Tuesday, May 25, 2010

China Mièville's Perdido Street Station

 PSS's description on the back does nothing to really describe the convoluted events of the book, which is more than "Issac is given a job to help a garuda; ominous statement made as to the fate of an entire city". The writing is, as expected, tremendously well-written, and it's certainly a literary highlight. The concepts are also deeply abstract and high-flown as well, ambitiously penetrating different dimensions in ways regular human beings can't hope to understand.

But this isn't a review, it's an analysis, and Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon told me the other day, "You like to rip shit up." Which I do, so let's get to it. Spoilers ahoy, under the cut!

So I'll be honest: I actually put the book down about three or five pages in the first few times and decided to go read Gail Carriger's Changeless instead, because the introductions to each section, Yagharek's first-person perspective, got tedious, really quickly, unhelped by the first introduction to Isaac and Lin. These first fifty pages really set the tone, though, of a gritty and dark setting - have I mentioned I don't really like those? I'm doing this for you, you know /guilt-trip - in a city teeming with conflict. Once I got past this hurdle and Mieville got down to really letting us get to know Lin and Isaac, I was much more absorbed, because I actually liked them. Yes, Issac was compelling even as a white male (because there are no hints otherwise, so I'm back to the Great White Default), but then, I liked him mostly because he wasn't given pretensions to heroism, and he's a total geek and ultimately flawed, without being a complete asshole. In many ways, he reminded me a lot of Buck Godot (particularly his description of himself and his motley crew as "one fat scientist, a crook and a journalist" on page 432, although Buck Godot would never have referred to himself that way). Lin was a bit harder to like, because Mieville wrote her as a humanoid insect, but she grew on me easily. I'll get to this in a bit.

Now, I ordinarily respect folks who can write complicated plotlines and keep everything straight, but this novel had so many elements, I was getting lost and confused when new elements popped up more than halfway through the book that were barely mentioned before. Not even a Neil Gaiman book confuses me that much! And these new elements wouldn't just be "something hitherto unknown about the character" but something major, like an aspect of a race, or a completely new one, playing a huge role in the plot. Maybe I'm too fond of Chekov's gun law, but it felt unfair, annoying even, to have little revolvers popping up all over. Like the handlingerers, wtf? Where did that come from and what exactly do they play, besides add to the chaos? I can understand the Construct Council, which was at least hinted at fairly early, but other things, like the cactacae's ghetto, could have been introduced earlier on - the slake moths were living there, so wouldn't the cactacae have been affected earlier? 

Speaking of the cactacae and ghettos and getting back to Lin, really now... different species illustrating the real-life conflict between races? Where have we heard this before? One could make the argument that PSS isn't set in a place remotely like our grand planet Earth, which would be true, but can we honestly say the Great White Default isn't at play here? (Which brings me to a thought - perhaps the next time I pick up PSS again, I'll read all the human characters as various PoC and see how that works out. Since Mieville provides no real physical description, that should be a cakewalk.) 

When Isaac approaches the New Crobuzon garuda ghetto, he walks in with money and grand speeches, expecting to be listened to, expecting cooperation, and he is bewildered when the garuda leader rejects him, forces any willing garuda back. "I just don't see why they were so fucking antagonistic," he complains to Lin (134), who unsympathetically replies, being a minority from a ghetto herself, "Because they're poor and xenian and scared, you cretin." She goes on to point out the truth about ghettos and minority groups: "Place like this needs someone to look after its own" (135). Isaac's reaction isn't so very different from dominant-majority individuals attempting to help the minority and getting angry when those efforts are rebuffed. We PoC call this the White Saviour complex (when it's a gender issue, we call it being a white knight), beacuse these efforts ignore the fact that in order to truly come into our own, minority groups need to work for themselves, and the best dominant groups can do is offer the tools and platforms to do things for ourselves. Too often dominant-majority individuals get involved only to get into leadership positions, whether subconsciously or not repeating the same kyriarchal-racial structure, driving in the same old message: the little people can't take care of themselves and need the big people. Isaac asks Lin, "When you were ready to leave Kinken [the khepri ghetto], there must've been people telling you to stick to your own ... you didn't listen to them, did you?" Lin doesn't answer, but I could - there is a different dynamic when an individual wants to leave the group of hir own volition, than when an outsider comes tempting members to leave. These few pages were chockful with painful delineations of the power structures that keep dominant and minority groups apart, psychologically and physically.

