"In the beginning, my father once explained to me, the inventive powers of the Ceremonies were so great that the whole City was changed. Even before the scraps of poetry escaped between the ribs of the fish - even, indeed, before the sun had set on the Ceremonies themselves - the streets of the City would begin to shift. The usual hills were laid flat, revealing great, half-recognized vistas; elsewhere, great ironstone crags and grassy banks appeared from nowhere, with rivulets coursing down them, and at their foot ran waterways which gave onto canals which gave onto ponds, and with them all sorts of bridges and sluices and tatty terraced houses with overgrown bank gardens; staircases and slip-ways would slide in and out go view do the celebrants as they left the Circus; sometimes the Circus itself would disappear only to repeat itself further down the road. You might never find the expected streets, but sometimes one of them would appear of a sudden behind you as you walked.
"People in those early days tried flagging their houses before the Ceremonies so that afterwards they might find their way home again. Whether the flags worked is not recorded, but the habit of making and planting them stuck, even when, centuries later, the City had grown too complex and well-realized for a single Ceremony to much alter its geography."
"Fantasies aren't 'hopeful', they're an admission of failure - mere masturbation." Blythe Maravell
In 'City Of The Iron Fish', Simon Ings uses Fantasy to explore an ambivalence towards Fantasy and our relationship towards art as a whole; is art's role to provide an escape from the harsh, unforgiving nature of reality, or is its job to force us to confront the truth, however uncomfortable and bleak that may be? Ings achieves this by forcing his characters to confront the fact that they may be fictional creations living in an artificial world.
The eponymous City, with its seafaring traditions and plentiful supplies of water, sprawls across two opposing hills linked by bridges. Yet it is situated in the middle of a vast desert, and the river running between the hills is one of tarmac. The City is maintained by powerful magic, which is governed by a complex and seemingly meaningless series of rituals. The people who live there have ideas and old stories about other times, other places and ways of life, but no one has ever found anything outside the City but desert. Every twenty years, the Ceremony of the Iron Fish renews the magic supporting the City, but in recent times the power of the ritual has faded, and people are starting to lose faith. While most people are happy not to question their situation, Thomas Kemp, fallen scholar and narrator, just can't help picking at the threads of weirdness surrounding him. Who put the seafaring City in the middle of the desert? Is there a wider world out there, and why is the City cut off from it? Of course there's an easy answer for those of us reading the book: because this is how the author wrote it. Compelling Fantasy or SF settings don't necessarily need to make a whole lot of ontological sense, but the works in question rarely deal with what effect living in such a transparently artificial environment would have on those who live there. There's a tendency to cordon off kitschy Fantasy art from surrealism, but in a way being trapped inside a Roger Dean painting would be as disturbing as finding yourself on the beach in 'The Persistence Of Memory'; neither parse as real. As Thomas Kemp describes his early life with his parents, going away to university, his sexual awakening, Kemp as a character is rounded and believable but the setting, intentionally, never quite convinces. There is something dreamlike about the City, with its ancient formalised meaningless rituals and its grotesque caricatures of characters recalling Gormenghast, down to the bizarre names. With its mutable geography, unexplained isolation and deserted, crumbling alleyways - 'the sort of landscape you might imagine someone concocting who had never seen a city, and had no idea what it was for' - the City resembles Bellona from Samuel R. Delany's masterpiece 'Dhalgren', another book in which the characters begin to suspect they and their situation are fictional. And so, logically enough, when Thomas and his friend the artist Blythe Maravell go on a journey outside the City to find out what is there, they come to a place marking the boundaries of their artificial existence, outside which they simply cannot exist.
None of this would be effective if what had gone before didn't give the illusion of reality, and while the City itself and the more grotesque supporting characters frequently signpost their impossible nature, Thomas and Blythe are wonderfully convincing and well rounded characters, and the everyday lives of the people they encounter throughout the City and living on the fringes of the desert ring true. Because of this, we are able to feel Thomas' and Blythe's existential horror as they reach their hands past a certain point and see them reduced from flesh to articulated plastic to stick drawings.
The book goes on to explore the effect this revelation has on both characters, and also on the City as a whole, as others make the same journey and a cult of despair and nihilism spreads. Thomas becomes an artist and seeks solace in Fantastical art, that which seeks to imagine a future everyone is beginning to realise is impossible for the City, before becoming depressed and burying himself in debauchery. Blythe, on the other hand, uses her art to confront the bleakness and hopelessness she sees all around her. The two characters struggle with the balance between hope and despair whilst the City crumbles around them into chaos. Whilst Tom eventually finds escape into Fantasy hollow and meaningless, he declares near the end of the book, 'One problem with despair... it makes you stupid!' And in many ways his despair leads him as poorly as his earlier optimism did, and Ings' depiction of a society where despair has curdled into violence and hatred is truly chilling. Ultimately, the characters band together to make a last stand performing the Ceremony of the Iron Fish in order to restore the City before it is destroyed by the nihilists. Fittingly, this has no bearing on the outcome, the real founding ceremony having been carried out by Thomas as a child in the beginning of the book and corrected later with Blythe's help, but it allows the characters to regain some semblance of agency, and the result is even the more grotesque characters get a chance to shine, to show us what they are made of.
'City Of The Iron Fish' ends with the whole idea of the City being scrunched up and tossed aside by its creator. However this isn't as bleak an ending as it may seem. With the Ceremony of the Iron Fish, the book explores the idea of art as an act of creation or reification, giving reality and meaning not just to a fictional world we imagine but the world we perceive around us. However with the second half of the book's slide into despair and bleakness, it also explores writing as an act of destruction, the act of creating people restricted by artificial boundaries as cruel, the author as a capricious god doling out cruelty upon cruelty to their creations. With the apparent destruction of the manuscript of the book, the characters are finally free from this external influence. All the characters get to interact again with those who died over the course of the narrative, giving them a chance at closure the story wasn't going to allow them. And meanwhile, the City starts to take on a new and different form, as the unseen writer prepares to write again, but not before they provide Thomas and Blythe with a way out of the narrative.