Agony Column Fiction



An Agony Column Exclusive
An Excerpt From
Iron Council

Excerpt Copyright © 2004 China Miéville. Text Here appears courtesy China Miéville, Pan Macmillan UK and Del Rey/Ballantine/Random House US.

A window burst open high above the market.

Windows everywhere opened above markets. A city of markets, a city of windows.

New Crobuzon again. Unceasing, unstintingly itself. Warm that spring, gamy: the rivers were stinking. Noisy. Uninterrupted New Crobuzon.

What circled around and over the city's upreached fingers? Birdlife, aerial vermin, wyrmen (laughing, monkey-footed things), and airships of cool colours, and smoke and clouds. The natural inclines of the land were all forgotten by New Crobuzon, which rose or fell according to quite other whims: it was mazed in three dimensions. Tons of brick and wood, concrete, marble and iron, earth, water, straw and daub, made roofs and walls.

In the days the sun burned away the colours of those walls, burned the raggedy ends of posters that covered them like feathers, making them all slowly a tea-yellow. Oddments of ink told of old entertainments, while concrete desiccated. There was the famous stencil-painting of the Iron Councillor, repeated in incompetent series by some dissident graffitist. There were skyrails, strung between jags of architecture like the broken-off pillars of some godly vault. The wires sliced air and made sound, so wind played New. Crobuzon as an instrument.

Night brought new light, elyctro-barometric tubes of glowing gas, glass in convolutes, made to spell out names and words or sketch pictures in outline. A decade gone they had not existed or had been very long forgotten: now the streets after dark were all dappled by their distinct and vivid glare, washing out the gas lamps.

There was such noise. It came without remorse. There were always people everywhere. New Crobuzon.

"...and then the other op-er-at-or told the formal in-stee-gay-tor that his suit could not be heard the very thought was quite absurd..."

On stage chanteuse Adeleine Gladner, under her singing name Adely Gladly (pronounced to rhyme, Aderly Gladerly), yelled and crooned through her number "Formal Instigation" to applause and catcalls drunken but loud and totally heartfelt. She minced, kicking under her skirts (her costume a long-dated exaggeration of a street-walker's flounces, so she looked more coy than libertine). She shook her lace trimmings at the punters and smiled, scooping up the flowers they threw without breaking her song.

Her celebrated voice was everything it was held to be, raucous and very beautiful. The audience were hers completely. Ori Ciuraz, at the rear of the hall, was sardonic but by no means immune. He did not know the others at his table well, only to tip his glass to. They watched Adely while he watched them.

Fallybeggar's Hall was huge, clogged with, smoke and drug smells. In the boxes and raised circle were the big men and their hangers-on, and sometimes the big women too. Francine 2 the khepri queenpin came here.Ori could not see well over the fringe of plaster drakows and obscene spirits, but he knew that the figure he saw moving in that box was a player in the militia, and that that one was one of the Fishbone Brothers, and that in that one was a captain of industry.

Up close to the orchestra by the stage it was a cramped clot of men and women, polyglot and many-raced, gazing at Adely's ankles. Ori tracked tribal boundaries.

A slick of vagabonds, petty thieves and their bosses, discharged foreign soldiers, discharged jailbirds, dissolute rich and tinkers, beggars, pimps and their charges, chancers, knife-grinders, poets and police agents. Humans, here and there cactus-heads poking over the crowd (allowed in only if their thorns were plucked), the scarab-heads of khepri. Cigarillos hung from mouths, and people banged their glasses or cutlery in time while waiters went between them on the sawdusted floor. At the room's edges small groups coagulated, and one like Ori -- well-used to Fallybeggar's -- could see where they overlapped and where they separated, and make out their composition.

There must be militia in the hall, but none wore uniforms. At the back the tall and muscled man, Derisov, was an agent, -- everyone knew it but did not know how high or how connected he was, so would not risk killing him. Near him a group of artists, debating their schools and movements with sectarian passion.

Closer to Ori and watching him, a table of well-turned-out young men, New Quillers, dry-spitting ostentatiously when any xenian came too close. They would hate Ori more than khepri or cactus, as he was race-renegade; and emboldened suddenly by the environs, by cosmopolitan and raucous Fallybeggar's, Ori raised his head to meet their gazes and put his arm around the old she-vodyanoi beside him. She turned in surprise but, seeing the Quillers, gave a grunt of approval and leaned into Ori, making exaggerated eyes at him and them in turn.

