The Scar – Agency and the Lack Thereof

China Mieville’s 2002 novel The Scar is a loose sequel to Perdido Street Station, set in Bas-Lag several months after the events of the previous novel. Like its predecessor, The Scar won the British Fantasy Award, and it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clark, the Philip K. Dick, and the Hugo awards.

The Plot: Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac Grimnebulin, has been forced to flee New Crozubon as all of Isaac’s friends and acquaintances begin disappearing, courtesy of the New Crozubon militia. Bellis books passage to a New Crozubon colony by working as a translator, but on the way her ship is commandeered by a New Crozubon spy and then by pirates. Bellis, the passengers and crew, and the ship are taken to Armada, a city constructed of other stolen ships and led by a pair of sinister figures called the Lovers. As this pair constructs schemes within schemes and persuades public opinion to their side, Bellis works with the New Crozubon spy to get a message back home.

I really like novels that feature “constrained cities”: cities that occupy a single (albiet large) building, cities that a hemmed in by external forces like nature, cities that occupy space ships/space stations, etc. So I found Armada completely fascinating, the details about social organization in the confined space, descriptions of living quarters carved out of what were formerly functional ship spaces, the public garden that had been built by raiding parties traveling to shore to steal dirt, and so on and so forth. What I like about these constrained cities is how often we see social structure affecting and being affected by physical structures; for example, what we think of as a family unit changes when there isn’t enough room for each group of husband, wife, and children to have their own quarters. Armada didn’t disappoint; in a city where the primary income is brought in through piracy, the residents have developed particular ways of divvying up the spoils, including those humans who are brought into residency against their will. Each riding has its own rulers and policies since the city has grown too big to be managed as a unified whole, as we see when the Lovers begin trying to do just that.

Bellis Coldwine was an interesting heroine. I found her immediately appealing because of the way she carefully considers her options in various situations: “Bellis sat still. She was not intimidated by this man, but she had  no power over him, none at all. She tried to work out what was most likely to engage his sympathy, make him acquiesce” (14-5). In the same way, she considers how others, especially the Lovers, are using language to persuade others. She is, in short, a rhetorician, weighing her available means of persuasion and analyzing the means of others throughout the novel as she navigates her way back to New Crozubon. If you read my posts about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, you know that representations of rhetors and rhetoric in fiction is one of my primary concerns, and I really consider The Scar a win for rhetoric.

I kept thinking, though, as I was reading, that this novel seemed to be less political than Perdido Street Station; while the social organization of Armada is interesting, it also seems very tied to a particular physical organization and, consequently, has few implications for “real life”. I’ve decided, though, that this novel is just as political, but in a different way; rather than being a story about people getting together to do something, this is a story about not having agency. Bellis realizes at the end of the adventure (for lack of a better word) that she had been a tool the whole time, first of one man, then another. While she did influence the events that happened, she could not do so in any kind of informed or strategic way, because she never had enough information to really know what she was doing, even when she was very good at doing it. And Bellis was very good at persuading others, manipulating some events to (what she thought was) her advantage. When Bellis realizes that she had no real agency in the events, though, she simply accepts this, since her “service” does ultimately earn her a ride back to New Crozubon (so does that count as agency? I feel so conflicted…). It is Bellis’s reaction to this revelation that made me feel a bit, well, cold toward her; I found that I had been pulled into sympathizing with Bellis more than maybe I should have because I immediately grabbed onto what I saw as our commonalities (“You’re a rhetorician?! I’m a rhetorician too! We should hang out sometime!”). Her utilitarian reaction to being a pawn, though, rankles my sense of justice even as it caters to my cynicism. At the same time, the ambiguity I feel toward her now (she can be a right bitch at moments) makes her even better as a character, and I can think of few female fantasy characters written by men who have impressed me this much.

One last thing that I would like to note is that I think in this novel we see some inklings of Embassytown in Bellis’s work as a translator. She is frequently admonished to pay no attention to what she is translating, to only let the words flow through her, but this is, of course, impossible until she begins translating the abstract scientific language of Kruach Aum. That is, the language can only flow through her if it is language she doesn’t understand in the first place — if it isn’t really language to her at all because she cannot interpret it.


Perdido Street Station – Rape, Crime, Identity, and Social Constructions

China Mieville’s 2000 novel Perdido Street Station was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula in 2002 and won several other awards, including the Arthur C. Clark Award and the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award. It also put him on the map for science fiction scholars, and since then, he’s been one of the most-often examined contemporary writers in science fiction journals.

