A rant is coming. “The Remaking” is the conclusion of the subplot of Iron Council. I both love this section as the best written, but I also find it frustrating that there is no Remaking.
What I mean is that New Crobuzon’s Commune (called the Collective) is doomed to failure. Indeed, the Militia has shrunk the areas under Collectivist control down to just three districts (Dog Fenn, Smog Bend, and Heath Barrow). Kinken has been destroyed (by those damn Quillers rather than the Militia), and much of the rest of the city is in pretty bad shape.
And Ori is reflective of that. Ori is the erstwhile protagonist of the even numbered sections, but Ori only appears in the third chapter and has been completely destroyed by the revelations of his being used by Toro and Spiral Jacobs and his knowledge that the Collective is doomed. He is a shell, an observer, he is cut off and adrift.
Perhaps, however, I am wrong that there is no permanent Remaking going on in the city. New Crobuzon will bear the scars of the conflict for years, decades to come. The Khepri have largely been expelled from New Crobuzon (Kinken destroyed, Creekside’s status is unknown, but the Khepri seems to have been hit pretty hard by the Quillers).
But, what I meant by the Remaking not holding, not lasting is that Spiral Jacobs’s attack, the many named city killer ritual, is a dud. Had the heroes not intervened, the city would have been destroyed. New Crobuzon is saved however, and I have a huge problem with how it is saved and that there is no after effects, even as what ever the Urbomach is almost came through.
I like the fact that Spiral Jacobs bested Judah Low. Judah is a great somnaturge, but he is no match for Spiral Jacobs. So, in a way, it is nice seeing Quarbin take out Jacobs. But I also see that as a cop out. Quarbin acts as a quick fix, a means of getting information quickly (though at the price of who Quarbin is). That Quarbin saves New Crobuzon is excellent, how Quarbin saves New Crobuzon is a stinker. He just asks the Hidden Moment for aid and everything is done? Such a disappointment.
That New Crobuzon would be saved is beyond question, though how Spiral Jacobs could be defeated is the source of tension. The thing is that the New Crobuzon-Tesh War is the subplot. The coming of Iron Council to New Crobuzon is the main plot, so it stands to reason that the more tension filled ending comes with Iron Council’s fate.
What bugs me is that there is no residual of the failed attack. New Crobuzon should be marked in some way, the murderspirit was just beginning to appear as Quarbin learns what he needs to do. That frustrates me as a reader.
But the murderspirit is damn cool. The entity of the too many epithets was going to possess the entire city, New Crobuzon become a ravenous monster set on devouring its own people. Brutal.
This raises the question, as I mentioned earlier, of why Tesh is doing this. Is the difficulty in communication going both ways? What logical sense does it make to destroy New Crobuzon. While it is the enemy now, economically, it can be made a decent trading partner after an agreeable conclusion to the war. And Tesh seems to have been in the stronger position at the time. So why try and destroy it? This almost reverses the assumptions about the Grindylow of the Gengris. Of course, it does give a highly emotional sendoff for Ori and takes a little away from the rebellion in New Crobuzon.
That the Collective is doomed to fail is beyond question. Just like the Parisian Commune in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War failed. It is difficult to overthrow a government, a system of doing things that are beneficial to some. It is clear that the Collectivists did not have the entire city on their side, perhaps they did not even have half of the city. And Parliament, the Militia, is at that moment unwilling to compromise. I wonder, really, if Stem-Fulcher’s assassination did not really strengthen the resolve of the government to fight on.
As I mentioned in my last posts on The Scar, it is interesting to note that there is a movement in the Middle East that is seeing the removal of many of the regions longstanding dictators. The reason the Lovers fell in The Scar is because they relied on the support of those they governed, they ruled through, perhaps, the illusion of consensus. When they lost the support of Armada, they had to give up. And their forces refused to attack the crowd. This is the key.
