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.
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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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