the epistemology of hidden truths and forces that it sustained remained within the physical and biological sciences. Speculative philosophy, meanwhile, was transformed into speculative literature, which embraced the uncanny and the occult with enthusiasm. This differentiation between literature and philosophy is evident in a figure like Francis Bacon, who was simultaneously a preternatural philosopher and the writer of influential utopian fiction like New Atlantis.
The generic term “speculative fiction” is, of course, of far more recent vintage, the product of a moment in which the once very sternly policed border between fantasy and science fiction has grown readily permeable. Still, there remains some analytic purchase in distinguishing between the genres, because they deploy distinct imagery and generate very different reality-effects for their audiences. The railroad presents an interesting generic conundrum for precisely this reason. It is too scientific for most conventional fantasy and too technologically mundane for science fiction. Railroads are just as liminal in speculative fiction as they are in life; they blur boundaries, between worlds and between genres. Novels that use them often do so tangentially, though there have been trains in speculative fiction ever since Jules Verne’s The Steam House, and coal- or steam-driven technology was central to early science fiction. Speculative novels that make railroads central to their worldbuilding, such as Iron Council (as well as, say, Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World duology and Phillip Reeve’s Railhead trilogy) are impossible to neatly categorize.
Frederic Jameson once wrote that SF is a “symbolic meditation on history itself,” but the question remains, what kind of symbol? Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ offer us the most constructive answer with their arguments that the distinction between science fiction and fantasy lies in their alternative approaches to “subjunctivity,” or the temporality of the speculation on offer. In their reading, fantasy is about negation; what did not happen, measured on a gradient from might have happened to could not have happened. It “contravenes reality,” and that denial is sustained and explored within the text. Science fiction is about actualization; what has not happened, measured on a gradient from has not happened yet to will not happen. This allows us to conceive of fantasy and science fiction as related and flexible strategies for maintaining and negotiating a given text’s distance from reality—rather than hegemonic patterning practices for the production of texts themselves—making subjunctivity a useful analytic with which to enter a novel as complex as China Miéville’s Iron Council, the third book in his Bas Lag series.
(Before we do, I should say that this is a partial reading of Iron Council. This essay is part of a broader project in which I read all the Bas Lag novels and theorize the city of New Crobuzon as a postcolonial imperium, arguing China Miéville uses the setting as a spatialized double-take— he looks ahead, as it were, even as it looks back, arousing a kind of nostalgia for the future. While my reading here is built around the story of Judah Low, people who have read the novel will know that Judah is only half the story—it’s the Ori/Toro/Spiral Jacobs arc that describes what’s happening in the city itself. In the [much] longer version of this essay I am currently writing, I read that arc through postcolonial theory, arguing that Toro—the shadowy “native informant” as Spivak might say—offers us a compelling counterpoint to Judah’s messianism.)
II. A Breach in Time
Joan Gordon once argued that the Bas Lag universe is a heterotopia, a concept she borrows from Foucault, whose characterization of heterotopias is based on an assumption that modern time has been absolutely “de-sanctified,” while space remains more protean and generative. Foucault argues that heterotopias are “often linked to slices of time” and can open into “heterochronies.”
The Bas Lag universe certainly disorients both time and space. The city of New Crobuzon is, depending on the novel, a mirror image of Dickensian London, interwar Paris, and contemporary New York—unsettling our chronologies as well as our geographies. The novels in the sequence that explore the world outside New Crobuzon, similarly, invoke tropes from different eras in “our” world. The Scar is a romance about pirates; Iron Council is all about cowboys. This complex temporal scale is why I think it is more accurate to describe Bas Lag as a heterochronotopia.
Most of Miéville’s creativity funnels itself into world-building, and he is usually a fairly linear writer of plot. Iron Council—like Railsea after it—departs from this model and embraces a complex internal chronology. It is narrated from the cross-cutting perspectives of two men. Ori is a young radical in the city of New Crobuzon, who joins a gang that assassinates the mayor of the city and then participates in the popular insurrection that follows. Cutter, meanwhile, follows his lover, Judah Low, across the world in search of the mythical Iron Council. The entire story unfolds in the backdrop of war and insurrection, and all of its protagonists are radicalized, subversive, and deeply committed to revolutionary change.
