These moths really weren't necessary

by Sören Heim

Trying to get a hold of the "New Weird" Movement, Sören Heim started with a modern classic.
~
Some early passages of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station I'd like to have read out loud to me by Dylan Thomas' powerful bardic voice. There are poetic, even melodic moments in this book, with just the right amount of dissonance to match the fantastic-dystopic setting of New Crobuzon, loosely modeled on the cityscape of modern London. I was directed towards Miéville by fans in the aftermath of my criticism of fantasy authors mistaking being "dark" and morally ambiguous for literary merit in itself, when I asked about writers who don't either try to imitate Tolkien or outrightly criticize the genre's tropes, but tell a story for its own sake. And one can tell from the better parts of Perdido that Miéville is trying to do something special here, as it seems he is always trying, which is why Matt Hilliard wrote this about him:
"I’ll say this for the book: it might have failed with me, but it was an ambitious failure. Better to fail through overreaching than from insufficient aspirations. I don’t recommend this one but I’ll be eagerly awaiting Miéville’s next novel."
So as a type of "industrial novel", and maybe as a verbose painting of a metropolis, Perdido Street Station certainly has its appeal and some of its better moments remind me (mind, I don't say something like that easily) of established classics in the genre like Dos Passo's Manhattan Transfer, Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz, Belyj's Peterburg or the much too rarely read Riverroad by Mwangi.

Shakespeare with bugs, bad pun intended


So much for the light. There is a lot of mediocrity and some darkness, too. Perdido Street Station, among other things, tells the story of Isaac and Lin, him a scientist, her an artist, who both try to achieve something extraordinary in their field: Isaac tries to restore the gift of flight to Yagharek, member of a birdlike species called Garuda, who has been sentenced by his people to losing his wings, because of the incredible crime called "choice-theft in the second degree with utter disrespect". Meanwhile, Lin wants to break out of the collectivist ideal of art of her social background and therefore agrees to work on the likeness of a shady underworld mogul in New Crobuzon. As far as that goes Perdido is in the beginning chiefly a “Künstlerroman”, since science in Miévilles cosmos looks a lot like our physics, but is really much closer to what in other fantastic novels would be called magic (at least the field of thaumaturgy, which is Isaac's main interest). At the same time, the book tells the story of the unheard-of love between a human (again: Isaac) and a khepri (Lin), who is basically a human-bug chimera. Sounds interesting enough, and could easily carry the whole piece. Shakespeare made a somewhat successful play on a subject-matter maybe less risque, and one is told that a lot of writers followed in his footsteps...

But since Miéville isn't too fond of the whole "show, don't tell" business, he merely states all the possible conflicts that could arise from that love affair in two or three somewhat extended infodumps and then mostly forgets about it. Hardly ever is the reader made to feel the social stigma imprinted on the relationship of Lin and Isaac. Same goes for what it means being a "rogue scientist" or an artist desperately struggling with a completely new approach to ones passion. Instead, Miéville actually writes sentences like "She was an Artist, yadayadayada... He was a scientist, yadayadayada", and he does this more often than is good for any halfway decent character portrayal. He is better with his supporting cast though, which makes me wonder whether he maybe just didn't like his protagonist that much, and would also explain why he quickly has Lin taken into captivity by her mobster-artfunder and has her become the center of a substandard damsel-in-distress storyline instead of actually doing something more with her.

Writing - and failing at - three books at once


It is a common criticism of Perdido Street Station that China Miéville is too interested in New Crobuzon itself and doesn't care about getting the plot going for most of the first half of the book. To me, that only rings partly true. Actually, maybe there is rather too much going on plot-wise and Miéville's main problem is that he hadn't really decided what kind of book he was going to write. The künstlerroman/love story portion dominating roughly 1/3 of Perdido could, as mentioned above, stand quite well for itself. It's no Portrait of the Artist, but if it were a little bit more subtly developed it could be quite enjoyable. What does it mean for an artist, coming from a background which frowns upon individual expression, to work for a mobster who would and does kill to make it possible for her to do her job? How is Garuda society really structured besides from being described as somehow "communist"? How does this communism work without tipping over into Soviet-like totalitarianism? Does it only work because the Garuda live a nomadic lifestyle? Or because they are simply psychological so different from human beings? Or does Miéville, who styles himself a communist, know something about how to avoid previous failings of communism, he wishes to share? Also: what makes "choice-theft in the second degree with utter disrespect" a crime too complicated even to try to explain it in plain English to Isaac?

