Monthly Archives: October 2010
Having just finished up Thugra Khotan, and having read “The People of the Black Circle” for the first time today, I fell that I should go ahead and tackle Khemsa and the Black Seers of Yimsha. My thoughts on Khotan easily meld with what I have come to think about the Master of the Black Seers. But we’ll get to all of that later. As this is my first time reading it, I have to say that this is one of my favorite yarns. Although I don’t know whether or not I actually like Conan in this story.
“The People of the Black Circle,” is a complicated tale in which Conan finds himself a chief among the Aghulis. He kidnaps the Devi/ Queen Yasmena (sound familiar?) in exchange for seven tribal chiefs. At the same time, Yasmena was hoping to force Conan into destroying the Black Seers of Yimsha for their assassination of her brother at the behest of Turan. A young member of the Black Seers, Khemsa, seeks to rise as a sorcerer king in his own right. And Turan wants Vendhya. To be honest, I rather like this complication.
But, my focus is on the wizards. So, I will tackle these guys in three parts: The Black Seers of Yimsha as an organization, The Master of the Black Seers himself, and Khemsa.
With the Black Seers of Yimsha, we see yet another option for sorcerous career paths. From court mage, to priest, to king, to scholar. The Black Seers of Yimsha is run rather like a school. There are green robed acolytes and neophytes just beginning to learn the sorceries of the Black Seers. Indeed, the powers of these acolytes is rather impressive although ineffectual. Sending a dog, a brazen hawk, puff bombs, and the horn were all quite impressive. But they were just students with little experience or power. Had they been allowed to grow, who knows what they could have accomplished.
After they have become adepts, it seems that the students leave and become priests in Turan and other locales. It is the adepts who have become the hidden power in Turan who convince the Master to take Turan’s side in the Turan- Vendhya conflict.
Now, I have an issue with this. The Black Seers are often described as not wanting or not usually taking part in mundane affairs, so why do they interfere now? Well, there are the Turanian adepts, but there seems to be hints of other agendas. The Master, for instance seems to have his own plans beyond what is best for the group as a whole.
Plus, this makes me wonder, we hear of the Turanians, adepts who have become priests, Khemsa, the acolytes and neophytes, the Four Lords, and the Master. What about the other adepts. Were they all described as above or are there others who were not mentioned? Are the Black Seers going to survive the death of the Master? And who actually attacked the King of Vendhya? The Four, the Master himself, or Khemsa? One never quite knows, do they?
I must admit that I like the Four Lords of the Black Seers. I take it that they are the highest ranked next to the Master with their existence tied to the orb. But they are also described in some ways almost as demonic servants. The Master implies that Khemsa called upon their power for his steed of air. Of course, there is also the implication that they are the enforcers of the Black Seers, maintaining the discipline and integrity of the group. But besides their mesmerism and flying cloud, they really are not that impressive given that it took all four of them to defeat Khemsa.
The Master of the Black Seers seems to have the same case of stupid as Thugra Khotan. He is clearly insane, or so esoteric and cosmological in his sorcerous thinking as to appear rather mad. That is the only way I can explain his self destructively whimsical aiding of Turan and later abduction and attempted enslavement of Yasmena. And then of course his royally stupid petty attempt to kill her as a serpent and then as a vulture before his death. I’m having a Skip Bayless moment here because of all the stupidity.
Now, I will admit that the Master is one of the most powerful sorcerers I’ve encountered so far. He is akin to Pelias and Thugra Khotan and far superior to Yara and Tsotha-lanti. I suspect that he is the one who set up the castle’s magical defenses (the smoke ravine moat and the crystal door). He is a “master of transmutation” as evidenced by his dagger lotus and corpse, serpentine, and vulture transformations. He also has the power to force people to relive their past lives. And he is telepathic and telekinetic. I just love the way he rips Khan’s heart out of his body. And he does not appear to use magical incantations for his sorceries.
There is also the implication that the Master is hundreds of years old and he does survive a climatic encounter with Conan in a serpentine form. It is only in his stupid final attack on Yasmina that he gets killed.
I find the Master oddly humorous if insane. Enjoyable, but frustrating in his stupidity.
My favorite character is the tragic but powerful sorcerer Khemsa. An adept of the Black Seers but not in the upper echelons, Khemsa is in reality the strongest member after the Master.
