I finished Perdido Street Station, the stunning and gigantic novel by British author China Miéville. Note that, while it is a genre novel, I didn’t specify which kind. I think it definitely is genre, but not like any genre fiction I’ve ever read before.
Miéville’s work has been compared to the writing of Mervyn Peake, which my friend Joleen tells me is quite something. I picked up a copy of the Gormenghast Trilogy (in one huge volume) while I was in Texas, and I plan on reading it by the time the year is out (or, at least one of the novels in the trilogy, since this anthology is absolutely huge). All I can say from what I know is that Peake must be an absolutely phenomenal writer to have all of that reverence from Miéville.
How can one describe the writing one sees in a book like Perdido Street Station? It is as if Charles Dickens were infected by both some kind of mind-warping veneral disease and possessed by some kind of hellish spirit determined to use writing not to bring evil into the world, but rather just to make human writing far more, er, interesting.
His ability to write spaces, mood, and his city, New Crobuzon, are amazing; but then, he is an urban person, and understands that cities are, as he says, “palimpsests of culture, architecture, history, ethnicities, politics, and just about everything else you can think of.” He has that power we so often rave about with authors who write about real places: like Joyce’s Dublin, like the dusty South one wanders through when reading Faulkner, like the opium-smoke clogged rooms of a work like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Miéville makes New Crobuzon come completely alive. Of course, it’s a nasty place, one for which most of the adjectives and adverbs he uses are either scatological or, at the very least, related to body fluids of some kind or other. Dark, foecal, filthy, foetid, putrid, phlegmatic… this is the New Crobuzon we see.
And yet, for all that darkness, there is none of the white-and-black, moralizing simplicity of Tolkien and so man of his copycat fantasists. The difference is not surprising, since Miéville has actually said Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantastical literature. Here’s some context:
Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clich? – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps – via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabinski and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on – the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.
The fact that fantasy literature is so full of proverbial cowboys with color-coded hats is one of the reasons I was mostly turned off the genre by the time I got to high school. Miéville’s protagonists are absolutely unique creatures, each one: the expatriate survivor Lin, a bug-headed woman cut off from the sisterhood of her species and engaged in a illicit romance with a human thaumaturge/research scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin. Yagharek, a bird-man who has fled the hell of his old lifea life at the center of which lies a secret crime of such wickedness that it is shocking when it is revealed, the brutal punishment for which lies on his scarred back, from which his wings have been removed.
These characters are our protagonists, to be sure, but they are also imperfect beings. Isaac is focused but also cruel at times, and he is capable of amazingly clever duplicity and of desperate and horrifying acts when he deems them (realistically, and understandably, but nonetheless horrifyingly) necessary. Yagharek, another character who performs almost as the most shining example of a hero in the story, emerging to save the day at certain points, seems for a long time to be a victim of some kind of bizarre alien justice system until you find out what he did… and then, you learn that heroes can also have dark, writing, stinking evils in their pasts, and regret; criminals can become heroes, just occasionally, just once in a while, if they are strong enough and forced by their situations to change.
Contrast this with Tolkien, where evil happens primarily because of magic. None of the heroes in the tale seem to experience lust, though a couple of them experience love. (I think one would be hard put to argue that Arwen and Strider’s romance is based on lust, given the mode in which that aspect of their story is related.) Lust in Perdido Street Station is not only present but for some characters is a source of very human experiences, pain and mistakes as well as joy and love. There is sex in this book, not graphic sex but sexuality, and adulthood. there are cuss words. There is honest rage and terror and horror and joy and all of that.
The protagonists, as flawed as they are, and as capable of error and even heinous acts, are faced with enemies who are similarly not black and white evil. There is none of the simpleminded joy of elves and dwarves and men slaughtering naturally evil orcs and Uruk-Hai. Instead, it seems every character is faced by his own secret Passion Play, where he wanders through a landscape of possibilities and choices. Evil is not a question of nature, but a kind of unsteady, crisis-suffused (and thus unstable) equation between actions and their consequences. Killing an old, dying man to save a city… is this doable? Betraying a friend’s trust, or judging a friend on his or her past? Giving up on a love when the lover is transformed into another person entirely? Shirking off the deserved punishment for one’s past sins? Using others when one needs to do so for the greater good? Lying to oneself to make evil acts doable for the sake of what might be a greater good?
