“Perdido Street Station”

After “Game of Thrones,” I’ve been wondering what else fantasy has to offer, and thought a good place to look was China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station”, which won all sorts of awards and was feted for not being like most fantasy books. I can attest that that much is true, and every way in which it differs from normal fantasy is basically to “Perdido”‘s advantage, which still sadly doesn’t mean the book is all that great. The story is of a man who inadvertently unleashes dangerous super-natural beasts upon his city, but it’s the setting that is most central. It would make sense to say that the main character of the book is not our protagonist Grimnebulin, but the city of New Crobuzon.  The library clerk said when I was checking out the book “China Miéville – it’s just tortured cityscape after tortured cityscape” – to be honest those words don’t really make sense in connection with each other to me, and I think she was just being pretentious. But to expand on what I think her criticism was: if there’s a lot of anything in this book, it’s (mostly olfactory) descriptions of slums and sewers and garbage. If you were to make a Perdido Street Station concordance, you’d notice the high prevalence of rank (adj.), foul (adj.) detritus (n.) and filth (n.). Buildings are frequently dishevelled (adj.) and obscure (adj.). If things do not seep (v.), then they merely (adv.) fester (v.). Most everything is benighted (adj.). Indeed, if Miéville is well known for something other than his authorship, it is for his opinion that Tolkien was “a wen on the arse of fantasy”. Tolkienophiles may take umbrage, but, if Perdido Street Station is any indication of Miéville’s manner of writing, he may have simply meant that fantasy exists, and Tolkien was a part of it. Somewhat disappointing is that for all his penchant (and, let’s admit it, skill) at describing inanimate objects, Miéville falters a bit when it comes to the animate. Despite long descriptions, I still have little idea what slake-moths or vodyanoi are like, for instance.

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Two things that greatly annoyed me about the book were Miéville’s conceptions of politics and science. Y’know that Philip K. Dick book “Eye in the Sky”? You know how at one point thay’re in a bizarre commie-conceived world and the members of the capitalist class just have giant fangs and are constantly scheming things to oppress people more? That’s a little how the politics of this book feel to me. I mean, I realise financiers are greedy and politicians are opportunistic. But in “Perdido Street Station”, it’s like they go around asking each other “Gee, how do you think we could be more evil?” I don’t think that’s how it happens. Dick Cheney and possibly Jamie Dimon excepted, of course. His idea of science I found even less believable. The central character, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is supposed to be a brilliant scientist and one of the plot points is Grimnebulin making an important scientific discovery. Now, writing about scientific advances which haven’t occurred in the real world and so you don’t know what they are is a notoriously difficult problem. Nevertheless, I think in terms of conception of science, Miéville gets it just about as badly as he could. The way Grimnebulin makes his discovery is that it comes out of him conceptualising all of knowledge as a sort of triangle. Then he thinks about how things within that triangle should be connected by naming them, and this gives him the insight he needs. Basically he proceeds by deduction from an understanding of what the meaning of each branch of science should be, and he gets this by thinking about their names. This makes two errors: that having a good conception of how things should be is a replacement for knowing how they actually are, and that naming things is understanding them. This is either Lysenko’s conception of science or Aristotle’s – neither a good example of well-done science. I’m having trouble articulating my point, but believe me, how science is done in the book bothered me to a great extent.

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I had started drafting this post a while back, and one of the points simply said “Deep!” and nothing else. I am not sure what I meant by that, but it might be that I wanted to talk about world-depth. One of the joys of fantasy is new worlds, and one of the criteria by which to judge these worlds is how much does it seem that the writer knows about the world compared to the reader, and it is this that I mean by world-depth. I am not sure how it happens, and I am not sure if the impression formed is accurate, but if you can convey world-depth, the fantasy world-creation seems much more real and worthwhile. Now fantasy writing isn’t just world-creation, and so World-depth isn’t a stand-in for book quality – “Silmarillion” is very world-deep and also terrible, whereas “The Left Hand of Darkness” is very world-shallow and yet excellent. Nevertheless, getting glimpses of an immense, well-realised world is a satisfying part of fantasy. Well, for world-depth, I’ve never seen anything outside of Tolkien that matches Miéville’s Bas-Lag. He may not have written languages for all of the inhabitants, but short of that, he has created an immense and varied world and he seems to understand how it works. That is a stupendous achievement. What’s more, the Bas-Lag world is much more richly imagined than other fantasy worlds. Garudas, vodyanoi, khepri, undines, handlingers, slake-moths, cactus-people, all sorts of remade – yes, many of these are borrowings, but putting them all together and giving them a world where they make sense – in terms of sheer power of newness, it’s impressive.

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Reading over the post, I notice I haven’t been very measured – mocking and annoyed one moment, filled with praise the next. But this is the kind of book Perdido Street Station is – a book that does some things exceedingly well, and some things exceedingly poorly.

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This isn’t related to anything, but I couldn’t help imagining Grimnebulin as Gordon Freeman + El Burro from GTA 3:

El Burro

Freeman

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