Monday, 18 July 2011

World-Building Review #1: China Miéville's Bas-Lag: A Genretastic Mélange

Hallo, all!

I wrote a previous draft of this article including a nice, didactic summary of the plot of Miéville's first Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, and a sort of introduction of the world for readers not familiar with the work, and then I realized the utter pointlessness of this. Bas-Lag is far too complex and fantastical a place to summarize in any meaningful way, and I'd just be wasting mine own and the time of any potential readers by attempting to do so. Instead, I am hereby announcing that in order to gain anything from this review, it is required for the reader to already be familiar with the content of Perdido Street Station, and arguably also the latter two Bas-Lag novels, The Scar and Iron Council. The focus will be on the impressions of Bas-Lag gleaned through the first book, however, so really that ought to be sufficient prep. Furthermore, I don't think this piece will include too many spoilers of book two and three, but I can't guarantee that, so proceed with caution!

Right! Let us dive into the lion's den...then!

The main thing that interests me about Miéville's world of Bas-Lag is its thematic structure. Sure, it includes a vast plethora of interesting fantastic races, lands, magics, psuedosciences, religions and so on, but I am actually far more intriguing by its more overarching structure. More specifically, since it is very much a work of genre fiction (a term I employ with not so much as a hint of pejorative intent), I have been musing on its generic (that is, meaning, "of or pertaining to genres") status. Of course, Miéville is a notoriously troublesome author to classify, even within a single work (not to mention the whole of his oeuvre, which is too sprawling for words). Bas-Lag, and its initial representation in Perdido Street Station, is no exception. The book is ten years old by now, and it's been about five since I read it. I did not re-read the piece before writing this review, but I am confident that Miéville's extremely original imagination has seared itself onto my memory consummately enough for me to dare to wax authoritative on it anyhow. Here is what I came up with:

Bas-Lag, and the stories set therein, need a new term. The world has variously been classified as fantasy, steampunk, horror, science fiction, "New Weird" and so on. Yet none of these rubrics, even the latter, quite fit the bill in my humble view. Or rather, they all do, but they simultaneously miss the point. Of course, Miéville's style has been used as a defining example of the nascent New Weird genre, and still I think a deeper analysis is required than simply slapping on a new label.

Jeff VanderMeer, in the anthology by the same name, summarized New Weird thus: "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy."

Well, I hear you snicker in that disagreeable tone you use, isn't that just China to a tee? a sense, yes, but it is lacking. Of course, this is clearly the reason why when labelling him reviewers and critics and fans have felt compelled to add the multi-genre caveat. It isn't just New Weird, but also a bit of the traditional genres (fantasy, horror, science fiction, steampunk, etc.) thrown in there, sans the "subversion" that VanDermeer emphasized in his definition. Now, this fact is nowhere clearer when one focuses solely on the world-building aspect of the Bas-Lag stories.

What sort of a world is Bas-Lag? It is certainly a secondary world. It exists in a universe that doesn't run on anything even remotely resembling our familiar laws of physics, not to mention chemistry, biology or even mathematics and metaphysics. We don't even know if Bas-Lag is a planet in the accepted sense. It could be flat like Pratchett's Discworld. As of Iron Council, this mystery has not yet been solved. It has a sun, yes, but what appears to be a glowing disc in the sky from the surface of a world doesn't necessarily have to correspond with the giant balls of superheated gas that're what the word 'sun' signifies in our reality. It has three natural satellites, "the moon and her daughters", but again these are never clarified overtly as being anything like what we imagine moons to be. In fact, suggestions are made throughout the novels set in Bas-Lag that this might very well not at all be the case.

As far as flora and fauna is concerned, it is uncertain whether the life Bas-Lag possesses can even be classified as such. Among the, and I use the world cautiously, biological life forms present, some are clearly too absurd and fantastical to be considered the product of anything resembling Darwinian evolution as we understand it. We have red-skinned humanoids with gigantic beetles instead of heads, we have rock lobster-centaurs, trans-dimensional spiders with human hands, and then of course the Re-Made, criminals changed using magic (or "thaumaturgy", to use Miéville's emic term) so that their flesh is warped to somehow poetically match their crime by way of punishment. For example, a woman who murdered her child has the child's arms, still animated, attached so that they grow out of the sides of her face. Clearly, this is by no stretch of the imagination a scientific world. It is fantastic in the extreme, and it runs on nothing less than magic.

