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May Book Club - Perdido Street Station [May. 1st, 2005|04:03 pm]
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[immortalradical]
I didn't nominate Perdido Street Station, but I'm starting the discussion at the request of the Person Who Did. So ... here we go.

Let's start with the obvious - Perdido Street Station is a big book. There's a hell of a lot to chew on in here, from politics to the workings of fantasy, and it's very difficult to know where to start. Indeed, that is one of the glorious strengths of the book: at times dizzying in its scope and creativity, this is less a novel and more a sprawling map of words. Geography and topography, society and culture, politics and science ... New Crobuzon has a life of its own in all of these areas, and we grab glimpses of all these and more as a new visitor to a foreign clime. Perdido Street Station makes things feel real and tactile; its language may be dense and at times over-wrought, but it is perfectly in-keeping with a novel which revels in its baroque complexity.

Mieville's almost forbiddingly dense, but I'd argue that he's also eminently accessible - perhaps unlike the obvious comparison, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels. It seems to me that the first 200 pages of the book - almost a quarter of its length - is taken up solely by the imagining of New Crobuzon. Some of the book's best writing is here - the novel's setting is in many ways the principal character and it and its inhabitants are beautifully and enticingly drawn. I've read both of Mieville's other Bas-Lag novels, and never felt quite the same sense of breath-taking wonder.

But isn't this also the book's principal weakness? 200 pages and hardly a whiff of plot? That's just self-indulgent, surely? The prologue is a case in point - it's doing its level best to be mysterious and creative and act as a moving introduction to the city, but in fact it comes off as drawn-out, opaque and unnecessary. OK, New Crobuzon's great, but what I really want to know is what happens in it and why. I want a story, not a guidebook. It's well known that Mieville based New Crobuzon on London - he can write a fantastical love letter to the city as much as he wants, but if it don't got no story I don't see why I should read it.

Similarly, the characterisation in the book is sparse: Isaac is thoroughly likeable, as a hero should be; Lin is a damsel-in-distress, dealt with atrociously seemingly for the sake of damaging a character we care about and making a simplistic villain out of Mr Motley; Lemuel Pigeon is the loveable rogue, Yagharek the enigmatic visitor. For all its invention, Perdido Street Station is also a rather simplistic novel - its characters are archetypes and, once it gets going, its plot is pretty straightforward. If you remove the asides - the entertaining visit to Hell by the Mayor and his compatriots, for example - you're left with a linear plot of the most average kind.

Still, there are surprises, some of them more baffling than others. The ending, for example, comes out of left-field for many. Having been a secondary character for much of the novel, Yagharek takes centre-stage in what can feel like a fairly rushed and even pointless denouement. Structurally, Perdido Street Station isn't really very strong, is it? It steadies itself on the strength of its creations, but in truth it's wobbling all over the place. The book isn't episodic (or is it?) or picaresque (or is it?), but there is a feeling that Mieville is more interested in his setpieces and his clever (and often strung-out) writing than he is in crafting a novel.

Crucially, though, Perdido Street Station is in the end about something more than its world. It is perhaps primarily a book about the the destructiveness of the will to power. Many of the characters of the novel are interested in imposing order onto chaos. They attempt to find patterns, force logical progressions, press societies into strict and unyielding systems. Ultimately, this is shown to be not quite an exercise in futility (indeed, despite the bustling confusion of New Crobuzon, the totalitarian government and its secret police seem to rule quite effectively), but rather one of denial. Thus, it is crisis and the impossibility of resolving impossibilities that save the day. The book embraces the complex interplay between conscious and unconscious, the rational and the irrational, rather than endorsing one over the other. Order must necessarily be restrictive, but there are varying degrees of order and varying degrees of restrictiveness. The book spends much of its time attempting to decide where on this gradient societies should place themselves to best realize their potential. There is perhaps no 'best' place - like much else in the book, the answer is one of personal choice, not empirical wisdom: "I ask you to observe our justice, not to impute your own."

