- The Wild West and the New Weird in K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City and China Miéville’s Iron Council
The so-called New Weird subgenre of speculative fiction is known for its uninhibited commingling of fictional genres, most prominently science fiction, fantasy, horror, and steampunk. Recent novels by two New Weird innovators, K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City (2003) and China Miéville’s Iron Council (2004), also feature clearly recognizable motifs from the genre of the Western: gunfights, outlaws, deserts, railroads, ghost towns, and so on. Transplanted from their actual historical contexts into marvelous settings, these motifs become starker, almost parodic. In that the Western represents a distinctly American milieu, Bishop’s and Miéville’s refiguring of its characteristic elements in politically aware postmodern fiction simultaneously glorifies and censures fundamental aspects of American culture. The displaced generic elements of the Western often extol American ingenuity, individualism, bravery, and optimism even as they tend to disparage capitalism, gratuitous violence, the despoliation of nature, and the devastation of indigenous peoples.
The Etched City and Iron Council utilize the violent scenes, harsh settings, and American roots of the Western genre as provocative inroads into broader issues of identity and social change. My perception of Bishop’s and Miéville’s awareness of genre and global politics informs the readings of their novels that I will offer here. After outlining the implications of depicting Western tropes, especially the genre’s archetypal desert setting, in the twenty-first century, I will assess how the Western fits into the [End Page 87] multifaceted genre known as the New Weird. My reading of The Etched City explores the roles that place and gender play in transforming the personal identity of its protagonist, as she strives to resist the violence characteristic of both the Western and New Weird genres. My discussion of Iron Council evaluates the tribulations of collective revolution within a hostile setting via the manipulation of technology (represented by the train), which can serve beneficial or malicious ends. The weirdness of the New Weird, with its invented worlds and supernatural effects, estranges readers from the violence, settings, and personae characteristic of the Western and compels them to interrogate these elements of a genre crucial to the American mythos.
Despite its recognizable imagery and often formulaic conventions, the Western is a deceptively complex genre, partly because its narrative spaces (to use Michel de Certeau’s terminology) are inflected by a nebulous interplay between the places and histories of the real American West and the many myths that have been created about it. Moreover, the long-running popularity of Western fiction has ensured that the fictional narratives themselves also engage in this ongoing reciprocity between reality and myth. Matthew R. Turner describes how the “codes and images” that act as generic markers of the Western—“the lonesome hero, moral justice enforced by violence, the coming of the railroad, the shoot-out, the open prairie, hats, horses, cowboys, and guns” (218)—bear traces of their American roots even when removed from the geographical context of the American West.1 K. J. Bishop and China Miéville are non-American authors—Australian and British, respectively—who in deploying the tropes of this distinctly American genre raise questions about the Western’s relevance in twenty-first-century global discourse. [End Page 88]
Perhaps the popular perception of the George W. Bush administration triggered renewed fascination with Western themes. During his presidency, from 2000 to 2008, articles from around the world referred to Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy” and to his characterization as a “cowboy.” Paul Harris, for example, writing for London’s Daily Mail, poked fun at “Dubya’s” cowboy boots and matching diplomacy: “there would probably be a lot of pacing around with Tony Blair before [Bush] could ride triumphantly into the sunset[—]the kind of talks for which a man definitely needs his favourite boots” (13). Bush’s language at times suggested that the title “Cowboy President” suited him well. His often-quoted declarations that Americans would “smoke [Al Qaeda] outta their holes” and that Osama bin Laden was “wanted dead or alive” (qtd. in Keller 256) recalled scenes of...