At the beginning of the tale, Khemsa is the representative of the Black Seers to the Turanian agent. After Yasmena’s abduction and Gitara’s urgings, Khemsa begins to work for himself. Fueled by his love to Gitara and his ambitions, he shows himself to be, perhaps, the most powerful young sorcerer Conan ever faces.
We don’t know much of Khemsa’s background. He seems to have been well traveled. Ethnically, he could be either Stygian, Hyrkanian, or Vendhyan. He is well trained in mesmerism, the primary sorcerous art of the east. Indeed, mesmerism is the core ability that he uses, though not the only one. This could indicate that he is native to the east or that mesmerism is the core art taught by the Black Seers of Yimsha. It is also mentioned that he has a Stygian girdle that supposedly protected him from the magic of the Black Seers. So, it is likely he traveled there.
Beyond his impressive mesmerism, Khemsa also displays the ability to summon steeds of air, produce a black jade ball that turns into a spider (from Yezud), kill a cell full of people with a green mist, kill several angry villages (and drive the sole survivor mad), and break men’s necks rather easily. This is no squishy wizard here.
He is also able to withstand the combined might of the Four Lords for a while. Indeed, had he not died during that battle, who knows how far he would have gotten?
Speaking about the battle, as I mentioned in my Tsotha-lanti/ Pelias post, I really want to see a magical fight in a Conan story. Here it is, and it is quite impressive despite the fact that it is almost entirely mental.
Personally, I think Howard has one of the few really realized wizards with Khemsa. He could be a hero in his own right, but sadly serves as the wizard ex machina to Conan’s survival. It is his need for revenge that he gives Conan his girdle. And it is his love of Gitara that allows him to hold his own for a while.
But there are some troubling elements in this narrative. Why does Khemsa’s girdle work for Conan but not for Khemsa himself. I somehow doubt the explanation given. Perhaps it was the attack on Gitara that overthrew Khemsa?
This installment of my Conan’s Wizards series focuses on Thugra Khotan or Natohk, the main antagonist from the story “Black Colossus.” To give a brief summary, Khotan is a sorcerer from Stygia’s more prosperous past. To avoid being killed by invaders, he takes a magical poison to place himself in a death like sleep, and he is awakened thousands of years later by a hapless (though famous) thief. He promptly wants to take over the world, but gets side tracked by a beautiful Khorajan princess. I’ve read this story a few times and its not one of my favorites. Its okay, just not one of my favorites. Part of my problem with this story is Thugra Khotan himself.
In the past two installments, we encounter two possible career options for sorcerers: vizier or court mage and priest. Now, we meet a third, a king in one’s own right. He was, before his death, the king of the city of Kuthchemes, a Stygian tributary most likely. And after his resurrection, he gets back into the conquest business by assuming the guise of Natohk, the Veiled One. As Natohk, he acts as a religious leader/ prophet who unites the tribes, cities, a rebel Stygian prince, and sundry others under his banner. In his second incarnation, there is ambiguity as to whether he is going to be king or the sorcerer behind the throne, at least in the short term. In the long term, he clearly plans to be the sorcerer king of the world with Yasmela as his bride.
We do not know much of his background, save that he managed to cheat death for three thousand years before being impaled on Conan’s sword. It would be safe to assume that, as a Stygian, Khotan was a priest of Set (whose priests all seem to be sorcerers). That would be the most likely scenario for his education and that he acted as a sort of priest/ sorcerer king in Kuthchemes.
He is also one of the most powerful sorcerers seen to date (being of about equal power to Pelias but definitely stronger than Tsotha-lanti and Yara). He endures in a sleep for three thousand years with his tomb remaining perfectly preserved. He hides his army from view in a mist. He creates an early form of land mine. He turns a staff into a snake. He commands a winged camel and an enslaved demon. And he leaves his body to sexually harass Princess Yasmela in astral form. Despite all of his power, he still loses. Why?
For one thing, he does not make the greatest of military geniuses. Conan is a very competent military commander and he held the high ground. Also, Natohk’s army was not unified, but a rag-tag collection of nationalities formed together under a central dominating figure. And without him, they melted away in confusion. Despite Howard’s fondness for barbarian triumphalism, professional soldiers are more likely to win out over poorly trained hordes.
