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“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.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Miéville, China | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

“What a novel illustration of the tender laws of England!”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on April 7, 2010

The last novel I read was set in a future after a nuclear holocaust where there was no source of food, and right now I think that the most draining stretch of fiction I’ve ever read is the first fifty pages of Oliver Twist. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to those standards.

The story, as you probably know, tells of a boy called Oliver Twist whose mother comes to a workhouse, gives birth to him, and dies. Oliver Twist grows up under the parochial hand, and runs away to London one day after he is treated especially badly. There he falls into the company of Fagin, a jew who manages a little team of petty criminals. He is rescued by Mr. Brownlow, then re-kidnapped by Fagin, then rescued by Rose Maylie, and then the book gets boring.

The best part of the book is before he runs away to London. Here, Dickens narrates with such anger that I was surprised that the man who wrote these pages never started a revolution.

‘What’s your name, boy?’ said the gentleman in the high chair.

Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble: and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry. These two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a white waistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.

‘Boy,’ said the gentleman in the high chair, ‘listen to me. You know you’re an orphan, I suppose?’

‘What’s that, sir?’ inquired poor Oliver.

‘The boy is a fool—I thought he was,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.

‘Hush!’ said the gentleman who had spoken first. ‘You know you’ve got no father or mother, and that you were brought up by the parish, don’t you?’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.

‘What are you crying for?’ inquired the gentleman in the white waistcoat. And to be sure it was very extraordinary. What could the boy be crying for?

‘I hope you say your prayers every night,’ said another gentleman in a gruff voice; ‘and pray for the people who feed you, and take care of you—like a Christian.’

‘Yes, sir,’ stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvellously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him.

‘Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade,’ said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

‘So you’ll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o’clock,’ added the surly one in the white waistcoat.

For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward; where, on a rough, hard bed, he sobbed himself to sleep. What a novel illustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupers go to sleep!

Yes, what is happening to poor Oliver is a Bad thing, but what makes it truly horrific is the uppity gallows humour and biting sarcasm Dickens narrates it with, not to mention the — even more important — wee doses of poignancy interwoven into it.

Certainly, these are a great fifty pages, and after reading this, I was seriously wondering whether I had the courage to continue. Well, it turns out I did, but after that Dickens relaxed his tone, when Oliver runs away from the town to London.

The problem with these fifty pages is the legacy they bequeathe to the rest of the book: after this, nothing seems particularly horrible anymore, except two of the last few chapters. Not Fagin — though he is effectively creepy –, not Bill Sikes the universally gruff ruffian, and certainly not the ‘hideous’ Monks.

Dickens’ writing, however, is consistently brilliant. Well, till the part where I said it gets boring, because then it suddenly becomes full of highfalutin melodrama. It is, however, probably at its most beautiful when he cuts away from the rich-good to the poor-bad, where the richness of his description is really something to savour, not to mention the rest of the writing.

Adept as she was, in all the arts of cunning and dissimulation, the girl Nancy could not wholly conceal the effect which the knowledge of the step she had taken, wrought upon her mind. She remembered that both the crafty Jew and the brutal Sikes had confided to her schemes, which had been hidden from all others: in the full confidence that she was trustworthy and beyond the reach of their suspicion. Vile as those schemes were, desperate as were their originators, and bitter as were her feelings towards Fagin, who had led her, step by step, deeper and deeper down into an abyss of crime and misery, whence was no escape; still, there were times when, even towards him, she felt some relenting, lest her disclosure should bring him within the iron grasp he had so long eluded, and he should fall at last—richly as he merited such a fate—by her hand.

But, these were the mere wanderings of a mind unable wholly to detach itself from old companions and associations, though enabled to fix itself steadily on one object, and resolved not to be turned aside by any consideration. Her fears for Sikes would have been more powerful inducements to recoil while there was yet time; but she had stipulated that her secret should be rigidly kept, she had dropped no clue which could lead to his discovery, she had refused, even for his sake, a refuge from all the guilt and wretchedness that encompasses her—and what more could she do! She was resolved.