Which is a shame, because the conflict between species could easily have been conflict between human races. Lin and Isaac's inter-specie relationship is particularly poignant because it echoes many inter-racial experiences, one party hiding the other that seeks vindication of the same love. Lin herself is compelling for her conflicts, always racially marked by her physical self from her adopted culture, even as her mentality separates her from her home community, leading to a doubled isolation. Her arc with the antagonist Motley that leads her to root for Ma Francine, a khepri she has never met but nonetheless feels kinship to, is reminiscent of other minorities who, in face of an enemy, find themselves siding with "people like us".

I understood Lin's ambivalence towards Kinken and other khepri. The emotional push-pull between acknowledging the influence the community that I grew up in and simultaneously rejecting it is confusing at best, but I don't doubt that many individuals live with the same experience, a kind of intellectual and emotional divide. It's not nostalgia, but it's still a need to return to my roots to see where I came from, with uncertainty as to why I really want to do that. Lin reflects on Kinken, on the fact that she allies with Ma Francine because she is khepri, like herself, and on the fact that although she has rejected the larger khepri community, she is still a part of it (182 - 189); her reflection is similar to many I have read of Westernized Asians, trying to balance between their families' expectations and their own desires for individuality.

The most powerful scene of Lin is when she stands in front of her broodma's home, trying to decide whether she really wants to go in. On the one hand, if she goes in there to express her anger, the result will be pointless. On the other hand, if she doesn't get to confront her broodma, she has to live with the frustration of never being able to say what she wanted to say and have it acknowledged (255). I'm sure I'm not alone in knowing exactly how this feels, having to weigh the pros and cons of whether it's worthwhile confronting the people who both built me and fucked me up.

Whilst I can appreciate all this, this makes me all the more resentful that Mieville chose not to use real human races, instead framing these powerful conflicts within alien forms. It's all very interesting, and the world-building is exquisite, but it feels almost like our real conflicts, as ourselves, aren't worth talking about, unless we are insectoids.

Moving on to Yagharek and the treatment of his crimes and actions, again, we are presented with an excellent character arc, but WTF was that ending about? (I'm also not getting Isaac's confusion over choice-theft... but then, for my seminar class on democratic individualism, I presented on Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty".) Okay, look, rape is a heinous crime. He was held accountable for his actions, which he knew were wrong even before his trial, and then punished, through the removal of his wings and exile. Which is hella lot more than what we do in our real society. (Rapists in our societies tend to be sociopaths with little to no remorse.) He doesn't deserve a clean slate, but his final resolution is to... deface himself further to become something he's not? Not even being allowed the benefit of a face-to-face confrontation from Isaac, just a letter? I don't believe forgiveness is necessary for moving on, but he had already been well on his way to developing something of a half-decent relationship with other people. Being remorseful for his crime, he doesn't need further rehabilitation, so why the final isolation? We do this in prisons already, and this doesn't actually help, only serves to antagonize and drive in sociopathic tendencies even further. What is the reader supposed to get out of Yagharek's end?

In Mike Perschon's estimation of the ending, he says, "Yagharek should have flown. Since Miéville had barred his path to acceptance into the flawed faux-family the Garuda had formed with Isaac and Derkhan, the only thing left really, was to fly." I only somewhat agree - I think Yagharek should have left New Crobuzon with Isaac et al. I do not understand why Isaac abandoned the friendship so easily - yes, Lin is a living reminder of how violence affects others, but their friendship has been built for months, with Isaac resolutely refusing to abandon Yagharek to the very end. Perschon writes that the Crisis Theory element that had been worked on, smoking all the way, should have been fired; I think the Crisis Theory element, alongside the slake-moth hunt, provided a platform on which for Yagharek to insinuate himself back into a semblance of social living after his solitary life. And in this, Mieville has cheated readers of a resolution that would have given something humanly fresh back after that long, exhausting read chock-full of alien elements. I guess it's more literary this way. It makes me think I should go pick up all these highly-lauded great literary SFF works and do a lit review and a poll on which ones have happy endings versus unhappy endings.