So that explains the military aspect of Khotan’s defeat. Although you can make the argument that Mitra played a hand in it, he just selected Conan. And Conan did the rest.
But what really defeated Khotan was his harassment of Yasmela. As I said in my Yara post, don’t do drugs!. Here it would be: don’t let your lust consume your better judgment (this is also true of my Khemsa and the Black Circle post).
Khotan allowed the situation to get out of hand because he was more focused on getting Yasmela rather than on actually winning the damn battle. Had Khotan been at the front, or even lobbing sorcerous attacks from the rear, I doubt that Conan could have won the day as handily as he did. But Khotan’s passion and sorcery are inexplicably targeted at Yasmela.
I’ll admit that I do not understand this. In part, it could be sexuality. As a gay man, I just don’t see the all empowering pull that these lovely Hyborian Age women exude. To be fair, Conan too has this reason devoiding magnetism. As an aside, I wonder how a gay sorcerer would approach fighting Conan. Could be interesting.
Anyway, getting back on topic, Khotan’s own demon slave abandons him because of his stupidity. Hell, I would too. But Khotan just seems too stupid (or maybe being “dead” for three thousand years creates a form of dementia) at the end. Once he has Yasmela, he plans to sacrifice her so that he could regain his focus and some of his power. But in the end, his death is rather pathetic.
And I think that has a bit of a point to it. Thugra Khotan is not what he once was. As Natohk, he is a pale shadow of his former glory. And his lust and thirst for power precipitously spells his doom.
“The Tower of the Elephant” is one of my favorite Conan yarns. In the past few days, I have found many more favorites, but “The Tower of the Elephant” is still my favorite. For those who do not know, a young Conan is in Shadizar, Zamora just starting out as a thief. He is in a tavern when he hears of the Tower of the Elephant and the priest/ wizard Yara. Conan decides to steal the Heart of the Elephant and does not exactly accomplish his task.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Yara is: What exactly is he the priest of? Is he the high priest of an elephant cult (which would make some sense) or is he a priest of some other faith? I do not know and it is never stated exactly what he is the priest of. I’m thinking that Howard chose a “priest” as Yara’s profession because of the knowledge required (or believed to be required) to be a priest. A priest, like a vizier, is a wonderful position from which to be a sorcerer.
Besides the uncertainty of what exactly Yara is the priest of, there is quite a bit known about his background. All of this information is provided by Yag and I have no reason to doubt the veracity of his statements.
Yag first encountered a younger Yara a few centuries before the action of “The Tower of the Elephant” begins. Yara is a young sorcerer looking for a teacher, and he approaches Yag to teach him the elder being’s knowledge and wisdom. Now, Yag is a benevolent alien (although placed in the position of a spirit), and he refuses to teach Yara his darker knowledge. This darker knowledge is what Yara wants. So, he finds a way to bind Yag and enslave him. Yara then horrifically tortures Yag for centuries to gain his knowledge. This, of course, forces Yag to reveal his knowledge.
Yara’s powers derive from his possession of the Heart of the Elephant and his enslavement of Yag. Indeed, the Tower of the Elephant was built by Yag under Yara’s direction. And it is the usage of the Heart that fuels much of Yara’s sorceries. To be frank, Yara does not actually perform any act of sorcery in the narrative. It is told that he turned a prince into a spider and stepped on him. But this could have been at any time in the last several centuries. And to be honest, I’m thinking that Yara may very well be far past his prime.
Why do I think that Yara is past his prime? Because he is a Hyborian Age drug addict. When he is encountered at the end of the story, he is in a drug induced sleep. Now, he seems to be fully alert when Conan commands him to wake, but that could be Yag’s magic working through the Cimmerian. And then Yara is quite soundly dispatched by being drawn into the Heart.
Am I disappointed that Yara does not have much more of a role? No, because the real emotional impact of the narrative is Yag’s narrative of exile, enslavement, and eventual freedom. It is Yag’s revenge drama, not Conan’s. Conan only acts as the instrument of Yag’s revenge.
So to conclude: If you are a sorcerer and looking for a good cover- become a priest of some religion or other. And. . . Don’t do drugs!!
This is a really brief review of the first episode of Sengoku Basra: Samurai Kings that I watched this past Wednesday. I have to say that while I really liked playing the demo for the game on the PS3, I am not too fond of the anime.