New Crobuzon’s government has not lost the backing of the Militia and the powerful elite that supports it. That there are a few defectors is unsurprising, but a loosely organized movement is unlikely to win against a better trained, better equipped, and motivated force. The only way New Crobuzon will change is if enough of the elites support change or if the Militia (or enough of it) switches sides to make the difference.
That’s it for now. Next time the fate of the Iron Council in “Sound and Light” and “The Monument”
I just finished up John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. Reading that book has given me a new outlook when it comes to thinking about war. And earlier this year, I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. That book proved useful in trying to formulate an intellectual basis for my world building. Basically, what I’m saying is that these two books are proving to be very important research tools when it comes to my world creation.
And Keegan points out one important aspect to my Bas-Lag Reading Project posts. I am wrong in my critique of Mieville’s usage of the small naval battle in The Scar. What I failed to remember is that Bas-Lag, and New Crobuzon, exist within two rough “historical” frameworks. Technologically, and to a degree culturally, New Crobuzon is fantastically steampunk. But fantastic is the key because politically Bas-Lag is largely pre-state or city state in development terms. While Victorian Britain could produce tens or hundreds of ships, New Crobuzon, despite its power, probably lacks the resources to exceed the Athenian or Carthaginian navies. Add to that the fact that iron clads are far more expensive to build than simple galleys. So New Crobuzon having only a fleet totaling around fifty is believable (plus I don’t remember another naval power threatening the city save for Suroch and Armada).
Moving back to A History of Warfare, I personally enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone wanting to broaden their horizons when it comes to military matters. Now, Keegan does spend a lot of the book focusing on the West and the West’s military encounters with the East. But Keegan navigates the situation well. His understanding of medieval Islamic motives and tactics (and sustained focus on the early Arabs, the Mamelukes, and Turks) make for some of the most interesting reading. Where I wish he had spent more time is in East Asia. China appears irregularly (and then mostly in relation to others, like the steppe peoples, Arabs, and Westerners) and Japan’s few mentions leave out much of the samurai martial culture.
But still, A History of Warfare is highly useful when it comes to thinking about the history of war and creating one’s own forms of warfare in speculative fiction. I mean, I have some interesting ideas about mounted knights and warrior wizards.
Moving on to Guns, Germs, and Steel, it has been a few months since I read that book, so my take may be rusty. Diamond has a reputation in some scholarly circles for being “Eurocentric” and a big part of Guns, Germs, and Steel goes to trying to explain why Europe or European culture has achieved dominance over the past five hundred years. His explanation is geography. What foods can grow where, the easy accessibility of trade goods and ideas from distant civilizations are all key components of his thesis. And the thesis, that geography plays an important role in how cultures develop, is potentially a key in the world building arsenal. But the critique of Diamond, especially in the past few years, is valid on many fronts.
Inspiration is key, whether it is sourced in the genre, philosophy, history, or whatever. My own tastes tend to the academic when it comes to research, but in the end, use whatever works.
This post is going to be a long one. There is a lot of summing up and analysis to do. And I don’t want to break it up into two or more shorter posts. This covers “ The Lookout” and the “Coda” of The Scar. Now let’s jump right in.
“The Lookout” clearly references the returned Hedrigall (or nigh-Hed). This raises the question, is this the Hedrigall that abandoned Armada shortly after the Crobuzine attack? Or is this Hedrigall who he claims to be, one from an alternate reality who witnessed the destruction of Armada at the Scar? This is left ambiguous. The acknowledged coincidences beggar credulity. But we are talking about possibility and the breakdown of the certain here, so anything is possible.
Like “Morning Walker,” two conflicts figure large in “The Lookout.” The Brucolac’s Mutiny and the Fall of the Lover. Personally, the Brucolac’s Mutiny is a better combat sequence than the Crobuzine Assault. And the People’s Mutiny is the best written of all.