But where am I going with this? It sounds half-way like an accusation. Of course Bas-Lag runs on magic. New Weird is still a sort of subgenre of fantasy, and thus this is only to be expected. Ah, but there is more! Despite this fact, the wondrous fantasticism of Bas-Lag, it also very much has a scientific side. The crazy, chaotic magic Miéville writes about is, at least to some extent, systematized. It is codified into "thaumaturgy" and taught at university alongside more mundane academic subjects. The creation of magical golems is a science in its own right, and side by side with the taming of water elementals by Vodyanoi dock workers to aid them in their strike against unfair work conditions, there also exist robotic "constructs" which seem to be nothing more strange (speaking relatively here) than machines powered by highly complex punch-cards and steam engines. In fact, Miéville's whole treatment of Bas-Lag is very much science fiction. Like Pratchett before him, and very much in the vein of New Weird, he takes the fantastical fact of magic and asks himself: "What would it be like to actually live in a world that runs on magic?" Obviously, all of our real-world conceptions of magic stem from the fact than on Earth, in our universe, magic is pure fiction. It doesn't exist, or if it does it is only in the form of hallucinations, deception, sleight of hand and clever tricks employing nothing that violates established scientific theories about how the world works. In a world where magic was real, it is fitting that there isn't even a word for it as such. It is just another area of knowledge, not qualitatively distinct from things such as mathematics or the construction of semi-sentient machines.

Still, though, this all sounds rather nicely subversive and very much in line with New Weird. Of course, it is, and it is very clever and nice and stimulating to read about. In a world where mainstream fantasy still plods on in the same old groove, with Harry Potter still flinging magical spells whose underlying rules and regulations remain at best a half-mystery (they have a system and structure, but no real sense of being even susceptible to scientific inquiry), Miéville's perspective seems oddly fresh despite having a decade under its belt.

Bas-Lag is not a fantasy world. It is certainly not a science fiction world, because all its science is either pseudoscience or a systematization of magic. It is not a horror world, despite the fact that creatures like the Weaver and the slake moths are terrifying and Lovecraftian even to Bas-Lag's inhabitants. Despite their ineffability, these creatures are never classified as supernatural, in any way, because on Bas-Lag the term doesn't signify an existent (even purely mentally) category of things. The nature of Bas-Lag is something far stranger than any of these things. Steampunk, though I love the genre dearly and especially what Miéville does with its tropes and aesthetics, doesn't even enter into the equation. The steampunk effect, as is so often the case with this quasi-genre (more on that in future posts), is merely a by-product of the interaction of the more fundamental generic concepts involved in the world-building (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi and horror). The truth of the matter is that New Weird would actually be a pretty good name for what Miéville writes, except the genre does have a relatively established definition by now, and that definition is more or less the one stated by VanderMeer.

Miéville's world is a world where almost everything is possible. He never ceases to surprise one with what phenomena or creatures are possible in his world. Some, like the towering, impossibly long-legged Striders that have faces that look like African tribal masks and walk across the plains, seem to be creations of pure absurdism rather than fitting neatly into either fantasy or sci-fi racial- or species-classification. The ancient, long-dead civilization of the Ghosthead, whose level of technology had transcended that of physics and was powered by pure metaphysics and mathematics, seems to represent something so wholly alien that it really seems futile to attempt to describe it even as a subversion or deconstruction of fantasy or any other genre-related themes. Yet, for all this palpable strangeness, Bas-Lag is never truly weird, not in the sense of Lovecraft and his compatriots. Because Miéville's fiction is secondary-world, and because it is narrated from a very in-world (albeit third person) perspective, the weirdness drains out of it. It is strange, yes, but it's an oddly wholesome and comfortable sort of strange, even when it's bloody or terrible or outright disgusting. It's a bit like Carol's Wonderland; one is forced to take it on its own terms. One becomes wholly enmeshed in the strangeness, and when the bird-like garuda use the racial slur "anthro" to denigrate a human character in Perdido Street Station, this is inventive and fun and feels very appropriate in a sort of strange way, and yet it is this very appropriateness that also signifies the lack of true weird. Bas-Lag contains no anchors of normality, nothing to compare the strangeness to. Even the humans are so enmeshed in and acclimated to the dense atmosphere of utterly unchained whimsy, madness and pure imagination that the reader finds it easier to get sucked into their (very realistic and understandable) complacency in the face of all this. Even the baffling psyche of the Weavers, creatures who relate to the physical world of mortals only through a very tenuous sort of metaphysical translation that has a very low signal-to-noise ratio, are not that much more shocking to a Bas-Lag human than perhaps a tsunami or giant earthquake might be to a Terrestrial one.

In closing, Bas-Lag is not a New Weird world. The stories have the slant, certainly, but the label can only be truly applied if qualified with the addition of the other genres, and even then it comes up short. Miéville's sort of absurdist anthropological fiction really deserves a new word, something that captures the way its strangeness suffuses everything to the point of coming out the other side as suddenly not very strange at all. In fact, after about half a book one almost feels more interested in the very real-world political themes than the next queer, fascinating monster (yes, I use "queer" as if though I was born in 19th century). "New Strange" might work, if only because Bas-Lag is far more alien than it is truly disturbing or in any way disquieting. Or perhaps "New Allegory", although that seems too bland for such an imaginative and creative author. I daresay this task would be best left to someone else, perhaps working in PR, and I feel at any rate that I have now rambled far too long.

I leave you,


Charlie O. Johansson

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