My first issue is the anachronization of the Sengoku Period. I somehow do not believe that the people of the period, including the historical subjects who form the protagonists to the series, dressed in some of the weird clothing that the protagonists sport. While I love Yukimura Sanada’s outfit, seriously, it is ridiculous.
I am also not comfortable with the over acting in the voice department. We get it, you (every character) is overly excitable. Enough already.
I did like the visuals and the fight scenes though. The only thing that really saves (or tries to save) the series.
A note about next week: On Tuesday, expect perhaps a double Conan’s Wizards post featuring Yara and Thugra Khotan (if not, just Yara). And on Thursday, expect a review of the first half of X adapted from CLAMP’s X/1999.
As I mentioned earlier, I am a fan of Robert E. Howard’s stories of Conan the Barbarian. But I did not grow up with Howard’s vision of that unwillingly heroic Cimmerian. Instead, I grew up with the current governor of California’s interpretation in the two Conan films (Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer). I also remember the ’80s comic book series that I picked up at a convenience store on the way to spend Thanksgiving with my grandparents (this is the extreme late ’80s or early ’90s). And there were the animated cartoon series and the short lived mid ’90s live action series.
It was not until the late ’90s and early ’00s that I discovered Conan in writing. And those were the pastiches of the Tor series from the ’80s and ’90s. As a teenager, I really enjoyed them even though it has been years since I read any of them. I was a sophomore at St. Edward’s University when I first discovered Robert E. Howard’s own stories about Conan. I was amazed and astounded by Howard’s writing skills, and I find myself inspired by his Hyborian vision. But there is one thing about Conan that I like more than anything else. The Wizards. When I read a Conan story, any Conan story, whether it be by the master himself or his imitators, I always look to the magic and the wizard. For me, it is all about the wizard with Conan.
This post covers the two rival wizards from the short story “The Scarlet Citadel.” I am sure you are familiar with the plot: Conan, now king of Aquilonia, is tricked by the kings of Ophir and Koth into falling into a trap. He is captured and taken to the Kothian capital while an usurper supported by Koth takes temporary control of Aquilonia. Conan escapes with the aid of a rival wizard and defeats his enemies. On the surface, a pretty good story. Of course, why they did not kill Conan off immediately is beyond me. But Conan is the hero, so he needs to escape and defeat the villains of the week. But this is not about Conan, this is about Tsotha-lanti and Pelias, the two rival wizards of Koth.
The primary antagonist is Tsotha-lanti, the sorcerer who possesses the mysterious and titular Scarlet Citadel. He is a powerful sorcerer who, according to Pelias, is likely a Cambion. Pelias (of course the reader cannot really trust him) claims that Tsotha-lanti’s mother, a Zamoran, slept too near an ancient ruin and was impregnated by something other than human. While this would explain some of his apparent powers, I am not sure that Pelias is telling the truth. I’ll come to this later. For now, we will continue on with Tsotha-lanti’s background. He then seems to have risen by some means to become the court mage/ shadow ruler of Koth.
Much of Tsotha-lanti’s power seems to be derived from his studies of the ancient ruins beneath the Scarlet Citadel and his knowledge/ experiments in eldritch biology. The only offensive “spells” he uses is a spiked ring and “tomb” powder that renders both Conan (ring) temporarily paralyzed and the King of Ophir (powder) insensible (Thanks Taranaich for catching that!). Beyond that, his powers seem pretty tame and it is only the creatures in his dungeon that give his reputation any justification.
Pelias, on the other hand, is a far different story. After Conan rescues him from the plant that was leeching his power, it only takes him a few moments to return to full strength (or an approximation). It is Pelias who necromantically resurrects a dead man to free themselves from the dungeons, shows Conan a vision of his capital under the usurper, and summons a bat demon to fly Conan back to Aquilonia in less than a day. It is also implied that it takes him that long to stage a coup in Koth and place himself as the new ruler. So given what the reader sees in the story, is Tsotha-lanti more likely to be a demon spawn or is Pelias? My money is on Pelias if anyone. But very little is learned about him save that he is Tsotha-lanti’s primary rival for the position of court mage/ shadow ruler. Beyond that, not much is stated about Pelias’s background.