And given the events transpiring in Egypt and Tunisia (as well as Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya) as I write this, I feel that it is pertinent to speak about Tanner Sack and the role of the people of Armada in overthrowing the Lovers (at least temporarily). Mieville is a socialist and his politics, whether you agree with him or not, informs his work. And I think that he could not resist allowing the citizens of Armada from having a successful mutiny. In terms of piracy, as Tanner Sack states, without the consensus of the citizens, the Lovers (or any of the other rulers) have little power. The Lovers knew that and forgot it in the end. While the revolution on Armada was temporary (the male Lover and the Brucolac returned to power), it does deliver a powerful statement about what it takes to effect change.
Thinking of the mutinies, one has to wonder about Uther Doul’s role. It is obvious that Doul never intended on going along with the Lover’s plans, but why did he not stop her or them from carrying it so far. Why did he rely on others to do it for him? Is he afraid of having power? Or did he want to be a loyal henchman and could not act on his own because of his bought loyalty? Who knows.
What is likely certain is that Doul, at some point just before or during the expedition to the Anophelii Island, picked Bellis as someone he could use. He also likely knew that she was involved with Silas Fennec. He utilized both, likely, to spread dissent towards Garwater’s rulers. For some reason, it had to be the people of Armada turning the city around and no one else.
The loss of Fennec before he had a chance to spread the truth and the unexpected revelation of the truth by the Lovers themselves stymied Doul’s possible plan. So he went to his back up plan-stowing Hedrigall away and then having him pretend to be an alternate Hedrigall with a tale of doom for Armada. And given that he knew Bellis knew of the closet and her acquaintance with Tanner Sack, he could expect that she would give Sack the opportunity to hear Hedrigall’s tale.
But that does not explain why he did not act alone, or turn on the Lovers and aid the Brucolac in his mutiny. Unless it is that the people themselves had to turn the city, that he could use the excuse that he cannot fight the will of the city. That is why he had to stop the Brucolac. The only legitimate way for the city to be saved is if the people themselves take to the decks and demand that things stop.
The Lovers are brought down because of a lie, because of suppression of the truth and information. They wanted to hide what the possible alternate Hedrigall had to say, and Tanner, and the people, beat her to spreading the word. They were caught before they had a chance to admit the truth. And it cost them dearly.
I don’t like the Lovers. A cool concept, but not interesting. “A cut up fuck and his psychopath woman,” as Bellis states to Carrianne. But reading the breaking up of their relationship and their oneness is heart wrenching. It also raises the question, were the Lovers ever truly united? Or was it that they miraculously had an almost perfect symbiosis for too long a time. Clearly, the female half of the Lovers had been more dedicated to the Scar Quest than her partner. In the end, it raises the question, what was she really after? Just to see it or to become a god. For what reason? She had a cushy life, power, and respect as one of the Lovers. So why throw it all away for a mad quest?
In the end, the Lover, both of them singly, is rather pathetic. She a mad cast out seeking a nebulous and uncontrolled power. He lost and forlorn, always missing her. In the end, they are not one, but two.
This brings up the Scar itself, the namesake of the book and the core symbolic image. In the end, does The Scar refer to the geographical Scar that the Ghosthead created or does it refer to the scars that physically and emotionally mark the characters: Bellis and Tanner’ destroyed backs and the Lovers’ scarification. I don’t know, although I suspect that it is likely both.
The Bas-Lag novels are all titled after major features that form a backdrop and organizing image- Perdido Street Station as a symbol for all of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, the Scar in The Scar, and the Iron Council in Iron Council. But with the Scar, it is never reached. It is a quest that is failed.
And I think that that is Mieville’s point here. How many resources are you willing to expend, how much danger are you willing to entail, to undertake the quest? The journey to the Scar cost Armada dearly in terms of resources, man power, and danger. And while the success of the quest might have brought great benefits, fame, and power to the city, in the end was it truly worth it or what the people really wanted. History remembers the great deeds, both triumphs and follies, but in the end, it may not be worth the expense. And maybe hubris on the part of the rulers. . .
Now, let me take some time to talk about the grindylow of the Gengris. They finally make an appearance even though they have been the Interlude protagonists throughout the novel. I should have discussed them earlier, but know makes as good a time as any.
