Monday, June 07, 2004

Perdido

China Miéville writes Weird Fiction:

[Tolkien] wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps — via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabinski and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on — the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.


He names six "great" writers. Two of them are Polish.

The English-speaking world knows very little of Stefan Grabinski and Bruno Schulz. Miéville, relatively, knows a lot.

(I've read The Dark Domain by Grabinski, as well as the stories in The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy, his only work available in English. As for Schulz I've read only the piece in that same anthology, but some insight into his work can be found here.)

Miéville wrote about Grabinski in The Guardian:

Sometimes Grabinski is known as "the Polish Poe", but this is misleading. Where Poe's horror is agonised, a kind of extended shriek, Grabinski's is cerebral, investigative. His protagonists are tortured and aghast, but not because they suffer at the caprice of Lovecraftian blind idiot gods: Grabinski's universe is strange and its principles are perhaps not those we expect, but they are principles — rules — and it is in their exploration that the mystery lies. This is horror as rigour. A student of philosophy, Grabinski took Bergson, James, Maeterlinck, and extrapolated them, sometimes cross-fertilising them with the science of Newton or Einstein, to create weird tales of a heretic intelligence.

This is the kind of literature to which Miéville obviously aspires in Perdido Street Station.

About halfway through the book I thought to myself, this isn't particularly deep. Not the biting social commentary I'd for some reason expected. A rip-roaring ride of a book. An astounding vocabulary. A sense of place that infected me. But this was not a dystopia to challenge my moral framework.

An illicit cross-species love affair. An underground economy. A druglord. Labour unrest. A flawed voting system. Top secret government-sponsored research. A government informer betrays a friend. That's pretty much it.

Well-paced intrigue and engrossing action sequences.

Then, "Constructed Intelligence" and a few questions as to the nature of consciousness.

Then, battle plan in action, the end in sight, it hit me, viscerally. The worth of a life. The ultimate sacrifice. The greater good. The power of choice, the power to choose for others. The choice that infringes on another's power to choose.

The book starts with a first-person narration, and bits of this personal record are scattered throughout. The identity of the narrator had me puzzled; once it was clear, it was no less puzzling why this viewpoint should be given much consideration. Only in the final pages does one realize how central this character's story is.

He wants his wings restored. They were removed as punishment for a crime we learn about only after we've gotten to know him as a person. How do we judge him?

He accepts his fate and strives to become human. His questionable ethics have already shifted in that direction.

New Crobuzon is a desperate and vile city — I hope where you live is nothing like it. But it's a lovely place to visit. I can't wait to go back.
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