Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I Love You, I Love You, I Love You
For the fortnight it took me to read this novel, I was in another world and I was in love.
Perhaps, now, I’ll retreat from that world and substitute another or others (or perhaps even return to my own world), but I will remain in love.
Is this a fantasy love or is it real? I think it’s real.
After all, is there any love that is not partly a product of your own mind?
How can a writer make this happen? How can a reader experience this? How can a person experience it in real life?
This is a sensitive review of some of the major themes of the novel. I have limited discussion of the plot, except to the extent necessary to discuss themes. I identify the antagonists, but not the process or outcome of the antagonism. Some readers feel there are spoilers.
Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?
I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction in my teens, when I was working out my taste in literature.
I had a fairly active fantasy life. Things happened in my family life that I wanted to escape, not by imagining that they didn’t happen, but by constructing my own world, my own reality, as a refuge, as a place where I could restore myself and heal.
This world exercised my brain like a muscle, I exerted my mind, I did not fear difficulty or effort or rationality or emotion or imagination. Instead, these things were concrete materials that I used to self-construct the me that is I.
They allowed me to dream, to aspire, to do and to succeed. And to relax and to manage stress.
Maps and Legends
Computerised war games were not an option in my childhood. I had plastic soldiers, metal tanks and artillery, model airplanes complete with World War I flying aces. Our home was raised about 1.5 meters off the ground and I built fictitious worlds in the hard black dirt, hills and valleys carved out of the soil and compacted, islands, isthmuses and peninsulas in imaginary oceans.
Battles raged on the ground and in the air. Cannons shot matches across the rugged terrain and took the lives of the infantry. Pilots in planes suspended from the bottom of the floorboards engaged in fierce dogfights, until one or other plunged into a hillside or the watery stillness of my imaginary ocean.
I mapped these worlds in the days before Google Earth. I created atlases of warfare, I assembled maps and legends, I taught myself German Text, so I could fill each page with my dreams. I imagined “libraries fat with forgotten volumes”, and mine.
I wanted to be an engineer, then a cartographer, finally a diplomat. I wanted to be a lover of the foreign and the exotic, a traveller, a go-between, a communicator, an advocate, a negotiator, a master of the opening gambit, a player of trump cards, an unraveller of puzzles, a solver of problems, a snorter of diplomatic corps quality cocaine, a smoker of peace pipes, someone who might be remembered for bringing two disparate peoples (or people) together.
Ultimately, I did not need fantasy literature, because I was my own fantasy and I created my own fantasy world. I drew my own map and I was my own legend.
Fantasy fiction and science fiction moved on without me, while I discovered literature that helped me understand people, relationships, the world we live in.
The closest I have got to fantasy recently has been the works of Haruki Murakami. I think I’m passionate about his novels, because they deal with the real world, almost by using fantasy as a way of seeing, a method of perception, an instrument to detect, dissect and comprehend.
Then, China Mieville appeared on the horizon and rocketed into the relative security of my world like a V2 from “Gravity’s Rainbow”.
“Perdido Street Station” (“PSS”) sat on my shelf unread for a few years, even after I read and enjoyed “The City and the City”.
When Traveller started a Discussion group on CM’s works, I decided that now was the time to bite the bullet and find out what CM was really about.
I realised, then , that I was falling in love.
”What Trick of Topography Is This?
What did CM do to make me fall so?
Let me try to tell you as best I can…
PSS is first and foremost the tale of a city, of New Crobuzon. (I still have to pronounce this word carefully. I have never spoken it to a person in real life. Even now I mouth it hesitantly.)
It sits astride the confluence of two rivers, the Tar and the Canker, which join to form one, the waters from the two retained, but somehow transformed, almost dialectically, into the River Gross Tar.
New Crobuzon is an Industrial Age City-State Republic. It teems with people, beings, trade, commerce, ideas, ambitions, success, failure, suffering and misery.
It teeters at some tipping point where just a nudge could bring the entire structure collapsing down like Einsturzende Altbauten.
And, surely, some peril does emerge to give it that nudge, but cometh the time, cometh the man.