The grindylow are fish men. Hagfish-like heads, humanoid torsos, and eel or hagfish tails. And lots of teeth. The grindylow of the Gengris are truly a fearsome race. And misunderstood.
The grindylow have similar concerns to other species in Bas-Lag. It was, I think, an example of in world racism to bestow such high importance to the magus fin. It does have great power, and New Crobuzon might have fancied that as well. But the real theft was one of information.
The Gengris invasion of New Crobuzon was a lie, but the best lies have a good amount of truth. But it is not the Gengris who were planning the invasion but New Crobuzon. Silas describes the lands to the north of New Crobuzon and the Gengris as rich and desiring trade with New Crobuzon. But the Gengris, as the masters of the Cold Claw Sea, do not allow for trade from their end. But a canal would cut the distance, and cut the Gengris out. There would be war. And Fennec had the information that would aid in a Crobuzine victory. As he did with Armada. But he failed to get the information back home. It is therefore likely that either the canal project will be canceled or a war with the Gengris will be a more uncertain thing.
Whatever else one may say about the Gengris, I like them. Their attack on Garwater is entertaining reading to say the least. And their thaumaturgy is very interesting. I wish more could be said about those reality altering psychopaths.
So, this concludes the second part of the Bas-Lag Reading Project. Look for me to tackle Iron Council in a few months and look for a review of Mieville’s Embassytown in the next few months (after it is released). The Scar has been an engrossing and fun read. Mieville is a difficult and challenging writer, but sticking it out will more than pay for itself in the end.
So, for my next reading project, look for either Fairy Tail, Naruto, or Fullmetal Alchemist (once I figure out how I want to approach them).
The penultimate part of The Scar, “Morning Walker,” references, obviously, the flagship of the New Crobuzon fleet that attacks Armada halfway through the part. “Morning Walker” actually has two battles- the Crobuzine attack and the capture of Silas Fennec.
Silas Fennec is a rat. He used whatever he stole from the Gengris (what everyone assumes to be the magus fin, and in reality in Fennec’s notebook) to entice, to blackmail New Crobuzon into mounting a rescue mission thousands of miles from home. And results in the loss of, allegedly, half the entire Crobuzine Navy.
What I find interesting about this whole thing is that the conflict did not need to happen. I understand why it happened, pirates never trust the authorities. And many of Armada’s Remade citizens would face brutality and renewed enslavement if New Crobuzon captured the city. Also, New Crobuzon has attacked Armada in the past when the two were on opposite sides in the Pirate Wars (which saw New Crobuzon completely annihilate the rival city state of Suroch (as mentioned in Perdido Street Station and here in The Scar). So, it is natural for Armada to distrust New Crobuzon intentions (even though the Pirate Wars occurred several centuries ago). And add to that the fact that the leaders of Armada (especially the Lovers) are highly aggressive. So a battle seems inevitable, and it creates a moment of tension that briefly threatens the completion of the Lover’s quest to the Scar.
About the battle itself, I am to a degree unsatisfied, unconvinced by it. I am not a military historian or any kind of expert, but I have a hard time seeing New Crobuzon actually losing the battle (as they do). It is clear that New Crobuzon has to lose the battle for the story to continue. But I don’t quite buy it. I can see that the cobbled together ship bombs would be effective, but that sudden introduction still does not satisfy me. And don’t even get me started on Uther Doul. Whenever he enters a battle, there is little chance of excitement because he always wins. And it gets rather boring.
But he does raise a question that struck my fancy. Was the fleet that attacked Armada really almost half their Navy? For the premiere power in Bas-Lag, the relative smallness of their fleet seems shocking. This raises more questions about New Crobuzon that I raised in my earlier series on Perdido Street Station– how powerful is New Crobuzon?
New Crobuzon is a city-state. And it seems that the city-state is the dominant political entity on Bas-Lag. When nations are mentioned, it is always uttered in terms of the core city. This may imply that all are city-states. A city-state has less resources than a larger state, but at the same time, the city-state does not have the same expenditures that a larger state would entail. So perhaps, my vision of a British comparable navy is off base.
