Infernal Transmutation: Remembering K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City

Infernal Transmutation: Remembering K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City

By J.R. Bolt

The early aughts were dreadful years for western culture. But they were incredible for sci-fi and fantasy literature, especially the strain that M. John Harrison dubbed the New Weird. Anticipating a millennial culture shift and soon parallelling the 9/11 era’s sense of fearful uprootedness and unreality, this slipstream surge collided sci-fi, fantasy, horror and literary fiction into chimeric forms. Every week seemed to produce a modern classic courtesy of Jeff Vandermeer, Anna Tambour, China Miéville, Steph Swainson and more. Though the New Weird grouped disparate works for ease of marketing, there were common threads: bodily mutation, social decay, political upheaval, warfare and revolution. It was a movement defined, above all, by metamorphosis.

2003 saw the release of a defining work of New Weird, K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City. First published by US small press Prime Books, the book gained enough buzz to secure wide release by Tor/Pan Macmillan and Bantam Spectra in 2004. A demanding read even in its elevated company, Bishop’s debut drew on poetry, expatriate travel literature, and a long history of weird fiction—from Les Chants de Maldoror to the French Decadents and Symbolists, to the towering Mervyn Peake, to New Wave genre-exploders like J.G. Ballard and M. John Harrison. Bishop weaved these eclectic influences together to illustrate the city of Ashamoil, the lives of the refugees who flee there after a devastating civil war, and the sorcerous event that slowly transforms them all. Bishop’s opus was a crossover success, praised as an erudite and thorny achievement by literary and spec-fic outlets alike. 

Reading The Etched City today—or re-reading it—is as rewarding now as in 2003. It still defies categorization and has no direct inheritors. Then as now, the first thing one notices is how much it draws from the Western. Bishop launches immediately into her secondary world of deserts, gunslingers, untamed nature and colonial greed. As Weird West goes, Bishop narrowly predates the 2004 release of China Miéville’s Iron Council, but the weird fiction tradition has included Western elements at least since Robert E. Howard; one could make a case that sword-and-sorcery, with its wandering heroes, deserted landscapes and corrupt boomtowns, wouldn’t exist without the Western. The Etched City‘s mythic debt to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, in particular, begins on the first page. 

Like all great Westerns, Bishop’s West is much more than a series of genre nods. As an Australian, she draws heavily on her country’s parallel history of colonialist expansion and oppression, and the resulting tradition of the Australian Western, to depict the gunslinger Gwynn and the tropical city of Ashamoil. It’s a place of dense, lush atmosphere:

“Behind fences above the street, grandly conceived mansions tottered with cracked walls and fallen pillars. In the river-rich dirt, liberated where stone and macadam had split, ferns and moss sprang forth like stuffing from frayed upholstery, and vines and ivies hung over sagging verandahs in dense, trailing ropes and curtains. The vegetation was accompanied by animal life: a yellow-and-blue parrot might be seen perched in an old guelder rose, a python curled up under a public waterspout, a colony of bats hanging like tear-shaped fruit in the high branches of a jacaranda.” 

Ashamoil might strike one with notes of antebellum New Orleans, or the former Bombay of the British Raj—a febrile cross-cultural mecca as well as a sweltering colonial outpost with a history drenched in swamp water and slaves’ blood—but interviews with Bishop reveal the city to be based on her home city of Melbourne. 

With twenty years’ hindsight, it’s easier to appreciate Bishop’s daring. The wider world wouldn’t register the darker side of the kangaroo Western until later, with breakout films like The Proposition (2005) and Sweet Country (2017), but Bishop channels it with dread imagination. Gwynn is presented as a black-hat cowboy by way of a Baudelairian dandy, an erudite polymath with killing abilities close to mythical. A former general from a defeated army, now gone ronin, he gunslings his way into Ashamoil’s mercenary world as a blackbirder in a slave trade based on Australia’s own. He’s a classic archetype inverted, gone sour. Gwynn had debuted earlier in Bishop’s short story “The Art of Dying” published in Aurealis in 1997, eventually reprinted in her self-published 2012 collection That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote. A fabled duelist in the bohemian city of Sheol, this Gwynn may have been a prototype for the novel, but he’s just as much of a bastard. Later fantasy antiheroes would match Gwynn for monstrosity, but in 2003, slightly before the grimdark surge, it was unusual for the genre to feature a protagonist who’d have gladly ridden with Cormac McCarthy’s Glanton Gang. 