So it is with their adversaries. From one of the most interesting steampunkish Artificial Intelligences I’ve ever seenheartless, but only because it is coldly mechanical and literally incapable of emotions, not because it intends to be cruelto a state-police city government that, while it is horribly authoritarian, also seems not to be thoroughly evil. While it crushes workers’ strikes, it also has, in the past, passed laws giving xenians (nonhuman humanoids) near-equal rights to citizenship. The monstrously transfigured Motley, with whom Lin deals with, is cruel and greedy, but he’s really, at bottom, just a selfish bastard, a drug dealer, more Blood or Crip than he is Uruk-Hai or Troll. Vermishank? Just a corrupt University administrator, and a sellout with connections to the government. These characters are not by nature evil, not by possession or bewitchment but rather just by their choices and actions and the consequences of those actions. And even the monstrous creatures hunted through so much of the novel, the horrifying Slake Moths, are not “evil” in the sense of Sauron; they are simply predators from a faraway ecosystem, mindless hunters that are doing what comes natural to them. As horrifying as they are when they feast on the souls of their human and xenian victims, they are no more inherently “evil” than a spider eating a fly caught in its web.
There is no moral simplicity here, none of that “Mordor is an evil land” for Miéville. I imagine Miéville could not actually write anything as simplistic as that. Just as the mood and atmosphere and landscape of New Crobuzon is very detailed, so is the texture of the city’s society, or rather the city’s societies. For New Crobuzon is a gigantic, sludgy center of trade, a patchwork of ghettoes and gated communities of wealthy citizens of all kinds of races. Anything you might want to see on the world of Bas-Lag, you can probably see in New Crobuzon. And Miéville deals well with the complexity of living in an uneasily multi-cultured metropolis very well. Race does not determine nature, or character type. No elves spouting wisdoms, no dwarves being surly but true-hearted. The only Khepri we get to know at all is Lin, who has self-exiled from her own culture; she’s an artist, and has a human lover, meaning it’s unlikely she is representative of khepri in the way Gimli is as dwarven as Bifur, Bofur, Nori, Ori, and the rest. Yagharek, another xenian we know well, is also a self-exiled ex-convict of a heinous crime, who lives away from his people, outside of a culture so alien that its crimes cannot be translated or understood by humans of New Crobuzon’s culture (which is reminiscent of Britain’s culture in the Victorian Era, with some major differences of course). Remade humans are sometimes wicked, like Motley, and sometimes wonderfully heroic like Jack Half-A-Prayer. Race (which in fantasy-novel-talk means species) is no more a determinant of goodness or evil than skin or eye color, which is, after all is said and done, a major step forward for fantasy literature.
The political texture of the novel, something I’ve mentioned before, is rich. Miéville is a socialist, actually a Trotskyite, an active in British politics, but this doesn’t make his novel a socialist fantasy. (Though he apparently has written one since, in his newest work, The Iron Council, he once mentioned in an excellent interview about how difficult writing such a post-revolution work would be, and mentions his politics a little in another interesting, if somewhat meandering interview here.) However, the politics of New Crobuzon are well-detailed, richly implied, much more well-written than what I’ve ever seen in a fantasy novel before; the state police, the dockworkers’ strike and its brutal suppression; the ties between government and organized crime and the University. (Though the government’s uneasy relationship with the ambassador of Hell is suggestive, as is Mayor Rudgutter’s resistance to some hnted-at previous bargain offered on his soul.) The racial and class politics within each of the communities (such as the khepri and the cactacae) and between them, such as the tense and harsh meeting between Isaac and the city’s beleaguered, wary clan of garuda (bird-people) come into play, and we get a sense of a great deal of complexity at play. We don’t know exactly what the government is all about, but then one never does; which is, by the way, far more satisfying than some idealized kngship that either is upheld or goes wrong, like we see in Tolkien.