Moving on from the battle, I want to focus more on Bellis Coldwine. Her confidence in herself, her comfort in her actions faces a devastating assault during the Crobuzine attack and the resulting events as she accepts her punishment for her unintentional treason (if you can even call her actions treasonous since she has no loyalty to Armada).
Coming so close to power in Armada, Bellis becomes “drunk” on her connections to Fennec, Doul, the project, and the Lovers. And she hopes to use those connections to foment dissent against the journey to the Scar. Her hopes are dashed as her usefulness is ended as Kruach Aum can understand Salt, Fennec’s betrayal, and Doul’s uncertain relationship.
Of course, as Bellis hopes to play Armada, she is played like a violin by Fennec and Doul. And she doesn’t even realize it until it is too late. That is Bellis’s sin though, her self importance and desire to see herself as special.
Storms bookend the fifth part of The Scar, one real and one artificial. This is where the avanc is raised and the conflicts for the rest of the novel are laid down. There are two key point of “Storms” that fascinate me: who is the antagonist and Uther Doul.
Bellis is undoubtedly the protagonist of the novel. She has the most point of view chapters and much of the action is colored through her goals and desires. With this laid out, we can ask: who is the antagonist?
Personally, I think that it is the Lovers. What is Bellis’s goal? To return home to New Crobuzon (and to save them from a Gengris invasion). While the lingering menace would be the Gengris, the immediate opposition to Bellis achieving her goals is embodied in the Lovers.
From their original presentation as a powerful, highly in love, and united duo, the Lovers degenerate into two people wishing to become one. As Bellis states, it is not love so much as masturbation. Most characters seem to see them as a great force, as strong leaders. A power seems to rest in their unity and the mirrored scars that they inflict on each other.
But for Bellis, that power has been rendered null. She does not see, either because of her own desire to return home or Uther Doul’s manipulations, or accept their charisma. I wonder if that is not Doul’s plan. Of course, I’ll get to what Doul’s plan is at the end, when everything is revealed (or maybe not).
Uther Doul is the lieutenant of the main antagonists. He is perhaps the strongest warrior in all of Bas-Lag. Indeed, he is nigh on unbeatable. On one level, he is as boring as hell. And on another, he is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the novel.
In terms of combat, he comes off as extremely boring. He can’t lose a fight. Or at least he doesn’t during the course of the novel. This unbeatable quality rather makes him boring.
But he is saved as a character by his back story and his mystery. What is he after? Does he secretly oppose the Lovers’ final plans? If he does, why not cut them down himself instead of manipulating the Brucolac and Bellis to do it more haphazardly? Is this a case of obfuscation for the sake of obfuscation?
Some of Doul’s history if revealed (and it gives us a chance to talk about his home city of High Cromlech). High Cromlech is a necropolis, a city of the walking and living dead. The city is a caste society headed by liches called thanati. A lich is a fully functional undead individual. Below them are the quick- humans still living. The quick are composed of a small number of free living who do jobs that the thanati do not wish to do and the zombies too incompetent to perform. Other quick are raised on farms where they will most likely be snuffed and transformed into zombies, or if they are lucky, adopted by the thanati as a member of high society. Below the quick are the zombies, the primary workforce of High Cromlech. At the very bottom of the ladder are the vampir, who are treated with the same disdain as homeless junkies. It is this attitude towards vampir that prevents the Brucolac from intimidating Doul. While most people shake on seeing a vampir, Doul only sees the pathetic junkie.
Doul himself comes from the free quick. His mother seems to have been a respected, important business woman. Long after Doul left the city, she had herself snuffed and transformed into a thanati. This mirrors, perhaps, retiring to the country after years in mercantile business in the Victorian period.
All of this is interesting, but it doesn’t answer the core question: what does Doul want with Bellis? It is clear that he is cultivating her for some reason that remains unclear. She is certainly attracted to him and is inscribing to him similar feelings. Personally, I think that he had little interest in her until he saw her looking at the female Lover. Something caught his eye looking at how Bellis reacted and he decided to approach her. Gauging her responses, he decided that she could be of use to him. But what remains unclear at this moment.
