The Bas-Lag Trilogy by China Miéville
China Miéville is a fairly contentious figure in fantasy fandom. Whilst held in incredibly high esteem by some readers, and is certainly one of those rare fantasy authors to have achieved relative critical acclaim as well, he is regularly assayed with accusations of arrogance and seeking to show off his own cleverness in his works rather than simply telling a good story. His supporters counter that he conjures some of the most interesting and bizarre environs in fantasy, as well as the creation of some of the most delightful cultures and creatures ever to grace the genre, whilst writing in an utterly graceful and elegant style somewhat at odds with the relatively utilitarian writing of a large amount of the genre. My take lies somewhere in the middle, but I certainly lean towards the admirers rather than the dissenters.
The series is really only a trilogy in the sense that there are three of them and they take place in the same setting; I only noticed one character appearing in multiple books, with even references to previous books being utterly sparse and only really done so when the plot absolutely requires it. Miéville isn’t interested in fan-service, and whilst at times it can be frustrating as we yearn to find out what happened to the characters we grew to love in previous books, it does mean that each book stands very well on its own. Luckily, the setting itself is one of the best I’ve ever read.
One of the recurring problems with fantasy worlds is that they just don’t feel…well, real. I know that seems an odd point, ‘it’s fantasy, it’s not meant to be real’, but an utter lack of believability in worlds built by the authors can be lead to these books feeling somewhat weightless, existing only for a dramatic event. It’s difficult to imagine life in Middle Earth or Narnia outside of wars and crisis, the existence of the average resident of these lands. The most compelling fantasy worlds are those which the reader can imagine the lives of the average member of the population, one not involved in the world shaking events and conflicts which shape the narrative, whose lives go on after the story finish and who lived full existences before the story began. George R. R. Martin is a notable author who has succeeded in doing this, in the Song of Ice and Fire series, but he does so by crafting a world relatively grounded, with the fantastical elements emerging gradually over the course of the series and an ability to make even mundane details about life in Westeros interesting. There is absolutely nothing grounded about Miéville’s Bas-Lag; sentient cactus people mix with women with the heads of scarabs, clockwork robots carry out tasks for the organic populace, demons and trans-dimensional beings abound in a world filled with bizarre and fascinating locales. Yet Miéville manages to conjure a setting which feels fundamentally real; it is not difficult to imagine the life of a dockworker in the huge port city of New Crobuzon, or of a librarian in the floating pirate city of Armada, or of a track layer for the perpetually moving independent train city of the Iron Council. It is in this, I believe, that Miéville’s true triumph lies.
I’m going to look at each novel individually, as unlike the Mistborn books which I reviewed a few weeks ago, each is very much its story, with different strengths and flaws.
Perdido Street Station
Although not his first novel (1998’s King Rat for anyone who cares), it was this novel which propelled Miéville into his position as one of the most respected writers of the genre. Set in the sprawling city of New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station tells the story of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a rogue scientist who has been cast out of mainstream academia and now pursues his research in a simple warehouse. A man named Yagharek, a member of the avian race known as the garuda, comes to him with a request; to restore to him wings which had been sawn from him for some obscure crime. In Isaac’s pursuit of a method to give flight back to Yagharek, he accidently lets loose the terrifying creatures known as slake-moths over New Crobuzon, with Isaac and a motley crew of hangers on spending the rest of the novel trying to take down these foul beasts. The novel is rife with subplots, and thankfully all are interesting and complement the main story well, in particular the story of Isaac’s lover Lin, a scarab headed woman of the race known as khepri, who is tasked with creating a sculpture of the hideous gang leader Mr. Motley. The novel is very long, it has been argued too much so, that the plot is too slow paced and that not enough happens to justify its extreme length, but ‘plot’ is not the greatest concern of the novel. Instead Miéville conjures a living and breathing city upon the page; I have not seen a single fictional city described in such detail since Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, and that was over the course of almost forty Discworld books. Is the incidental detail that, in the east of the city, a market has been built up in the ribs of a gargantuan flying creature necessary for the plot? What about that the descriptions of the bohemian Salacus Fields, a hotbed of anti-government activism and artistic expression? The answer is no, but that’s just fine. Traditionally novels serve the plot as the ruler of its structure and composition, but for Miéville it is the city itself, New Crobuzon, which underpins everything. A Ulysses style novel of simply walking the streets of New Crobuzon would be a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read, and the interesting plot and likeable characters who live in the city are simply a wonderful bonus.
