Bas-Lag Reading Project Part 6: Perdido Street Station
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.