Learning more about all this and much more might make for an interesting read, maybe even with some story-wise pointless subplots, which could really help to experience the whole New Crobuzon cosmos Miéville goes on and on about without ever really showing what it means to live in it.

Demented Mothmonsters. I mean: Moth-Dementors. I mean Nazgul. Whatever


Instead, well... This is where Perdido Street Station started to lose me and got me more and more angry. Instead after some three- or four hundred pages Miéville begins to conjure up mind- and soul- sucking mothmonsters, living on the dreams of the inhabitants of New Crobuzon. If that reminds you of Rowling's Dementors or the even more prototypical Nazgul, that is because they are basically like that but much less cool. (Actually, of course, Issac conjures up the moths while investigating flying animals in order to help Yagharek regain his abilities, but since this is the point where the whole book finally falls apart shifting the blame from author to protagonist feels to me rather fishy). Suddenly, it seems as if Miéville had changed his mind completely and decided to write a mystery-thriller/detective story instead of his panoptic of a huge, vibrant city. Writing good mystery is much tougher than one might think, and Miéville is clearly not up to the task. His mystery doesn't take off, there isn't much detecting to do and while Perdido thus rapidly slides into Ghostbusters trash territory, this doesn't really work either, because a) the book never built up to be that kind of story; and b) the moth-dementors can't be busted by mere human beings anyway. Miéville solves this problem by inventing a poetry-loving spider-ex-machina which weaves and reweaves the fabric of the universe according to purely aesthetic criteria. That is mildly odd and funny. But it is much too late for Perdido to succeed as comedy.

When bad things happen to good books


Now, maybe I'm being a little harsh here with Miéville since the novel, as stated, clearly has its moments. But seeing how well it starts out and how completely Miéville manages to ruin Perdido not only for me but I think also for most readers who would have loved to experience a well-composed mystery-novel within Miéville's intriguing setting, is really disappointing. More so, since I feel I share at least some visions with the author about what a real masterpiece of speculative fiction could look like. Miéville is trying to achieve something special and he could well be the author who one day will. So when reading Perdido I was more than once reminded of a great moment in Frasier, when Kate Costas comments on Frasier completely losing track of what he was going to say: "Isn't it sad when bad things happen to good sentences?"

Yes. And it's true for books, too.

Finally, whatever exactly Miéville was trying to do with Perdido, his late revelation that Yagharek in Garuda society has actually raped a woman (that is the aforementioned "choice theft in the second degree", a crime impossible to translate from Garuda to English), is clearly not the way to achieve it. It might be well-intended, showing us how somebody we deeply invest in and care for might not be worth the effort, and how being on quests with somebody and having lived through a lot doesn't mean necessarily one has to stand up for this person. Miéville even does make his point half-way convincingly, by having Isaac turn away from Yagharek.

It still feels cheap, since Miéville pulls "rape" out of thin air in the end, just in order to make a point. It is more for effect really, and Miéville opts out of discussing the implications much too easily by having the novel end immediately afterwards. Also: what's so difficult to explain about this "choice-theft in the second degree with utter disrespect"? Victim Kar’uchai has no trouble saying something along the lines of "you would call it rape". Maybe this is also meant to show how bad of a person Yagharek really is, concealing his crime before. But to me, it just doesn't add up convincingly.
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Comments (go to latest)
James D at 21:46 on 2016-04-04
Agreed on basically all points. The "rape revelation" could have worked if it had appeared around halfway through the Kuenstlerroman version - in the actual book Isaac goes from denial to acceptance to "fuck it, I'm outta here" in the span of about a page.