Fantasy very often develops an inward-looking myopia, becoming increasingly interested in its own reality rather than the one in which it is written and will be read. Perdido Street Station can be accused of losing sight of structure and brevity, and even characterisation, as a result of its obsession with creation, but it is at least engaged with debates we can recognise as our own. Do we side with the 'justice' of Yagharek's society? If not, why not? Is it better or worse than the oppression on show in New Crobuzon? Is there any way to compare the two poles? If not, how do we make any political decision? And, besides, how can any over-arching system operate correctly and/or fairly when the individuals who live under it are constantly causing such chaos? This is an explicitly political book.

It's also the spearhead of New Weird, that amorphous branch of fantasy that gets certain people terribly excited but seems in fact to be a simple trick of emphasis, a deft shift of backdrop. As noted, plot-wise and character-wise Perdido Street Station is not ground-breaking - a gang of archetypes run about a bit, seeking to apply a McGuffin to some nasty monsters, in order to save the world against the odds. But they travel in a city that's part steampunk, part folklore, with bits of absolutely everything else thrown in, too. Isn't New Weird is just everything that's ever been written in speculative fiction thrown together in a splash of enjoyably bewildering colour to mask the fact that fantasy relies on certain character types and certain story types? Like the book in question, it seeks to distract us whilst holding our hand between the usual A and the much visited B.

In other ways, Perdido Street Station is nevertheless as unpredictable as its city. Sometimes, quite frankly, it can be rubbish. At others, it can be brilliantly entertaining. At still others, it can actually be thoughtful and incisive. It is an acquired taste - do we give it points for being so uncompromising, or is it arrogance to give no quarter to the reader? Is it a great book? I'm not sure.

But it's certainly big, and there's a lot to say about it. So get to it.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: groolover
2005-05-01 03:27 pm (UTC)
I read Perdido Street Station not long after it came out, and it produced an odd reaction in me; I enjoyed reading it (in the sense of wanting to know what happened, and admiring the skill with which it was crafted) but I also really, really disliked reading it, because it made me feel uncomfortable and even slightly nauseous. (I can't remember now exactly what it was that caused the latter, but I know I never want to read the book again - in fact, I gave my copy to ajr some time ago.) (Stephen Donaldson's Gap series are the only other books that I remember causing that reaction in me, except that there was NOTHING I enjoyed about them.)
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 03:31 pm (UTC)
Wow. And you genuinely have no idea what caused it? I'm assuming it wasn't literary vertigo caused by Mieville's linguistic pyrotechnics. :P There are unpleasant passages in Perdido Street Station, but at the same time it's far from horrible. Have you read his other books? Hm. I imagine not. :P
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[User Picture]From: groolover
2005-05-01 03:35 pm (UTC)
I had a very good idea at the time, but I've forgotten since :p I've got a vague memory of the root of it being a grimy atmosphere throughout, if that makes any sense. And no, I haven't read any of his other books, although I have read at least one of his short stories, which I liked a lot.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 03:41 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think it's fair to say that New Crobuzon feels distinctly 'used'. :) One of the things Mieville is criticised for is not showing the more salubrious parts of New Crobuzon (he does so in Iron Council, but places it right next to a slum, as if he never wants us to forget the squalor of much the city). No doubt this has something to do with his socialist/Marxist credentials. His other Bas-Lag books, as I say, each have their own character, but it's debatable whether or not either of them really capture what you call the grime of New Crobuzon quite as well. Well, The Scar isn't set there at all. :P
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[User Picture]From: blue_condition
2005-05-01 06:42 pm (UTC)
I first read Perdido Street Station by the side of the Med on a very relaxing holiday in France, and the book was chilling enough in parts to darken even the warmest afternoon.

When I first read it, New Crobuzon felt to me like it was meant to be South American, Brazilian perhaps - the melting pot of cultures, the vast decadence of somewhere like Rio or Sao Paolo. Or just maybe, somewhere along the rickety, elevated Ligne 6 of the Paris Metro, where Algerians live in the cellars of cheap bistros under the shadows of Corvisart station.

Since then, I've spent quite a bit of time Saaf of the Rivvah, and in particular one aimless walking trip that took me through London Bridge Station and down to New Cross. Now I know where Mieville is coming from -- there are parts that aren't fantasy, they're virtual travelogue. Chuck in a huge Samuel Delany influence (the texture and tone are very reminiscent of pre-porn Delany), a dash or two of M John Harrison's Viriconium oddities, add a grab-bag of fantasy tropes, shake well and...