The implication, as stated earlier, seems to be that he opposes the Lovers’ plans, but is unwilling to directly intervene. A very “cool” character, if not one of my favorites.
We come now to the fourth part of The Scar– “Blood.” This part deals with the anophelii and the adventure to the Island of the Anophelii. And so, this post will be all about the anophelii. Why? Because they are damn cool.
In a way, the anophelii are the shadow insectoids to the khepri. While not exact, there are many similarities. Each can be described as a functionally one gender-sentient race. Khepri males are little lobster/ scarab like things that lack intelligence. And anophelii women, though capable of intelligence, are so consumed by hunger that they rarely have the time to even attempt to learn. And both khepri females and anophelii males have an ambivalence about the opposite gender, although the khepri are more disdainful than the anophelii.
Both races are, in some ways, exiles and refugees. The khepri fled their homelands to avoid a catastrophic event and now exist as scattered refugees. Meanwhile, the anophelii are limited to a single island in perpetual exile. Neither will be independent and both are ghettofied.
The anophelii’s ghetto is controlled by Kohnid on the island of Gnur Kett. The Kohnid use the anophelii males to enhance their own academic reputation. Essentially, the anophelii are imprisoned scholars and theorists. And they never get adequate recompense for their labors.
Given their enforced isolation, it is doubtful that any of them should know of, care about, or have the ability to remonstrate.
But why are the anophelii treated this way? Because the anophelii are mosquito people. And the women of the species are blood drinkers, like their insect counterparts. They lack understanding when they are driven mad by hunger, which can last for up to a year or more. And only when sated can they even hope for a brief moment of lucidity and (perhaps) horror of what they are.
The anophelii are imprisoned because, at some point in the past (a thousand years or more), the anophelii were more numerous. They inhabited a considerable tract of land in Rohagi’s warmer south. The Malarial Queendom is the name given to the anophelii empire.
From what I can tell, the Malarial Queendom did not last long. But what constitutes a long temporal endurance? Decades, a century? Given the nature of the anophelii, I do not think that the anophelii dominated Rohagi for long. Given their nature, I would guess that they are like various barbarian tribes that swoop in, conquer some lands or states, rule for a time, and then collapse quickly under attack by other groups.
It is stated that the anophelii were driven out and actively exterminated from all of Rohagi save for the isolated island from which they have no escape (until Armada comes calling). But the reign of terror lasts long after their near annihilation. And it is mentioned that they are a dying race.
This raises the question, how did the anophelii rule? Was it a plunderous terror, or did the Malarial Queens actively rule? Were they brutal or were they conscious of the wrongness of their actions? What of the men? Were they the true rulers, or did they act as scholars and politicians? It is hard to see the little men of the island, the earnest scholars, as engaging in atrocity. But times and cultures change.
Still, the anophelii are one of the greatest creations of Mieville’s highly imaginative mind.
An avanc. Or should that be a fucking avanc? The third part of The Scar is entitled “The Compass Factory.” The title refers to an event at the end of the section in which a mysterious individual (Silas) breaks in and steals a compass. But this section also deals, mainly, with Bellis’s maneuverings to escape and get a message to New Crobuzon.
“The Compass Factory” is a rather short section and is high on political intrigue. Bellis discovers more of what the Lovers intend to do, Uther Doul and the Brucolac make more sustained appearances, and Tanner and Shekel get character development.
I have debated with myself whether I want to continue my discussion of Armada’s politics or focus a bit more on Bellis.
The most interesting aspect of this section is the presence of Uther Doul. Uther Doul is clearly the most mysterious and supposedly interesting character in the whole novel. He gets more scene time later in the novel, but for the moment, he is a cypher. What is he, personally, after? Is he as loyal to the Lovers as he appears, or is the Brucolac correct in assuming, insinuating that he is as opposed to the final leg of the Lovers’ plan as the Brucolac himself?