Indelible though he is, in the years following The Etched City‘s release, it was Gwynn’s female counterpart Raule who became the breakout character. Many readers, and ultimately Bishop herself, wished they’d seen more of her on the page. Raule is the more complex of the duo, marked by violence like Gwynn but diverging from his bloody path. She and Gwynn are introduced as compatriots, now-feral fugitives of a failed revolution against a military dictator who’s now hunting down the former resistance in the vast desert of the Copper Country. After reconnecting by chance in a depopulated town and narrowly defeating a militia detachment in a melee, the duo flee to the tropical sprawl of Ashamoil to lie low. For Gwynn this is an opportunity to get rich and build a legend, but for Raule it’s a chance to reinvent herself completely.

And she succeeds. While Gwynn delves into murder, torture and slavery, Raule renounces further violence and devotes her considerable medical skills to Ashamoil’s most abject citizens. Memorably, she does this for cerebral reasons unrelated to conscience, a trait she believes herself to lack. “Her phantom conscience—that odd, purely intellectual, unemotional organ which had grown, like scar tissue, to replace her original conscience, lost in the war—didn’t inflict her with actual feelings for any of this suffering humanity, but she felt an aesthetic objection to the squalor and the lowering of human dignity, and this if anything made her cling all the more rigorously to the principles of virtuous living that she had learned before the war. After all, civilised behaviour didn’t require actual compassion, only the ability to follow compassionate rules.”

Regardless, Raule is drawn further and further from her former comrade until any point of connection is shattered. Raule is a pacificist, a healer, possibly neurodivergent, and a dark-skinned minority woman navigating a white man’s colonial world, all traits which serve to alienate her from the city’s inner sphere while allowing her the objectivity of the outsider. From her vantage point in the gutter, Raule is first to take note of the foreboding changes in Ashamoil.

As Raule and Gwynne shift identities, so does the book; the Western elements recede and The Etched City becomes more of a philosophical crime drama. Crime fiction has its own metamorphic power. When laws are transgressed, identities are altered or shed. The question of Who can you trust? is close kin to Who are you? with answers changing moment to moment. More so when the supernatural is involved. To paraphrase weird author Matt Maxwell, crime and magic both represent the violation of known laws to attain one’s desire. 

The admixture of fantasy and crime—what one might call sword-and-skulduggery—has roots in the Gothic. It was codified by the likes of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, reinvigorated by Robert Lynn Asprin’s Thieves’ World in the 1970s, and purveyed through roleplaying games teeming with rogues and assassins. Street gangs, drug dealers and mafiosos crop up in New Wave, cyberpunk, and New Weird efforts like Perdido Street Station (2000). Like that book, Bishop’s work stands at the cusp of a genre shift, as names like Leigh Bardugo, Scott Lynch, Peter McLean and Fonda Lee have since boomed crime fantasy into a major subgenre. But none were on the horizon in 2004, and none have quite the same hauntingly dark core as Bishop.

Suitable to its underworld narrative, Bishop’s world is dystopic, with colonial capitalism—and the Hobbesian individualism at its heart—painted in a withering light. The Copper Country is an exhausted one, a post-war moonscape of ruined towns and weapons rusting in the wind, and the city of Ashamoil a hive of exploitation and poverty presided over by an aristocratic mafia. The citizens are decadent and blasé, inured to the horror that holds them aloft. “No great civilisation has ever risen and survived without some form of slavery in its foundations,” says the mysterious artist Beth, who takes Gwynn as a lover despite his source of income. Mass politics seem not to exist in Ashamoil; Raule and Gwynn are long-divorced from their political cause, with the ideology of their failed revolution, whatever it was, lost to the past. 

The city’s institutions, too, offer little hope. The convent infirmary where Raule works is a septic horror where children maimed by factory work come to have their mangled limbs amputated. The Church itself is offstage, officious and distant. If God exists in this world, perhaps He moves — but does not speak — only through a character known as the Rev, a defrocked priest prone to drunken rambles on metaphysics. Obsessed with the transition of being that comes with death, he splits his time between administering the near-dead, languishing in brothels, and sinking to the bottom of a bottle. Perhaps due to Gwynn’s own affinity with death, the Rev takes a shine to him. At least in the Rev’s mind, if death is a type of metamorphosis, so is redemption.