...well, you've certainly got one of the most entertaining pieces of worldbuilding in modern fantasy.

As far as plot is concerned, it's not strong. Picaresques rarely are, and Mieville has a lot of fun putting together some wonderful set-pieces. Rich and strange indeed.

The most shocking moment in the book isn't anything to do with the fantasy, though. We've been led to believe, all the way along, that the garuda Yagharek's "crime" is something abstract, something esoteric, something that "mere" humans can't understand, and that the loss of his wings (cf David Peace's thriller Nineteen Seventy-Four where a murdered young girl is found with swans' wings sewn onto her back?) is a cruel and unusual punishment. Towards the end of the novel we discover the nature of his crime -- and suddenly we begin to wonder whether his punishment wasn't too lenient or not...

The two (so far) sequels impress in different ways; "The Scar" is a romp on a bigger scale; Iron Council a socialist fable steeped in railway lore.

Mieville is fascinated by the way Bas-Lag works. He's more comfortable
ferreting around in its drains than chronicling its high life, but as a
self-avowed socialist that's hardly surprising. His command of character
and of local colour is superlative; his plotting still occasionally
clumsy and marred by use of deus ex machina and McGuffins.

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[User Picture]From: thette
2005-05-01 07:07 pm (UTC)
I think almost everything I've read so far about Bas-Lag has been about cruel and unusual punishments.

(Haven't opened The Scar, came halfway through Perdido Street Station and have finished Iron Council.)
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 07:14 pm (UTC)
One of Mieville's strongest themes is 'justice', in a sense wider than the legal (but that, too, of course). I think the unusual punishments - the Remade being the obvious example - are part of his examination of how society treats those who break its laws ... and whether or not these often arbitrary laws are worth it.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 07:11 pm (UTC)
When I first read it, New Crobuzon felt to me like it was meant to be South American

Indeed! This is why elsethread I suggest there's something of Jack London about it - Mieville retrieves for us those whom we would like to forget. Of course, the effectiveness of doing so in a fantasy context can be debated, but undoubtedly his 'London' is the one we prefer to avoid if we can. For all its fantasy antecedents, it could be argued that Perdido Street Station is as much a member of that club of literature that has what we call a 'social conscience': the detail of the misery may be uncomfortable, but in including it Mieville is trying to depicting something that is in fact very real, except in our own perceptions of the country or city in which we live. You agree that he's concentrates on the gutter rather than the stars ... is that a failing, or just a natural part of the sort of stories he's interested in telling? I wonder if such unremitting squalor becomes less shocking when we have nothing to which we can compare it.

Whatever, isn't he nevertheless sometimes guilty of being gruesome just for the sake of it?

Yagharek's "crime"

As I note in the review, a lot of people find the ending disconcerting. I really liked it for just the reason you give - it's supposed to come out of nowhere, and makes everything feel suddenly very 'real'. In that sense, it's much better than what happens to Lin, because in part that episode was being gruesome for gruesome's sake. (Although I know Mieville has defended this element of the book, I can't for the life of me remember how. Links, anyone?)

For what it's worth, I think The Scar his best book by some margin.
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[User Picture]From: blue_condition
2005-05-01 08:02 pm (UTC)
> I wonder if such unremitting squalor becomes less shocking when we have nothing to which we can compare it.

Possibly; I guess it depends how much other 'urban fantasy' one reads; I can take for granted that there's "normal people" out there somewhere, but I don't necessarily want to know all about them.

Most genre fiction tends to be about people from extremes of the social spectrum; it's only mainstream literary fiction in which the bourgeoisie holds a mirror to itself.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 09:00 pm (UTC)
Most genre fiction tends to be about people from extremes of the social spectrum; it's only mainstream literary fiction in which the bourgeoisie holds a mirror to itself.

Nonsense - for one thing, Mieville's writing is no more about the real business of being destitute than To The Lighthouse, and for another, for every Lemuel Pigeon in genre fiction there's a Guy Montag. Genre fiction has no monopoly on social relevancy - a book's social focus is a product of the author, not its genre.

