Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Perdido Street Station

Sometime last week, I stumbled on the Hugo Awards nominations, and decided that since I'd already read 2 of the books on the list (The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke) I might as well try and read the rest:
  • Iron Council by China MiĆ©ville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
  • Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (Ace)
  • River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Simon & Schuster)

Ironically, I couldn't find the books I wanted, so I settled for books by the same author.

[spoilers may follow, so you might not want to read on if you're considering reading the books]


Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross. This is very much a story for the moment - by which I mean that it makes sense, and strikes a chord, because of the specificity with which is targets our current social context. A closed society ruled over a by an authoritarian, luddite government is "attacked" by an alien race called The Festival, which bombards them with cellphones, and free trade. Yes, free trade. They, of course, resist, but eventually the forces of globalisation, I mean, The Festival, inevitably triumph. Not a bad read, but as I said, a story very much of the moment, and likely to stay there.

Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. This guy can write. More than that, he can imagine. Perdido Street Station has enough characters to populate 5 novels - unique characters that stick in the mind, who have every potential to be leads if they were in a movie, but who are not developed with justice (they can't: the novel's already incredibly long, and it'd have to be several times longer to accomodate them - better yet, it should be broken up into several novels).

In fact, I get the impression that he just crammed every good character idea (and he has lots) into one novel. Unfortunately, this means that many interesting characters are never fully developed. Just when you get to know someone, and find them interesting, they disappear into the plot to make way for another grotesque character, of which Mieville has plenty. The novel parades a whole series of villains, potential villains, and arch-villains before you in rapid succession. At times, he seems to be trying to outdo himself - just when you thought Mr Motley was bad, suddenly the Ambassador from Hell makes his appearance, only to be replaced by The Weaver, who is then displaced by The Construct Council ... etc. It's like an arch-arch-arch-villain. Some of them don't even get more than 5 minutes of air-time - in particular the Ambassador from Hell, but also the Weaver, who drops in and out of the plot like the spider it is.

Conversely, there are characters who appear providentially (and inexplicably) to move the plot past obstacles - the adventurers whom Lemuel hires, and most glaringly, the folk hero Jack, who literally does a deus ex machina to save our heroes at the end. Imagine you were reading a novel set in medieval England. The characters vaguely mention Robin Hood 2 or 3 times in the course of the novel, but he never appears, and has no impact on the plot - i.e. nothing he does affects the story, or vice versa. At the end, when our heroes are backed into a corner, and it seems that they are beyond rescue, who should appear to rescue them but ... yes, Robin Hood. With absolutely no indication given of why he's doing this, or how he even knew they needed help. The novel ends, and he disappears just as quickly as he came. That's exactly what happens at the end of Perdido Street Station, and it's the only thing I would label a flaw.

Similarly, important characters who the author invested time developing, and who the reader has got to know, disappear halfway through - Lin, an intriguing character, effectively drops out of the story at the halfway point: she does reappear at the end, but brain-dead, as a burden to be lugged around.

At this point, I think I'd better say that I actually like the novel, because I seem to be criticising it more than anything else. Mieville's strengths are his characterisation, but you can't see it in this novel because he has too many characters and too little time.

Mieville makes me think of Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy (from the Biographia Literaria):

"The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association."

Mieville's writing, by Coleridge's standards, is dominated by Fancy, not imagination. The city of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station is peopled with a vast amount of detail - races, sects, alliances, political parties, history, hidden agendas, but all of it a variation on known and familiar things, achieved by combination or association. New Corbuzon is like Victorian London, with place names like Brock Marsh and The Ribs, and with ethnic groups replaced by different species. The 'alien' species are themselves an example of Coleridge's "association": you have cactus people; insect people (the khepri, with human bodies and insect heads); vodyanoi (frog people); garuda (yes, bird-people); handlings (think of them as pupper master looking like the face hugger from aliens: a human hand and a long tail); the Construct Council (sentient machines, but steam powered); and the Remade (people who've had animal/machine parts forcibly grafted onto them). In a sense, all of the species and peoples in Perdido Street Station are Remade, and Mieville's vision of alien-ness can be summed up in the character of Mr Motley, who is so Remade you can't tell what he was originally (think Jabba the Hutt with multiple heads, arms, legs, all of different species, all thrown together in a ... well, motley). It's a menagerie of the grotesque - a grotesqurie, if you will. (at least he doesn't have the usual Elves and Dwarves) There's something recognisably dickensian about this novel, from the grim streets of New Crobuzon to the sordid lives of the characters, and the evocative naming, like Mayor Rudgutter and Mr Motley.

Mieville's next book, The Scar, is a much tighter composition, and his strengths begin to show more clearly here - good plotting, a fine sense of the dramatic, and the fewer characters he focuses on are intriguing and captivating. Set into a much smaller space (all the action takes place on a floating city of ships), there's little detail to distract the reader from the story at hand, and from the development of the hero. Mieville's two novels that I have read are, in the final reckoning, all about the characters - there's a crisis, yes, there're conflicts, battles and wars, there're plots and intrigues, but in the end, they are about the growth and 'enlightenment' (for want of a better word) of a single character. Now that I've read both of his earlier novels, and seen the direction he'd heading towards, I can't wait to read Iron Council, but it doesn't seem to have reached our bookstores yet.

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