One of most important characters in Iron Council is Judah Low, whose involvement in founding the Iron Council is described in a long flashback within the novel. As the flashback starts, Judah Low has been commissioned as an anthropologist by a railroad baron called Weather Wrightby, who asks Judah to study the species that inhabit the wild terrain over which Wrightby’s proposed railroad is to be built. Judah Low begins living with the stiltspear, a quiet and graceful race skilled in the art of golemetry, the ability to animate matter. Judah tries to learn golemetry, though he is unsuccessful until suddenly blessed by a stiltspear elder. Throughout this novel, this unexpected potency behaves in Judah like a revolutionary (if not always moral) compass: it is a force for righteousness of a certain sort, an implacable and sometimes ruthless urge to end exploitation. Unable to save the stiltspear and their swamp from Wrightby’s railroad, Judah becomes an itinerant on the unfolding tracks, eventually joining the vast workforce of people laying the tracks and taming the countryside.
The railroad workforce depends on multiple forms of labor—skilled technicians, biologists, foragers, hunters, cartographers, engineers, track-layers—spread out over hundreds of miles. The train that houses the supplies and materials moves forward by slow inches, and there exists in its wake a small village of prostitutes and camp-followers, while the people who survey the land and blast the mountains and build the bridges are often working weeks ahead of the train itself. The principal distinction, however, is between Remade and Free-and-Whole workers. The Remade are people who have been brutally transfigured as punishment for various crimes and are then press-ganged into harsh labor. Even species-differences in the workforce are not as firmly sustained as the divide between the Remade and the Free.
The Remade are slave labor; reading this section of Iron Council brings to mind Iyko Day’s argument about the racialization of Chinese workers on the Canadian transcontinental railroad. In Alien Capital, Day argues that the strict racial boundary-making on the railroad reveals the tension between abstract labor and concrete labor, or between value and virtue. “Unequal labor,” she writes, “takes on the appearance of symbolic equivalence.” This process of symbolic substitution entails that the concrete particularity of Chinese labor “expresses itself culturally as abstract labor,” and Chinese people come to be seen as the personification of faceless, interchangeable, and commodified labor. White workers, meanwhile, are associated with concrete labor, the production of virtue in both symbolic and material terms. Day describes a strike initiated by Chinese workers that failed to achieve its goals because Irish workers refused to rebel alongside “Cheap John Chinaman.” One way to contend with this “fungibility of abstract labor,” Day continues, is to consider the process of abstraction and substitution as producing not interchangeability but “repetition with a difference” in order to highlight the mediation involved in constructing stereotypes.
The Remade of New Crobuzon are the embodiment of this “repetition with a difference.” None of them are precisely alike— they are emphatically unalike—but they are all enslaved and fetishized. This is perhaps why, when these workers go on strike, they succeed in building solidarity. It is their ineradicable difference, rather than an enforced similarity, that allows them to notice shared concerns.
To go back to the story, then: we left Judah working on a railroad alongside workers of diverse species and kinds. The train eventually reaches a deep ravine, where all the disparate members of the enterprise halt and mingle. There is an insurrection, the militia are defeated, and the Iron Council is born. Realizing that there will be repercussions from New Crobuzon, the train runs into the wilderness, laying tracks a few miles at a time and pulling them up behind itself. This image of the perpetual train reveals Miéville’s fondness for mingling science fiction and fantasy—his fluency in tropes from both genres is how he marks his heterochronotopias. Iron Council is thoroughly imbued with the fantastic—Judah Low is a magician, not a scientist—but the perpetual train is a beloved science fiction trope, memorialized most famously in Inverted World, Christopher Priest’s dystopian energy-crisis novel. In Priest’s book, the eternal train halts once it returns to history; it is the consequence of a distorted perspective and a false ideology. In Miéville’s book, the perpetual train is in constant flight from an imposed history— making, along the way, its own history.
Several years pass after the founding of Iron Council, and Judah returns to New Crobuzon. He eventually learns that militia have tracked down the Council and sets out to warn them, followed by Cutter and a few other companions from the city’s radical movements. They warn the train, which has by this time become a beloved icon of insurrection in the city, and also tell the Council of the brewing discontent in New Crobuzon. With nowhere left to run, the Council decides to return to the city. Meanwhile, rumors of this return foment a rebellion in the city, where radical organizations stage a rebellion reminiscent of the Paris Commune. Unfortunately, the Council and the Commune can’t coordinate, and the Commune seems to be crushed just as the Council is hurtling down the last mile.
This is when Judah Low intercedes, encasing the train within a time golem. A few minutes later, he is killed by another founding member of the council, who is outraged by his arrogant dismissal of the collective agency of the council. Yet the time golem persists, an envelope of temporal indifference, and it makes the perpetual train into an eternal fossil. No one can enter the train, and no one can leave. The renegade and revolutionary train, always approaching and never reaching.