Besides, even if I take your point that 'mainstream literary fiction' (whatever that is) is almost uniformly based in a very narrow social spectrum, then to base one's genre fiction in an equally narrow social spectrum is no less dishonest and laughable. Mieville can mythologise the suffering of New Crobuzon's underbelly if he likes, but he surely cannot make a claim to social relevancy if he doesn't compare and contrast. If you don't want to know about 'normal people', wouldn't it be informative for us to see where and how the 'upper classes' live? And wouldn't that comparison make Mieville's point much better?

Of course, Mieville writing 800 pages about how grim it is to live Down There is just testament to his bourgeois guilt, and a reflection of his readers', in and of itself. :)
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2006-11-02 10:03 pm (UTC)
Block the text to read it:

He was guilty of 'choice theft in the second degree'. Humans would call it rape, though the garuda punish the theft of choice - present and future - rather than the act itself. It all wraps up in a little largely self-contained coda, from pg 844 to pg. 851 in the paperback.
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[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2005-05-01 05:28 pm (UTC)
I'm only up to chapter 16 (this book is bloody hard work), but I know how you feel. It took some significant persuasion by immortalradical just to get to keep going past the prologue. Now I get the sense that the plot is (finally) moving, and I'm intrigued. I *want* to know what happens next, I *want* to see what happens to the characters, I want to finish the *story*. But I'm quite happy to abandon the *book* because I wonder what's going to make me recoil every time I turn the page. The book reeks of death and decay and disinterest. I feel like Mieville is not just creating a rotting, disgusting world, he's trying to rub my face in it. And frankly, that's something I can live without.
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[User Picture]From: thette
2005-05-01 05:34 pm (UTC)
I've outgrossed him, once.

I cherish the moment.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 05:40 pm (UTC)
In many ways, it only gets worse. This was one of the things I was talking about when I asked if Mieville should have given more quarter to the reader: sometimes, the reader gets the impression that the author is daring them to carry on. New Crobuzon is not pretty - like I said, Mieville's been criticised for not showing more of its affluent suburbs (places people in the book talk about but never seem to go). I'm interested in this choice.

The book's a lot like The People Of The Abyss by Jack London, except it refuses to dehumanise its subjects. A lot of the characters are poor and live in squalor; some of them belong to cultures so alien as to disgust (the Khepri, for example). Why does Mieville include such misery and poverty in the book, though? Is he trying to make a point about urban life (if so, does he over-emphasise his point?), or is he trying to make us blame the government for it?
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[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2005-05-01 08:22 pm (UTC)
I don't mind the inclusion ofpoverty and misery - but Mieveille seems to revel in constantly thrusting it in our faces. I'm not squeamish - my usual reading material is dark and violent and twisted - but this unremitting catalogue of pain and suffering and misery and decay and decomposition and... well, you get my point. It's not shocking, it's contaminating. And that's without getting into his adjective-overload, or a metaphor so overused it's squealing for mercy.

There's a good story buried in this book; I'm not just sure that it's a good enough story to make wading through the prose worthwhile. That said, I'm persevering - nearly halfway, now...
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 09:02 pm (UTC)
I think Perdido Street Station over-eggs its pudding in many ways, whilst the two subsequent Bas-Lag novels don't so much. Does he kill his point? Possibly. It reminds me a little of James Ellroy - you just don't want to live in the world he writes about. But it's a world that exists (in Ellroy, it's a world in which the author has actually lived) ... the question is, does the author over-compensate or is the reader just not ready for living that life every day?
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2005-05-01 11:09 pm (UTC)
(I've read half of PSS, btw, as I will explain below).

