Monday, January 04, 2021

Some thoughts on Perdido Street Station

I finished reading China Miéville's Perdido Street Station yesterday. It’s a tome of a book, at 867 pages, which I bought last winter at Foyle’s after scouring the scifi shelves for a while and concluding that, well, it really is one of the more eminent recent books (in terms of awards etc.).

I felt excited at the time, but given the size, didn’t attempt it immediately. I’d already read Embassytown back in 2017. That one promised much, but, like one commenter in a forum said, left me feeling that it didn't actually amount to more than the sum of its parts. A lot of effort had gone into defining various mechanisms for language and the way people function, but when put together it sort of clanked rather than harmonised into a more meaningful whole. For me anyway.

But Embassytown isn’t considered his pre-eminent work, and Perdido Street Station is a different matter, so I had high hopes for it. I finally started it about three weeks ago, read 25 pages, then picked it up during the Christmas break and finished it yesterday. It’s quite an easy read - easier than Embassytown I feel - and definitely a better experience overall.

WARNING: Here be spoilers!

You can probably hear the ‘but’ in my phrasing - I will come to that. Let’s first look at what’s great about the book. There’s plenty to love. The blurb describes it as fantasy, although to me it sits somewhere at the intersection between scifi, fantasy and horror. The subgenre is steampunk for the most part. It is a fully realised world, mostly about the city of New Crobuzon - clearly inspired by the overcrowded, noisy, dirty image of pre-20th century London, Miéville's hometown (and mine). There is a sense of the metropolitan with all the different creatures living there, and the main character - Isaac - has a relationship with Lin, an insect-like race. But it is an illicit relationship, and the various communities show a lot of prejudice and bias towards one another. It is not an enlightened world.

The overall atmosphere in New Crobuzon is of a city in permanent decline. Architecture and buildings, in particular, are consistently described as being  in a state of gradual decay. There’s a sense that there may have been a better age once, but now there is little sense of optimism - just ongoing energy and industry. Nevertheless, this dynamo keeps things moving so it’s not as if there is despondence either. It’s more that no one seems to really care about ‘a better world’. Even the radical newspaper seems more about protest and calling out the establishment than imagining what a better world might look like. It's more like energy trying to find an outlet rather than aspiring to becoming something different.

Perhaps the defining feature of the work is the author’s fertile imagination for creatures. The slake-moths - the Evil predators in the story - are described in ways that invoke both terror and awe. The horror of their acts of feeding on characters that you’ve just gotten to know was some of the more shocking fiction I’ve read in recent years. Those descriptions alone must surely classify PSS as horror as much as it is fantasy or scifi. I would single out the death of Barbile as the most dreadful single description, maybe because it was unexpectedly explicit and detailed, but Lin’s fate is probably objectively even worse, albeit in terms of description more implied and indirect. Her fate is both terrible and pitiful. The description of Shadrach’s fate was also horrifically effective.

Miéville’s wiki page mentions his association with Dungeons and Dragons, so I was able to keep this in mind while reading and I have to say, what initially just raised an eyebrow for creative overindulgence eventually unravelled, for me, into a full-scale problem. For a novel that has won so many accolades I was expecting a slightly more cohesive and conscious vision, and the fact is it falls short while indulging its imaginative bent ad infinitum. I never thought I’d say that a book so clearly full of imagination can be found wanting, but it turns out that I am interested in precisely the points that remain vastly under-explored amid the fecund possibilities: the moral dimension of the actions of the various characters. This is the missed opportunity, and measured by that, the book doesn't quite achieve what it was maybe capable of.

Let’s be clear, the slake-moths are awesome, but they also appear to be brute beasts: entirely one dimensional in their consciousness. They’ve been imbued with an instinctual impressiveness, but no real intelligence beyond that. This is a fiction that, in culture, has been told about animals as well: tigers kill, lions kill, sharks kill, Tyrannosauri Rex kill - slake-moths kill. That’s presented as their identity. They are intended to be awesome because they are such effective killers. Each creature in the novel have their identity, a kind of preordained identity. And this is where the connection to D&D drops: so much effort has gone into describing the features and characteristics of the various types that the really interesting thing has gone completely underdeveloped: how they rise above it, or go beyond it. It boxes them in, imprisons them. The characters become victims of the author's desire for creature creation. Like those scenes by Hieronymus Bosch the effect is awesome and even overwhelming, but more is not always more once the dust settles.

