Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“The assembled company were elyctrified.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on July 5, 2010

Book Cover: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Click to look inside

The principle difficulty with writing about China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is that one can’t even begin to describe the plot. To even say more than a vague paragraph would be ruining the book; unlike other books, the parts that can be spoiled don’t start when there are fifty pages left in the book, but when you are fifty pages into the book.

And, by Murphy’s Law, it is practically inevitable that in any self-respecting book of this sort, the characters will be so radically different by the end of the book that any description of the parts a reviewer is allowed to reveal will feel hollow and incomplete to the reviewer.

So, what am I allowed to say? There’s a suggestively named renegade scientist called Isaac who lives in a fantasy city called New Crobuzon. He is having an affair with a bug-headed woman, belonging to a race called the khepri, called Lin, who is a sculptor. One day, he is approached by a garuda — garudas are a human-shaped, bird-featured race of xenians (a term for all non-human sentient beings in Miéville’s world) —  called Yagharek, whose wings have been cut-off. Yagharek wants to fly again, and came to Isaac because he has heard that Isaac is something of a genius. Isaac accepts the commission. And then things spin out of control. LibraryThing lists twenty-six important characters, and I feel as if I have intimate knowledge of all of them; and let’s not forget, that list itself is a spoiler.

So, I’ll try to talk about the book trying to stay away from its characters and plot, as impossible as that is.

And, before I launch into a discussion — listing might be a more appropriate word in this case — of the book’s themes and concerns, let me make an interesting observation: the beginning of Chapter One of this book has been practically plagiarised by Vikram Chandra for the beginning of his Sacred Games, which I wrote about here. Of course, knowing Chandra, it’s significantly more likely that he’s trying to use it to make a point, albeit one that I can’t see.

Finally, we come to the book and what I thought of it. Let me begin by saying that I have little or no conception of Miéville’s vision, or even some random vision that I can feel comfortable ascribing to Miéville. Also, I don’t blame this on him; he obviously has something truly awesome in mind, so awesome that I’m too stupid to see it. But, if I had to say something at gunpoint, I would say that this book is about separation and unification, not of the physical kind but of the kind that happens in our minds. Of course, one must note that this leaves at least one major plot element and one other major aspect pf the book unexplained.

Isaac grabbed a pencil and wrote words at the three points of the triangle. He turned the diagram to face Yagharek. The top point was labelled Occult/thaumaturgical; the bottom left Material; the bottom right Social/sapiential.

“Righto, now, don’t get too bogged down with this diagram, Yag old son, it’s supposed to be an aid to thought, nothing more. What you’ve got here is a depiction of the three points within which all scholarship, all knowledge, is located.

“Down here, there’s material. That’s the actual physical stuff, atoms and the like. Everything from fundamental femtoscopic particles like elyctrons, up to big fuck-off volcanos. Rocks, elyctromagnetism, chymical reaction . . . All that sort of thing.

“Opposite, that’s social. Sentient creatures, of which there’s no shortage on Bas-Lag, can’t just be studied like stones. By reflecting on the world and on their own reflections, humans and garuda and cactacae and whatnot create a different order of organization, right? So it’s got to be studied in its own terms—but at the same time it’s also obviously linked to the physical stuff that makes everything up. That’s what this nice line is here, connecting the two.

“Up top is occult. Now we’re cooking. Occult: ‘hidden.’Takes in the various forces and dynamics and the like that aren’t just to do with physical bits and bobs interacting, and aren’t just the thoughts of thinkers. Spirits, dæmons, gods if you want to call them that, thaumaturgy . . . you get the idea. That’s up at that end. But it’s linked to the other two. First off, thaumaturgic techniques, invocation, shamanism and so on, they all affect—and are affected by—the social relations that surround them. And then the physical aspect: hexes and charms are mostly the manipulation of theoretical particles—the ‘enchanted particles’— called thaumaturgons. Now, some scientists—” he thumped his chest “—think they’re essentially the same sort of thing as protons and all the physical particles.

“This . . .” said Isaac slyly, his voice slowing right down, “is where stuff gets really interesting.

“If you think of any arena of study or knowledge, it lies somewhere in this triangle, but not squarely on one corner. Take sociology, or psychology, or xenthropology. Pretty simple, right? It’s down here, in the ‘Social’ corner? Well, yes and no. That’s definitely its closest node, but you can’t study societies without thinking about the questions of physical resources. Right? So straight away, the physical aspect is kicking in. So we have to move sociology along the bottom axis a little bit.” He slid his finger a fraction of an inch to the left. “But then, how can you understand,
say, cactacae culture without understanding their solar-focus, or khepri culture without their deities, or vodyanoi culture without understanding shamanic channelling? You can’t,” he concluded triumphantly. “So we have to shift things up towards the occult.” His finger moved a little, accordingly.