"Good lad," she said, but with his heart fast Ori would only stare at the four men who watched him. One spoke angrily to his companions but was hushed, and the one who quieted him raised his eyebrows to Ori and tapped his watch and mouthed later.

Ori was not afraid. His own tribe were near. He almost nodded at the Quiller in sarky challenge, but such complicity revolted him and he turned away. He could see his friends and comrades at their arguments, disagreeing more fiercely than the painters, but they would come together to fight with him if needed. And there were several of them. The Quillers could not face the insurrectionists.

The crowd were raving for Adely by now, singing along with her show-opener and making delighted pitter-patter motions with their fingers as she concluded–"once again, in the raaaaain"–and then becoming delirious with applause. The Quillers, artists, and all the other grouplets joined in with no restraint.

"Oh now thank you all, oh you're my darlings, oh you are," she said into the cheers and, professional as she was, they could hear her. She said: "I came out here to say good evening and ask you all to show a bit of willing to them who's come up here tonight, give , em a good welcome, let' em know you love' em. It's their first time, some of' em, and we all know what the first time's like, don't we? Bit of a disappointment, ain't it, girls?" They broke up with laughter at that, and in anticipation because it was so obvious a lead-in to her song ''Are You Done?" And yes, there was the familiar comedy hoboy quacking like a duck, the opening bars, and Adely drew in a big breath, paused, then shouted "Later!" and ran offstage, to light-hearted boos and shouts of tease!

The first act came into the lights. A singing family, two children done up as dolls and their mother playing a pianospiel. Most of the audience ignored them.

Cow, thought Ori. She came on, Adely, and seemed so generous ushering in the beginners. But the crowd were there for her, so her little surprise opener could only weigh heavy on those who had to follow. She'd made them disappointments, no matter how good they were. Hard enough to come before a big name without sabotage like that, however sweetly done. Everyone would be limping through their acts, the audience eager to get back to Adely.

The harmony threesome gave way to a dancer. He was aging but agile, and Ori out of politeness paid attention, but he was one of only a few. Then a singing comedian, a poor hack who would have been jeered with or without Ade1y's intervention.

All the entertainers were pure, unRemade human stock. It concerned Ori-he did not know if it was coincidence that with these Quillers looking on there were no xenian performers. Was the New Quill Party pulling strings at Fallybeggar's? The suspicion was hateful.

At last the useless comedian was done. It was time for the final warm-up. THE FLEXIBLE PUPPET THEATRE, it said on the handbills. PERFORMING THE SAD AND INSTRUCTIONAL TALE OF JACK HALF-A-PRAYER. It was them Ori had come to see. He was not there for Adely Gladly.

There were minutes of preparations behind the curtain, while the audience chatted about the main event, the Dog Fenn Songbird. Ori knew what the Flexible Puppet Theatre were getting ready, and he smiled.

When the velvet finally parted it did so without brass or percussion, and the performers waited, so for seconds there was no notice, until a couple of little gasps as the tobacco smoke seemed to clear and show the stage-within-a-stage. There were oaths. Ori saw one of the Quillers stand.

There was the usual-the cart-sized puppet theatre with its little carved figures in garish clothes stock-still on their stage-but the miniature wings and proscenium arch had been torn off, and the puppeteers stood in plain view dressed too-nearly like militia officers in dark grey. And the stage was littered with other things, strange debris. A sheet was stretched and hammered taut and on it some magic lantern was projecting newspaper print. There were people onstage whose roles were unclear, a gang of actors, and musicians, the Flexibles disdaining the house orchestra for an unkempt trio who wore pipes and flutes and held drumsticks by pieces of sheet steel.

Ori flashed his upturned thumb at the stage. His friends were standing dead still and silent until the mutters grew intrusive and slightly threatening, and from the back came a shout of piss off. And then with a massive, painful sound, someone pounded the metal. Instantly and underneath that still-reverberating noise another music-man struck a lovely, lively tune half-modelled on street-chants, and his companion played the steel gently like a snare. An actor stepped forward -- he was immaculate in a suit, waxed moustaches -- bowed slightly, tipped his hat to the ladies in the front row, and bellowed an obscenity just-hidden from the censor by a consonant inserted at its beginning, an unconvincing nonsense-word.

And there was outrage again. But these Flexibles were consummate -- arrogant pranksters yes but serious -- and they played their audience with skill, so that after every such imposition was quick and funny dialogue, or jaunty music, and it was hard to sustain anger. But it was an extraordinary challenge or series of challenges and the crowd vacillated between bewilderment and discontent. Ori realised it was a question of how much of the play they could get done before it was unsafe to perform.

