Image by me, of a real Garuda from an Angkor temple.
Discussion-setter for the first five chapters and first-part interstitials is below the jump, with spoilers galore. If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read below the jump or comments. But folks who have read the whole book before, please try not to spoil beyond Part I for me, or for any of the other newbies. Vague encouragement and hinting is fine. Spoilers of the magnitude of say, Jon Snow’s true parentage, are not. Cool? Alright, folks, let’s do this thing.Let me start out by saying how much I’m enjoying this book and how pleased I am that we chose it. I confess some initial ambivalence in the beginning interstitial. Mr. Mieville sure enjoys his description, but at the beginning, I felt lost, rather than oriented by it. Passages like this one: “They surround me. They are growing. They are taller and fatter and noisier, their roofs are slate, their walls are strong brick,” are entirely impressionistic. I admit to almost putting down the book during that introductory passage and coming back to it later just because I was annoyed, lost in the polluted fog of Mieville’s linguistic and narrative choices. At least when we sail up the Thames in Sweeney Todd into London’s corrupt heart we know who is talking to us. To be totally fair, it becomes clear quickly that the speaker is Yagharek, the garuda stripped violently of his wings, and his speech is shaped by the things he read that shaped his understanding of the possibilities and limitations of our speech — and what he speaks about is shaped by some as-yet-unexplained terrible trauma and punishment.But I am not a lady to be dissuaded by a couple of pages that make me grumpy, and I will say that I’m glad that I forged ahead. To go from the docks to the basket that flies through the sky to Lin’s apartment, taking us through the market and into her life with Isaac and their lives apart is a nice way to guide us through a neighborhood and its commerce. And the book, sending Isaac and Lin out into their separate New Crobuzons, does sketch in parts of the city fairly deftly and precisely. We know that not only does New Crobuzon have a major university, but that that its academic politics look rather like our own — publish or perish apparently stretches across time and dimensions. We know that the Khepri live in a ghetto with a sacred space that’s closely connected to their artistic traditions. And we know that trains criss-cross to form the heart of the city.What I don’t know yet, and the thing that’s both irritating and got me interested, is what the rules of this universe are. I’ve written in more detail for The Atlantic on the balance I tend to prefer authors strike in setting up their universes and presenting it to readers, so I won’t recap here at great length. But I like to know how a universe works — whether magic, science, or the divine or all three are actively at work in the world where the characters are operating; what basic values are important (guest right, protecting women, respect for the clergy, etc.). I don’t particularly need to know who is right and who is wrong or who is good or who is bad, though it’s not dispositive if the author does make it clear — I do enjoy figuring out sides for myself.And I don’t feel I’ve got that in Perdido Street Station. I feel I know the following things about New Crobuzon: the city has a university; that university employes and supports the research of scientists, though what science means is not entirely clear to me yet — it’s entirely possible that Isaac is part necromancer; the city includes populations of multiple species, and exists in a world with multiple sentiences, and the species have a certain amount of contact, both professional and personal, but they are not fully integrated; a significant form of official punishment is to graft part of a human body to machine or animal parts, or to perform significant and unnecessary surgery, like removing someone’s mouth, but such alterations may happen unofficially; that technology has advanced enough to have machines run by boilers, but that it’s not clear if electricity or sophisticated computers exist; the city has a substantial criminal class; among the things at least certain parts of society values is art, but that artists live on the margins of society and polite behavior much as they do in our own; that there is a significant train system; a significant part of the commerce economy takes place in markets rather than in institutions like supermarkets; that New Crobuzon is near both desert and a significant body of water. It’s a lot of information, but I’m still searching for the frame that orients it, the corner pieces of the puzzle that tells me the desert is here, the ocean is here, and sifts the neighborhoods and powers of the city around Perdido Street Station.I think my worry is that I want to get lost in some of the fragments we get, and to spend more time in them than the original story. Like this one:
And Yagharek told Isaac, to Isaac’s growing amazement, of the Cymek library. The great librarian clan who strapped the thousands of volumes into their trunks and carried them between them as they flew, following the food and the water in the perpetual, punishing Cymek summer. The enormous tent village that sprung up where they landed, and the garuda bands that congregated on the vast, sprawling centre of learning whenever it was in their reach.
Fascinating.Not that everything else going around us isn’t. How do you regrow the wings that have been sawed off of someone? How do you sculpt the whole world in one being? And what I have to figure out for myself: what does any of it matter?