Oct 17, 2009

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Continuing my October series of Scary Steampunk, I finally get a chance (translation: force myself despite stacks of marking) to download my thoughts on China Miéville's steampunk fantasy, Perdido Street Station.

I had taken an attempt at Perdido last year, right after finishing my M.A., but as was the case with attempting Pynchon's Against the Day, my brain just wasn't ready for anything but pure narcotic reading. When I discovered that Perdido had been released in audiobook and was read by one of my favorite narrators, John Lee, I decided to take another shot.

I'm exceedingly glad I did. Miéville's writing is beautiful filth: from the grime-infested descriptions of New Crobuzon, a city somewhere between Doré's visual renderings of London and the cityscape of Dark City and City of Lost Children, to both familiar vulgarities as well as unfamiliar profanities like "Godspit!" and "Jabber's arse!" Like Dickens, Miéville is interested in the "least of these," the people who do not sit in the places of the high and mighty: people like the brilliant but iconoclastic alchemical thaumaturgist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, whose interest is in Crisis energy. While Miéville's world is easily placed under the steampunk umbrella, his world is highly original - where lesser writers are still playing with steam or aether, Miéville imagines a self-perpetuating energy source in Crisis theory.

Some of his imaginings are simply outrageous, such as the handlingers, and to some degree the Cactus people, but on the whole the feverdream world he invites his readers into is somehow believable enough to cohere, nearly operating on its own Crisis energy at times. His world building echoes Clive Barker's Four Dominions in Imajica, as does the grit and desperation of the characters. Where Miéville is, in my own mind, inferior to Barker though, is that he can't let go of the grit. His world is unrelentingly dismal, which made for a tiring read at points. The reader feels at points as bludgeoned as the protagonists, who endure great trials before coming to the end of their adventures.

But I digress. This is supposed to be an investigation of how Perdido is steampunk, or what it offers to the steampunk aesthetic. To this end, I must ask those readers who have not yet experienced Perdido to go and do so, unless they don't mind some spoilers. To the rest, I invite your commentary and discussion.

While Miéville is an eloquent wordsmith, the motivating plotline of Perdido is effectively a steampunked Aliens, Blade II, Mimic, or perhaps all three. There are monsters on the loose who are nearly impossible to stop, and that is what our heroes must do. To understand the steampunk aesthetic would mean to compare Perdido closely with these three films and identify the differences of how the Slake Moths are unleashed (through the work of Perdido's somewhat mad scientist, Isaac Grimnebulin), and then how they are dealt with (weapons, devices, allies such as the Construct Council). The reason this adventure storyline doesn't seem conventional is that Miéville is not only adept at wordsmithing, but is also a great writer of character. Every character in Perdido is richly rendered, with nuances of personality both good and bad. Any author who can make his readers connect with a hero who is severely flawed and sexually attracted to a woman with the head of a beetle must be commended at some level. While there are those who never connect with this (and many critics on Amazon do not), the overwhelming acclaim for Perdido at both a critical and popular level shows that Miéville largely succeeded. In the case of this book, you can believe the hype.

Nevertheless, for all its highbrow dystopic elements, complex characterization and ambivalent moral schema, Perdido is an adventure story: a monster hunt. The Slake Moths are appropriate monstrosities for a steampunk novel, since steampunk is pastiche patchwork of historical aesthetics. The Slake Moths are amalgams of the beasties in the aforementioned films, playing upon the indestructibility and otherness of Giger's Alien, the flight and dreamlike ability to lure prey of Mimic, and the sewer chases of Blade II. What really drove this home for me was the introduction of a party of adventurers who are hired to aid the heroes in their pursuit of the monsters:
"There were three of them. They were immediately and absolutely recognizable as adventurers; rogues who wandered the Ragamoll and the Cymek and Fellid and probably the whole of Bas-Lag. They were hardy and dangerous, lawless, stribbed of allegiance or morality, living off their wits, stealing and ikilling, hiring themselves out to whoever and whatever cam. They were inspired by dubious virtues. A few performed useful services: research, cartography, and the like. Most were nothing but tomb raiders. They were scum who died violent deahts, hanging on to a certain cachet among the impressionable through their undeniable bravery and their occasionally impressive exploits." (429)

I'm presenting on steampunk tabletop RPGs at Steam Con next week, and I couldn't help but think of the standard Dungeons and Dragons party when I read this description. And it occured to me that these are steampunked D&D heroes (some might say that's all Planescape is, but that's another discussion). If a story has characters who resemble this sort of hero, it's an adventure tale. In this case, it's a very intelligent one. One that explores the themes of otherness, shame, community, belonging, transformation, and how these all relate to moments of crisis.

