Let’s Read Perdido Street Station by China Miéville – Chapter 2

 

Chapter 2 continues to highlight the strengths of Miéville’s writing, which is – his vocabulary, his evocative descriptive phrases, his sympathy.  It’s is, overall, an excellent second chapter.

This time we are firmly within the perspective of Lin, the khepri.  This is important, because it allows the opportunity to explain properly what the khepri are.  The women, we learn, are strongly sentient, artistic, and engaged members of the city of New Crobuzon.  There is xenophobia, and they are somewhat ghetto-ised, but they are a thriving part of the city.  The males, though, are not.  Lin despises them, and it’s clear that they are second-class citizens when compared with the females.  In this, the khepri become interesting – they aren’t just humans with bug heads.

Lin travels to the primary khepri area of the city.  There are sculptures that the women create (she finds them artistically tired compared with her own creations), and there are males.  The female, if we remember, is human from the neck down (though red like a cooked lobster) and a scarab beetle from the neck up.  The males seem to be just scarabs.  They skitter about on the ground and Lin does not care, and is even pleased, when her cab rolls over one and squishes it to death.  Males do not think, exist purely to mate and eat, and are not capable of creating or appreciating the art of the female khepri.  They are wholly different, and it is understandable why Lin might wish to look to another species for a romantic liaison.  Put simply, romance between male and female khepri is impossible, and if her body from the neck down is capable of erotic expression, then sexual satisfaction doesn’t exist between the genders, either.

While Lin visits the khepri quarter we are afforded an example of how she sees the world.  Literally how she sees it.  .Miéville spends some time trying to articulate the way a khepri female sees the world, and as can be expected it is the segmented, many eyed (many viewed?) world of bug vision.  For lack of a better term.  This is interesting, and Miéville really stretches his vocabulary  to explain it to us.  But it doesn’t go anywhere.  We read it here on page 20, we learn that Isaac was interested in this method of viewing the world and studied it, and then to my memory it’s never really brought up again.  Lin is, disappointingly, more often human than she is khepri.  If she really does view the world through a thousand segmented parts, how come the narrative still focuses on the kinds of methods of seeing a normal human would employ?  Wouldn’t the focus be different?  The nuance?  But it isn’t.

Lin purchases some material with which she can create her art, and the chapter ends.  There’s not much to it.  But it is a good chapter because it helps explain who Lin is, and what she is.  Miéville can’t quite pull it off, but we don’t know that yet.  This chapter is very strong in the way with which it promises to explore the concept of what it means to be a khepri in a human world.  He drops this pretty quickly, but it’s enticing when it arrives.

The other primary character in this chapter is the city.  Again, there are nice descriptions which help evoke a strong impression of what kind of city it is.  I have excerpted an example:

Her rooms were nine floors up.  She descended the tower; past the unsafe eighth floor; the seventh with its birdlime carpet and soft jackdaw susurrus; the old lady who never emerged on the sixth; and on down past petty thieves and steel workers and errand-girls and knife-grinders.

Knife-grinders!  A building where there are knife-grinders (ie multiple), thieves, and steelworkers and an ‘unsafe’ eighth floor is a city oozing mystery.  Later:

Lin turned the corner onto the cobbled road around Sobek Croix.  Cabs waited all along the iron fence.  A massive variety.  Two-wheelers, four-wheelers, pulled by horses, by sneering pterabirds, by steam-wheezing constructs on caterpillar treads … here and there by Remade, miserable men and women both cabdriver and cab.

This paragraph tells us a lot about the city.  One – it is economically interesting because there are lots of cabs, and a variety of them.  Two – there are horses and ‘pterabirds’, but also technology-powered cabs and something mysterious – what is a Remade?  We find out, but learning that a Remade can be ‘miserable’ and ‘both cabdriver and cab’ suggests and unpleasant merging of technology and … magic?  Or just even worse technology?  There’s a lot here, and it’s just cabs.

Great stuff.

Please take a look at my Let’s Reads page for other chapters from this book, and works.as they are added.

Let’s Read Perdido Street Station by China Miéville – Interstitial 1 and Chapter 1

It is not, I’ll admit, a great opening.

Fantasy novels often weigh themselves down with prologues and quotes from non-existent texts or poems.  It’s part of the furniture of the genre, I suppose.  Perdido Street Station opens with a five-page piece that is entirely in italics and which is not, for quite some time, clear as to its perspective or purpose.  It relates the impressions of a person come new to New Crobuzon, an immense, sprawling, wretched, reeking city, but it’s for us, the brand new reader, to find a footing.  We don’t yet have a core from which to understand the story, and thus the vague phrasings from this section fall flat.  And why is it vague?  To keep the identity and purpose of this character a secret.  And why is that?  Exactly.

Finally, the use of italics further distances the reader.  Whenever I read a section of a text in italics I always feel as though I am reading something in parenthesis, and that impression does little to engage me.  Keep in mind this is the first five pages – this should be engaging.

The first chapter is much, much better, however, and I would like to make special mention of the first two pages where the feel of the city is set down.  Miéville is the first fantasy writer I’ve read who mentions paprika at all, let alone on the first page of the first chapter.  The use of specific smells (rather than, say, ‘the morning air smelled of cooking’) really helps to bring the city to live.  I can believe a city where paprika and cinnamon are used.  It’s not all good, though, as descriptions such as ‘toys’, ‘earthenware products’ and ‘countless other goods’ are used.  It’s important not to be wordy, but the cooking description was so effective it becomes a shame that the next paragraph somewhat spoils it.

We move on then to two primary characters, both of whom will be point-of-view characters throughout the novel.  Isaac and Lin.  Isaac is a human (it’s never made clear, but most citizens of New Crobuzon are presumably human) while Lin is a khepri.  People are people, but khepri are not – they are human up until their neck, with their head similar to a scarab.  They cannot speak, which of course means they can’t kiss.

Miéville touches on, but never really uses, the concept of xenophobia.  It is here in the first chapter, when Isaac laments the fact that his artist girlfriend Lin is able to flaunt her other-species partner, while he cannot.  And that’s about as far as it goes, because to go any further wouldn’t really work for the rest of the world he has created.  This is a world (we will learn) filled with other species, but, far worse, is also a world where people can be Remade, which can be minor (the fingers on their hands replaced with thumbs) or major (horrors created to be organic machines of death or utility), or anywhere in between.  In this world, what time for xenophobia?  Certainly it would be present in some areas, but Miéville is never quite able to convince us that a bohemian artist and a renegade university professor would have any trouble being together.  He tries, but it doesn’t work.

And yet.  It will become clear, but the relationship between Isaac and Lin is arguably the strongest part of this novel.  When they are together, or involved with one another in some way, the novel is at its best.  They are the axis upon which this novel turns.  It is refreshing in a fantasy novel to have a loving couple together from the start, and for them to be both erotically and romantically interested in one another.  I believe their relationship.  It doesn’t serve primarily as plot.

In all, a good start.  New Crobuzon is developing its character, and Isaac and Lin, theirs.  The ending of the chapter, which sees Lin presenting herself as vulnerable to Isaac is touching, but its difficult to understand why there isn’t an analogue for Isaac, too.  It makes of him a taker in the relationship, and that’s unpleasant (and never acted upon).  Perhaps he should have made himself vulnerable, too.

It is, though, a real shame about that first part all in italics.  Almost a deal-breaker, honestly.

Please take a look at my Let’s Reads page for other chapters from this book, and works.as they are added.