Bas-Lag Reading Project Part One: Perdido Street Station Part One: Commissions
This is the opening installment of my Bas-Lag Reading Project. For those not in the know, Perdido Street Station is the first book in China Mieville’s novels taking place in his fictional world of Bas-Lag. I use this rather tortured terminology because the Bas-Lag novels do not form a traditional trilogy or series. A trilogy implies a shared plot, a type of super novel or (as the Victorians would say) triple decker. Nor is there a common protagonist as in a series. Instead, New Crobuzon and its history is key to the series (excluding The Scar). With this in mind, I will approach my reading with the world of Bas-Lag and the city of New Crobuzon in focus.
Bas-Lag is a strange world. A world of roughly Victorian technologies mixed with a sense of cultural decay, of human states interacting with xenians (humanoid and not so humanoid sentients), of science and magic (thaumaturgy), and of politics. Bas-Lag is, in my mind, one of the greatest and craziest fictional worlds ever invented.
To begin with Perdido Street Station, I will attempt to break up my own posts based upon the parts of the novel itself. So here, now, is the first part of my reading of Perdido Street Station: Commissions.
In this opening section of Perdido Street Station, we are first introduced to two of the major themes of the novel. Transitions and identity. Change and concrete. Mr. Motley and Yagharek.
Mr. Motley, a powerful gang boss, is the notion of transition run amok. In a world where scarabs serve as heads, frog-men, cactus people, and bird men exist, Mr. Motley takes transition and change and runs with it to an extreme. As his name implies, Mr. Motley is motley. He is a Remade, an individual who has had his body transformed with either alien organic or mechanical alterations, often as punishment. However for Mr. Motley, his Remaking is a product of his own initiative. His permutations call to mind the attempt to determine the self. He challenges the boundaries of what it means to be both human and xenian because what is (or was) he really?
Yagharek, on the other hand, seems to represent the opposite. As a Garuda, a species of bird people who inhabit both the Cymek Desert and slums in New Crobuzon, he is (at least in theory) a representation of what a Garuda, culturally, should be. As will be explained later, the Garuda of the Cymek are far different to the Garuda of New Crobuzon. The New Crobuzon Garuda have pretty much assimilated into New Crobuzon’s culture. The Cymek Garuda are more traditional within the confines of their culture. They are barbarians, however, they are well-educated barbarians. At the same time that the Garuda are birds of prey, they are also passionate about knowledge with a traveling library (including a clan of librarians).
The Garuda of the Cymek are libertarian materialists. Yagharek transitions from Concrete Individual Yagharek to Too Too Abstract Yagharek Not Worthy of Respect. For the Garuda, freedom of choice seems to be key with the taking away of that freedom being the highest form of crime. Indeed, that is how the Garuda term crime choice theft.
This then, shows an interesting contrast between Mr. Motley and Yagharek. And this provides contrast between Isaac and Lin, the “perverted” lovers who interact with the Motley and Yagharek.
Lin, the Khepri lover of Isaac, is an artist who finds herself commissioned to create a statue of Mr. Motley. This desire of Motley’s seems to indicate that he wishes to capture the transitional in a concrete or permanent form. This desire is perhaps doomed, but reflects, perhaps, a certain vanity on Motley’s part.
Lin herself is liminal. A Khepri (a human female from the neck down with a scarab’s head) artist, she is an outsider in her own culture because of her desire to challenge the boundaries of traditional Khepri art. In New Crobuzon there are two Khepri communities: the poverty-stricken Creekside slum and the more traditional Kinken ghetto. Lin moved through both worlds only to reject both for a bohemian place in New Crobuzon’s mainstream art scene. In a real sense, Lin represents what Motley is after.
Her lover Isaac is human, a disgusting human yes, but a human. He is a scientist, a rogue former professor at New Crobuzon University, he is the go to guy when you want a hub of knowledge. In his interactions with Yagharek, he compares himself to Perdido Street Station, the great rail hub at the heart of New Crobuzon. In this way, Isaac becomes metaphorically the locus, the hub, through which the desires of the characters engage.
In this first section, Commissions, the idea of New Crobuzon is introduced as a city and a world in flux, never quite sure what it is. This is, I think, an essential quality of the city whether modern or ancient. In a city, people come from everywhere to produce transitional spaces.
Here ends Part One. I will have Part Two up next Monday. In Part Two, I will focus a little on the City itself.