It's because of these themes that I find the ending unsatisfying. Perhaps I'm reading my own sensibilities into the text, but there came a point when I felt Miéville cheated his readers of the logical conclusion to Perdido. Again, abandon all hope of avoiding spoilers, ye who enter here. At the ending, 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. The idea behind Crisis energy had permeated the story. The level of contrivance and coincidence was quite high - the web of circumstances showed a sort of Prime Mover behind the events. The text seems to be implying its own hidden crisis engine beneath the surface. There are many occasions when the protagonist of Isaac leaps, and the net appears. I was rather convinced that in the end, it would be demonstrated that crisis energy did not need an engine to tap into it. Like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, I'd argue that China Miéville has refused the logical end-result of his metaphysical conceit - Stephenson can't really commit to his Baal-shem in Snow Crash, and Mieville abandons his crisis energy. Maybe I was just hoping for a happier ending, but Lin could have been restored. Yagharek could have flown. But it seems that Miéville was committed to following through with one of the other major threads/themes of Perdido, which echoes the words of Sweeney Todd in Sondheim's musical:
"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of [Bas-Lag]."

In this, Perdido is a fantasy version of the mise-en-scene of The Difference Engine: utterly distopic. From that perspective, the novel does end satisfactorily. Perhaps I just feel bad for Yagharek, seeking acceptance and grace in a world whose author will not permit it.


  1. Mr Perschon,

    Sorry to hijack this post for rather a different matter, but I can't seem to find any contact information at your blog, so I would like to ask whether you could drop me an email at n.ottens@gmail.com because I have a proposition for you.

    Thank you,


  2. Your literature analysis is excellent, both helpful to me in finding some new books to seek out and in it's own entertainment value. You are detailed in laying out what does and does not work for you in a book, and are fair in labeling the areas of the analysis that are more subjective and perhaps matters of personal taste. Thanks very much for your book analyses.

    Colin Neilson

  3. Thanks Colin, I appreciate you noticing the working I put into being fair, and being aware of my own bias. You're welcome for the analyses. And so long as people like you are enjoying them, I'll keep them coming!

  4. Just found your blog. Great post. I think the thing I found most attractive about Perdido Street Station is the borrowing of steampunk aesthetics without the full-on Victorian flavor. Mieville's inclusion of analytic engines and rails and omnipresent airships provided a nice backdrop and made the use of the technology believable and inevitable.

  5. Didn't the ending of the book make you think, though? Isn't that better?

    Was Isaac disturbed enough by the choice-theft to betray a guy he'd been to war with? Did he just use the situation as a rationalization to walk away from Yag in the interest of self preservation (easier to hide just himself, Derkhan and Lin from the militia)? Having worked out the Crisis Engine, was Yag and his problem of flightlessness just no longer interesting to the scientist? Is Isaac not as stand-up of a guy as we thought(remember Lemuel's death)? Was this extra mental/emotional stress just his tipping point after dealing with the old man that he had to use as moth bait? Was it a combination?

    After spending 500+ pages in the establishment of New Crobuzon as a depressing shithole, why would Mieville then turn around and polish that turd into a shining, uplifting tale of good feelings in the final pages? That would have disappointed me. We say: Keep the Hollywood endings in Hollywood!

    But, after having read the book twice and listening to the audiobook recently, my main gripe with the unfolding of the story is Jack Half-a-Prayer. He comes out of nowhere to basically save the day, and his involvement is never really explained.

    I guess it could have been the Weaver that put Jack in the situation. It seems possible given that the Weaver just sat there drawing pictures in the blood while the fight was going on around him. That seems like a cop-out, though. What do you think?

  6. Jay, I don't mind thinking. And while I'm not accusing Mieville of doing this, I do tire of people trying to be profound by being depressing. It doesn't make you brilliant necessarily, and that's what I think I'm writing against here. Holywood didn't come up with the happy ending, though they do pander to it, certainly.

