Folks, is this turning out to be too fast? I get the sense that I’m running a bit ahead of people here, so if folks want a week off to catch up, or have requests for things you’d like me to discuss, let me know in comments. Of course, if we’re all on track, that’s fine too.
I won’t deny that I’m finding Perdido Street Station sometimes quite frustrating. I think it’s more a matter of style than anything else. I don’t mind maximalism, but I often feel that Mieville’s flooding me with unilluminating words, rather than fresh and extraordinary details. I’m much more a baseball-game-in-Underworld kinda girl.
But I thought this section of the book was unusually strong. As a tremendous menace is unleashed across the city, putting increasing numbers of its citizens beyond communication altogether, Mieville’s put together this masterful section about how information flows across communities, between lovers, to men in terrible imprisonment across New Crobuzon. And that theme of communication situates New Crobuzon, too, as the city’s Mayor reaches literally across dimensions in search of help.
It makes sense that we reach this point in our understanding of our players and their stage at a moment when Yagharek decides he needs to abandon his self-imposed solitude after one of Isaac’s colleagues has been destroyed, at least mentally, by the creatures we’ll come to understand are slake-moths.
“I need Grimnebulin, Grimnebulin needs his friend, his friend needs succour from us all,” he says. “It is simple mathematics to cancel common terms and discover that I need succour, too. I must offer it to others, to safe myself. I am stumbling. I must not fall.”
But much of what happens in this section is a precursor to actual compassion and mutual aid. Before that can happen, people have to know what’s going on. And they get information in a number of ways. The news of the strange plague spreads, as news in cities will, through rumors, innuendo, and misjudged journalism.
The wyrmen were cowed. They told stories of monsters in the sky. They sat at night around their rubbish-fires in the city’s great dumps and cuffed their children to quiet them. They took turns telling of sudden squalls of disturbed air and glimpses of terrible things….Wyrmen were being taken. At first they were just stories…The elders of the Riverskin Glasshouse would not say if any cactus had been afflicted. The Quarrel ran a story on its second page, entitled “Mystery Epidemic of Imbecility.”
There are also, as it turns out, informants, who may be working under blackmail for exotic sexual tastes but fairly mundane motivations. Lovers send letters: even in New Crobuzon, there is special delivery and there are couriers.
But information doesn’t simply travel in conventional ways through New Crobuzon. Newspapers are good for reporting out the basic news, even if they get it wrong sometimes, as even the heroes of Runagate Rampart did when they misunderstood the importance of the scientific misconduct story they were chasing. And as Derkhan Blueday discovers, though, when she reaches out to a woman who communicates by magic, her friend Benjamin’s newspaper and writing has a powerful connection to his essence. It’s only the first of several exercises in unusual communication in the section.
An even more extraordinary one actually occurs in Part III when Mayor Rudgutter reaches out to the Ambassador from Hell for help with the slake-moths, a call made by magic, a “peering through a little window” that summons a rather disconcerting gentleman in a nice suit doing paperwork at a rather conventional desk, who happens to speak in a chorus of the damned. However difficult it is to reach the Hellkin, they turn out to be much like the residents of New Crobuzon, at least when it comes to dealing with the slake-moths: they’re sentient, and they’d prefer to stay out of matters. Even a difference of dimensions doesn’t make a difference in that.
Their refusal and that similarity leads Rudgutter, in Part IV, to reach out to perhaps my favorite entity in the novel, the Weaver. This large inter-dimensional spider speaks in koans and has a propensity for scissors:
“Right, said Rudgutter. “You’ve both got the scissors?” Stem-Fulcher and Rescue nodded. “Four years ago it was chess sets,’ Rudgutter mused. ‘I remember when when the Weaver changed its tastes, it took about three deaths before we worked out what it wanted.”
Rudgutter brought the razor edges together. The room reverberated with the unmistakable sound of blade sliding along sharpened blade, and snapping shut with inexorable division….The echoes of the scissors came back. As they returned and crept up from below the threshold of hearing, they metamorphosed, becoming words, a voice, melodious and melancholy, that first whispered and then grew more bold, spinning itself into existence out of the scissor-echoes. It was not quite describable, heartbreaking and frightening, it tugged the listener close; and it sounded not in the ears but deeper inside, in the blood and bone, in the nerve-clusters.
I do think there’s a conceptual problem with the Weaver. The damn thing may be strange, and its motivations may be opaque to Rudgutter and his associates, who feel far closer to the Hellkin than they do to a giant mysterious spider, which might be reasonable even if it didn’t speak in riddles.
“The Hellkin were appalling and awesome, monstrous powers for which Rudgutter had the most profound respect. And yet, and yet…he understood them. They were tortured and torturing, calculating and capricious. Shrewd. Comprehensible. They were political. The Weaver was utterly alien. There could be no bargaining and no games. It had been tried.
But that doesn’t mean that the Weaver is non-sentient, and therefore vulnerable to the slake-moths. I don’t know how Mieville either missed this as a part of his conception of the Weaver, or plans to deal with it, but I’ll be quite vexed if it isn’t.
Still, it’s a welcome jolt of anarchy into the story, something far better as a force of plot and art than I ever could have expected when I wrote about chaos last week. It doesn’t hurt that it shows up to save our protagonists from a militia force armed with what sound like even nastier tasers than we’ve ever invented. It’s also rather nice to see a man who is walking around wearing other people’s eyes find out he hasn’t seen things so clearly:
Rudgutter had thought that the great spider and he had something of an arrangement. As much, at least, as it was possible to maintain with a Weaver…Textorology was a tentative field, but it had borne some fruit. There were proven means of communication, and Rudgutter had been using them to interact with the Weaver. Messages carved into the blades of scissors and melted. Apparently random sculptures, lit from below, whose shadows wrote messages across the ceiling. The Weaver’s responses were prompt and delivered even more bizarrely.
But no matter how strange and impenetrable the Weaver is, no matter how far away Hell lies, at least the Mayor can communicate with the residents of all those planes. The victims of the slake-moths are, though they remain in New Crobuzon, far more distant. They’ve been removed from the possibility of communication. There is in them, as Isaac’s former mentor-turned-betrayer explains “nothing left to save.” That’s a far more frightening prospect than something you can talk to, and reach, even if it turns you down, even if it kills someone else to explain something to you. The absence of thought in a package of sentience is a hideous possibility, worse than giant spiders if only because of the awfulness of the surprise.