In reality, how many people would immediately, unquestioningly believe a stranger's claim that their friend raped her, without evidence other than her say-so? Besides which, Isaac is financially obligated to Yagharek, who has invested lots of his own money (gained by fighting in dangerous gladiatorial bouts) in the cure. That money was spent, Isaac can't give him a refund, and besides that it's money that maintains Isaac's standard of living - would he just immediately give that up without question? And is permanent maiming even a just punishment for rape? These are legitimate questions that Isaac could easily have spent half of a much better novel considering, and probably would have, given that we see Isaac is the type of guy loathe to give up his status and comfortable life to go against the grain, i.e. his unwillingness to "go public" with his relationship with Lin for fear of jeopardizing his cushy academic position. There are SO MANY FACTORS that are set up which would cause Isaac to be highly skeptical of the victim's (totally legitimate) claims, and instead he just immediately believes her based on...well, I guess she seems trustworthy.

Instead rape, which Mieville apparently considers a serious crime, is just an offhand afterthought in the coda to the main plot.

Oh and I forgot if you mentioned the fridging of Lin but that was super lame too. I think most people agree on these criticisms, it just depends on how much they drag down your overall reading experience. In mine (and apparently yours), the answer is quite a bit.
Ichneumon at 04:50 on 2016-04-05
I've been meaning to read this for a while, but from previous discussions and reading about the book, I thought part of the point of obscuring the wording was a way of framing just how differently the Garuda view their society from humans in that world. Everything is framed as a matter of choice, and to deprive another person of that freedom in an especially disrespectful manner is an abomination to them; thus, sexual violence is described in terms of denying a person their freedom to choose and refusing to honour a choice made by another. While not *entirely* alien, it's certainly unusual. It also comes up in at least one of his other Bas-Lag novels.

I wonder if one notices more hints in that direction on a second read. Having read some of Miéville's other work, particularly short fiction, it wouldn't surprise me if he dropped subtle hints that reward a second or third look. None of this changes that it might be a poorly structured book or unpleasantly rushed at the end, but it's worth considering.
Arthur B at 07:22 on 2016-04-05
@JamesD:
There are SO MANY FACTORS that are set up which would cause Isaac to be highly skeptical of the victim's (totally legitimate) claims, and instead he just immediately believes her based on...well, I guess she seems trustworthy.

It's been a good long time since I read the book, but I seem to remember that Isaac's life is comprehensively wrecked by the end. Which I guess makes it easy to walk away from Yagharek, because none of the factors which could potentially have prompted him to disbelieve and stick around apply any more.

@Ichneumon:
I wonder if one notices more hints in that direction on a second read. Having read some of Miéville's other work, particularly short fiction, it wouldn't surprise me if he dropped subtle hints that reward a second or third look. None of this changes that it might be a poorly structured book or unpleasantly rushed at the end, but it's worth considering.

From what I remember of the book, a reread would be more an issue of noticing all the bits which Mieville spills a bunch of ink on but which don't appreciably increase our understanding of the world or characters or advance the plot.

For instance, I seem to remember a bit where the mayor summons a demon to try to deal with the moth problem and they have this long conversation which amounts to absolutely nothing which wouldn't have been accomplished by a one-sentence aside that the mayor had sought infernal help which was refused. Likewise, the one other bit I remember strongly (there's great swathes of eminently forgettable stuff in there) is the Dungeons & Dragons parody when he mentions the parties of wandering adventurers who try to take down the moth, which also outstays its welcome.

To that extent I disagree that Mieville isn't into "show, don't tell" - the real problem is that he just tells us stuff that could have been more interesting if he showed it and shows us stuff which he should perhaps just told us about and moved on.
James D at 10:13 on 2016-04-05
It's been a good long time since I read the book, but I seem to remember that Isaac's life is comprehensively wrecked by the end. Which I guess makes it easy to walk away from Yagharek, because none of the factors which could potentially have prompted him to disbelieve and stick around apply any more.

You're right, Isaac had lost his girlfriend and was on the run, which would've made it easier. It's not that it's completely unbelievable that Isaac would do what he did, it's that Mieville chose the least interesting, least dramatic way to handle what could've been a really interesting character dilemma - and a much, much more interesting conflict than "we gotta kill some monsters."