Miéville himself admits to having started out with role-playing games (RPGs) and their having a continued interest for him in terms of observing the kind of world building going on in gaming today. This is an interest I share with him, actually, and while I, had I more time, would love to run some kind of RPG game for a while, Miéville’s lack of interest in playing again is understandable; one thinks that the vistas of his own imagination, solo, must be fulfilling enough, and his life busy enough, as it is. But I have to say I loved his commentary on the “adventurers” who make a short appearance near the end of the novel. The urban folk invariably see them as honorless grave-robbers and killers, mercenary types not to be trusted. For every Strider of The Lord of the Rings, one imagines there would be a few hundred more unsavory types which Tolkien never shows us. And yet these dangerous, unseemly sorts, in Miéville’s story, matter. They matter whether or not they’re true and kind and good of spirit, whether or not they’re born of kingly blood, whether or not they are in it just for the money. They are hired muscle, they do their job to the point that makes sense, and the survivor(s) get the hell out. And yet without them, and the shred of willingness to sacrifice for others in a small way that the last of them seems to still have, the plan would have failed and New Crobuzon would have been doomed. Still, there is only one act of heroics, and it is not an act based on Greatness but on Misery, a broken heart and the rage of love extinguished. And even these minor characters are deep enough. Our last moments in the mind of Pengefinchesse are stunning, amazing moments of depth into a character we hardly know, and whom we may never see again… and yet worth every letter and comma and space they take up.
The magic is also fascinating. Constructs (like robots and computers in one) function according to programs that are entered using punch-cards. Science has three branches: physical, social, and thaumaturgical, and all are developed. Research is possible, and the three are not separated. In fact, the beginnings of a Unified Theory are formed within the confines of the novel. Though there are little hexes, craft-tricks of dweomer that adventurers and housewife witches use, but this is not, like in so much fantasy, the be-all-and-end-all of magic. Magic is the subject of study, a thaumaturgical science, something that is used, as much as chemistry or logic, as a part of getting things done in the city. What I mean to say is that, while a lot of fantasy novels are stuck in a dark-ages or even classical-era world-where-magic-exists, New Crobuzon and the greater world of Bas-Lag is more like a Victorian-level world-where-magic-exists; there have been magical natural disasters (with shocking results) and there are species under study which are in some part magical in nature. It’s not just a natural world into which have been slapped a few monsters and mages.
And then there is the language used by Miéville. I don’t mean the cuss words, though some schoolmarms would doubtless find that offensive. I mean the care with which he uses words. He uses snippets of the language of Bas-Lag in ways that remind me of a skilled SF writer, and which I’ve rarely seen in a fantasy novel. Instead of the alien concotions of a Tolkien, he sometimes uses alternate spellings, such as “chymical” instead of “chemical”, and sometimes just sues words not often used but known to most reads, like “hex” instead of “spell”. The texture of the language used is therefore a lot richer, and this not only removes the novel from the books that simply uncreatively use fantasy tropes, but also renders New Crobuzon more vivid and detailed.
People talk about Miéville like he’s the “saviour of socialism” and the “savour of fantasy literature”. This was the first way I heard Miéville spoken of, by a friend. Well, the first time I heard of him spoken of after I knew who he was. I don’t know about all of that, but I do know that he’s an amazing writer and while I’m going to stay away from a lot of fantasy nonetheless, I feel he’s done a lot of the movement that I think the Canadian writer Charles de Lint started, which was to rescue fantastical literature from the hacks.
Okay, okay, I know, China, the hacks never had it anyway, not if we never let them have it, but… the amount of schlock put out just made it too difficult to find anything worthwhile, before the advent of the Internet, anyway. In any case, I have now a renewed, if weak, faith in fantasy as a metagenre. In some senses, I am already working in the genre, in the subgenre of ghost stories, right now, and I won’t lie: it was reading Miéville that made me feel such a task might not be a waste of time. Furthermore, I’ve learned a lot reading his work. Bleak or not, genre or not, Miéville’s work is an amazing piece of craft in terms of writing. He’s a skilled technician who’s also been blessed with an amazing imagnation and, I imagine, an immense capacity for hard work. While some readers have found recent works a little disappointing (but not all of them!), I think Miéville’s future looks bright. Frustratingly so for someone like me (or this guy), only a few years younger than him. Like when I look at Cory Doctorow, I feel like I really need to get my ass in gear. Well, it’s a good idea, actually. So off I go!
Before I do, though: here is a list of 50 novels socialists should read, by Miéville. And here’s a news site, The Runagate Rampant, named after a socialist newspaper in the novel I’ve been describing.