Perdido Street Station: A Review
"Perdido Street Station." Hmmmmm.

Any of you guys ever read any Fritz Leiber? He's one of my favorites. He was crazy, man. He's one of those originators -- those deep crazy writers who hunker down hard inside stories like a carapace and twitch and spew and sputter. They come up with a million ideas that don't work for them -- that never get them famous or rich -- but which other people always seem to be able to turn into cash.

If you like fantasy crap (I don't really, for the most part) you should read Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser" stories. They are transcendent and interesting, mainly because Leiber was transcendent and interesting. He was also both an expert fencer and grandmaster chess player, and so he often knows what he is talking about when it comes to eviscerations, combat, and evil wizardry.

He had strange ideas about narrative hygiene and structure (it is possible he was a fascist, so whatever that means, I don't know: fucking contradictions! Sensitive fucking fascist writers!), but his ideas worked really well when he was writing about amoral warriors in an amoral land killing demons, seducing chainmail sluts, and battling sorcerors with minds so subtle they could cut you with a wink.

But my favorite thing he created was this whole other "thing" that has been swept aside in the frenzy over the property rights to his "mythos" (D&D eventually bought him out).

The best stuff he wrote was the "Change War," which he developed in a series of short stories and one novel called "The Big Time," which was one of the first books to win the Hugo award. The idea behind the "Change War" is that there is an eternal conflict outside of time between two clans called the "Spiders" and the "Snakes" who fight using artistic methods that mirror the personalities of their recruits. Their war is for nothing less than outright control of existence -- THE POINT OF IT ALL, as it were. The book takes place in one room (a stage) and the characters are Spiders who are resting between battles.

I know from reading his other writing that Leiber was one of the most Manichean thinkers of his day, and so I know the differences between Spiders and Snakes, even though "The Big Time" does not make this explicit. It is the difference between the infinitely quick and the infinitely patient, between Ahura Mazda and Ohriman. The way you become a "Spider" is that you are shown all the possible strands of your potential futures and are then lifted into a new Space to participate in something grand, something free: to learn craft, to learn structure.

Snakes, on the other hand, are made to slither along from object to object by sheer cunning and malice. They are wise, reflexive, cruel. They are brutal and clever and know how to thrash their way out of any net.

Both clans do awful, evil shit in the name of the Change War, and at the end of the book you can't help wondering what it all means. Which is "good" and which is "bad"? Would you want to be a Spider or a Snake?

I'm not sure that this ontology is very helpful when it comes to pondering life, existence, love, grocery stores, etc. But it certainly has teeth when it comes to writing, specifically in the war of ideas between writers and how it is fought using archetypes, dialog, characters, and the prisons of story.

Some writers are definitely Spiders. Leiber was definitely a Spider. Charles Dickens was a Spider. J.K. Rowling is a Spider.

Some writers are definitely Snakes. Burroughs was a Snake. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Snake. William Gibson is a Snake.

But never mind all that! This is supposed to be a book review.

The reason I bring this up is because China Mieville might be the biggest Spider writing these days. That's not a compliment, but merely a statement of the way he puts his literature together. The fact that he is an active political Socialist ala Dickens is not surprising. He writes with every human strand taken into consideration, and can't help but tie them all together. Nothing is in isolation; everything is part of the vast, rabid Indra's net of Self and environment.

In fact, he's such a big "Spider" that his most compelling character in "Perdido Street Station,"; (a fascinating, and richly-complex novel that has hopefully launched his career as "writer to be taken seriously") is a giant, interdimensional spider-god that dances through time, plucking and amending the narrative of existence to suit aesthetic purposes that simple humans (and uh..."xenians") can never understand.

The book is about a lot of other things, too. There are twenty plots twisted up around the central narrative: a scientist and his pals trying to kill a group of dream-sucking moths let loose on the the liminal city of New Crobuzon.

The story is about the city. It is about all cities. It is about how cities are born, and why cities do what they do, and what sorts of people live in cities. It is about how cities deal with problems, and who suffers inside cities, and how people in cities fall in love and stay that way.