“So that’s roughly where sociology and psychology and the like are. Bottom right-hand corner, little bit up, little bit along.

“Physics? Biology? Should be right over by material sciences, yeah? Only, if you say that biology has an effect on society, the reverse is also true, so biology’s actually a tiny bit to the right of the ‘Material’ corner. And what about the flight of wind-polyps? The feeding of soul trees? That stuff’s occult, so we’ve moved it again, up this time. Physics includes the efficacy of certain substances in thaumaturgic hexes. You take my point? Even the most ‘pure’ subject’s actually somewhere between the three.

“Then there’s a whole bunch of subjects that define themselves by their mongrel nature. Socio-biology? Halfway along the bottom and a little bit up. Hypnotology? Halfway up the right flank. Social/psychological and occult, but with a bit of brain chymistry thrown in, so that’s over a bit . . .”

Isaac’s diagram was now covered in little crosses where he located the various disciplines. He looked at Yagharek and drew a neat, final, careful x in the very centre of the triangle.

“Now what are we looking at right here? What’s bang in the middle?
“Some people think that’s mathematics there. Fine. But if maths is the study that best allows you to think your way to the centre, what’re the forces you’re investigating? Maths is totally abstract, at one level, square roots of minus one and the like; but the world is nothing if not rigorously mathematical. So this is a way of looking at the world which unifies all the forces: mental, social, physical.

I apologise for the length of the excerpt, but it is necessary for my purposes. Anyway, readers who have read a more than insignificant amount of fantasy will be somewhat surprised: it is exceedingly rare for a book’s world to include magic in its scientific system. In general, magic is treated, in fantasy, as fantastical and, in science fiction, as either non-existent or explainable using more conventional science. Perdido Street Station is, in fact, the first book I’ve ever read that looks at magic with the eye of a writer of science fiction. And, because this is too conventional a goal for Miéville, he also looks at his science through the more abstract lens of the city the book is set in (Perdido Street Station is the center of New Crobuzon), and — in the form of silently yet surely ascribing Perdido Street Station and another area called simply The Ribs as points of power — uses a fantastical metaphor for his city as a living, breathing organism.

But this trichotomy of science fiction, fantasy and city fiction is only the simplest and most general of all the separations Miéville breaks, and that’s forgetting the separations he creates. Probably the most important example of the latter is in what he does with consciousness.

And his dreams of unification aren’t that of just treating one or two sets of disparate, connected elements; the method he uses for unification that is at least as important in this book as the first-level method of insight and imagination is unification by treatment in this book. In fact, if I believed that mine was a complete understanding of this book, I would confidently say that the only reason he stopped his book was that he had to, an illustration of problematic my incomplete understanding is even without thinking too much about the book itself.

It really is interesting how much he does with this general idea. We have inroads into politics and economics, a re-invention of physics, a love story (?), questions about justice, questions about prejudice in a multiethnic city, questions about identity when one leaves one’s roots, ideas about cities, peoples and the relation between cities and their people, death, all handled somehow or the other with this basic template. And let me tell you, that list came out of one brainstorm; further sessions will certainly reveal more.

Unexplained Aspects

It turns out that at least two of the major aspects unexplained by my theory of unificationa and separation are allowed here.

The first would be the epigraph:

“I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.”

-Philip K. Dick, We Can Build You

It only relates to a rather small number of the aspects of this book. Two explanations are possible. The first would be that the name of the book is important, for that would greatly increase the amount of relation that the quote has to the book. The second is that Miéville is using this quote to elevate the importance of the city as a world, specifically a world encapsulating the aspects of this book. However, both explanations feel hollow and rationalised, and that’s forgetting that the first one is rather inadequate.

The second thing that I can’t explain is the language. I’ve already mentioned that Miéville reinvents physics for his world, but what I have before now failed to mention is that he seems to be doing something similar with language. In most fantasies, it is safe to assume that as long as it isn’t our world, it’s not our language. That is certainly true of New Crobuzon, whose human language is called Ragamoll. Other fantasy writers I’ve read who are especially interested in language, notably J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan, prefer to create their own arcane languages and translate the common one into standard English, giving only space for style. Miéville, however, carries over a lot of Ragamoll into his ‘translation.’ For example, the word ‘elyctrified’ in the title of this review (which, incidentally, would also describe rather well a group reading this book together), among other slightly changed words. Another example is the vocabulary. Vocabulary changes from time to time, words go in and out of vogue, and so on. The words in vogue in translated Ragamoll include such… urm… arcana as ‘salubrious,’ ‘ostentatious’ and ‘tenacious.’ Common enough words, but their counts in the book range in the double digits, which isn’t exactly normal. I don’t have much of a grasp over liguistics, so more than an aspect that I can’t explain, it’s an aspect I don’t understand.