Only in CM’s hands, it is not just cometh the man, it is cometh the man and the woman (women actually).
They are not your common or garden variety heroes (just as the antagonists are not common or garden variety moths).
They are an indie “band a parte”, in a Godardian or Tarantino-esque sense. You could almost call them a “motley crew”, except that CM has reserved that name for one of the principal antagonists.
They are a ragamuffin bunch of outcasts with outré taste (1).
(a) Out of the common course or limits; extravagant;
(b} Bizarre; outlandish (as in, an outré costume)
My first mental development had in it much of the uncommon - even much of the outré.
- Edgar Allan Poe.
Boys and Girls Own Adventure
Even as I write this, I realise that PSS contains something of Charles Dickens, British Imperial adventure stories (especially tales of Biggles and his various sorties), pulp fiction, B-movies, French originals, Hollywood re-makes and cheap Italian rip-offs.
To quote critic Don D'Ammassa from the Introduction to the “Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction” (thank you Wiki):
”An adventure is an event or series of events that happens outside the course of the protagonist's ordinary life, usually accompanied by danger, often by physical action.
“Adventure stories almost always move quickly, and the pace of the plot is at least as important as characterization, setting and other elements of a creative work.”
D'Ammassa argues that the element of danger must be the principal focus of an adventure novel.
For him, Charles Dickens' novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is an adventure novel because the protagonists are in constant danger of being imprisoned or killed.
In contrast, “Great Expectations” is not, because "Pip's encounter with the convict is an adventure, but that scene is only a device to advance the main plot, which is not truly an adventure."
While this distinction might be intellectually astute, I don’t really care to apply it to PSS.
It is a stew with meat and vegetables. There would be no gain from an argument about what is principal or secondary.
Suffice it to say that, what embarks from the intellectual platform later becomes a rollercoaster ride.
A Fine, but Medieval, Romance
Apart from the scientific and philosophical content, the other aspect of PSS that immediately appealed to me was the romance, especially the extent to which it was overtly erotic.
Again, while trying to define the role of adventure in PSS, I stumbled across a discussion in Wiki, which helped me define my appreciation of the romance at the heart of the novel:
” Adventure has been a common theme since the earliest days of written fiction. Indeed, the standard plot of medieval romances was a series of adventures.
“Following a plot framework as old as Heliodorus, and so durable as to be still alive in Hollywood movies, a hero would undergo a first set of adventures before he met his lady. A separation would follow, with a second set of adventures leading to a final reunion.”
That isn’t a bad summary of the plot of PSS at an abstract level.
At the level of a medieval romance, there is a sense in which a knight errant (Isaac), portrayed as having heroic qualities (hmm), goes on a quest and experiences various marvel-filled adventures (hmm).
Later, these types of stories were recast from an ironic, satiric or burlesque point of view (e.g., “Don Quixote”).
It might be more accurate to place PSS within this later romantic tradition.
Isaac is not exactly a hero, but he is not quite an anti-hero. He is a post-modern, fat bastard, nerdy, scientific Everyman, who rises to the occasion when he is called upon.
There is a debate in the Discussion Group as to whether he is naïve, especially because he has eschewed a traditional academic career in order to pursue his more outré personal scientific vision.
I wouldn’t call this naïve, though I would settle for idealistic, even if it requires him to get down, get his hands dirty and even get his clothes a little grubby.
Strange Partners: The Curious Dance of the New Woman and the Imperial Adventurer
I’ve borrowed this title from the name of a review by Teresa Mangum of the study, “New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Victorian Britain: Gender, Genre, Empire” by Lee Anne M. Richardson.
If you’ll allow me to treat Isaac as an Imperial Adventurer, then Lin is the New Woman who enjoys a curious dance with him.
It’s not just curious because of their moves, but because of their physical make-up.
New Crobuzon doesn’t just consist of human forms, it consists of multiple sentient life forms, many of which have characteristics associated with ancient religions and mythology.
Lin is a Khepri with a female body and a scarab beetle head.