But is Pelias accurate in his description of Tsotha-lanti’s conception? Both men have motive enough to exaggerate Tsotha-lanti’s background. For Tsotha-lanti himself, he adds a bit of fear to his name that he may not merit. If you go against this wizard, who is the son of a demon, then you are likely going to face a fate worse than death. But Pelias also has a reason to make it up. If Conan believed that Tsotha-lanti is a demon spawn, then he would be more likely to aid Pelias in destroying their common foe. Of course, this does not work on Conan because as Pelias tells Conan this, Conan is speculating that Pelias is just as likely to be a demon spawn as his enemy is. Conan does not slay (or try to slay) Pelias because the two of them have a mutual enemy and Conan needs the wizard’s aid in restoring himself to his throne. After Tsotha-lanti has been defeated, Conan wishes never to deal with either wizard again.
There is also a bit of politics at work with Pelias’s narrative of Tsotha-lanti’s background as well. By his description, Tsotha-lanti is Zamoran and not native Kothian. Perhaps his intention is to stir up an innate sense of revulsion at foreigner’s control of government (all too common in history), but again, Conan is himself a foreigner who rules Aquilonia. Again, I find this rather confusing.
The one disappointment I have with “The Scarlet Citadel” is that I wished there was a fight between Tsotha-lanti and Pelias rather than Conan lobbing off Tsotha-lanti’s head and Pelias sending a demon to pick the damn thing up with Tsotha-lanti headlessly running after it. I wanted a wizard’s duel! Oh, well, Conan has to have the last word.
A note for next week: I have Yara (from “The Tower of the Elephant”) and Thugra Khotan (from “Black Colossus”) on the way, but I want to do review of Sengoku Basra next week. I may do more posts next week too, though.
Notes on the Update: Again, thanks go to Taranaich for catching a goof on my part concerning Tsotha-lanti’s offensive capabilities.
This post is more of a double headed announcement. Part of the announcement concerns my co-writer. And the second involves my next series of posts.
As you might have noticed, DeRawk has been absent this past week. For now, he is taking a hiatus. I don’t know when he is going or planning to return writing. When he makes his decision, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, my own postings may be a bit erratic, but I am planning on sticking to a Tuesday and Thursday schedule.
I am myself taking a break from Bas-Lag for the moment and turning to Robert E. Howard’s Conan. When I read a Howard Conan yarn, I am often as interested with the history and the magic as I am in Conan’s actions. Indeed, I don’t think there has been a lot of work on Conan’s wizards. Tsotha-lanti, Pelias, Thoth Amon, etc. are all extremely interesting characters.
So, given my interest in those sorcerers, I want to spend a few posts exploring my own thoughts on Conan’s Wizards. Starting with Tsotha-lanti and Pelias from “The Scarlet Citadel.” Expect this on Thursday.
I am also thinking of turning some of my posts into a sort of writer’s diary (or something). As I think more on this, I’ll get back to you.
This is it. The final installment of my Bas-Lag Reading Project’s look at Perdido Street Station. The main conflict is finished. The Slake Moths have been destroyed. Isaac’s group is on the run. So, what is “Judgment” about? Well, there is one huge issue that has not been answered. What the hell did Yagharek do that called for the amputation of his wings? That question is answered along with some interesting points about Yag.
Karu’chai, another Garuda, has come to find Isaac. She implores him to uphold the band’s justice on Yag. Isaac is reluctant, but is in the end swayed in a way that is inherently problematic. Karu’chai was “raped.” I put rape in quotation marks because that is the closest translation to what happened. She was raped, but for her it is more of a deprivation of choices rather that the sexualization that our consensus defines rape as. Of course, Isaac cannot help but interpret Yag’s crime as rape even though Karu’chai constantly tells Isaac to not interpret the crime that way.
So, in the end, Isaac and Derkhan take Lin and flee New Crobuzon and abandon Yag. This is without question the hardest scene of the narrative to get over. The comradeship and friendship that formed between these three characters in the moment of crisis is suddenly ripped asunder. I think that part of Mieville’s scheme here is to highlight the harsh reality of the city. Cities are places of great friendships and community, but also of isolation and disconnection. These three characters have come together and are now torn asunder.
With this moment achieved, Isaac’s abandonment of Yag complete, a new and interesting question is raised. Is Isaac the true protagonist of Perdido Street Station? While he does seem to be the protagonist since he leads the fight against the Slake Moths, every part of the novel is led in by Yagharek’s story. And it is Yagharek who has come to the greatest change in his character. He is the one who has changed the most fully.
