Show and Tell: Perdido Street Station

Above: painting from the UK edition cover by Edward Miller.

By Evan Dahm.

This one has been a very long time coming. Perdido Street Station is the first of China Miéville’s books set in Bas-Lag, and I really loved it and can’t recommend it enough. I’ve avoided plot-related spoilers in this article, BUT I have revealed many significant details of the setting which might lessen the impact of their revelation in a reading of the book. Keep that in mind.

I recently finished The Scar, which is the sort-of sequel to this book, and which forms an interesting point of comparison in terms of worldbuilding. So hopefully I can get an article on that out soon! ALSO did you see this bit of fanart I did for Perdido Street Station a few months ago?

Rest of the huge article behind the cut.

What it is. Perdido Street Station is set in a city called New Crobuzon, in a gorgeously and thoroughly invented world called Bas-Lag. It’s a book about a city, as much as it’s about the people in it. Miéville’s understanding of how cities work (aesthetically, culturally, structurally, etc) is striking and well-communicated. I’ve only read two of his books, but most (all?) of them seem to have things to say about cities and urban life.

New Crobuzon is a sprawling, baroque city-state; something like victorian London, maybe.  It surrounds the confluence of the rivers Tar and Canker as they become the Gross Tar. It’s grimy and smoggy and cluttered. I’ve heard it called a “steampunk” setting, but this is misleading: there are airships, impossible clockwork machines, and general Victorian technological aesthetic, but they, like every genre trope in this book, are used intelligently and critically.

The city is also full of a bunch of different species: the Vodyanoi (amphibious frog-people), the Khepri (women with scarabs for heads), the Cactacae (cactus-people), and the Garuda (predatory-bird-people) are focal. These, like the Elves and Dwarves and Trolls of Middle-Earth, are drawn from real mythology (except maybe the Cactacae?). A key difference is that they, and other elements of the setting, are drawn from widely variant mythologies, as opposed to the purely western-European slant of the Tolkien lineage of fantasy lit. The Vodyanoi are based on a Polish mythological creature, the Khepri on an Egyptian god. There are many more creatures and concepts that are completely invented.

This obviously sounds like a conceptually cluttered setting, and could easily fall into a trap of being disorganized and lacking in a sense of internal consistency. This is avoided by a pretty tight adherence, by both the setting and the story, to a unified theme… But that fits better into the second part of this article:

How it is conveyed. Specificities of history of Bas-Lag and anal-retentive details are there if you look for them, but aren’t focused on at length in the body of the story, and aren’t found in any LOTR-ish appendices. The map of New Crobuzon at the front of the book is an almost unique concession to what I see as the detail-oriented approach (which is basically what Harrison was bitching about). In this book, the setting is held together more by TONE and THEME than by rigorous detail.

Paradoxically, the central theme that unifies all of this is about whole things being composed of jumbled, disparate fragments. The city is a patchwork of divergent and contradictory districts. Some of the characters themselves are grotesque amalgams of creatures, or gestalt beings cobbled-together out of machinery. Making this concept central to the story, and central to several characters’ experiences of the world, helps lend a conceptual unity to the setting which is practically a necessity, and which does more for its believability than any number of made-up historical and geographical details could.

The plot structure of this book is unusual: there is a long “exposition” sequence at the start of the book. It’s a kind of narrative section that lays the groundwork for what turns out to be the more traditional “plot,” but is also very concerned with showing us the characters, their lives, and their city. I’ve heard complaints about this, but bear in mind that there are many ways stories can work! (Please read this article on that subject by Ursula K. Le Guin as soon as possible.) And this exposition sequence does a good job of giving us a sense of New Crobuzon and all of its social and political complexities, an understanding of which is vital for the rest of the book. Also it doesn’t hurt that this sequence is extremely well-written, full of bizarre and fascinating ideas, and never boring. I can see how easy it could have been to mess this up.

We see New Crobuzon through several native characters intimately familiar with it, in a third-person point of view that oscillates between being limited to a character and being omniscient. There’s one character to whom New Crobuzon is a “new world,” from whose first-person point of view we get a few passages… but on the whole, we learn about the setting through its natives.

The focus on bizarre elements of the setting is modulated accordingly: we are presented with strange things, but they’re treated as fairly ordinary and the repercussions of their existence are believable and well-developed. There’s more overt explanation than there is in, say, A Game of Thrones, but that explanation isn’t concerned with WHY the world has these strange things, only with what the world would be like if we take these things as a given.

For example: the khepri are women with scarabs for heads. We’re given fairly thorough explanations of what this looks like, and what it’s like to have a scarab for a head. Questions of how khepri would communicate, how they would interface with the other species of New Crobuzon, what their perception of the world would be like, how they would reproduce, and what their aesthetic sense would be like are all clearly addressed. But we’re never told WHY there are people with scarabs for heads, because that question is exterior to the demands of the story, and to the concerns of the central characters. Any desire to know WHY in the reader’s mind soon dissolves in the face of this.

This last point is probably the thing that will stick with me most from those of Miéville’s books. Fantastical things can be made believable if they’re followed to their conclusions and treated as if they are not fantastical.

Read the rest of the Show and Tell articles here. The “thesis statement” for the series is here.