She is an artist with an outré taste and sensibility, while Isaac is the outcast scientist who falls in love with her, even though this is perceived as a socially taboo transgression.
Needless to say, there is not just love, but a smorgasbord of sensory pleasures including sight, scent, taste, touch, lust and pleasure sex, notwithstanding the partial physiological incompatibility.
Some readers seem to be grossed out by this physical challenge. I felt it highlighted the authenticity of their love. I found the relationship convincing and highly erotically charged.
While I’m not widely read in the field of erotica and pornography, CM’s vision of this relationship really turned me on.
It would take a great writer to write scenes of affection and delight that appealed to me as much as those featuring Lin and Isaac.
Having said that, CM replicates the erotic charge in his description of the principal antagonists in the novel.
The threat to New Crobuzon comes from giant slake-moths that feed on dreams.
We see them transform through their life cycle from larva to pupa to adulthood, from caterpillar to cocoon to moth.
During pupation, the larval structures of the moth are broken down, while the adult structures are formed.
The pupa is inactive and usually static and sessile (unable to move about).
They derive sustenance from the psychic energy of the non-rational part of the mind of those around them. They suck out the dreams of the inhabitants of New Crobuzon and leave them mindless and mute.
Feeding is described in almost sexual terms, but having fed, the slake-moths become sexually active and fertile, they fly around, looping, falling, stroking, touching, arousing, copulating…juicily, ardently, ecstatically.
This is gross, even though CM uses the same language he would use for Lin and Isaac.
It’s worse when you know that slake-moths are “efficient, brilliant predators” and that they have no natural predators of their own.
However, the juxtaposition of their non-sentient sexuality with that of Lin and Isaac makes me wonder why their sexual activity cannot be enjoyed, theoretically at least, to the same extent as other erotic behavior.
The answer must be that it is just too remote from what we are used to, besides it might be the sentience that creates the proximity to human sexual response.
As I’ve mentioned, even scarab beetle heads are too remote for some readers. There is a point at which sexual experience is too animal, and not sufficiently close to human sexuality to enjoy.
However, CM at least asks us to contemplate sexuality, transgression and pleasure beyond what we are comfortable with.
Rape as Social Transgression
I won’t mention their name out of a concern for spoilers, but one of the characters is suffering a punishment for a rape.
While this act is offensive and illegal within our society, in the context in which it occurred, it is not punishable as a crime in its own right, but as an example of depriving a person of their right to choose.
Thus, instead of rape being cast as an offence against the body, it is cast as an offence against the mind.
It denies the freedom of the “victim” and limits their choice.
The penalty might be the same or even higher. However, CM uses this conceptualization of the crime to test Isaac’s reaction to the punishment.
Initially, he sympathises with the perpetrator and can’t understand the gravity of the crime.
Then, when he translates the act from the apparently innocuous restriction of choice to physical rape, he starts to sympathise with the “victim”, Kar’uchai, who doesn’t want to be painted as a victim and simply asks Isaac to respect the laws of her society and the punishment it regards as appropriate.
Kar’uchai counsels Isaac not to translate her society’s laws into his social context, but instead to appreciate them on their own terms.
Ultimately, despite his affinity with his friend, Isaac elects to respect the law of her society, to respect its sovereignty, almost as if it was primarily an issue of international relations.
Obviously, it is still a moral and criminal issue. However, Isaac accepts that each society has the right to define and enforce its own practices, customs and laws.
It is not always appropriate, at least in the quasi-Victorian Steampunk era, to judge a society from the outside.
Isaac’s “Principia Mothematica”
Isaac has had a number of scientific interests during his career, including Unified Field Theory, where his allegiance is to Moving Theory rather than Static Theory.
However, the interest most relevant to the battle with the slake-moths is crisis energy and his invention of a crisis engine.
So what is crisis energy?
This is major shit we’re dealing with here, mate, so…um…pay attention.
1. We’re talking about the energy in matter such as an object.
2. There are three types of energy: kinetic, potential and crisis.
3. Kinetic energy is the energy the object possesses due to its motion.
4. Potential energy is the energy the object has when it’s placed in a position, so that it’s teetering or about to change its state (e.g., you’ve lifted it up and are about to drop it).