    And I think Mieville has several cop outs, and Jack Half-a-prayer is one of them. I don't mind that though, since as I stated here, this is essentially a bug-hunt. I expect some "bail you out of the shit" moments. Despite my academic agenda, I do like it when things are just damn fun.

    Great comment btw. I appreciate feedback that's so well-thought-out. Thanks very much!

  7. I agree with Gotthammer. Bringing Lynn back then basically killing her again was not necessary. The ending with Yag was a slap in the face. I really enjoyed the book until the very end.

  8. I must admit, despite being a huge Mieville fan, the fact that nothing good ever seems to happen to his protagonists gets a bit much sometimes. The business with Lin felt particularly gratuitous - kidnapped, mutilated, raped and then mind-wiped, despite the presence of Motley who, according to Mieville's own set-up, would have been a far more appealing target for the moth. I feel that constantly pummeling the reader with misery is as flawed as the kind of sentimentality that Mieville criticises in Tolkien.

  9. Speaking of Mieville's obvious tweaking of tabletop RPGs, have you tracked down the issue of Dragon Magazine devoted to New Crobuzon? It has quite an interesting interview, along with a ream of D20 adaptations of everything from the Slake Moths to the Possible Sword.

  10. I had not! Very exciting, I'll have to track it down!

  11. Very nice review. I agree with you about the bleakness, especially regarding Lin, but I disagree about Yagharek. I think the Yagharek story is an example of one of my favorite things about Mieville's work, which is the acknowledgement of ambiguity and the challenging of expectations. One of the themes I see a lot in his books is the tendency of people (both the characters in the stories and by extension the readers) to put things into categories, good guys and bad guys, without having all of the information. This comes up in The Scar and The City & The City (great books - I like both of them better than Perdido Street Station. Just started Iron Council), and I think Yagharek's story fits the same pattern. It's definitely a usurpation of the way we expect the narrative to play out, but I like that. We've developed sympathy for him by the end, with the full knowledge that he's committed some unspecified but probably terrible crime, and therefore we expect that somehow that crime won't be so bad after all and that he'll get his wings. But that's not what happens -- the past matters, the story is always more complicated, and when we get a fuller picture it changes things. I like it when books challenge my assumptions and make me examine what I expected and why.

  12. Thanks for an exceedingly thoughtful and well-spoken response, iridiumfall. Comments like yours are why I started the blog, to have the ongoing conversation about these books. Thanks very much!

  13. I recently reread Perdido Street Station, with a local steampunk reading group, and am working through my own thoughts about it.

    I both agree and disagree about the ending: I do think Mieville falls into a traditional "pursuit of monsters" format, and the last quarter or so of the book moves from something more genuinely fresh to something a bit more by-numbers. I'm interested in your connection between gaming and the novel's plot -- I have no gaming background, and make my own connections of PSS as a Dickensian social problem novel mated with a gleeful engagement with pulp sf.

    I don't agree re. Yagharek, though -- others have expressed it perhaps better than I, but I do think that pulling the rug out from under us like that is exceptionally effective, and in accepting that he can no longer be Garuda, and turning down the easy road to salvation-through-heroism with Jack Half-a-Prayer, Yag is finally ready to move forward.

    One of the things we talk about in the steampunk reading group is that some of the members see steampunk as essentially optimistic; utopian rather than dystopian. I tend to be drawn to the social critique (which doesn't mean I won't read something that's pure fun); I'm not sure I read PSS as quite so unrelentingly bleak as you do, primarily because of the characters, who struggle through these situations and don't simply give in. (Modernist fiction, I am looking at you.) It's a dark world, certainly, but one that I find myself inhabiting with fascination.

    Oh, in reference to inhabiting a world, I was surprised at your comparison to Imajica, for one reason only. I was disappointed in the Barker largely because while he created this dense imagined world, but I didn't feel as though he gave me all the sights and sounds and smells in the way that Mieville does here.

    Anyhow, thanks for a thoughtful post, and for the thoughts it generated!