* * *
Judah Low was an expert golemist. He could make golems out of matter as insubstantial as sound, air, and darkness. Miéville theorizes golemetry as an intervention, an interruption, the subtle and precise art of objectivity: making meaning and order out of inchoate matter. Golems are objects in Latour’s sense of the term: material entities that intervene in the world within which they are produced, that require effort and organization to sustain, and cannot be detached from their networks of production and reproduction. “It is always dangerous,” Latour writes, “to imagine that, at some point in history, inertia is enough to keep the reality of phenomena that have been so difficult to produce.” Scientific objects, Latour rightly insists, have to be cultivated, preserved, and maintained; the time golem survives Judah Low precisely because it is a magical object that harnesses inertia. A time golem is a reshaping of time; “a clot in diachrony,” Miéville calls it, “an argument in time.”
Remaking has not happened yet in our society and time-golems could not have happened; together they highlight all that might have happened and did not happen and how these absences shaped the reality we inhabit. Iron Council is a history—of industrialization, colonialism, and revolutionary Paris—served with a twist. It is, more accurately, a breach within history, an argument about temporality.
The concept of the breach, the irruption of the uncanny into the world, has been Miéville’s central theme across the body of his work. In Iron Council, the border being patrolled is narrative memory itself; the only way that the Iron Council can be irretrievably lost is if the memory of it is lost and the militia succeed in re-signifying the symbolism associated with it. In this sense, the time-golem preserves only the ghost of the train; human beings must ensure that the perpetual train remains a fertile political object. The future efficacy of the Iron Council is thus tied to the cultivation of a certain historical and political consciousness that recognizes, to slightly rephrase philosopher Walter Benjamin, that even ghosts are not safe from a victorious enemy.
Miéville thematizes his narrative around an epistemological oscillation that Etienne Balibar has identified in Marx’s theorization around the proletarian consciousness. Balibar argues that Marx characterizes a paradoxical proletariat, at once passive and active, both beyond and outside history. He calls this the tension between the “Machiavellian moment” and the “Messianic moment” in Marx. The proletariat is a radical collective subject that seizes a historical crisis and emancipates itself—this is the “Machiavellian moment”—but how is that auspicious moment and that instituting crisis to be identified and isolated out of the eternal catastrophe of history? This redemption requires a transformation in historicity itself, a process that Balibar calls the “contradictory crystallization of the past and the future.” It demands, in short, the intervention of a missing force in history, a messianic interruption.
However, as Derrida once implied and Judah Low illustrates, messiahs are only really useful until they arrive. Judah Low, who negated the collective agency embedded in the Council in his bid to save it, represents both the perils and potentials of messiahs. Iron Council is a thought experiment that stages, narratively, the epistemological and political conundrums attendant upon the messiah; in the classic tradition of speculative fiction, it literalizes metaphors. Like all speculation, it manipulates probabilities, but it doesn’t resolve them. It offers us instead a complex meditation on what Christopher Pinney once called the “the disjunction between object and epoch.” By subverting the iconic chronotope of the railroad and disclosing a vision of disorderly disruption, Iron Council turns the ideological infrastructure of the masters—the magical agency of the railway—against them, and it reminds us how protean even the most tired trope can be. The train is a metaphor that turns and turns again; at this point, it practically overflows with contradictory meaning.
In that spirit, I close now with three images. The first is the “freedom train” that commemorated India’s 50th birthday. It was meant to convey the spirit of national unity and progress, but recalled, for many people, the haunting memory of Partition, when trains bulging with corpses arrived daily in stations all across north India. The second is the Iron Council, a frozen moment of revolution. Mediating between them is Arun Kolatkar’s two-headed station master, who rejects every timetable except the very first, a text in which he reads the destiny of all that has been and can be.
Nandini Ramachandran (she/her) is an anthropologist currently living in Shillong, India.
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This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes on October 11, 2020 from a hard pitch following the editor’s acceptance of another article by the author; the author and editor had no prior acquaintance. No review copy was arranged by ARB.
One thought on “Golem of Memory: Revolutionary Interruptions, Railway Imaginaries, and China Miéville’s Bas Lag”
This was a very interesting read, thank you. Since reading One Hundred Years of Solitude I have been thinking a little about trains (and other industry) and colonialism, and although I didn’t find Iron Council ‘enjoyable’ to read (compared to Perdido and The Scar), its commitment to delivering a strong political message within speculative fiction was impressive and admirable. Looking forward to future posts on this topic.