For the moment, all we know is that Uther Doul is one hell of a fighter, a scholar, and a cypher.
The Brucolac is another interesting character. A vampir or ab-dead in a position of authority, who rules the freest and most secure riding in the city. He is as hard core as Uther Doul, but not as hard. He knows that the Lovers’ plan goes beyond just raising the avanc, the god whale.
While there are indications that there is more to the plan than just raising an avanc, it is not until after the raising that the full plan is revealed.
But that does not mean that one cannot speculate on the opposition to the raising itself. Using the avanc in much the same way as a seawyrm is bridled to a chariot ship, Armada will be able to increase its ability to move from one location to another at a remarkable rate. At the present, Armada can only go a few miles an hour, but with the avanc, that rate could increase to perhaps twenty or more. With this increase in speed comes the temptation to be ever more assertive. This new assertiveness could, potentially, lead to aggression and a confrontation with another power, like New Crobuzon. There is an encounter between the Militia and Armada later in the book, but a full scale war would most likely have a far different conclusion.
Perhaps this plays into the fact that Armada seems to be in a similar state of decline as New Crobuzon. While the Grand Easterly symbolically ended the period of New Crobuzon’s golden age, the acquisition of the ship may have signaled a similar weakening for the pirate city that the Lovers wish to restore.
But I will deal with their wider plans later.
It’s been almost a week now since my first post. As I mentioned earlier, I should finish The Scar by tomorrow. And I’ll finish my postings over the next two weeks. Baring anything interesting happening. Now, onto my post.
The second part of The Scar is devoted, by and large, to orienting the reader to the city of Armada and the hints of something bigger going on, of some conspiracy. This second aspect I will deal with in part three.
“Salt” refers to Salt, the language of the pirates and, by default, the lingua franca of Armada. I use italics when referring to the floating pirate city because that is the standard when discussing ships. And that is what Armada really is, a city ship, a city composed of pirated and pirate ships.
Mieville’s use of the name, armada, comes from what it is, an armada of ships. Now, he could have chosen any other name for a collection of ships, but Fleet, Flotilla, Squadron, etc. really does not have the same emotive power as Armada.
There are two reasons, I think why Mieville decided to work with pirates for this novel. For one thing, pirates have been, for most of human history, among the most democratic groups of people. A ship’s captain ruled only by the sufferance of the crew. If the captain lost the confidence of the crew, he was out- either demoted or killed. Compared to the harshness of organized navy life, being a pirate is a good alternative. And the second reason is that pirates are cool.
Armada, I think, challenges and interrogates the idea of pirates as democratic. Can the direct democracy of the ship be applied to a city state, like Armada? Depends where in the city one lives.
The city is divided into a number of autonomous districts called ridings. The most important and dominate is Garwater, led by the “benevolent autocrats” called the Lovers. Their rule is by the whipping post, a traditional maritime punishment. Other important ridings include Dry Fall (led by the vampir called the Brucolac), Curhouse, Clockhouse, Jhour, etc.
Bellis is an unwilling citizen/ subject of Garwater. She is assigned to work in the great library of Armada called Grand Gears Library (located in Clockhouse). For much of the first third of the section, she is highly depressed and resentful. It is here that perhaps the most emotionally powerful defense of New Crobuzon is mounted by Bellis during her dinner with Johannes. Here, Bellis reveals why she loves her city despite the fact that it is for most people a shit hole, a nightmare. And it is here where Johannes turns the tables on her and argues for Armada and the people who will find a better life with the pirates rather than with either New Crobuzon or Nova Esperium.
Despite Bellis’s recognition that she needs to know more about her city, she still desires to go home, that Armada will never be home. In this, she meets an ally in Silas Fennec, or Simon Fench. Silas is in many ways just like her, except that he is a spy who seemingly cannot abide to remain in one place too long. The two bond over their love of their city (and desire to protect it from the grindylow of the Gengris (which will come later).
