Perdido Street Station Book Club, Part III: Chaos

Part I is here, Part II is here. Usual rules apply. Spoilers below the jump, but only through the end of Part III of the novel.For all the things that happen to all the characters in all the neighborhoods of Perdido Street Station, it’s very much a think book. And in this section, Mieville spends a great deal of time either directly explaining to us (and he still does far too much of this) or showing us the extent to which chaos and randomness rule New Crobuzon. These forces defy law and politics, transform both biological matter and machinery, rearrange georgraphy, and are a source of transformation.There’s one interesting early exception to that rule, governed, I assume, by Mieville’s politics. In Lin’s explanation of her decision to leave New Crobuzon’s conventional khepri society (which at least one of my friends likened, to a certain extent, to a lesbian sexual awakening from which she’s saved by finding Isaac, this or any world’s Least Likeliest Right Man), Mieville says her motivations are informed at least in part by a growing awakening of a class dynamic in which vulgar khepri middle class oppress the khepri poor:

With time, Lin’s hatred of her broodma slowly cooled, becoming first contempt, then pity. Her disgust at the squalor of Creekside was joined with some kind of understanding. Then, her five-year love-affair with Kinken drew to an end. It started when she stood in the Plaza of Statues, and realized that they were mawkish and badly executed, embodying a culture that was blind to itself. She began to see Kinken as implicated in the subjugation of Creekside and the never-mentioned Kinken poor, saw a ‘community’ at best callous and uncaring, at worst deliberately keeping Creekside down to maintain its superiority.

It makes sense to me that for Mieville, this is the level at which order can be sustained. Individual citizens can’t necessarily bring about transformation, but they can escape to other dynamics. Small groups and subcultures can enforce order as long as the sphere that they choose to exercise their authority in is relatively small, be it a neighborhood, an apartment building, or as we’ll see later in the book, a large and confined glass dome. But it’s pretty hard to order a society, especially one large enough to assert the darker desires and character that linger within some of its elements. Mayor Rudgutter may be able to scare individuals, but even when he’s describing New Crobuzon’s character, he has to acknowledge its elusiveness:

This was not a city ruled by witches; this was not a chthonic burrow; the seasons’ changes did not bring an onslaught of superstitious repression; New Crobuzon did not process its citizenry through zombie factories; its Parliament was not like Maru’ahm’s, a casino where laws were stakes in games of roulette. And this was not, emphasized Rudgutter, Shankell, where people fought like animals for sport. Except, of course, at Cadnebar’s.


And it’s not just societal forces that ooze out of the city’s control. There’s this brief passage about something called “Torque,” a magical force that apparently causes storms serious enough to reconfigure the city’s geography (another detail, like the Cymek Library, that I’m finding myself much more interested in than this particular story. I secretly suspect it’s actually the Doom of Valyria. Nerd rimshot.).But really, this section is about Isaac discovering a way to harness the imperative of chaos. It’s not simply political stresses that force mobs to form and governments to fall, or individuals to head out into cities. Crisis is a necessary precondition for development, for flight, for continued forward motion. Isaac is interested in it because it presents a solution to his garuda client’s problem. As he puts it: “I can turn you into a walking, flying dynamo. The more you fly, the more crisis energy you manifest, the more you can fly. Tired wings are a problem you won’t face no more.”But crisis, chaos and randomness are more powerful than I think Isaac himself knows. They cannot be disproved by ordinary, orderly, mathematical means:

He set out in a systematic attempt to prove himself wrong. He constructed scenario after mathematical scenario with which he tried to rubbish his tentatively scrawled sets of equations. His attempts at destruction failed. His equations held firm. It took Isaac two days before he began to believe that he had solved a fundamental problem of crisis theory.

And Mieville’s very careful to establish the breadth of crisis and chaos. It’s a virus that transforms a simple sweeping machine, a New Crobuzian Roomba, into something more:

In what had been an insignificant corner of its valved mind, the original virus, the original combination of rogue data and meaningless reference that had affected the construct’s ability to sweep floors, still revolved. It was the same, but transformed. No longer a destructive end, it had become a means, a generator, a motive power….One moment it was a calculating machine. The next, it thought.

And it’s a moment between life and death, form and void, when it must either change or die, that the strange grub Isaac’s been feeding hallucinogens to transforms itself:

It self-organized. Its mutating form bubbled and welled up into strange dimensional rifts, oozing like oily sludge over the brim of the world into other planes and back again. It folded in on itself, shaping itself out of the protean sludge of its own base matter. It was unstable. It was alive, and then there was a time between forms when it was neither alive nor dead, but saturated with power. And then it was alive again. But different.

And boy do we get a propulsive crisis by the end of the section. But I think I’m more interested in the larger implications of chaos and crisis for the plot and characterization. If crisis is what gives form and energy to events and individuals in New Crobuzon, would Isaac and Lin be important and interesting? If chaos, randomness and eruption are such major forces in the life of the city, is it possible to strive for order and betterment? Or is the city and the societies that exist within it essentially cancerous, growing out wildly and unpredictably, wherever there’s a vector? What kind of resolution is possible? I’m sure Isaac and Lin will behave rationally going forward, but it’s still not clear to me, even this far in, how their decision calculuses work, and what rational will mean for them. Much less what vasty terrors will be thrown up in their twisty paths.