Though all her mental struggles terminated in this conclusion, they forced themselves upon her, again and again, and left their traces too. She grew pale and thin, even within a few days. At times, she took no heed of what was passing before her, or no part in conversations where once, she would have been the loudest. At other times, she laughed without merriment, and was noisy without a moment afterwards—she sat silent and dejected, brooding with her head upon her hands, while the very effort by which she roused herself, told, more forcibly than even these indications, that she was ill at ease, and that her thoughts were occupied with matters very different and distant from those in the course of discussion by her companions.

Except Nancy, who features in the above quote, every character — especially Oliver himself — is a type, a grotesque. They are divided (as I’ve already alluded to) into the rich-good, the poor-bad and the parochial officiaries. Oliver himelf is the least memorable of these grotesques; he’s just a device to get into the spotlight the poor-bad and the government officiaries, and the rich-good abound merely to counterbalance the other two types.

All this, in the final reckoning, is fine with me. What is not is that Dickens seems to be majorly confused about his morality. Consistently, English society (as represented by the government officiaries and much later a massive crowd ) seems to be the real villain. We read the first fifty pages, devoted wholly to thrashing the English laws. We see that Oliver, the very epitome of innocence, is consistently taken for one of Fagin’s, strongly implicating society. Then, in the end, it’s a ‘happy’ ending, but the only people harmed are the poor-bad. The villain changes!

And yet, we are supposed to be lifted by the ending. Yes, maybe Dickens means it to be a mixed bag, but I prefer to get indications from more than a trust that he knows what he’s doing; from the text itself. Maybe a final, or penultimate, chapter pointing out that nothing’s really been solved.

But Dickens doesn’t do that, and this — along with the overabundance of  melodramatic dialogue that define the word ‘overwrought’ in the last hundred pages — ensures that what all I’ll treasure in this book are the first fifty pages.

A beautiful passage by G. K. Chesterton’s about Charles Dickens.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Dickens, Charles | Tagged: , , , | 11 Comments »

“The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was cerainly English.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 25, 2010

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,
by Lewis Carroll

I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was really small, and forgot  everything about it, almost. I remembered the story of a rat prosecuting a cat written in the shape of a rat’s tail, Alice picking up a bottle on her way down the rabbit-hole, and the Mad Tea-Party. I also remember that I didn’t read the second book because I’d got bored. Having just read both books today, I can say with confidence that my child-self had much the same tastes I do; those three things are the exact things that stay with me from the first book. One mistake little Ronak made, however, was to stop reading, a mistake even this big Ronak almost made, for the second book is a truly beautiful one.

The two books, as you undoubtedly know, is a series of encounters with anthropomorphised animals — not exclusively animals, though, we even get cards and chess pieces and, believe it or not, ideas — that happen when a) Alice follows a rabbit nervous about the time down a rabbithole into Wonderland and b) Alice walks through a mirror into Looking-Glass land. Also, we learn that of the Cheshire Cat, who is a cat who always grins.

I loved the first half of the first book. The driving force behind everything seemed to be to challenge Alice’s preconceived notions of reality in every possible way, and it worked,  reaching its peak in a tea-party with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse.

‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
‘Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.
‘It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.
‘I didn’t know it was YOUR table,’ said Alice; ‘it’s laid for a great many more than three.’
‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
‘You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; ‘it’s very rude.’
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud. ‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.
‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
‘It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Sorry for the length of the excerpt, but it’s hard to both convey the charm and not cut off abruptly at the same time.

Well, as I’ve already said, from here it goes downhill; there’s the entrance of the Queen of Hearts, who’s just annoying. While every other character makes complex existential statements, her oddness is limited to ordering executions. And there’s a gryphon and a mock turtle — the latter learnt in school, among other similar things, “the different branches of Arithmetic–Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision” –, the vignette involving whom is unfortunately marred by substandard poetry. And, finally, there’s a courtroom sequence which acts as a pathetic stand-in (think, as a description of the problem, the Queen of Hearts) for a climax and end.

The second book is much of the same thing, except the momentum carries through to the end; Carroll is obviously much surer of his structure and form here. Everything is better integrated, and the queens (red and white) who take centre-stage for rather long actually have worthy dialogues, making this a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the Cheshire Cat can appear and disappear, and it doesn’t even need to pop, or fade, in and out of view; it can disappear from one end to the other.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Carroll, Lewis | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »