Bas-Lag Reading Project: Perdido Street Station Part Two- Physiognomies of Filght
In this, my second installment of the Bas-Lag Reading Project, I will be dealing with the second part of Perdido Street Station called Physiognomies of Flight. This section of the novel introduces the reader to more characters, the set up for the main conflict in the narrative, and expands on certain themes. And much of this is revealed and explored through a physiognomy of New Crobuzon.
New Crobuzon is quite clearly meant to be a stand in, an alternate, a mutated and bastardized London. The inspiration of London, of the grimy Victorian cesspool, is always present. Indeed, Mieville’s relationship with London influences much of his work, whether set in Bas-Lag or on Earth.
This inspiration is obvious if you look at a map of London and a map of New Crobuzon. The only difference is that London only has the Thames bisecting it and its layout is more chaotic than New Crobuzon. New Crobuzon is roughly circular in design with a roughness to the outer edges. Also, there are two rivers: The River Tar and the River Canker meet to form the Gross Tar within the city. Beyond this, New Crobuzon is a fantastic, steampunk, crapsack vision/ dream of London.
Politically, New Crobuzon is a limited elective republic that serves a small elite oligarchy and supresses the vast majority of its citizens or subjects. Basically, you pay over a certain tax threshold and you qualify to vote automatically. If you cannot afford to buy the right/ privilege to vote, you can either enter (or are automatically enrolled) into a suffrage lottery. Those who win the lottery are allowed to vote. Beyond this, there are a number of political parties representing various interests (or claiming to and never following through). The two parties most commonly named are the Fat Sun Party, the current government is formed by this party and the Mayor (Rudgutter) is the leader, and Diverse Tendency, a more liberal/ center leftist party that claims to represent the “center left” of New Crobuzon as well as the xenian population. Another political party, the Three Quills, seems to be an extremist vision of the BNP (British National Party). It is quite obvious that Fat Sun is meant to be the Tories with Diverse Tendency meant to parody Labour. Given Mieville’s politics, which does suffuse the Bas-Lag novels without overpowering the narrative, it is not surprising that the protagonists are often from the far left, called “seditionists.”
But is New Crobuzon just an imagined, mutated London? No. New Crobuzon is also the city as the state. It is hard to tell, but I am not certain that the political entity surpasses that of the city-state. It is clear that New Crobuzon, the leading state of Rohagi, is a city-state that controls much of the surrounding territory. But there is no mention of a larger nation-state. This expands out to the other mentioned political entities. One of the only ones I am not sure about is the Witchocracy, that annoyingly tantalizing polity ruled by witches that only gets a mention per book. Beyond that, I think any polity is limited to the city-state.
While at its root, Perdido Street Station is about a mad scientist (Isaac) trying to fix his screw up (which will come in the next part or two), the overall theme of the novel, its focus, is on transition, change, and mutation. In so far as Yagharek and Motley embody this concept, so does the city itself. New Crobuzon is a mutant city. A place where you can never be sure what is in the sewage between Lichford and Spatters or what monstrosities are being cooked up in Brock Marsh’s thaumaturgic/ chymical/ physical effluviant soup.
In “Physiognomies of Flight,” Isaac’s explorations into the nature of flight, the attempt to pin down what it means to fly, how to fly, the mechanics of flight, the biology of the wing, etc. is all explored and ultimately rejected. As Vermishank’s conversation with Isaac shows, it would be almost impossible for Yagharek to be able to fly again on alien wings or even wings not quite right.
This returns Isaac to his favorite theory, Unified Field, and the possibilities of crisis energy. Crisis energy is potential energy taken to such a point before becoming kinetic energy that a crisis is invoked. The crisis energy is then purported to be near limitless as long as a crisis is maintained.
Crisis suffuses Perdido Street Station as the transitional battles with the static. This is nebulous at this early stage of the novel, but it increases as the crisis builds.
Many new characters are introduced in this section: Derkhan Blueday, the art critic seditionist who acts as the third of fourth protagonist (Isaac, Lin, Yagharek, and Derkhan). Benjamin Flex the editor of Runagate Rampant, the seditionist left wing paper. And of course, there is that mysterious caterpillar which will have an important role in the narrative to come.
The conflict, the complexity of the novel is starting to build up to a great extent.