The Plot: Isaac, a scientist studying out-of-mode theories who has a khepri artist as a lover, is approached by a garuda who has had his wings removed with an interesting commission: to make him fly again, whether by wings or some other means. In the course of his research, Isaac inadvertantly releases a brain-sucking parasite onto the city of New Crozubon, a parasite with no natural predators for thousands of miles. In the course of amending his mistake, Isaac gleans allies from several groups, including the New Crozubon criminal element, the wingless garuda, the newly sentient Construct Council, mercenaries, political activists, and a creature from another dimension. Even after Isaac and his crew manage to save the city, the oppressive regime in power and a criminal kingpin continue to hunt him as the perpetrator, and he is forced to flee the city.

I read Joan Gordon’s article “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship” before Perdido Street Station itself and, consequently, had her ideas about hybridity and social organization in my head as I was reading. It’s true that, as Gordon argues, Isaac’s plan requires many different kinds of people in order to work, but I also saw the novel as examining the many ways in which we construct difference. Much like The City and the City, we see many spaces where differences are upheld on tenuous logics, like the separation of the two khepri neighborhoods, Creekside and Kinken. The residents of Kinken, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin reflects, construct Creekside as a ghetto in order to not be living in a ghetto themselves. Likewise, there is a division between the the cactacae who live within the Glass House, supposedly keeping their traditions alive, and those who live without. But we also see several places where differences are real and not constructed, notably with the Construct Council and the Weaver (and I would like to say that I think Miéville does an excellent job of creating characters that fall outside of human ideologies, here with the Weaver and with the Arakei in Embassytown).

I’d really like to spend some time with the garuda, another place where we see real, as opposed to constructed, difference: first with Yagharek and then with the New Crozubon garuda Isaac meets in the Spatters. Before I started off my summer reading with Perdido Street Station, I did a small project on Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her philosophy that utopias in SF happen too suddenly, that humans can’t get to utopia without a great deal of hardship and resistance. Thus, the Xenogenesis Trilogy shows this resistance as well as the small steps towards a better humanity, while questioning some of the ideologies that inform our ideas of “better” (see, for instance, Zaki and Miller). I think that we see something similar with the garuda; their ideology of the individual results in something of a utopian society, but it’s a society that is completely unworkable in the space of New Crozubon, as we see with the hierarchical structure of the garuda in the Spatters, the need for someone to be in charge in order to keep the others safe. I feel like this is an important reminder of how deeply physical space affect societal construction; what seems to be the best way for the garuda to live in small tribes in the harsh desert landscape does them little good in the city where different resources are necessary for survival.

I found Kar’uchai’s meeting with Isaac deeply affecting for a number of reasons. First of all, I felt like Miéville had somehow broken our writer/reader contract by making me sympathize with a character who turned out to be a rapist. I felt like, in some ways, my choice had been stolen, my choice to reject or accept Yagharek after being given all the information. And I was upset that the closing section of the novel seem to present Yagharek as somehow redeeming himself for his crime by plucking his feathers and not being a garuda any more. At the same time, I realized that I was committing the same mistake that Isaac does, by reading the rape of Kar’uchai through my own ideological conceptions of rape. Really, murder is a much worse crime, but I wouldn’t have felt as upset by finding out that Yagharek had killed someone. More importantly, though, Kar’uchai forces Isaac (and the reader) to reconsider how our concepts of rape interpolate the “rape victim” as somehow different from victims of other crimes. She says, “I was not violated or ravaged […] I am not abused or defiled … or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was … judged […] Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims” (609-10) The one crime of choice-theft for the garuda, with its many possible manifestations, asks the reader to reflect on the underlying logic of our own criminal system and the way that system ranks the severity of crimes.

  • Gordon, Joan. “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.” Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456–76. Print.
  • Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Print.
  • Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies (1998): 336–360. Print.
  • Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystpia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17.2 (1990): 239–51. Print.