I am a bit reluctant to talk about Isaac because as a character he is a total ass, but he is the main character. so of course one has to. He might be the hero of the piece, but he is wholly undeserving as a moral character, and for some reason Bruce Willis’ Die Hard face keeps popping into my head when I think of him. He is like an 80s action hero, devoid of an interesting inner life, superficial in his moral compass, happy to do the expedient while accusing others of being in the wrong. In this sense he is utterly infuriating, and the ending just reinforces this sense of outrage - that, perhaps, the novel is really just posturing. Then I keep thinking about how Miéville is meant to be really serious in his politics and therefore surely of very clear and particular ideals, and then I wonder ok, but how? Of course, one shouldn't conflate the protagonist with the author - and Isaac is clearly no stand-in - but I expect the novel as a whole to have a bit more substance, even if Isaac doesn't.

Isaac accuses Vermishank of being a vile man - no particular reasons given, although his hand in the sell-off of the slake-moths to a drug lord seems to be an illustration of that side of his character - and yet Vermishank, as a character, is way more interesting than Isaac. He speaks intelligently - demonstrating that Miéville is fully capable of drawing his characters that way - while Isaac shouts, acts impulsively and generally does not give much indication of being a decent or even very clear-thinking human being. He is loyal to his friends, for the most part - but when Yagharek needs a friend the most, at the very end when his crime is exposed, Isaac drops him like a hot potato. At any rate Isaac doesn't get to know anyone around him deeply enough to know them properly. Isaac saves the day, yes, but aside from determining to take care of Lin at the end, his resolve is generally entirely selfish. 

Lin's story promises more, but just when we learn a little more about her she becomes a victim and we are entirely cut off from her inner life and her thoughts. Her life appears to have been a selfish one too, but considering the constraints of her previous communities it is a more understandable trajectory for someone with artistic talent. Unfortunately, that is never explored in much detail, although it would have made her fate all the more tragic and effective for the purposes of the story, I'd have thought.

These are not problems I would usually feel the need to level against characters in a novel, so why bother here? I think it is because of the clear effort involved in building and crafting this world - the imagination in evidence is amazing, Miéville’s world building is nothing if not original, but then I soon found it all amounts to little more than an adventurous fight against creatures of supposed Evil, when the real evil - the drug lord, the corrupt government, are not explored in any great detail.

But the biggest indictment for me was that there was one character who was by far more interesting than any other character, and whose thoughts we sometimes got to read: Yagharek. Yes, he is selfish too - he wants his freedom in spite of having committed a crime - but in this case it makes him interesting. He is a creature of contrasts, once great and impressive he is now pathetic. Isaac is perfectly happy to help him for his own purposes despite never bothering to find out what desperate crime old Yag committed - finally insisting on taking some dubious moral high ground when the truth is revealed. If he had any real conviction, or evolution of character, he would have debated the truth with Yagharek and perhaps befriended him in some other way. As it stands, he merely upholds and reinforces the misunderstandings of his world - the reinforcement of stereotypes and species. In this respect it is a disappointment.

The last 30 pages or so of the novel was definitely more than I expected by that point though. The visit by the Cymek - the one whose choice was taken - was a surprise plot twist and resulted a in a few pages of interesting revelations and moral reasoning on Isaac’s part. But the result was perhaps only to release him from his selfish impulses on one side, the reasonable side - in fact he did what perhaps most people would have done, and it is hard not to feel it is a cop-out. The reasoning is sound, but so absolute as to make me despair of the human race. But as a writer I would have expected more from the author, to alchemise the situation further.

The truth is that, for the ages, this part was the really interesting bit of the novel - the potential that all the foundational world building could try to support. Instead it set out to have fun with imaginative creatures and a battle between creatures - typical D&D style rather than a more moral or spiritual dimension, which is I suppose more common in literary but also some scifi such as Octavia E. Butler. It also doesn’t ask the big questions of existence, so in this respect it is perhaps not great scifi either, but more fantasy, as the blurb contends. Miéville claims to be a fan of Lovecraft, but Lovecraft’s achievement is not merely horror but also a recognition of that horror in ourselves - that’s what makes it truly horrifying. Isaac seems to deny all that, and my issue is that I want the main characters to be more interesting. The most interesting character shouldn't be a secondary character like Yagharek.