Yag goes from being a selfish Garuda who wishes above all else for flight to be returned to him to being a human. Now, this is inherently racist even if the Garuda is a different species. What I mean by this is that Yag tries to remove all of the remaining elements of his Garudaness. He rips out his feathers, he tries to shatter his beak, he forever covers his claws, etc. In this physical transformation, Yagharek becomes human.
I have a problem with this. The implication here is that being or becoming human is better than being Garuda. Yes, this is fiction. But just because there is no reality to the Garuda does not mean that the Garuda, the Khepri, the Vodyanoi, the Cactacae, etc. are not qualified to be viewed as fully themselves. Bas-Lag is, then, a anthropocentric world. But does this reflect Mieville or the world itself? Certainly this is an issue with Bas-Lag where classism and xenian racisim is endemic. And don’t forget that Yag himself is mentally unstable. His identity shifts radically throughout the novel.
To sum things up as this is the final part of my reading of Perdido Street Station, I am going to discuss the novel as a whole. Perdido Street Station is one of my favorite novels of all time. Despite its flaws, I am always amazed by Mieville’s artistry, imagination, and skill.
“Crisis,” the penultimate part of Perdido Street Station. How should I take this denouementt moment of Mieville’s first Bas-Lag novel? How? There is nothing that really stands out as something to discuss. But, there is the conclusion itself. What I mean is, how does Mieville handle the final conflict between the Slake Moths and Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and his friends? And the surprising resolve to the Motley subplot? In a way, I would argue that Mieville has a strong conclusion which is undercut by the resolution of the Motley subplot. And this extends into “Judgment,” the final part.
I will not deny that Mieville can write exciting and horrifying scenes. Just read the death of the Runt, the last chapter of “The Glasshouse,” and the penultimate chapter of “Crisis.” Those chapters are simply amazing. The sheer power of Mieville’s prose just plows me away.
This is especially true of the death of the three “unimportant” Slake Moths. The battle between Issac’s group, the Militia, Jack Half-a-Prayer, and the Slake Moths is amazing and exciting. I can never put the book down when I get to this chapter.
But, if you look at “Crisis” in relation of “The Glasshouse,” then I am not so sure the denouement really works. At the end of “The Glasshouse,” things are looking low for the protagonists. Shadrach, Tansell, and Pigeon are dead. There is only Isaac, Yag, Derkhan, and the uncertain Pengefinchess. But if you would think that things only get worse from there, no. The beginning of “Crisis” deals with Isaac’s plan to kill the moths using his crisis engine (this is rather obvious given the name of the section and the importance of the crisis engine). The Council shows how efficient it is by having its congregation lay two miles of cord from Griss Twist to Perdido Street Station. The only sense of threat, of conflict, comes with the final two chapters. These chapters wrap up everything save one- Yag’s crime.
Indeed, in a way, this is how Mieville operates in this Perdido Street Station. Threats, conflict, crisis only comes (or rears its head) towards the end of each part (after the Slake Moth escape). I am not certain that it this method is good or bad. The conflict, the crisis, seems to be more of a wave, with moments of relative narrative calm before moments of absolute crisis.
One thing that really bothers me with the conclusion of Perdido Street Station is the resolution to the Motley subplot. Lin is alive and still working on Motley’s statue. But is it necessary beyond just ending the narrative on a downer (Lin’s mind is not completely drunk but she is rendered permanently brain damaged)? I don’t know. But it seems that Mieville loves this kind of ending. Of the novels of his that I have read, all of them end on a similar note- in the heat of the protagonist’s victory, there is a sudden event that snatches everything (or almost everything) away from the protagonist. In Perdido Street Station, Isaac is victorious against the Slake Moths and is reunited with Lin. But then he loses her all over again as her mind, though not drunk, is practically destroyed. And then there is the problem of the final part, almost epilogue of exile.