No one was sure what it was they were seeing, this structureless thing of shouts and broken-up lines and noises, and cavalcades of intricate incomprehensible costumes. The puppets were elegantly manoeuvred, but they should have been -- were designed to be -- wooden players in traditionalist moral tales, not these little provocateurs whose puppeteers had them speak back tartly to the narrator, contradict him (always in the puppets' traditional register, a cod-childish language of compound nouns and onomatopoeia), and dance to the noise and mum lewdness as far as their joints and strings would allow.

Images, even animations -- pictures in such quick cycles that they jumped and ran or fired their guns -- came in stuttering succession onto the screen. The narrator harangued the audience and argued with the puppets and the other actors, and over growing dissent from the stalls the story of Jack Half-a-Prayer emerged in chaotic form. This stilled the angry crowd somewhat-it was a popular story, and they wanted to see what this anarchic Nuevist crew would do with it.

The barebones introduction was familiar. "No one of us'll for-get, I'm sure," the narrator said and he was right, no one could, it was only twenty years ago. The puppets sketched it out. Some obscure betrayal and Jack Half-a-Prayer, the legendary Jack, the fReemade boss, was caught. They cut his great mantis claw from his right hand-they'd given it to him in the punishment factories, but he'd used it against them, so they took it away. The puppets made this a scene gruesome with red-ribbon blood.

Of course the militia always said he was a bandit and a murderer, and he did kill, no one doubted that. But like most versions of the story, this one showed him as he was remembered: champion-rogue, hero. Jack got caught and it was a sad story, and the censors let the people have it so.

It wasn't quite a public hanging they gave him -- that wasn't in the constitution -- but they found a way to show him off. They'd tethered him on a giant stocks in BilSantum Plaza outside Perdido Street Station for days, and the overseer had used his whip at the slightest wriggle, deeming it resistance. They paid people to jeer, it was mostly agreed. Plenty of Crobuzoners came and didn't cheer at all. There were those who said it was not the real Jack -- he's no claw, they've found some poor bugger and lopped off his hand, is all -- but their tone was more despairing than convinced.

The puppets came and went in front of the little plywood whipping post to which the wooden Jack was strapped.

And then da-da-da-da-da went the metal drum. All of the actors on the stage began to shout and gesture at the militia-puppets, and the screen came up with the word EVERYONE! and even the sceptical audience played along and began to shout over here, over here. That was how it had been-a diversion from some in the crowd, orchestrated or chance was debated, though Ori had his own thoughts. As the militia dangled across the little puppet-stage,Ori remembered.

It was a young memory, a child's memory -- he did not know why he had been in the plaza or with whom. It was the first time for years the militia had been seen like that in their uniforms, had been a forerunner of their turn from covert policing, and in a grey wedge they had targeted the shouting segment of crowd. The overseer had drawn a flintlock and dropped his whip and joined them, and left the tethered figure.

Ori did not remember seeing the rough man who had ascended toward Jack Half-a-Prayer until he was near the top. He had a vivid image of him, but he did not know if that was his six-year-old's memory or one constructed from all the reports he had later heard. The man-here came his puppet now, look, on the stage, while the militia's backs were turned-had been distinctive. Hairless, viciously scarred, pocked as if by decades of ferocious acne, his eyes sunken and wide, dressed inJags, a scarf pulled over his mouth and nose to hide him.

The puppet that skulked exaggeratedly up the steps called out to Jack Half-a-Prayer with a harsh voice, a twenty-year-old echo of the real man's loud and piercing call. He called Jack's name, as he had that day. And neared him and pulled out a pistol and a knife (the puppet's little tinfoil constructions glinted). Remember me, Jack? he had shouted, and his puppet shouted. I owe you this. A voice like triumph.

For years after the murder of Jack Half-a-Prayer the plays had followed the first conventional understanding. The pockmarked man -- brother, father or lover to one of the murdering Man'Tis's victims -- was too moved by rage to wait, overcome and righteous and straining to kill. And though it was understandable and no one could blame him, the law did not work that way; and when they heard and saw him it was the militia's sad duty to warn him off, and when that didn't work to fire at him, putting an end to his plans, and killing the Half-a-Prayer with stray bullets. And it was regrettable, as the legal process had not yet been completed, but it could hardly have been in any doubt that the outcome would soon have been the same.

