In lieu of an actual review (short version: it was good but a little challenging and took at least 2 reads to “get it”), a couple of observations about China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station:
(1) On the appeal of steampunk: I remain convinced (and in large part because of this book) that the big appeal of “steampunk” as a genre has to do with the archetypal Inventor/Tinkerer. Here we get this in Miéville’s Isaac. In many ways he’s an unlikely protagonist: a little hefty1, nerdy, self-aggrandizing, cowardly, and a bit of a pervert2; but incredibly brilliant. He occupies a mental space with our real-world Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla and (perhaps more so?) Benjamin Franklin. Our modern (20th/21st century) concepts of science are so laden with litigation and patent applications and funding cuts and notions of proprietary information… It makes sense to cast Isaac as a radical; it’s as if he can see through the veil of the page into our own world, can see how science is encumbered by business and process, can see how disconnected the individual is from his work. There is no more Lone Tinkerer puttering about his basement workshop assembling the next great innovation. And something in our cultural consciousness years for that.
(2) On protagonists: Though I’ve (above) alluded to Isaac as the protagonist, Miéville’s Yagharek serves as our narrator and by extension of convention this grants him a kind of protagonist emeritus status3. But in Yagharek we’re given an interesting bridge between the novel and the reader. Yagharek is, in so many ways, the opposite experience of what I imagine a “typical” fantasy reader is after in his narrators: Yagharek is not heroic either; he is a rapist and a cripple and he is in many ways frustrated and impotent. Our vehicle into the story is hardly a vehicle for escape, hardly a means of escaping our own “real world” anxieties and limitations. What’s more, Yagharek’s ultimate fate (i.e., to desplumarate himself and “go as a man” into New Crobuzon) is a way of turning to the reader and saying: “Now get back to your life just as Yagharek has done.”
- The references to “his bulk” being a little bit mixed in that regard; but for the sake of argument, he could (in the parlance of our time) stand to lose a few pounds, for sure. [↩]
- Though let us not judge him here since his “perversion” is really just analogous to an interracial relationship (though that comparison is on par with calling the space shuttle an airplane). [↩]
- To be honest though, Yagharek is enough of a protagonist to not need the “emeritus”. [↩]
About Rob FrieselSoftware engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →
One Response to Perdido Street Station
You hadn’t read this before? How did it escape your attention when the rest of us were obsessed with it (circa 2004-5)? Were you just being obstinate? I vaguely remember demanding you read it.
Anyway, it’s an interesting point re: Isaac / steampunk. I agree that one of the main appeals of the genre is that of the inventor (or the “science hero” to use the proper archetype). But these characters are, in a general sense, libertarian heroes (again as you’ve intimated). The whole of steampunk has a subtle, or not-so-subtle, libertarian / laissez faire capitalism vibe: the lone inventor, unencumbered by regulation or government, the consummate individualist outsider, creating (alternate)history.
But in Isaac, Meiville subverts all of this. He’s (based on his very vocal real world politics) writing a marxist critique of the genre. He’s Dickens (or maybe, more appropriately, Zola) to the genre’s libertarian utopians. Isaac really isn’t a hero. IIRC (and it’s been awhile), it’s Jack Half-a-Prayer and a Weaver who serve a bit as a bit of (purposeful) victorious deus-ex-machina at the end. The victory over the moth-thingies is as much a matter of the the larger group (and unseen or unknown forces) as it of Isaac and his crew. They survive, they even win (in a way), but Meiville very pointedly says that they will never receive the recognition typically due the science hero. In fact, should you move to The Scar, you’ll find not only will they have fled New Crobuzon, but most of their friends and associates have been hunted down by the government. Ultimately, the individual, no matter his or her brilliance and success, is nothing.
Just a quick response. We can talk more about this in person this weekend.