So, this steampunk postcolonialist says, great read, didn't need the inhuman allegories.


  1. Great analysis Jha - I really appreciate seeing how our readings of these books are sometimes the same, but more often different, based upon the focus of our research. I think Mieville is too often seen as being better than he is because he's a great wordsmith. I think PSS is a wonderful read, but isn't always so masterful in the execution of its narrative conceits.

  2. If Issac had helped Yagharek fly, it could be viewed as a dominant-majority group taking a leadership role in deciding a minority issue, Isaac becoming the ultimate adjudicator of the Garuda laws and culture. I preferred that he didn't take that responsibility. In frustrating the reader's appetite for a happy ending, Mieville leaves the book sizzling with untapped potentials and might-have-beens, like a bomb that fell but never went off, buried and rusty yet always in danger of exploding. It is an ending more suited to literary fiction, ie it's not an ending at all really.

    Didn't really have a problem with the human/alien divide. The aliens could have been human races, but New Crubuzon could have been London or New York. It's like wishing Tolkien's elves and hobbits were actual human cultures instead of merely being modelled on them. It's a fantasy novel. Them's the tropes.

  3. Gotthammer: This is my first Mieville book so I wouldn't be able to tell for certain. I really did enjoy the reading, and I actually do think PSS is a piece of masterful writing, but within the frame I work with, I'm always going to have something to say.

    Harmsden: Agreed that not helping Yagharek to fly was a good choice on Isaac's part, and that Isaac recognized that it wasn't his place to judge garuda custom. And yes, definitely more suited to literary fiction.

    And I loathe literary fiction. And yes, I can bloody well dislike the fact that the elves are a stand-in for some non-white races in Tolkien while still being a fantasy fan, too. You may note the words "engaging with issues of race, representation and diversity" in the subtitle.

  4. Noted. In one way it's down to personal taste. I love how convincing all the different species are in PSS, all the detail and personalities. To me, the world-building is so vast it almost negates the search for real-world allegories.

    In another way it's not down to personal taste at all. I'm having a hard time remembering whether or not there were any human, non-white characters of note. If these characters have been neglected in favour of creatures, I can understand and accept your grievance.

  5. That's my main problem with PSS... most of the human characters appear to be default-white, while the different species were stand-ins for minorities (complete with the issues ordinarily faced by minorities). That's why next time I read it, I'm going to attempt to read the main characters as non-white to see how it goes, but New Crobuzon reads as a city of American / West European stock in itself.

  6. I'm only halfway through this so you've spoiled me a little (but that's okay). Thanks for the analysis, and maybe I'll come back to add my two cents after I'm done with the book.

  7. Isaac was black, or at least dark skinned. His appearance is vaguely described in a sentence from Chapter 17.

    "Isaac stared uneasily and was thankful for his tight bulk and his skin the colour of smouldering wood."

    About the book, I really grew to like Yagharek and the entire time I was waiting for him to get his wings back. That ending was a real downer.

  8. I dunno, dude! I've seen some pretty dark-skinned white people! (and many Chinese folk are also that colour too! we're still considered "the other white meat.) It does put an interesting spin tho; the next time I read PSS, I'll try to read Isaac as non-white and see how that goes! Thanks for the pointing out.

    I liked Yagharek's character as well, and while I do think that not flying was a good decision, being abandoned... really incensed me =/

    1. Functionally whether or not he's black is immaterial to the world the story takes place in, he's a member of the most privileged culture and gender in New Crobuzons society. He holds the same position in society a white man would have in our society.

      Functionally I think that it's not really a problem that they have the Xenians take up the role of human minorities, if only because it just kind of makes sense that racism between, which is ultimately an artificial construct based around dividing humanity apart, would not really exist in a world where there are literal "others" in society who fulfill the same role.