The City and the City – The Construction of National Identity

I suddenly realized that I’ve only thus far written about books by women and decided it was time to get back to the man who started this whole project, China Mieville. His The City and the City won the Hugo in 2010 and I read it in a day. Of course, this was before I started teaching and had all day to lounge in my pajamas and read books, but in any case, The City and the City is a real page-turner, perhaps owing to its detective noir facade, which I found quite appealing considering I’m on a real detective kick lately — I can’t stop watching the Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes BBC series and I’ve rekindled my love for Commander Sam Vimes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

The Plot: The novel begins with a murder of a young woman, and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crimes Unit is on the case. The identity of the victim remains a mystery until Tyador gets an anonymous phone call from Ul Quoma suggesting that the victim lived in Ul Quoma rather than Beszel. This is a problem: Ul Quoma and Beszel occupy a great deal of the same physical space, but the two are strictly divided, and travel between the two is carefully regulated. Though one can see through to Ul Quoma from Beszel, one pretends not to see; though one could easily walk from one city to the other through areas of crosshatch, one does not for fear that Breach, the organization that governs the strict division, will be invoked. In fact, Tyador views this new information as a bit of a relief; he can now turn the case over to Breach and it will be out of his hands. However, after he presents his case to government officials, new evidence comes to light indicating that the body was transported in a van from Ul Quoma to Beszel via completely legal procedures, meaning that there is no justification from invoking Breach. Instead, Tyador is sent to Ul Quoma to work with Ul Quoman Detective Inspector Qussim Dhatt. There he learns that the victim, Mahalia, was an American archaeology student working at a Canadian university dig site who happened to think that she had been contacted by Orciny, the fabled third city that exists between Beszel and Ul Quoma and is actually pulling all the strings. Mahalia had confided in two people that she had been contacted by Orciny, and Tyador tries to arrange to get both of these people out of Ul Quoma with as little government interference as possible. However, as they try to cross the border into Beszel they are attacked by a gunman on the Beszel side while still being in Ul Quoma (but this isn’t breach since he saw them down a official corridor of shared space. Tyador follows the gunman on the Ul Quoma side and shoots him committing breach and finding himself in the custody of Breach. Turns out, Breach is frantically trying to figure out if Orciny is real as well. Skipping over the part where they actually solve the murder, Tyador is denied the chance to return to his life in Beszel and instead becomes an avatar of Breach.

While the plot itself is fairly straightforward, the setting is what makes this novel so interesting. The City and the City, to me, is primarily a novel about the creation and subsequent breaking down of national identity. Most aesthetic markers in the two cities are carefully regulated: certain colors may not be used in one city or the other; clothing choices are intended to immediately mark the wearer as Besz or Ul Quoman; architecture styles are designed to create contrast between the two; a widely-growing plant in both cities is consider a natural part of the landscape in Beszel but is rooted out as a weed in Ul Quoma. And all of this is carefully maintained so that you know who to see and who to unsee as you walk down the street. Visitors to either city must be carefully trained in these markers before visiting, a process that can take several weeks. Furthermore, the languages of the cities, Besz and Illitan, are also a point of contention; Tyador comments, “Illitan bears no resemblance to to Besz. Not does it sound similar. But these distinctions are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of phonemes (if not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related — they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still” (42). This is a point that Tyador’s anonymous caller harps on, tipping him off that he is speaking to a unificationist, someone who wants to two cities to become one city. On the other side of the political spectrum are the nationalists groups who, occasionally militantly, defend the sovereignty of their respective cities.

Politics aside, it is actually Breach that ensures the separateness of the two cities, or at least the threat of Breach. Breach presents an excellent illustration of the Foucauldian panopticon: even something like seeing instead of unseeing a person in Ul Quoma can make a Besz worry about Breach. If  a Besz bus lost control and crashed in Ul Quoma, Ul Quomans would do nothing to help the passengers because of fear of Breach. What we learn as the novel progresses is that Breach is not nearly as all-knowing as people believe, but it maintains its power largely through mysteriousness — just because Breach isn’t watching all the time doesn’t mean that you know when Breach is watching.

One of the things I found most interesting about this novel is Tyador’s induction into Breach. His guardian/captor Ashil explains that avatars of Breach are all individuals who breached once: “If you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time… you can’t come back from that” (310). And as much as Tyador doesn’t want to, he sees the truth in what Ashil says and ends the novel living in the city and the city. This idea that there is a point of knowledge that you can’t return from comes up in Embassytown as well, when the Ariekei learn to use metaphor and mourn the passing of the world that they knew through Language, and I’ve been thinking about this idea in several ways. For me personally, it speaks to a certain kind of critical awareness that you can’t come back from: as a rhetorician, I can no longer imagine seeing the world as unrhetorical. In both instances, this permanent knowledge is also associated with a change in physical space: Tyador becomes an inhabitant of both cities instead of just one or the other and Spanish Dancer will travel through the immer with Avice to other worlds. These are spaces that were previously unimaginable, for Spanish Dancer because he didn’t have the language for it and for Tyador because of the careful regulated commonplaces of his split society. I’m curious to see if this theme continues in some of Mieville’s other works, and I’ll be on the lookout for it.