Miéville has a real flair for language, and an ability to conjure some simply awesome images and scenes. However, his critics are not entirely wrong when they accuse him of self indulgence in his writing. Occasionally he shall break down his standard chapter structure for a short passage in the first person present, and you just know that it’s fancy and artistic because he puts it in italics. Luckily these literary self indulgences are (at this point in Miéville’s career) few and far between, and it is easy to simply roll one’s eyes and move on. Perhaps this cerebral showing off becomes worse in later books, but in Perdido Street Station at leastit’s fairly manageable.
Miéville is admirable in his avoidance of clichéd protagonists. Isaac, an overweight scientist is surrounded by those who seem like those more suited to the role of hero; the passionate revolutionary Derkhan, or a trio of badass mercenaries who join the struggle against the slake-moths. Instead, we have the flawed, yet very human protagonist of Isaac to bring us through the story. Lin, the insect headed khepri’s desire to reconcile with her upbringing in a racial ghetto creates interesting conflicts between a self loathing for her xenian nature and a desire for humanity, but it is really the city itself that is the protagonist of Perdido Street Station.
Perdido Street Station deserves its status as a modern classic, yet here I differ from the majority of my opinion in that the best was yet to come, at that the finest work in the Bas-Lag trilogy is The Scar.
Miéville had an easy path in front of him when it came to penning a follow up to Perdido Street Station; he had the vivid and fascinating setting of New Crobuzon already crafted, rife for further works set within this utterly fertile setting. As seems often to be the case with Miéville, he avoids taking the obvious path and instead sets the novel entirely outside of New Crobuzon, although the city does cast a long shadow over the novel, with a number of the main characters originating from New Crobuzon and its militia forces featuring in some truly epic action scenes. The protagonist of The Scar is Bellis Coldwine, an ex-girlfriend of Perdido Street Station’s Isaac who is forced to flee her native city of New Crobuzon due to events indirectly set into motion in the previous novel. Whilst setting sail across the ocean to a New Crobuzon colony, her ship is accosted by pirates and the crew are bought to a floating city named Armada. Bellis is horrified by her predicament, but many around her are grateful; her ship had carried prisoners bound for slave labour in the colony. A common punishment in new Crobuzon is to be ‘Remade’, to have the body altered with either organic or mechanical parts to either facilitate work or as an ironic reference to their crime. These Remade are treated as free equals in Armada, and so embrace their new home. Ruled by a motley collection of leaders and factions, one pair seem dominant; The Lovers, a couple covered in scars gained through their sexual obsession with ritual suffering. The Lovers seek to summon an avanc, a vast sea creature, to tow Armada, allowing it greater speed so that it may strike targets and escape notice with greater ease. Where Perdido Street Station was a fairly restrained novel, all taking place within the confines of New Crobuzon, The Scar is a globetrotting adventure around the seas of Bas-Lag, whilst retaining Armada as an interesting central location to which the narrative always returns. This approach works well following Perdido Street Station, allowing Miéville to show off just how weird and wonderful Bas-Lag is. Where the plot of Perdido Street Station is, not so much lacking, as secondary, The Scar features a wonderful story, filled with incident and intrigue. Like his previous novel, many accusations have been levelled that The Scar is simply too long and verbose, but I again feel that this is justified by the constantly fascinating details and complexities about this world revealed in his writing.
Miéville’s penchant for strange, somewhat pretentious sections in italics, returns in this novel, but unlike the other two here it feels natural and unforced. Several sections take place from the point of view of terrifying creatures known as grindyloes, and the sudden shift in writing style serves well in highlighting how alien these creatures are, unable to be reasoned with as one would a human, with an utterly xenian consciousness.