That was the story for years, and the actors and puppeteers played Jack as the pantomime baddie, but noticed that the crowds still cheered him.

In the second decade after the events, new interpretations had emerged, in response to the question, Why had Half-a-Prayer shouted in what sounded like delight when the man came for him? Witnesses recalled the torn-skinned man raising his pistol, and thought that they had perhaps seen Jack strain as if to meet him and then of course a mercy killing. One of Jack's gang, risking his own life to bring the humiliations of his boss to an end. And maybe he had succeeded -- could anyone be sure it was a militia bullet that had ended the Remade captive? Maybe that first shot was a friend saving a friend.

The audiences liked that much more. Now Jack Half-a-Prayer was back as he had been in graffiti for decades -- champion. The story became a grand and vaguely instructional tragedy of hopes noble-but-doomed, and though Jack and his nameless companion were now the heroes, the city's censors allowed it, to the surprise of many. In some productions the newcomer took Jack's life then ended his own, in others was shot dead as he fired. The death scenes of both men had become more and more protracted. The truth, as Ori understood it -- that though Jack had been left dead and lolling in his harness the pock-faced man had disappeared, his fate uncertain -- was not mentioned.

Up the little stairs ran the scarred-man puppet, his weapons outstretched, scooping up the overseer's dropped whip (a compli-cated arrangement of pins and threads facilitating the movement), as tradition said he had done. But what was this? "What is this?" the narrator shouted. Ori smiled-he had seen the script. He was clenching his fists.

"Why pick up the whip?" the narrator said. Having been caught in the rude charm of the Nuevist production, the Quillers were definitely standing now, shouting again shame, shame. "Iber gotter gun:' said the scarred-man puppet directly to the audience over their rising cries. "Iber gotter knifey. Whybe gonner pick anubber?"

"I've an idea, pock-boy," said the narrator.

"Ibey idear already too, see?" the puppet said back. "One an dese," holding out the gun and the whip, "tain't fer me, see?" An elegant little mechanism spun the pistol in his wooden hand so that suddenly he held it out butt-first, a gift for his tethered friend, and he took his knife to Jack Half-a-Prayer's bonds.

A heavy glass trailed beer as it arced over the crowd to burst wetly. Treason!came the calls, but there were others now, people standing and shouting yes, yes, tell it like it is! Dogged, only dancing over the skittering glass, the Flexible Puppet Theatre continued with their new version of the classic, where the two little figures were not doomed or cursed with visions too pure to sustain or beaten by a world that did not deserve them, but were still fighting, still trying to win.

They were inaudible over the shouting. Food pelted the stage. A disturbance, and the master of ceremonies came on, his suit rumpled. He was hurried, almost pushed on by a thin young man -- a clerk from the Office of Censorship who listened backstage through all registered performances. His job had abruptly stopped being routine.

"Enough, you have to stop,' shouted the MC and tried to pull the puppets away. "I've been informed, this performance is over."

He was shocked out of his pompous patter. Thrown scraps hit him, so he cowered even more than he already was. The supporters of the Flexibles were few but loud, and they were demanding the show continue, but seeing Fallybeggar's man lose control the young censor himself stepped up and spoke to the audience.

"This performance is cancelled. This troupe is guilty of Rudeness to New Crobuzon in the Second Degree, and is hereby disbanded pending an enquiry." Fuck you, shame, get off, show must go on. What rudeness? What rudeness? The young censor was quite un-intimidated, and was damned if he'd put this dissidence into words. "The militia have been called, and on their arrival, all still here will be deemed complicit with the performance. Please leave the premises immediately." The mood was too mean for dispersal.

There was more glass in the air and the screams that told it had landed. Quillers were targeting the stage, Ori saw, heading to beat the performers, and he pushed himself up and indicated to nearby friends and they headed off to intercept the knuckle-cracking Quillers, and the riot blossomed.

Adely Gladly ran out, already in her risque costume, and shouted for peace. Ori saw her, just before he split his fist on the back of some Quill-scum head, then looked back at the matter in hand. On the stage the Flexible Puppet Theatre were scooping all their props out of the way. Over the noise of beating and shouts and percussions of glass the wonderful voice of the Dog Fenn Songbird begged for the fighting to stop, and no one paid her any notice.

Excerpt Copyright © 2004 China Miéville. Text Here appears courtesy China Miéville, Pan Macmillan UK and Del Rey/Ballantine/Random House US. Many thanks to all involved for their permissions.