  9. First off kudos for tackling this subject I've spent allot of time looking for writings on depictions of poc and gender in this book and the series I appreciated much of this review and discussion. However

    Isaac is definitely black its mentioned a few times early on, his dark skin and his hair. I always imagine Hermes from Futurama or Forest Whitaker though Mieville says he imagined a husky LL Cool J.

    "Q. How would you cast Perdido Street Station then?

    CM: Hmm...Vermishank would be Martin Landau, I think. Isaac could be LL Cool J

    in ten years time, with a big bushy beard, doing an English accent.

    (Right....) Lin? Doesn't really matter, does it? Anyone skinny wearing a rubber bug head. I'm working on the others."

    Isaach fan art:


    So that said, many of your points about the privilege of the garuda ghetto still hold true. The ethnic resentment of the human population seems to move over the course of the novels from primarily Xenian(by Iron Council there are many more races and also larger anti-Xenian leauge) to Remade who become a much clearer reference to the translatlantic slave trade in the scar and western manifest destiny in iron council. Its also important to remember than Meiville is a fan of Mervyn Peake and constantly likes to subvert our expectations and preconceptions about traditional left radical ideals and fantasy sf conventions. As for Yag, yes we like him, but he was a rapist, and Isaac realizes the right thing to do is to respect the victims rights. Regardless of the fact that Yag had survived slavery, and untold hardships, risked his life, slayed the monsters, ei performed all the traditional action-hero tasks he was still guilty of a horrible crime. That the Garuda concept of victimhood is different from New Crobuzons is because their concept of government, social organization, and freedom is also different (something also explored in more depth through the various types of societies throughout Bas-Lag...which are never simply more primitive, or evil, but difficult to understand, communication between, genders, races, classes like everything else in his works is a struggle). Its bad enough to be raped, but to also have to face another cultures stigmas and stereotypes attached (how is she to know Issach is a leftist/feminist, its made clear his and Derkhans and sexual preferences could have them thrown in jail, and the Garuda would be aware of his societies views, not his personally).

    One of the main characters of The Scar, Tanner takes place in two gang rapes as a slave shackled in a slave ship against other slaves, at the beginning of the novel. I've never heard anyone mention it though...

    World mythology plays an important role in this book, getting away from typical norse elves, dwarves, dragons,etc for russian vods, west african weavers, egyptian khepri (meiville also lived in cairo), and Hindu/Buddhist Garuda. The latter of which closest to the western idea of angels living in a state of anarchist/communist heaven and struggles to regain his purity(yag hates the city and cant wait to leave) , but ultimately must join the dirty, filthy, contradictory, impure city. He actually plays an important if minor role in the cities history later in Iron Council. So in the end Yag does get some redemption, but its also more tragic than heroic. I'd be interested to read your impressions of the rest of the series I encourage you to read them. I'd love to hear your take on all this. Thanks again for the write up.

    here's a bas post i put together:

  10. Great to find a review in this undeservedly small fandom, even though I'm commenting 4 years late.

    I was conflicted by the Xenian-racism concept. On one hand it criticizes other fantasy's use of alien races by showing the ugly, complex implications [e.g. in Middle Earth where human miners could never be as good as dwarfs, there would probably be labor riots/tensions like the Vodyanoi protest. Also separate morality like the Garuda - if an orc can only do evil should they be punished?]

    On the other hand, a crucial tragedy about real-world racism is that it's based on arbitrary human differences that don't actually affect people (e.g. that 'White' used to refer only to English and Benjamin Franklin described other Europeans as "Swarthy" and Germans as a threat to his culture).
    So the Xenians with issues identical to racial minorities unfortunately implies that real racial groups _are_ as alien as cactae and beetles. Especially with Lin who has an east-Asian name and the Khepri story of immigrating from a far-off continent.

    I suppose Isaac's status as human and so the most respected racial group, while being black in our world, shows the arbitrariness of race.

    I still respect Mieville for including a PoC protagonist who are so rare it feels that non-white people don't get to adventure in fictional worlds. Like you I missed that the protagonist of American Gods was mixed black-white like myself until I reading an interview afterwards.