I just finished Perdido Street Station, and I’m going to have to ratchet up my opinion of China Miéville. I liked Kraken but didn’t see the point of The Scar, which is set in the same world as Perdido. But this book is amazing. Once it gets going, it never lets go— it kept me away from Skyrim for gods’ sake.
It’s set in the sprawling, nasty city of New Crobuzon, which has mostly 19th century technology (railways, photographs, flintlocks, factories, gaslights, dirigibles, analytical engines, steam power), plus magic, plus a really out-of-control set of humanoids. It’s been described as steampunk, but I don’t think that’s helpful; I think it’s the period, not the technology, that fascinates Miéville. And even that may more be a disinterest in the medieval.
Really, it’s a work of horror. I think Wikipedia defines horror as being about fear, but that’s only partly right… you could write a story about the fear of skyscrapers or financial ruin, and it wouldn’t be horror at all. I think the essence of horror is violation of bodily integrity. This can be quite literal: a knife or a claw cutting into flesh, or a rape, or a disfiguring disease. Or it can refer to death, the terrifying process which turns our bodies into corpses. A big chunk is close contact with other sorts of bodies: snakes, spiders, big furry predators. The closest such contact is merger, so a staple of horror fiction is the chimera, a mixture of the human and the alien. (The zombie is a quintessential threat because it mixes so many themes: itself the result of a violation, a merger of human and corpse, it also wants to rip us open physically.)
The horrors can be divided into gross but harmless— the merely macabre— and the really dangerous. Miéville’s humanoids are examples of the first. One of the protagonists, for instance, is Lin, a khepri, named for the Egyptian scarab-headed god. Fans have helpfully provided a vivid image. Miéville lovingly describes exactly how Lin’s insect-head links up with her human body, how the species reproduces (the males are only beetles, though huge ones), how she makes art by secreting a special substance from the back end of the beetle, what the mandibles and legs of the scarab part are doing. It’s kind of cheerfully disturbing.
Then there’s the Remade— humans turned into chimeras, thaumaturgical mixtures of human with animal or human with machine, mostly done as punishment. These are played a bit more sadistically.
Finally there’s the main plot, which involves an existential threat to the city— an eight-foot multidimensional moth which dazzles sentient creatures, slips a huge prehensile tongue into their mouths (there’s that bodily violation), and eats their minds. Several of these things get loose— largely due to the carelessness of the main protagonist, Lin’s human boyfriend Isaac— and terrorize the city. A number of agencies, civic and anarchic and supernatural, take them on.
Lovecraft mostly achieved his effects by teasing and hiding, a structure Miéville borrowed in The Scar— to no great effect. Perdido doesn’t pull its punches. Plenty of nasty stuff happens onstage; people die; the threat of the moths is clear and the eventual plan of attack is satisfying and gripping.
As conworlding, it relies on being so vivid you don’t ask many questions. Horror doesn’t have to be rigorously worked out anyway. The humanoids don’t really make biological sense, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re described so closely and coherently that they work on the narrative level.
New Crobuzon itself is a very lively creation, though my overwhelming sense is that Miéville doesn’t like it, or cities in general. It’s constantly emphasized how it’s corrupt, stinking, decaying, unjust, and violent. A map is provided, and the names of the neighborhoods all sound nasty: Murkside, Mog Hill, Nigh Sump, Kinken, Gallmarch, Tar Wedge, Skulkford, Howl Barrow, Smog Bend. The city’s rivers are the Tar and the Canker. Isaac and his immediate companions end up traveling by sewer (hiding from their enemies) and hiding in slums, and it’s always pointed out how dirty and smelly they are. (It’s a nice observation about the adventurers that most fantasy glorifies.)
The city seems like a not very admiring portrait of London. It’s ancient and formless and compact— it couldn’t be an American city. And it’s bourgeois and commercial and variegated, its elite preferring to rule by high-minded indirection rather than outright tyranny— it couldn’t be (say) German or Russian. At the same time, Miéville’s distaste (and perhaps his socialism) makes him deny it any progressivism or development. Unlike the real 19C London, it’s not rapidly developing in science and economics; its technology is all ancient, and if anything is slowly getting lost.
Besides seeming to dislike cities, Miéville seems to have little interest in how they relate to their surroundings. New Crobuzon is a city-state, and seems to have no analog to England to lord it over. There’s no real explanation of why it’s so rich and powerful, or even so big. He seems to realize that a premodern city was highly unhealthy, but doesn’t draw the necessary conclusion: something about it must be highly attractive, to keep drawing in new citizens. Rural life must be even worse, and the rewards of the city a powerful inducement even for the poor. We do have examples of declining technology in history, and they’re associated with urban life evaporating.
There is a radical newspaper, and labor agitation; but when workers stage what looks like it could be a very effective strike, it’s quickly suppressed with murderous violence. That is, a little dissent is simply ignored, a façade of benign bourgeois rule is maintained, but any serious threat to the powerful is beaten down. This would seem like an almost quaint depiction of Victorian politics if I hadn’t been reading the book on a weekend when police departments all over the country— in 2011 America— were organizing to brutally put down nonviolent protests. Demonstrate against insuring the poor, and for lowering tax rates on the rich, shoot Congressional leaders, darkly hint about a coup d’etat— that is, agitate from the right— and no one does anything. But when students and unemployed workers sit around in a park, they need to be pepper-sprayed by thugs in Darth Vader uniforms. It’s disgusting, and makes Miéville’s picture look a lot less caricatured or outmoded.
Good as it is, the book has some structural problems. Miéville leaves some plot strands unattended to for long periods. In the middle of the book he expands the number of viewpoints, widening the book to show the crisis affecting the whole city, and it works very well. But he narrows the focus back to Isaac and friends toward the end— the city as a whole ends up completely unaffected by the crisis it’s gone through. And then one of the main motivators of the plot gets very sloppily reframed in the last chapter. It cleans up a loose end of the plot, but plays false with both character and theme. It feels like an afterthought, and it also leaves the last bit of the book rather distastefully relying on the idea of brutal violation of women. This is a bit tricky for male writers, I think. A work of horror certainly need not avoid such things, but I think Miéville swings a little bit too far into defining some of his female characters chiefly as victims of violence.
One more thought on steampunk… I feel the aesthetic appeal, and indeed I’ve pushed Almea into the steam age. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of it, but much of what I’ve read seems interested only in the aesthetics. It lets you have enormous gears, mechanical men, and dirigibles as background instead of stone, swords, and wizardry. OK, that’s cool, but to me, the age of steam can’t be separated from the technology and its inevitable social effects. It’s not just a change in scenery; it’s a revolution in mores. It means understanding the world in a way that undermines old philosophies and theologies, and it gives power to people based on something besides noble blood and force of arms. It means moving round the world at eighty miles an hour instead of twenty, and a huge boom in living standards, and a great decrease in the ungodly tedium of manual work, and the enormous liberation of being able to do things at night. You can’t just slap steam engines on medieval society; they represent the destruction of medieval society.