Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Novel: Borges in Waterdeep

Perdido Street Station by China Mièville, Del Rey

Here’s an ugly secret about writers – when they read other people’s work, they’re always thinking, “Yeah, I could do that.” Seriously. Whether its Joe Conrad or Tom Clancy, Naked Lunch or The Da Vinci Code, at the heart, the writer who reads is evaluating, comparing, thinking, “Yeah, I could have done that, given enough time/interest/encouragement/drugs”.

And then you hit something like Perdido Street Station and you just let out your breath in a whistle of admiration and admit that you’ve been beat.

The first 400 pages or so of this book are fantastic and fascinating, engaging in a way that few books are. Mièville takes the time to spin out the world around his characters and brings the plot in slowly, growing organically from his characters’ actions and desires. And it’s a jewelbox of a world, a beautiful setup necessary for what is to come.

The center of the book is the city, New Crobuzon, a fantasy city in a fantasy world. But it’s an advanced fantasy of wheel-lock pistols and steam engines, melded effortlessly with thaumaturgic engines, flesh-twisted humans, and scientific approaches to spellcasting. It is a multi-racial city as well, with humans predominant but other races such as bug-headed khepri, vulture-like garuda and cactus men, all of which have their own outlooks both as races and, more importantly, as individuals. And lastly, it is a city of transitions, as the flavor of one neighborhood flows into the next, changed by purpose, population, and industry into a new thing, but difficult to say where the change occurs.

The city feels like Paris, which I have visited, but it also feels like Buenos Aires, the one I only know from reading Jorge Luis Borges. It is alien and accessible and always viewed in different lights and from different angles. It is always in motion, and always at rest.

Most of the book is all about transformations, evolutions, and transitions. New Crobuzon is in the Interzone of William Burroughs, a city made up of disparate, often conflicting parts, and his main players are similarly creatures that live in the gaps between worlds. Isaac is a young mad scientist whose brilliance gives him a long tether from his university masters. Lin is his lover, an insect-headed xeno whose art defies the norms of her more traditional sisters. Both are given commissions for work, Isaac by a wingless vulture man who wishes to fly, and Lin by a polyglot crimelord looking for a self-portrait. These challenges set in motion a series of events that ultimately unleashes a plague of nightmare creatures on the city itself.

And through the bulk of the book, Mièville pulls it off elegantly and smoothly. He missteps once when action is finally demanded, descending into the organizational melee rounds of keeping track of multi-body combat, and again when he calls in “adventurers” to help (the societal role of an adventuring “class” in a fantasy universe is the subject of another essay). At this point, he teeters on the edge of mere pedestrian reporting, to the point that I can say, “yeah, I could do that.” But he recovers through the actions of his characters who are characters first, and heroes fourth or seventh or tenth. He flirts with genre but does not embrace it.

I have always felt that Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard, would be comfortable among the barbarians of Greyhawk, and that Grandfather Tolkien would be at home at the Old Skull Inn in Shadowdale. New Crobuzon is someplace that Bill Burroughs and Borges could be found playing chess at a sidewalk café. Furthermore, New Corbuzon feels like it could have been an influence on WotC’s new Eberron setting. The similarities are striking, from techno-magical devices to living constructs (ReMade in the novel, Warforged in Eberron), to the whole “lost generation” noirish feel that pervades the air around the cities. If you’re a fan of Eberron, this would be a book to check out. Even if you’re not a fan, it’s a rich, rewarding novel, which encourages me to find the author’s other work.

Because I am not afraid to say that I might (I said MIGHT) be able to do something this good, but it would be an uphill fight.

More later,