And yeah there are all sorts of throwaway parts of the book which are neat for worldbuilding I guess but completely without plot significance - there was also the part where the Handlers fight the slake-moths and get their asses beat with no results. I suppose he's trying to show how the establishment of Bas-Lag is trying their best to beat the moths and failing, but these are long, drawn-out sequences that don't involve main characters, have no real stakes, and don't move the plot forward.

I think a while back we were discussing this (with valse de la lune IIRC?) and you said Mieville should just take these cool worldbuilding ideas that clutter up his novels and sell them as flashcards.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 10:57 on 2016-04-05
Mieville has always felt weird in that he's half literati and half pulp, and seems to really enjoy both parts.

RE: Believing victim, IIRC Yagharek was pretty insistent that yes, he had committed a crime (though not disclosing was it was) and yes, it was a bad one. It's just that until he was directly confronted with the possibility of *what* that crime was, Isaac could feign ignorance about what it might imply to have committed a crime.
Arthur B at 11:28 on 2016-04-05
RE: Believing victim, IIRC Yagharek was pretty insistent that yes, he had committed a crime (though not disclosing was it was) and yes, it was a bad one. It's just that until he was directly confronted with the possibility of *what* that crime was, Isaac could feign ignorance about what it might imply to have committed a crime.

That's it.

To give Mieville his due, one thing I did quite like about that arc - or at least, the way I remember it - was how Isaac basically tossed aside any consideration of what Yagharek's crime might have been (and now that you remind me, I do vaguely remember Yagharek regularly being like "No, seriously, I did a really bad thing"), partly because of precisely the sort of issues James outlines with it not really being in Isaac's interests to question the point too deeply, partly down to Isaac blithely assuming "Oh, it's some cultural thing, Garuda are so ~exotic~ and ~inscrutable~ so I probably wouldn't understand it anyway."

So perhaps the handling of it is a bit more nuanced than we're giving China credit for, since it does involve Isaac assuming a stance of self-serving ignorance until he is confronted with the cold, hard, undeniable facts.

Doesn't change the fact that it feels like a cheap shot from out of left field when you read it though - or the fact that it comes slightly too late for the moment to really have the resonance it deserves.
Sören Heim at 12:35 on 2016-04-05
To that extent I disagree that Mieville isn't into "show, don't tell" - the real problem is that he just tells us stuff that could have been more interesting if he showed it and shows us stuff which he should perhaps just told us about and moved on.


Yes, that's a more accurate way of putting it. I seem to have completely repressed the Mayor & Demon part of the book.
Arthur B at 12:42 on 2016-04-05
On the point about Mieville apparently not liking Isaac at all - I think the rape revelation kind of lends a bit of credence to that. Think about it: not only has Isaac's life been thoroughly, absolutely, comprehensively trashed, but right at the end he finds out that all this trouble happened because he decided to help someone who, now that he knows exactly what they have done, he doesn't even want to know anymore.

Not only has Isaac destroyed himself, but he's destroyed himself for no reason. The dude never gets a break; had the book gone on for five more pages I wouldn't have been surprised if Mieville had himself manifest in front of Isaac, kick him square in the balls, and take a piss on him as he lay twitching in agony on the floor.
Sören Heim at 15:05 on 2016-04-05
Since I haven't read any of his others I can only judge from this book, but does it have to be about liking Isaac, or couldn't it just be that Mieville wants to paint a rather bleak picture of life in general (or life under capitalism at least, which would fit with his political persuasion). None of the more idealistic characters seem to have a lot turning out well for them.
Arthur B at 16:23 on 2016-04-05
He does have a tendency towards downer endings and plot arcs that tend to project characters into dustbins. Though some of the downer endings show a bit more... kindness? compassion?... for the protagonists in question. (I'm thinking in particular of the end of The Iron Council.)
James D at 21:42 on 2016-04-05
The funny thing is, of the novels I've read, I like Isaac by far the most out of any of Mieville's protagonists. He's clearly not perfect, but his failings are understandable and he's generally likeable. I mean his greatest problem is that he has trouble doing the right thing when it means great personal inconvenience and possibly hardship - something everyone struggles with.
Ichneumon at 17:02 on 2016-04-07
I think this is part of why I stick with short fiction when it comes to writers like Miéville: The brevity forces a greater degree of focus, the ideas are mostly self-contained, and even the most frustrating characters don't overstay their welcome.