I don't find Bas-Lag to be half as bad as the world in which James Ellroy lives. I think the fantasy element helps there - I'm always aware that New Crobuzon is a fantasy, while it scares me that the Ellroy version of LA could exist. But more than that it's that Ellroy's work feels totally and unrelentingly dark in a way PSS doesn't.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 11:17 pm (UTC)
Well, that's why it reminds me of Ellroy only a little. :P

What is it in PSS that rescues the reader from total dejection, though? Su and others are obviously having/had trouble finding it, but I for one didn't put the book down and hold my head in despair. Is it simply the joy it takes in creating?
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[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2005-05-02 12:31 am (UTC)
It's not so much that PSS is making me despair - that's not something any book has made me feel. But I'm really not enjoying reading it. I think it's because normally when I read a book that is has darkness and death at it's core, the plot tends to bounce along quite merrily, so that you feel that you're at least being rewarded, plot-wise, for the pain of reading about the hell on earth that is some peoples' lives. Things happen. In PSS the shit-to-plot ratio is much higher - I'm wading through a swamp of decomposing flesh (to borrow a Mieville-style image) to get to "Isaac visits another pub". I suppose that what I'm getting is slow pacing with ultra misery, and the two together just don't entice me to read on. Maybe it's just me; I tend to read faster-paced thrillers, and Mieville's slow unwinding of the plot is driving me nuts. I just resent being made to work *this* hard for a story that, so far, is only "good".
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2005-05-01 11:16 pm (UTC)
I didn't nominate Perdido Street Station, but I'm starting the discussion at the request of the Person Who Did.

this was me, and I admit to sucking.

To explain: I read the first 500 pages or so of Perdido Street Station back in October, and then I stalled and couldn't face finishing it. I want to read Iron Council, and I already have The Scar, so when I picked up PSS for a pound I thought I'd nominate myself to make me read it.

I've managed to reread a couple of hundred pages, but I really don't want to finish it. In fact I've read no books at all for three weeks, because I knew I had to read this and not anythign else first and I just can't face finishing it. I don't know what it is about it, but I do find it very hard work to get through even though I love the characters and the excellent world-building.

Cheers to Dan for starting the discussion off for me.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 11:19 pm (UTC)
It sounds like it's not that the book makes you nauseous, or you feel hit over the head with the horror of Bas-Lag living ... so the reason you can't bring yourself to finish it looks different to the problems others had. Is it simply its size, do you think? I'm interested, because once I got into it I couldn't put the thing down.
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2005-05-01 11:27 pm (UTC)
I think it's partly size, partly that I found I needed to read it slowly to take it all in and it was taking a long time, and partly "Oh shit must read this for the book club 'cause I nominated it".

Also the first time round I did seem to be getting a long was into it and to a point where it should be nearing an ending (it's the bit where they end up in the sewers, or just after) and finding there were still hundreds of pages to go. I don't normally have a problem with particularly long books, just this one.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-01 11:31 pm (UTC)
where it should be nearing an ending [...] and finding there were still hundreds of pages to go

*nods* I agree. As I say, structurally the book is pretty weak. This is a long book that feels like it doesn't need to be as long as it is. And it doesn't, not for the story it's telling. Su suggests above that the metaphors and 'social commentary' are done to death, too - it doesn't even need to be as long as it is for the sake of its world-building, the thing that PSS is so praised for.

The book's bloated, I think, and mostly because Mieville hadn't learned to structure his work yet. But where was his editor?
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2005-05-01 11:42 pm (UTC)
Yes - with this book not only was it longer than it needed to be, but it was a struggle to read. I like reading Peter F Hamilton's books even thought they are often way too long, but since they're written in such an easy to read style I can cope with a couple of hundred pages of bloat.

The book's bloated, I think, and mostly because Mieville hadn't learned to structure his work yet. But where was his editor?

Off drinking somewhere with JK Rowling's while she wrote Order of the Phoenix?

Are his later books better structured? I've heard there are some odd structural things in Iron Council. Am I better off giving up on PSS for a while and having a go at The Scar instead?
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-05-02 12:04 am (UTC)
Mieville's style is easy to knock, being so self-conscious ... and it's something he's tried to reign in in his two later novels. But I actually quite like it - as I wrote, even when it's ludicrously over-blown, it's somehow right for the book. I don't it's more what he writes in PSS, rather than how he writes it.

Having said that, it's certainly true that he tones it down just a little in the subsequent books. Structurally, both of them are much better than PSS. Yes, Iron Council exhibits some curious choices in terms of pacing, but the structure itself is pretty strong, if not straight-forward. The Scar, meanwhile, is the best of his books in large part on the strength of its tight structure. If PSS is a chore - and as I've said to Su I can see why it would be - go straight onto that. And, if you don't like it, you Have No Soul.
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