After Yagharek, the Weaver was perhaps the most interesting creature character, and possibly even second best character overall. He actually has a genuine purpose - keeping the world in balance with his weaving. His way of speaking also marked him out. 

I thought Perdido Street Station was going to be a vindication of this line of reasoning, a central junction of life in New Crobuzon. But in the end it was merely the location, arbitrarily chosen by Isaac to get away from the rubbish dump. Another red herring in other words - a cool name for the novel, but not really that central to the story.

Motley was formidable, but there were some miscalculations that lessened the effect of his bossness. For example, he jumped to the conclusion that Isaac is trying to take his territory. Really, a sophisticated drug lord thinks a random rogue scientist is trying to take over his drug empire? How does that make any sense? Even if it is because Motley thought she spilled the beans, there are ways to ascertain the truth rather than jump to costly conclusions. The brutality was believable, but not the impulsiveness and lack of clear thinking on the side of such a sophisticated criminal. They would be far too street-smart. But then, like so many characters in the story, clear thinking doesn't seem to be their strong point.

The slake-moths were interesting creatures too, but the story's unwillingness to enter their consciousness, except for the briefest of glimpses, reinforces this sense of them being painted as mere brutes. Perhaps that was always the point, and they actually are without consciousness, maybe it was mentioned somewhere and I missed it. But that again makes me question the politics of the story in the light of the author’s known personal politics. Is the point of the story that everyone is actually an idiot?

So on the whole, while I admire the imaginative achievement of the novel, and certainly enjoyed the ride - faux science and all - I am disappointed that it did not make more of its premises. The dialectic is missing.

Perhaps the follow-up New Crobuzon novels explore those issues further, but on the current evidence I’m not convinced. Miéville seems an author intent on flexing his imaginative muscle above all. As an occasional writer of fiction myself I do understand the temptation, and I also know that it is a choice.

But at the same time I wouldn’t want my disappointment to overshadow the value the novel brings. The world building itself is worth the price of admission, as well as the effort involved in reading it. It was mostly a pleasure - sometimes a disturbing one, in the way good horror writing would be - and generally fascinating and stimulating. A feast for the senses. It has certainly left a strong impression.

It’s also given me enough reason to think that The City & The City is likely to be perhaps even better, given its reputation and later publishing date (the youthful exuberance of creation is very much on display in PSS, but it’s more than likely that in nearly a decade the author would have started to rein that tendency in a bit to focus on the essence of what he is trying to say).

Ok with all that said my verdict on the novel is that it’s more good than not, my disappointment notwithstanding, and in fact largely excellent and amazing.

However as a story that does indeed aspire to more than just a thrilling caper, especially given the extent of world building, I think the lack of follow-through on some of the moral ideas will mean its true significance will be overtaken by others who take up those themes (and probably already have). The book may have helped invent or at least solidify the style of New Weird, and created several memorable monsters, but it should also pose difficult questions and explore them in more detail in order to realise its potential. Cela.

Finally, consider this: The violence wrought on both Lin and Barbile, as women, left me not a little uncomfortable. It was reminiscent of the type of tactics in B-movies and your more typical slasher horror fare: damsels in distress - in this case not getting rescued, for the most part. More importantly, the author chose to describe their fate in that amount of gruelling detail, and then goes on a moral march at the end that doesn't really explain anything. 

I've seen some suggestions online that the author intentionally wrote the ending that way - with Lin becoming this pitiful figure - as if saying it was intended by the author somehow explains it. The story should provide that explanation, either in content, structure, or some other way. To say it is intentional, in the absence of a clear answer, simply intensifies the question. 

Perhaps we could conclude that the whole story is ultimately a moral fable, a warning that selfish acts lead to ... etc. But I don't buy that. It doesn't explain why an entire story would be dedicated to creating these monsters and then hunting the Evil slake-moths. It leaves us with the possibility that, a little like William Blake said of Milton's Hell, that he was of the Devil's party all along - perhaps Miéville just loves creating monsters, and needed some justification for it.