[Marxism] Mieville

DCQ deeseekyou at comcast.net
Thu Nov 16 19:20:41 MST 2006

On Nov 16, 2006, at 9:32 AM, Sandra K. Rankin wrote:

> DCQ:
> I'm trying to write an essay (for
> a univ. grad course in Marxist
> Lit Theory) about China M.'s PERDIDO
> STREET STATION. I've got serious
> writer's block. I wonder what you found
> disappointing about PERDIDO. I've read
> everything of CM's--except his dissertation,
> which I'll soon read. I plan to write
> my dissertation about CM's "weird
> fiction." I'm yet to read Tolkien, but
> I will. You've piqued my interest by
> emphasizing Tolkien's "utopian"-hopeful
> elements. (Ernst Bloch is one of
> my favorite writers.)
> Sandy

On the subject of Perdido Street Station, there’s a lot to say. Most of 
it is praiseworthy. I agree with most of the positive things that 
various critics and commentators have said about his imaginative 
breadth. I can say a lot of pretentious things if pressed, but it was 
simply very fun to read about the wild and fantastic stuff he set down 
on paper. I just find that enjoyable (if it’s done well…and China did 
it well). So any criticism I have should be taken with that in mind 
As for why I was disappointed, there are a few reasons. First, I 
thought the moths were a cheap invention. Conceptually, they were very 
promising, but the execution was too simplistic for my tastes. One of 
the things Mieville criticizes Tolkien for is creating orcs as a race 
of pure evil, something that can easily be killed without compunction 
or moral quandary. (If it were true, he might have a point, but Tolkien 
is quite explicit that the orcs have simply been corrupted by their 
masters, and that they fear Sauron and the ringwraiths as much as Frodo 
and Sam. In LOTR, Tolkien includes a scene in which Frodo and Sam 
overhear two war-weary orcs talking about how they’d like to just get 
away from all the "big bosses.") And yet, here we have Mieville 
creating exactly that—a race of creatures who are so evil they need to 
be annihilated, period. The kingpin is seen as beyond the pale 
precisely because he wants to keep them alive (as slaves), if at all 
possible. They are so evil in fact that when Isaac sacrifices an 
innocent man to kill them, you feel it was justified, even if in a 
perverse way. I can accept creations like that for what they are and 
even enjoy them on occasion (Alien was a good example); but when 
Mieville criticizes Tolkien (wrongly) for doing that, and then does it 
himself to the nth degree…well, that bothers me.
Furthermore, I felt there was a tension in Perdido around the 
metaphors. Sometimes Mieville indulged in it ham-fistedly, as when 
Isaac overtly compares himself to Perdido Street Station (the 
building). I had picked up on that metaphorical relationship and was 
intrigued…and then disappointed by the “post-modern wink” at the 
reader. It felt patronizing. Then at other times, he seems to want to 
resist the metaphorical significance of his inventions—and then a plot 
device comes along and smashes the often carefully constructed metaphor 
to bits (as with the Construct being evil). Mieville comes 
tantalizingly close in the Metamorphoses section, and then seems to 
chuck it all. I just felt that so much more could have been done, or 
could have been explored. Philosophical questions were brought up, and 
just as quickly dismissed for the sake of plot, that I began rejecting 
any close association with any of the characters.
At the deepest level, I came away believing that Mieville must have 
something of an “anti-aesthetic.” Perdido so often seems to refuse to 
allow the reader any kind of aesthetic satisfaction, that I felt that 
Mieville was consciously trying to avoid it, to the detriment of his 
narrative. There is a philosophical point to this: that real life is 
not logical and coherent, so why should art be so. (And so we get a 
mind-boggling plethora of characters, quickly introduced and as quickly 
forgotten. Fair enough. But when they enter the plot just long enough 
to sacrifice themselves, they appear as little more than Mr. and Mrs. 
Plot Device, or the ensign with the red shirt in Star Trek who follows 
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy down to the strange planet. Kirk may be upset at 
his death, but we smirk. I told a friend of mine that it seemed he was 
plotting the novel out by gaming a la Dungeons and Dragons, and every 
once in a while needed some NPCs and mercs. At another time, I just 
threw my hands up and told my wife that he needed an editor.) The 
question about the relationship of life and art is a valid one, and not 
less so for having been asked repeatedly for millennia. But I believe 
the quasi-(post-)modernist response that says art should try to imitate 
the randomness and chaos of life misses the point—and it’s my guess 
that Mieville would say it misses the point too. Art is not life. 
Otherwise, why read a novel? Why not just stare at people in train 
station or shopping mall?

Of course, what the purpose of writing is (or art in general) is not a 
simple question. But we can always ask ourselves a basic question, one 
which my students do constantly: what is the purpose of telling this 
particular story? After reading Perdido, I couldn't exactly say what 
that was. In fact, I couldn't even vaguely say what that was. The 
nature of evil? (no) The nature of consciousness? (no) A comment on 
heroism? (not really) Again and again, I found myself more interested 
in, if not outright fascinated by, the world of Bas-Lag and New 
Crobuzon, and annoyed by the characters and plot. The characters are so 
incredibly static that I ended up liking the fecalphiliac bat the best; 
he was still static, but at least he was funny. (Actually, the 
revolutionary art critic was probably the best, but her role was so 
small...) More to the point, the world is the hero of the novel, while 
the characters were--to borrow a phrase--mere wens on its arse.
I have not read Mieville’s other works (yet). I had The Iron Council 
and The Scar on my library list this summer, but moved on to Butler’s 
Parable of the Sower (and was even more disappointed by 
that--disappointed by two lefty authors in one summer...sheesh!) 
instead after I finished Perdido. I plan on reading the other two some 
time. And I hope that Mieville resolves his aesthetic angst--what seems 
to be a gut-level reaction against the weight of tradition—so that he 
can get beyond writing merely interesting books, and become a great 

Of course, I only read one of his books and have not reread it. If you 
have a different take, or feel I've missed something important, please 
let me know what you think.


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