Another thing I want to discuss is the problem of the Militia. I know that the Slake Moths are not really enough of an antagonist to accomplish all that Mieville wants to do. They just don’t despite all of their fearsomeness and power. They just don’t impress me. Because of this, there is the need to make extra bad guys. The Militia, the Cactacae, Motley, etc. are all examples of this. Now, Motley has a good reason to be antagonistic towards Isaac- he thinks that Isaac is trying to muscle in on his racket. But why couldn’t there have been some sort of arrangement between Issac and the Militia and the Cactacae. But he doesn’t. Mind you, Isaac comes out and states why he doesn’t just tell the government everything and let them deal with it. He doesn’t trust the government, he doesn’t like it. Isaac and Derkhan are seditionists. And this does enrich and complicate the plot. Their antipathy towards New Crobuzon’s government makes it difficult for them to see the government as anything other than an antagonist.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know why Mieville does this. Politics. You can’t escape it, now matter how hard you try. And I am not critiquing Mieville’s politics. Hell, I’m as left wing as he is.
The part of Perdido Street Station entitled “The Glasshouse” is about the infiltration of the semi-apparently autonomous Cactacae ghetto called (obviously) the Glasshouse. Like I did with the Construct Council in my last post, this post will be devoted to the Cactacae. The Cactacae, like the Khepri and Vodyanoi, are a race that appears rather frequently in the three Bas-Lag novels. Indeed, a rather rare “good” Cactacae character shows up in The Scar and I am sure some Cactacae participate on the side of the rebels in Iron Council. But from this first in depth encounter with the cactus people, the picture that Mieville paints is not a very positive one. Of course, many of his characters, his protagonists, in the Bas-Lag series are outsiders from rather authoritarian traditional cultures. Lin escapes both the heretical religious fervor of her mother to the stifling traditionalism of Kinken before finally settling in the nebulous place of a (seemingly) popular avant garde artist. The Cactacae have yet to have such a figure, so most of the Cactacae are shown to be heavies.
Despite the fact that they do not get much screen time, or a whole lot of sympathy (at least in Perdido), I do find them a very interesting species. I will discuss the Cactacae following this scheme: Biology, Culture, Shankell, and New Crobuzon.
The Cactacae are basically walking cacti with moveable arms, hands, fingers, and feet. Their heads rather lack mobility and there is no neck. The reader also learns in other books that the Cactacae reproduce by planting. Females plant infant, unfertilized Cactacae before the males fertilize them. They then gestate in the ground, but are nursed as mammals are. Interesting. The Cactacae also sleep standing up.
As plant men, the Cactacae have thorns that are plucked if the thorns would come into contact with flesh. Or not (as Lin discovers when Motley turns on her). They flower in spring. And of course, and perhaps most importantly, it is very difficult to harm the Cactacae without their special rivebows. The Cactacae’s blood is sap, and their bones are hard wood. Making the Cactacae the ideal laborer or goon.
There seems to be two ethnic groups that make up the Cactacae. One, and the most familiar or most populous, is the desert Cactacae that inhabit Shankell and Dreer Samheer around the Cymek. These are the Cactacae who also live in New Crobuzon. There is another group, smaller perhaps, more insular, who live in the steppes to the “east.” These Cactacae are rarely mentioned, and it seems are over shadowed by their more important siblings in the desert.
The Cactacae seem to have a violent culture. Scarification seems to be both ritualized and common practice. Children can be expected to be cuffed by passing adults, and there is mention of gangs outside of the Glasshouse. Beyond this, there are a few other things known. The Cactacae hve a form of solar energy collection to power the sunspear and searchlight. There are also elders with sashes who seem to act as community leaders, and I would guess they have a sun/ solar based religion. And there are the gladiatorial fighting and the beserker rage that the Cactacae go into as they chase Isaac’s group from the Glasshouse.
Shankell, and perhaps Dreer Samheer, are Cactacae cities. Perhaps even Cactacae city-states. Little is known about them in Perdido Street Station save for Yagherak’s experiences there as a gladiator and a mention when Rudgutter goes to meet with the Hellkin Ambassador. What is known is that there is a large and profitable blood sport industry that can make successful fighters wealthy, or wealthy enough to go to New Crobuzon and hire a rogue scientist. Shankell also seems to be a city on the move as Yag describes the New Crobuzon Cactacae’s use of Shankell’s language as “centuries out of date.”