The protagonist of The Scar, Bellis Coldwine is atypical of the standard fantasy protagonist in that she is a woman over the age of thirty, and not a badass warrior heroine. Instead we get that oh so rare figure, particularly in fantasy, the well rounded and interesting female character. Many Miéville fans dislike Bellis, viewing her as a cold ice queen, but frankly I think that this says more about a repressed sexism of these critics than it does about Miéville’s characterisation. In a male figure these traits would be viewed as that of an aloof badass, yet in a woman it makes her a bitch. Bellis is supported by some truly interesting characters, such as the manipulative spy Silas Fennec and the ancient vampire known as ‘The Brucolac.’ My favourite is the philosophical thug for hire Uther Doul, a chilling figure who nonetheless invites reader sympathy and interest.
The Scar is the strongest novel in the trilogy, marrying Miéville’s talent for world building with some great characters and a truly compelling story. If any of the trilogy is a must-read, it’s this one. Can Miéville keep up this momentum into the final novel of the trilogy? The answer shall soon follow.
No. No he can’t. Not quite.
Iron Council returns the action to New Crobuzon and its surrounding environs. Taking place twenty years after Perdido Street Station and The Scar, it’s really great to see what the city I fell in love with has been up to. The already oppressive New Crobuzon militia have come out from hiding as a sort of Soviet style police state, and have become a military force propping up and overtly totalitarian regime. Iron Council follows three narrative strands, with only one taking place in New Crobuzon. The Crobuzoner government have been engaged with a war with the mysterious city of Tesh, with the truth of the horror overseas beginning to slip past the official propaganda. Ori is a young revolutionary affiliated with the left-wing (and illegal) publication The Runagate Rampant, who becoming sick of the perceived inaction of his peers, joins a violent revolutionary gang under a gangster known as Toro who are hell bent of assassinating the mayor of New Crobuzon. The second tells of another young man named Cutter, pursuing his lover, a man named Judah, across half a continent, eventually finding the Iron Council. The Council is a perpetual train which was hijacked from an expansion effort across the land after the employers failed to pay their workers. The Iron Council is a socialist paradise, with no currency or significant internal strife, managing to evake the forces of the militia who are obsessed with recapturing the wayward train. On this train, Remade, those whose bodies have been horrifically altered by the Crobuzoner justice system, non-humans and normal workers live equally and without singular leadership. The third arc is an extended flashback from the point of view of Judah about the formation of the Iron Council.
There have been many criticisms that Miéville’s left wing politics are too prevalent in this novel, and that it sacrifices telling a good story to instead further his socialist agenda. It is true that this book is seriously left wing, with a huge focus on topics such as trade unionism, a clear parallel between New Crobuzon’s disastrous war with Tesh and the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the homosexuality and bisexuality of many of the main characters. However, I fail to see the problem with this. Most fantasy is rather apolitical, focusing on questions of philosophy rather than engaging with the political questions of the day. It’s rather refreshing to read a novel in the genre wearing it’s political flag so proudly on its sleeve. The problems with the novel are therefore, rather than down to plot, structural in nature. A huge flashback in the middle of the novel completely disrupts the narrative flow, and the constant jarring back and forth between protagonists makes it difficult to really engage with any of them, which is a shame because they’re all rather interesting with hints of unplundered depths, particularly Judah Low, torn between his desire to strike at New Crobuzon and his wish to defend Iron Council.
The world building isn’t quite up to the standard of the first two novels either, with the environs surrounding Iron Council seeming much more nebulous and unbelievable than his first two novels, stripping this one of that wonderful ‘lived-in’ quality that those novels had. I can imagine life in New Crobuzon, I can imagine life in Armada, but not really in Iron Council.
Although this may seem awfully negative, I must make it clear that this is a very good book. Miéville plays with some really interesting ideas, and his passion for his left-wing ideals shine through the whole novel. However, it simply isn’t up to the quality of Perdido Street Station and The Scar; it’s a structural mess, and feels somewhat rushed. If you have read the first two and have fallen in love with Bas-Lag like I did however, there’s still a lot to love in this book.
Miéville has created one of the most interesting and original settings in modern fantasy, one which is simply begging for further exploration. These are novels I can recommend even to those with no time for fantasy, in its utter abandonment of typical fantasy tropes. They are a lot of fun, and play around with some pretty interesting ideas whilst we’re at it. Miéville is one the smartest writers in the business, and one worth giving your attention.