Which is ironic, given that I actually *do* enjoy self-indulgent digressions and "pointless" events should they be appropriately interesting or amusing in their own right. But the problem is, length increases time, and time increases the potential for impatience, particularly in novels; and because of this, novels tend to have an expected progression and degree of efficiency which undercuts the novelist's ability to spread their scope beyond a certain point.

Incidentally, I wouldn't be surprised if the turn-of-the-century "social novel" is one of Miéville's inspirations in how he structures his work. Zola and his kin certainly aligned with his political views, and the idea that every angle of a broader conflict should be explored in depth regardless of whether the individual stories really cohere beyond thematic continuity or just "fitting the whole world in a book" seems appealing to his personality and aesthetics. Likewise, the cadence of his prose has a definite hard realist feel despite the subject matter being moderately to exceedingly fantastical more often than not.

That said, the thrill of the panopticon is in seeing *everything,* and while I do think that eliding certain events is key to giving an impression of how much is going on, your comments give me the impression that more time could have been given to underexplored ideas to balance out the satirical and tangential asides.

But I dunno. I'm not very keen on whaling on books for seemingly deliberate structural choices when I can understand why they're there, even if I don't agree with them. Maybe this just reflects my impatience with how people look at novels. I get that it's somewhat of a necessity to consider them through the lens of narrative efficiency based on the time investment involved, and I do love a gripping, tightly focused read—The Shadow of the Torturer had me hurtling along at lightning speed, and I do rather enjoy a good potboiler or breezy vacation book now and then—but as I said, I also like when stuff gets convoluted and digressive and messy, and if the only point of a scene is to expound upon a theme or show a cool idea or make the world feel richer, then so be it.

However, those scenes are best when they come back to bite you in the end, especially if they seem completely meaningless at first. Incidentally, the work of fiction that immediately comes to mind in this arena is not a book (exactly), but the webcomic Homestuck, which, say what you will about it otherwise, is basically a master class on how to make the average reader think you're just throwing random shit at them and then bring it back with a grisly vengeance when they least expect it. Hussie really goes all the way down the Pynchonian self-reference rabbit hole in ways that are almost sui generis, for better or worse, and assuming that anything is simply fluff is often a mortal mistake.
Ichneumon at 17:33 on 2016-04-07
P.S. To be quite honest, I don't especially care if he had to shoehorn in the slake-moths or the Weaver, because they are both really fun concepts if nothing else, and stuffing in fun concepts because fuck you, I'm China Miéville seems like a better rationale than, for instance, the publisher-mandated sex scene meme.
James D at 02:00 on 2016-04-08
The thing is, that's exactly the central problem of the novel - if he wanted to write a "social novel" (something I'd probably really really enjoy if it were set in a crazy fantasy world), then the central "monster hunt" plot was terribly ill-fitting and simplistic and distracting from the genuinely interesting stuff (I found the strike-breaking scene much more interesting than the moth crap). If he wanted to write a "monster hunt" story then all the extraneous social novel stuff only served to slow down what needed to be a fast-paced thrill ride full of derring-do and whatnot. It's just a bad marriage from the ground up.
Sören Heim at 13:55 on 2016-04-08
It's just a bad marriage from the ground up.
- Yes. I'd have loved to read some kind of Perdido-Street-Ulysses (if well executed) and I might have liked a faced paced mothhunt ( it wouldn't have to be moths, though). It's not that I want the book to be something it just isn't, but to be at least one of the things it could be instead of trying for a bunch of them and failing at every one. Although the more I read the less I felt that Mievilles worldbuilding would allow for deeper exploration. It is opulent, but it often seems like he just took social problems he wanted to make a point about and constructed a fantastic equivalent, without worrying too much if it fits all together.
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