  14. Chelseagirl47, when you compare PSS with modernist fiction, then yes, it's got a lot more sunlight than I give it credit for. Comments like yours make me re-think my own perspective on it, much the same as in my classes when a student offers a very thoughtful alternative to my interpretation or explication. I'm really encouraged to hear about steampunk reading groups like yours: I'm often disheartened by how many steampunk fans readily admit they haven't really read any steampunk. I'm further encouraged by how measured your response is - also too often, I hear "steampunk IS about social commentary" or "steampunk IS inherently optimistic" (I may have even said such in my early research days), and so I'm glad for your moderate, yet still opinionated, response to the post.

    I haven't read Imajica in a good long while, but I don't think I've read many writers who give you the sights and sounds and smells the way Mieville does. He's definitely a master craftsman at secondary world building.

    The gaming aspect is tied to the "pursuit of monsters" format: Mieville's gaming glee is far more subtle than lesser writers', and so it isn't glaringly obvious. Rather, other gamers recognize certain aspects, like the Weaver, a character based on a giant spider creature in the D&D Monster Manuals.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. All you Mieville fans' comments make me want to change my planned schedule for the year and work through the other Bas-Lag novels, just to keep this conversation going!

  15. The logical conclusion to PSS should have been this: Yagharek should have attempted to kill himself when he was betrayed by Isaac. As he was falling The Weaver would have caught him. The Weaver should have said something along the lines that TOO MANY WINGS had been clipped (his regret at killing the Slake Moths) so to make the web PRETTIER he would restore Yagharek's wings...don't tell me the Weaver couldn't do this. It's a mad spider God. That to me would have made Perdido Street Station complete. Yagharek deserved compensation for all his selfless acts.

  16. I was very disappointed by the ending. Personally, I felt Yagharek redeemed himself for his crime through his actions. Honestly to me the only way to conclude this book is this: Yagharek at the end should have jumped off the edge of the building to commit suicide. The Weaver--in its guilt and regret for killing all the Slake Moths--would have caught him and said possible: TOO MANY WINGS HAVE BEEN CLIPPED BY OUR WEAVING...etc

    Basically The Weaver would have stopped Yagharek from committing suicide and taken him to the "web aspect" and reattached his wings. Don't say the Weaver couldn't have done this because we all know a dancing spider god is capable of almost anything.

  17. Evan, I agree, though not necessarily by the Weaver's hand. The crisis energy was as likely an option. I've read some convincing arguments contrary to yours and mine, but none that sell me entirely. Thanks for your input.

  18. Did anyone else find the Weaver really funny, somehow, sometimes? The way it pats the soldiers on the head like dogs and dresses up the protagonists in fine clothes to set them down in the sewers certainly has something funny. It's probably a streak of Mervyn Peake where weirdness often verges on the absurd and humorous, and this is arguable also the case in Lovecraft (as would explain the abundance and ease of parody). And strangeness and humour are closely linked, of course. Anyway, it's just something I noticed in my overall enjoyment of this creation.

  19. Gotthammer, just discovered your blog - it's a good read - as was Perdido... however, who the hell was Jack Half A Prayer?? Did I miss something earlier in the book?? Was the character featured in a prequel novel that I am unaware of?

  20. There is no prequel novel to Perdido. I think Jack's an example of how Mieville has Bas-Lag firmly fixed in his head, and so someone can jump in without warning, and it makes sense, because we haven't been exposed to the whole narrative space.

  21. I too was disappointed by the ending, which I find is blotted by Isaac's tired regression to Christian sentimentality as well as the human exceptionalism of the final sentence (so assiduously avoided throughout the rest of the novel).

  22. Just found the blog, read all the posts as this is among my favorite books. My copy hardly holds together from the times i have read it and lent it out.
    The ending makes sense given what I see as themes of loss, and transformation: Derkhan loses Benjamin Flex and her role as reporter, and becomes an actor in events; Isaac loses his career and his lover, becoming able to do anything (except what he wants most); Lin goes from self-expression to losing her self; Yagharek loses his dream, but finds a new reality. It's definitely depressing, but I don't feel cheated. To me, there is an internal logic.

  23. Great insights, Corrupt - thanks for joining the conversation!

  24. Just finished it. It was exhausting - there was never a break. The writing is spectacular! The story went a bit far with the numbers of alien creatures perhaps and the steampunk aspect got a little bit wide with the artificial intelligence but, it's a good read. Just not something to consider "light reading". Reminded me quite a bit of Stephen Donaldson's works.


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