This is not surprising given that the Cactacae are immigrants to New Crobuzon, and who knows what the contacts are like between the two groups. Of course, it is curious that New Crobuzon is so out of date with their pidgin. But then again, New Crobuzon and the Glasshouse Cactacae are a culture all to themselves now. But the Cactacae have had a struggle despite their current status within New Crobuzon as citizens or almost citizens. It is mentioned that Mayor Collod, who ruled New Crobuzon centuries ago, had Cactacae farms (for which the rivebow was invented). What were these farms used for? Were the prison camps, labor camps, slave pens, or extermination camps? We are not told, but given the narrator’s attitude (ghastly), it does not sound too good. Of course, shortly afterward, the Cactacae seems to have been given some rights (and now seem to be the strongest of the xenian immigrant groups in New Crobuzon along with the Khepri and Vodyanoi). This status is shown in the very fact that the Glasshouse exists at all. It must exist on the sufferance of the government (and certain services rendered to the government). Only the Khepri and a few others have their own specialized ghettos. But this does not mean that the Cactacae are without internal strife. The Glasshouse seems to be the place, the ghetto, where wealthy Cactacae live. And the poor live outside of it. This breeds resentment from younger Cactacae, who declare they want nothing to do with the decaying structure. This introduces more of the concept of the gang life that seems to be prevalent among young Cactacae.
Despite their “tough man” appearance and role, the Cactacae are a rather interesting xenian race. I am always amazed at how Mieville creates his monsters and xenians.
Today, in this fifth installment of Perdido Street Station, I am going to focus solely on the Construct Council . Limiting this to just the Construct Council is appropriate, in my opinion, because the Council forms the primary subplot of this part. I’ll touch a few things about the Council. One, I’ll talk about the steam-punk AI (or CI in this world). Two, I’ll touch on the religious aspect of the Council. Three, I’ll discuss the Council’s aid against the Slake Moths. And four, I’ll deal a little bit with the Council’s future.
One thing I find fascinating about Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon is the wide array of technological, cultural, and political variations. Politically, the world seems to be reminiscent of the city states of Mesopotamia and other such time periods, but with the seeming strength and power of nation states and empire states. Now, there are city based empires, but do these really last that long? Technologically, New Crobuzon is a steam-punk equivalent of modern if not a little more advanced in some ways.
But for now, lets talk about CI- constructed intelligence. According to the Council, CI develops based upon a virus. But the virus depicted is not one that readers from Earth are familiar with. Earth computer viruses are spread through programming and spread (typically) through the internet. There is no internet in New Crobuzon. Nor is there programming that younger readers would be familiar with (I know that cards used to be used to insert programs). Instead “viruses” seem to emerge more from a malfunction. Clock work gears in the computational center stick and form infinite loops. The construct becomes obsessed with a function. Over time, the Council itself “mutated” and formed full sentience. After merging with another, it began to spread by altering the programming of malfunctioning constructs.
The owners or discoverers of the first two fully sentient constructs formed the basis of the CI religion. Given the presence of the Godmech religion (I’m guessing that this religion is based on the Deistic idea of God the Clock Maker). What the worshipers worship is the self organizing aspect of constructed intelligence. The Council becomes a self made entity, a self made god. The question is, does the Council commit the same follies that other so called “gods” do?
Here, I’m not wanting to spoil things. But I kind of have to. In the Council’s first interactions with Isaac’s group, it claims that it is helping them to ensure that its human worshipers do not die. If they die, then it will not be able to spread itself into other constructs. Now, there is some credence to this. The Slake Moths are widely believed to threaten the entirety of New Crobuzon. But in reality, it is revealed in a Mievillean twist (he does this a lot) that the Council really wants the crisis engine. If it can manage to figure out how to make one on its own, then it could become unstoppable.
Why can’t the Council build its own crisis engine? Because, like most of its constructed or artificial kin, it lacks the imagination. That is why it is paired with the Weaver. The Slake Moths cannot “eat” either the Council or the Weaver because they do not form a whole mind. The Council is pure logic. The Weaver is pure dreams, pure imagination. Keep reading to find out what happens when they are combined.
The Council is also doomed. In the early parts of Iron Council, one of the protagonists remembers watching as a child the militia bombarding a dump in Griss Twist. And there are no constructs. Instead, golems have replaced constructs as non sentient labor. From what I can tell, the Council is either discovered or makes a move against New Crobuzon. And it is destroyed. Of course, some pieces of it could have survived. But we never know.
This is it for the Construct Council. Next post, I’ll do a little bit about the Cactacae.