5. Crisis energy is the energy that is inside an object by virtue of its being or existence. It’s not necessarily there because it’s moving or because it’s been moved to a particular position. It’s there, because it’s already in the object, wherever it is or wherever it’s placed. There are incredible tensions within any object, no matter what its state. If it can be moved toward a state of crisis, a point when it is about to change its form or state (a transformation or transmogrification), the crisis energy will manifest itself, and can be tapped.
Isaac’s goal is to tap or channel or harness crisis energy. If he succeeds, he will virtually have achieved a perpetual energy source and perpetual motion.
He achieves his goal by constructing a crisis engine that can channel energy and amplify the output.
Whereas Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” is about entropy, PSS is about the exact opposite: the maximization of energy.
The rest is secret. (I shouldn’t even have told you what’s above. I’m going to get into trouble with the Moderator General.)
Ultimately, it’s up to Isaac and his crisis engine to wage war on the slake-moths.
Because everybody in New Crobuzon is threatened by the moths, various coalitions are proposed.
Isaac’s best prospect comes from the Construct Council, which is a machine that is on the fringe of acquiring an artificial intelligence called “constructed intelligence”, a mechanical form of sentience. It’s just a calculating intelligence that is trying to “self-construct” or maximize itself, to ascend a hierarchy of intelligence.
While he partners it, ultimately, he does not trust it totally, because it has no empathy or morals:
”It'll do whatever it has to - it'll lie to us, it'll kill - to increase its power.”
Whatever, he cannot let it have unrestricted access to the crisis engine. (Cue dramatic music.)
Just as Isaac tried to take an objective ethical stance with respect to rape, he does the same with the war on the slake-moths.
The Nectar of the Subconscious
The slake-moths are dream eaters that prey on the subconscious. They detect and suck out hidden thoughts, guilty thoughts, anxieties, delights, dreams:
"They drink the peculiar brew that results from self-reflexive thought, when the instincts and needs and desires and intuitions are folded in on themselves and we reflect on our thoughts and then reflect on the reflection, endlessly... Our thoughts ferment like the purest liquor...not the meat-calories slopping about in the brainpan, but the fine wine of sapience and sentience itself, the subconscious. Dreams."
They leave their victims mindless and imbecile.
While calculating or thinking machines might be able to replicate rationality, they cannot replicate morality. They can replicate consciousness, but they cannot replicate a conscience:
” I do not dream. I am a calculating machine that has calculated how to think. I do not dream. I have no neuroses, no hidden depths. My consciousness is a growing function of my processing power, not the baroque thing that sprouts from your mind, with its hidden rooms in attics and cellars."”
CM’s message seems to be that rationality is not enough to make us human. We need our passions and morality as well. We need our sentiments to be sentient. We need experience to be sapient.
Isaac, the fat bastard outcast scientist has mastered reason, but it is not enough. He has stared the Enlightenment in the face and realized there is More Than This.
Reason will allow us to peak through the keyhole, but if we want to open the doors of perception, we need more.
The Transformation of Love
Much of PSS is concerned with transformation, transgression and translation, the movement from one state to another.
Lin is caught in a “bastard zone”, Motley is trapped in a “ruptured moment”.
Perhaps, love is the drug, the remedy that is required.
The romantic in me wants to believe that CM regards love as a raptured moment that will stand in opposition to or on the shoulders of pure reason.
The relationship between Lin and Isaac is a clue to the transformation he thinks might be required.
Their love, transgressive as it might be, consists of “filthy and loving invitations” as well as “jokes and apologies and compliments and lust.”
Lin longs “to come home every night to freshly mixed fruit salad and theatre tickets and sex."
Isaac would be content just to look into the eyes of his scarab queen and hear her ask, “How was it, treasure?”
Some time during the night, they might even be heard to cry out, “I Love You, I Love You, I Love You.”
It’s up to each of us to decide whether this is a love worth having.
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