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Jealous gods and godless cities, part 1

It was an unexpected bit of synchronicity this week to see posts over at Crooked Timber on both Neil Gaiman (CT post) and China Miéville. (CT posts: here and here) I spent a good part of my vacation reading (the best fishing is at dusk and dawn, and one can only hike so long, after all), and I devoured Gaiman’s American Gods and Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.

I read Perdido Street Station first, and was more or less captivated by it for a few days. Miéville built a vivid world in the city of New Crobuzon; like any real city, it is a place saturated by the histories of its residents—like the Khepri immigrants who settled in now-distinct enclaves—but it gains a sense of mystery and dread because it is also much older than any individual or collective memory: The gigantic bones that rise over one district of the city are an ominous piece of the landscape that seems to actively elude any attempt at explanation. The city is rich with detail, from the transportation network to the fantasy-meets-bureaucracy shadows of the mayor’s office to the descriptions of an ominous and horrible justice system. Still, there is the sense that the politics and history of the city are further imagined. As Henry notes:

The little hints that Mieville drops about his world are what fascinate; snippets here and there about the Malarial Queendom, the thanatocracy of High Cromlech; which give you the sense of a richly imagined world stretching beyond the page.

Into this city, Miéville puts an assembly of races and unnatural biological creations—the result of a mix of alchemy and surgery that is used to punish criminals, create work animals, and provide a pursuit for a range of shady mad scientist types. Against the backdrop of the city and its inhabitants, finally, we get the story, which builds in its sense of dread and threat as Miéville unfolds it.

In one scene that I particularly liked, the city’s mayor and security chiefs, having realized the frightening danger that is confronting them, seek help from an unusual source: Hell. Literally, they go see the ambassador from Hell, who tells them that under no circumstances (and there seem to be some situations in which Hell accepts certain “payment” for services rendered to the Mayor—one of those suggestions of detail that gives richness to the environment of the city) will he help in this particular situation. Afterward, the Mayor explains why: Whatever powers may be commanded by the denizens of Hell, they’re still afraid of the creatures that are loose in New Crobuzon. In other words, there’s some nasty badness about to hit the fan.

I remember watching the made-for-TV version of Stephen King’s It years ago. The build up had all the elements of a good scary storyt: The creepy clown (especially the creepy clown), mysterious deaths, the implication of something really and truly evil. Oh, the disappointment when the incarnation of all that evil turned out to be a giant spider that the protagonists kicked in the nads until it died.

Anyway, when Miéville finally reveals the slake moths, they’re understood not as terrible evil, but horrifyingly dangerous predators, and they stay scary. No disappointment there, to be sure. At least as ominous are the real sources of evil in New Crobuzon, people like Mr. Motley, the crime kingpin who viciously rules a small empire and contributes to the emotional punch at the story’s end. The story’s conflict, then, is really tied to the criminal machinations within the city as much as to the supernatural-seeming monsters that hunt in it.

Miéville ultimately seems like a brilliant world-builder, but only a good story-teller. The novel’s action scenes feel only sketched out compared with the environment in which they take place, and the climactic conclusion to the moths’ story rests on some awkward crutches of vaguely-understood “crisis theory” and artificial intelligence that’s similarly far too complex for its steampunk housing. Despite those final-act problems, Perdido Street Station is a great read, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Miéville.

Yow, that turned into a long disquisition. I’ll tackle some thoughts on Gaiman next time.