Gwynn and the Rev engage in Socratic arguments—metaphysical struggle sessions—about life, death and God, which flesh out Bishop’s fictional world while reflecting the depths of our own. The Rev tries to pry goodness out of the obstinately amoral Gwynn, partially to prove that the corrupt clergyman contains any himself. As he insists, “Because all is of God and nothing of God can be truly destroyed, the infernal must instead be transmuted.” This notion will prove pivotal, for like Raule and the Rev and Beth, Gwynn has a longing for metamorphosis. So does Ashamoil itself. It’s already a port city and multicultural hub, a site of transformation. As the novel itself transforms again into a more openly surrealist, fantastical work, a kind of magical plague spreads through Ashamoil’s streets, causing myths and daydreams to spontaneously come true. Women birth the stillborn babies of crocodilian gods, street corner hustlers sprout flowers from their navels—and then things get weird.

Is it all a mass hallucination? That would be too easy. Ashamoil and its residents are changing, or Ashamoil is changing its residents, but a balance has been upset. The word supernatural is used in fear; even in this secondary world, the unreal is intrusive. By the finale we see magically-forged weapons, supernatural revenge, clairvoyant drug trips, miraculous resurrections, and magical mutations of all kinds. Eventually we discover the epicentre: Gwynn’s mysterious lover, the artist-sorcerer Beth. She may not be fully human to start with, but with obsessive fervor she has twinned love and art, two vastly powerful transformative forces, to access a plane of potential, “a place where all dreaming is real,” and escape the limits of the mortal world. Her totemic w0rk, and Gwynn’s unwitting involvement as her muse, are part of an eldritch attempt to metamorphose herself. The strangeness haunting Ashamoil might be part of the project, or merely a side effect, but we know it to be the result of interchange between the mortal world and the ethereal plane. A synthesis.

“Only by being strange can we move,” says Beth in justification, “for strange acts cause us to be rejected by whatever normality we have offended, and to be propelled toward a normality that can better accommodate us.” Never was there a more succinct explanation of surrealism’s dialectics.

Drawing on philosophy and poetry as much as its fantasy roots, The Etched City remains a unique hybrid. For all its anticipation of later trends, it’s hard to say to what extent it has endured as an influence. Bishop still appears in recommendations for challenging and original fantasy novels, but rarely comes up in casual discussion. No doubt the book’s pensive melancholy is off-putting to some, as is its frank depiction of vice and violence, surreal imagery and ambiguous, apocryphal ending.

But, perhaps in confluence more than influence, Bishop resonates forward in time. The sclerotic desert empires of Anna Smith Spark, the putrescent Victoriana of Alex Pheby, the erudite amorality of Jennifer Giesbrecht and the baroque Borgesisms of latter-day Susanna Clarke all evoke an Ashamoil mood at times. Bishop’s contemporaries Steph Swainson, Jeff Vandermeer and Catherynne M. Valente continue to produce dark, imaginative hybrid works today; China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris also deals with the radical potential and Marxist underpinnings of surrealism brought to physical life. As New Weird influence has expanded to other media, similarities to The Etched City can be found in videogames, like the Dishonored series. The tropical Karnaca of Dishonored 2 is a dead ringer for Ashamoil, replete with steaming jungles, insect swarms, and a slave trade under a corrupt colonial aristocracy. Its plot even hinges upon a series of paintings created by a female sorcerer-artist, imbued with reality-altering magic. If there’s a smoking gun here, it belongs to Gwynn.

Bishop herself might be aware of these links, although she’s been off the radar for over a decade, without a public social media presence. In occasional interviews she hints at writing in progress, but the bulk of her creative output has been in sculpture, mostly bronze casts of figures that she’s sold outline. As in her fiction, these figures are chimeric, fusing human, animal and carnevale into theatrical silhouettes, with suggestions of totemic spirituality. She’s revealed no concrete plans to return to the world of speculative fiction.

Still, one always hopes. The field has changed since 2003, and in some ways diminished, but it’s likely that if it debuted today, The Etched City would still draw the same awe and appreciation that it did two decades ago. As marketing goes, New Weird may be old hat, but its spirit is unquenchable in the further regions of fiction. It’s exciting to imagine what the Next Weird might bring, and if Bishop will be part of it.

Our culture, more so than ever today, is an impatient one that demands easy, pat answers and categorizations. Ambiguity—of morality, of meaning, of taxonomy, of reality itself—is derided. But in the surreal and slipstream, ambiguity is strength. There’s value in the tension between opposing forms, even when the results at first appear monstrous. The Western myth promises regeneration through violence, but there’s a dialectical obverse: the promise of violence through regeneration. There isn’t just one possible synthesis, but an infinite number. And thanks to K.J. Bishop, at least one of them has been given a shape, and a name.


Further Reading:éville%27s_Iron_Council

J.R. Bolt is a writer and designer in Vancouver, BC. He works in film and media as Corgi Creative.
Photo by Matt Wolfbridge.