Iron Council (China Miéville)

A Hugo Nominee

I entered the B & O Railroad Museum with a little shiver of anticipation. It's easy to lose an afternoon wandering among the big iron steam and diesel locomotives. As a mechanical engineer, I feel like the steel throbs at just my resonant frequency. The giant gears and dashpots bring out a nostalgia for a time I never knew (and that fully exists only in imagination). I walked into the roundhouse dreaming of a time before the mechanical, concrete world was obsolesced by this digital farce.

"Those days are gone," a voice said with a tinge of pleading. I looked around, wondering who had been reading my thoughts. The voice continued, and I spotted its source: a woman was standing on the running board of a big 4-4-2. She was speaking to a man who was sharing the running board with her. "So, Harry, let's get off this train before someone throws us off."

Harry ignored her. He held his arms wide and pressed against the great boiler. He seemed to be murmuring to the train, or to himself, or maybe a little of both. Whatever he muttered didn't sit well and she threw out a mighty sigh. As she climbed down, I was joined by a lanky man. I normally wouldn't have stared at this private drama, but I had been caught unaware by the parallel to my private thoughts. I did, however, decide to ignore the large doll the lanky man held in his hand.

And I am pretty sure that his pack was not moving around on its own. Much.

"Can I help?" I asked the woman after introducing myself.

"Ethel," she said. She raised her hands in despair and continued, "I don't see how anyone can help. He's been like this since he got back from his last business trip."

"Bon voyage," said the doll man. He sat at the front wheel of the engine and stared up at the train-hugger. The woman's eyes darted nervously to his slightly squirming backpack.

"No, I don't think it was a good trip, no," she said, finally. To me, she said, "He thinks he can whisper the train, you know. " Then she shouted at the man, "Harry! You can't whisper a train! It's not sentient!"

Harry's lips never stopped moving, though he did frown a little more.

"He's been reading this," she said. She held up Iron Council, a book by China Miéville.

"Oh," I said. "I've read that. It's sort of urban fantasy, yes?"

"No. It is not urban fantasy," she said haughtily, as if I had said urban legend.

"Fantasy punk?" I suggested.

"Magic punk," suggested the doll man.

"Spell-o-punk"

"Wiz-punk"

"Punkasy"

"Stop it!" Ethel shouted. "It's not really punk, because it lacks the 'noir' feeling of cyberpunk. It's really more revolutionary/political/western than punk."

"Ah," I said. "We can agree that it's original?"

"Actually," said the doll man who had started withdrawing plastic arms from his pack. "It's a sequel."

"No. I don't know about original", Ethel said. "Those cactae are just Ents, if you ask me."

"Desert Ents," said the man with the doll. Along with plastic arms and legs, he had spread a tin can and some twine on the floor. He had caught Harry's attention. Harry still hugged the train, but he now craned forward to watch. "And the carnivorous trees are right out of Life of Pi."

"OK," I said. "But there's 'nothing new under the sun,' right? I liked that it wasn't the same old sword-and-sorcery stuff. If anything, the book just has too many ideas."

"'Too many notes,'" quoted the doll man.

"The important thing about the book," said Ethel, "is that even if it does win the Hugo, it might not be legal to read it in Alabama."

"Reason enough to vote for it, I say," I said, full of political vim and vigor all of a sudden. By this time, Harry had given up hugging the train. He was still on his perch; he leaned over to watch the doll man assemble the plastic and metal pieces.

"Are you making a golem?" he asked, politely.

"Of course not," said the doll man. "Golems aren't real."

Harry nodded sadly and sat on the running board.

"Tell me what's wrong, Harry." Ethel demanded.

"It was a bad trip," he said. "I was sitting there in the hotel room bathroom and I realized I'd closed the door. Can you believe it?" He shook his head. The doll man looked up with horror. Ethel and I looked on in confusion. "I got home and I wanted to find a way away. I had hoped these trains would be the answer."

"But they weren't," said the doll man.

"Nope," agreed Harry. "You see, I'm an efficiency expert. My life is devoted to streamlining and simplifying processes." He paused. "And there I sat in my lonely little hotel room and I had been wasting all this energy -- all week long! -- closing the door. And to no benefit whatsoever." He propped his elbows on his knees and cradled his head.

"There's no escape," noted the doll man. He quickly stood and walked away, leaving an assembly of duct-tape, plastic, and tin. Presently, a guard wandered by and asked Harry to step down from the locomotive. Harry did so, reluctantly.

"Have you seen a crazy guy with a doll?" asked the guard. Because of our innate distrust of authority, we shook our heads. After the guard wandered off, we stood staring at the engine.

"Let's go home," Ethel said. Harry nodded.

"So why did you come down from the train?" I asked.

"I guess I realized that there was nowhere to go. No place where there'd be true efficiency. It's all just so much arguing about nothing, really."

"Hey," I said. "What if you had left the door open and a housekeeper had barged into the room?"

Harry thought about this, then his face brightened. Before he could reply, his wife grabbed his arm.

"It's gone."

And sure enough, it was. The small amalgam of plastic and tape was no longer piled upon the floor. Movement up in the cab of the locomotive caught my attention. There was movement in the next cab over, too. All around the roundhouse, bits of plastic were moving inside the behemoth engines. Then we heard the sound.

Steam whistles.

The boilers had been fired up and stoked. Hundred-year-old hunks of iron were breathing again. The three of us looked at each other.

Then we ran.

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