The book follows the lives and passions of a group of city dwellers that will be familiar to you, even as they are alien and fractured. They pulsate, they fuck up, things happen to them, they fight, and work together, and fight again.

How did these dream-sucking moths get loose, for instance? The scientist did it unwares, while trying to do something completely different. How come?

A drug dealer...and the government...ah, but that's all part of the spiderweb, my friend.

I can't even talk about the book without talking about the spiderweb -- without plucking strings and causing resonations that will either turn you off of the book for the wrong reasons, or get you into the book for the wrong reasons. So I won't talk about it.

Things the book features:

1. A complex bestiary of otherworldly creatures that are all sort of lame, but who KNOW it, and have Junior High-style identity problems regarding their lame fucking physical deportments. Ever hang out at a coffee shop late at night in a small town? Then you have seen these "creatures" and perhaps befriended them, and so you will smile as you read this book.

2. Fantastic magical equipment, collated under what has been described to me as "steampunk" (SEE NOTE AT END OF REVIEW), but which I recognize as Dahl-style hashemsmashistry. As in, "give it lots of tubes and whistles, and make it work because you say it does, don't provoke any questions, don't provide too many answers." Magic crap should merely spur entertaining dialogue and serve the artistry of the grand, dancing narrative.

2. A living computer with a freakish zombie avatar kept alive so that the computer can deal with humans. This is one of the strangest and most disturbing creatures I've ever read about. I approve!

3. A drug called dreamshit that gets you high. It is LSD. But it is always fun to read about LSD through the lens of a hyperactive fantasist.

4. Gunfights, living severed hands with Masonic sympathies, an ambassador to Hell who must be placated with games and puzzles, bird-people, lots and lots of elaborate torture, place names that are thick and juicy to say in your mind like "Abrogate Green," adventurers who are only in it for the "gold and experience," histories that never were, failures, an ending that doesn't fuck around, and the parable of Daedalus told over, and over, and over again, in seventeen different ways.

One of the hallmarks of a "Spider" is rampant and outright theft of characters, settings, focus, ideas, and symbols to cobble together something new. No single entitity of a Spider's work is groundbreaking or original, but the juxtaposition and conflation of themes and hierarchies becomes bewildering, becomes fascinating, creates a sparkling new entity, much like a modern city, where the influences of the new are generated in the compost of the old, and the plenum of experience crumples and then expands again with the breath of murder, vice, and immigration.

I guess that's what happens here.

Look: this is not a piece of great literature that will change the way you think about anything. But neither is "Oliver Twist" and neither is "Gone With the Wind." I liked this book. If you are like me and you basically say "fuck it" to popular entertainment in a big way and never look back, you need books like this to make you smile and pop the chewing gum in your mind to keep you going between your next Dostoevsky (a Snake) or your next Pynchon (a Spider).

Like its grandmother "The Big Time," this book was a jolly fucking imagination sex act, and that's enough for me. I'll tell you this right now: this book was better than any movie I've ever seen. Is that a bow to Mieville, or a condemnation of film? Oh, both maybe. I fear the movie that will be made of this book, because it will ruin it forever. This book works as well as it does because it requires so much from the reader in terms of imagination. A movie would destroy that, and with it, the challenge and joy that this book provides.

The rights -- hide the rights, bury the rights, protect the rights! Fear grips me again. Is Mieville strong enough to resist Hollywood? Because I know: I know it: every filmmaker, every single one, every damn man or woman with a camera and a trust fund, will want to make this movie if they read the book. And most of them are straight-up, hissing belly-scraping snakes, and not the kind that makes art, either.

Unfair? I don't have to be fair. I know my kind. I'm a "Snake," too.

(NOTE: "Steampunk" is a stupid word that doesn't mean anything when it comes to stories. Never use this word to describe literature. Steampunk describes a visual art style that is bad. There is no Bauhaus literature; there is no Frank Lloyd Wright literature; there is no steampunk literature.)


Posted by miracle on Wed, 02 Apr 2008 15:58:40 -0400 -- permanent link

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