Now that you’ve seen a fraction of the reasons the last two thousand words were meandering, pointless bullshit, it’s time to tell you how brilliant the writing is. In many ways, it’s structured like an action thriller. Especially in the parts that are the most science fiction heavy.

In the science-y parts, the writing is straightforward enough, and the ideas are amazing enough to make life such that you don’t breathe for a while (and eventually have to stop for a while because the world’s gone black all of a sudden).

But it is in the action parts where the prose shows its face from behind the content and gains a life of its own. I would love to quote one (and practically double the amount that I’m asking you to read), but it’s been over two thousand words, so I’ll just describe to you what makes it so breathtaking. Miéville doesn’t just describe the action, with a periodic interjection that “time went slow.” No, for his characters, and therefore for his readers too, time does go slow. Snail-pace. We aren’t told “he went and stabbed the damn thing;” we are told the exact place he reached after every agonising step leading up to the stabbing.

To be sure, I described using a straw man, but I’m just trying to illustrate a point; if other writers slow down to half-speed, Miéville slows down to tenth speed. Literally.

And I haven’t even told you about the times the action is an illustration of ideas, and how, by the end, you’re left fully comfortable with not one of the characters, but you’re still have with them complete emotional involvement, making it emotionally cathartic in the extreme.

To conclude, I’ll quote Jerry Seinfeld, “Big boom! Big, bada boom!!”

A couple of things before you go:

If you do decide to read this book, and I do highly recommend it, please try and read the 2003 Del Rey edition (ISBN 978-0345459404), which I read it in. For one, it is really small and cheap, which distracts from the fact that the book is over six hundred pages long, not to mention the pleasure you get when you realise how much you actually have left of it. Second, it has the feel of pulp of the sort that originated the name, which very nicely supplements the book. And finally, none of the other English covers seem to really understand this book and its atmosphere (even this one doesn’t really, but at least it gets the colours right).

I thank shigekuni and Jayaprakash for recommending it to me.

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15 Responses to ““The assembled company were elyctrified.””

  1. AT said

    Thanks for your appreciative comment on my poem on S M Rana’s blog.

  2. S M Rana said

    The excerpt is interesting but I do think you need to simplify your style to make it more accessible-if you do not mind my being so bold as to state it. Einstein remarked that simplicity is the hallmark of greatness. How can 600 pages be small?

    • Certainly, SM. If I may ask, in what way did you find my style too complex? Is it that my syntax is too complicated, or that I don’t explain my ideas well enough, or something else entirely?

      As for how six hundred pages can be small, it’s rather amazing what these publishers can do with thin paper and small type; the book I read was about as big as the photo, and an inch thick.

  3. Ok, I just read it. It’s atrociously written. At the time, I was so relieved to have got the ideas out that I overlooked a lot of things in my rereading.
    Thanks for telling me.

  4. S M Rana said

    Since you asked for it. Your richness of syntax and style notwithstanding, I could venture as below.

    1.Quite long. Shorter is sweeter.
    2.As the beaver said to the badger:”Prune, prune.” You try to put everything down, both from the book under review as well as your own thoughts. Streams of consciousness are fine, but the reader may feel lost in the thicket. I prefer personally to select a few nice things and leave out the rest, kind of sip and savour approach.
    3.I’m a novice myself so hardly in a position to give lessons. Just found the nut a bit hard on my teeth at times, so made bold to say so. This could well be my individual problem.
    4.This is on a different note but said one famous writer to the would be:”Write your height”, meaning thereby if you happen to be six one, that should be the height of te stack of your writing. At eighteen, you have travelled far.

  5. About pruning, I guess I’ll just have to disagree, because… well, writing is no fun otherwise, and has none of the cathartic effect that it has the way I do it. Though I understand I do have some excess fat in this review. Generally, I’m able to say all I want to in less than a thousand words, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

    Btw, my height would be around 18,000 pages… nope, never going to get there. 😉

  6. S M Rana said

    By pruning I really mean selection. There is so much stuff that you can’t use it all, just as you can’t consume all the stuff laid out at a marriage feast, or convey all the impressions and thoughts that a movie or film invariably gives rise to. We need to create order out of chaos and whoever it was that said it, the secret is to know what to leave out, and in many a great movie, much of the action is off screen. The cartoonist R K Laxman, brother of R K Narayan, for example, can convey the personality by a a stroke or two of the pencil, the persona of a public figure. It’s minimalism versus maximalism.

  7. I think that is very good advice. Thanks, SM. I’ll keep it in mind from now on, though I’m not sure I can do minimalism; I’ll just try for more minimalism.

    Also, I didn’t know Laxman and Narayan were brothers. One hell of a family.

  8. crowley said

    A great and a complex book. Amazing visionary writer.
    Greetins from Spain

  9. Greetings, Crowley. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

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