A profoundly beautiful novel, perhaps the best speculative fiction that I've read, but likewise certainly enriched by reference to its close companion text, The Scar, which parallels it in important ways, as well as to Perdido Street Station, which introduces its setting.
As in The Scar, the narrative here involves a group of outcasts who travel on a more or less traditional quest to find something in particular. Both books involve a renegade, mobile city that interacts weirdly with a bizarre breach in the fabric of the setting (here, the Stain, there, the eponymous Scar). Both involve ambitious plans by the outcasts with broad geopolitical implications. Both testify to the abject failure of grand plans.
The master figure of the writing is intervention
. The terms appears expressly on very many occasions, referring most prominently to the golemetry of the foremost protagonist, who takes his name directly from the czech legend (a connection that is not frivolous, considering that the lengthy anamnesis
section, itself a rhetorical intervention into the regular flow of narration, is a marxist retelling of the biblical Exodus); to the anarchist leader's nifty trick, an "ontic abomination" (397) that intervenes through space (327); to political puppet shows (306); and to numerous other items, including the cacotropic intervention of the Stain into normal space.
The golemetry stuff is almost always an "intervention," and is very compellingly contrasted with the art of the elementarii (500 ff). Golemetry is "an argument, an intervention, so will I intervene and make a golem in darkness or in death, in elyctricity, in sound, in friction, in idea or hopes?" Rhetoric is golemetry, then, as is political praxis. The golemetrist here undergoes a transition, from a railway scout, engaged in genocide; to an amateur-xenologist-gone-native, whereupon he acquires golemetry skills; to radicalized railway worker; to senior revolutionary; and to several other roles, none insigificant. His trajectory is complicated, but memorable.
Only slightly less important figuratively is puppetry
, of all things. We're keyed into this figure early in the narrative, when a leftwing activist involves himself in a provocative (and perhaps Brechtian) puppet show, as part of his transformation from a traditional socialist (concerned with labor unions, strikes, parliamentary procedure, learned discussions about the "toil concept of worth" and "graphs of the swag-slump tendency" (96)) to a propaganda-of-the-deed anarchist who lacks both Hoffman's wit and Alinsky's cleverness. Groups are revealed to be unwitting puppets of other groups on several occasions. While this is business as usual on the bourgeois side, the revolutionaries regard this type of malappropriation to be worthy of execution in both instances where it occurs among their own leadership, working nicely with the discussion of Garuda law at the end of PSS
Another, the museum
: the text presents several--a dead culture (167), a venereal grotesquerie (410), and impoverishment amid bourgeois excess (366). The denouement itself creates a unique museum, as part of a singular intervention. This last represents the ultimate in propaganda-of-the-deed tactics.
The denouement makes plain its judgment over which leftwing strategy is superior, regarding the tactical disagreements between some anarchists and some socialists (not to suggest that those terms are necessarily or always mutually exclusive, of course). It nevertheless defers judgment on the issue of which internal socialist tendency is superior. The text's "to the Finland Station" moment is perpetually deferred at the novel's conclusion--and thus the very Soviet post-February-pre-October dyarchy of the city resolves itself without the arrival of the setting's Lenin. (The ending's deferral-of-a-difference, a chiasmus of difference-that-defers, is a slick Derridian joke, for those who like that stuff, incidentally.)
The text sounds a pair of warnings: a revolution can become the tool of its own ruling class, and it can become the fifth column of another state's ruling class. Each of these possibilities is noted, insofar as railway industrialists might be able recapture their long-awaited profits, and as propaganda deeds can distract as much as they can awaken, even contrary to the intentions of the revolution.
There's more to be said about many other items; every page is pregnant--but this should suffice.
Recommended for sinistrals, fans of subversive puppet shows, and committed golemetrists.