In addition to Silas, Bellis interacts with Shekel, the cabin boy. Living with Tanner Sack and in love with the older Angevine, Shekel goes to Bellis in the hopes that she can help teach him how to read. This is, perhaps, the most touching and human part of the narrative. It allows Mieville to explore the beauty and mystery of reading from the perspective of one who has been illiterate for the first seventeen or eighteen years of one’s life. This humanizes Bellis and paints her in a far more sympathetic light. And Shekel continues to act as the “wonderment” perspective. The scene of Shekel in the children’s section, alone, discovering the power of words is just amazing.
And for Tanner, this section explores his speedy adaptation to the city has he commits himself to Garwater and Armada. He does this by further Remaking himself into an amphibious being. This places him into a liminal and powerful position. As well as conveniently giving him a role to play later on in the book.
The section is really all about Armada. Giving texture, substance, and experience of the pirate city. But it also has one powerful ending as Bellis discovers what the Lovers are planning to do. . .
And now we come to the second part of my Bas-Lag Reading Project. The Scar is widely praised as being the best of Mieville’s Bas-Lag books. To be honest, I didn’t like it that much the first time I read it. But when I gave it another go a year or so ago, I fell in love with it as much as I did Perdido Street Station. Like my series of posts on Perdido Street Station, I will do a post concerning each part of the novel and focusing on a few things that catch my eye.
The Scar is similar in structure to Perdido in that the strange prologue and interludes continue. However, this prologue and the interludes are different. The prologue and the first interlude seemingly have no bearing on the narrative at present (of course that changes towards the end). And Bellis narrates the second interlude as she is introduced to Armada for the first time.
The first part is entitled “Channels,” and it obviously means a channel for adventure, for movement. This first part is buildup, a channel that leads to the main narrative. The main characters are introduced and their immediate circumstances investigated.
Bellis Coldwine is not a bitch. Yes she comes off as a bitch, but she is not one. In the world of New Crobuzon, of the vaguely Victorian culture that exists there, a woman has to be harsh to succeed in life. This is pointed out as her books, the ones she wrote, are written by a “B. Coldwine.”
And it is arguable that Bellis is acting in such a manner because she is being forced to do something she does not want to do- leave New Crobuzon. For those in the know, Bellis is the ex-lover of Isaac before Lin. As a part of that circle, the Militia of New Crobuzon is actively looking at her, even if she had nothing to do with Isaac’s escapades. She loves New Crobuzon and does not wish to leave it. And she intends to return, hopefully after a year.
I personally like Bellis as a character. She has a dry wit and way of approaching things that makes her plight all the more meaningful. She is unlikeable and she herself causes most of the troubles that befall her. But that is what makes her an excellent character.
She is joined by two other character who get point of view time- the Remade Tanner Sack and the cabin boy Shekel. Tanner (and to an extent Shekel) act as a counter balance to Bellis. I can imagine that Mieville wanted another character that bared some resemblance to Isaac or a more Mievillean character. Shekel is, I think, more of a wonderment character. His youth imparts a sense of excitement and passion that is infectious.
I like all three characters. They do not sound alike and each of their motivations are different (even though Tanner and Shekel have to wait until part two to get more character development).
Another thing that fascinated me in part one is Salkrilkator, the capital city of the Cray Commonwealth. Even though the city is only explored in two chapters, the city is amazing in its too brief appearance. The Cray are human lobsters. Human torsos on lobster bodies, like a centaur. There are two parts of the city, a smallish above water quarter for humans and other air breathers, and a larger underwater city that serves the Cray (and other water breathers).
The Cray of Salkrilkator has good relations to New Crobuzon with the later city clearly being the dominant in the relationship. It is New Crobuzon who gave Salkrilkator the ability to industrialize (given that steam power does not work underwater). How weak of a position Salkrilkator has in relation to New Crobuzon is not explored, but it seems that even a merchant captain can threaten two members of the ruling elite over the loss of the Sorghum.
To be honest, I wish more had been done with Salkrilkator, but the Cray city is only a dry run for the pirate city.