Sunday, September 26, 2004

Perdido Street Station

OK, here's my first book review.

A few weeks ago I came across an essay called 'Capitalist Monsters' by Steve Shapiro in the excellent Historical Materialism journal in which a number of fantasy/Sci-fi short-stories/novels by socialist writers were discussed in the context of Marxist theory. Amongst those mentioned was Perdido Street Station (2000, Pan Books) by China Mieville. I'm not a big fantasy or sci-fi fan (the image of Red Dwarf convention Geeks springs to mind) but the review of this book was sufficiently intriguing to make me hunt down a copy of the book. Mielville also contributed an introductory essay to this issue of Historical Materialism which I found very interesting.

Mieville is a Marxist. This, of course, informs his view of the workings of society, the nature of social relationships and the formation of individual human consciousness. Unlike most other Fantasy/Sci-Fi writers, Mieville takes great care to construct fictional societies in his story which, although fantastical in many ways, are given believable and seemingly material and concrete foundations. Mieville is critical of the tendency in most Fantasy/Sci-fi stories for authors to present, say, feudal type societies populated by warrior knights and dutiful servants without paying attention to the economic and productive basis on which these social relationships must be based. Take Tolkein, for example. Intelligent life (Humans, Elves, Orcs etc) on Middle Earth seem to be exist within medieval kinds of social structures - we are presented with Kings, Knights, Peasants etc. But it is never really shown or explained how the characters we come across are provided with the means for life. Who produces Gandalf's food? Where do the Hobbits' clothes come from? Who built the magnificent structures of Rivendell - who maintains them? Tolkein is a good example of this tendency in Fantasy fiction - the medieval social existences they present seem to be suspended in mid air. This, of course, ties in with the tendency in Fantasy literature to focus almost exclusively on noble, high-born chartacters existing somewhere in the upper levels of social hierarchy. Those few low born characters we see, such as Sam the Hobbit, are idealised peasant types - cap-doffing simpletons with good hearts. But, the armies of slaves or field-toiling peasants who must, necessarily exist to support the upper hierarchies of well born characters are never shown or alluded to. Mieville's world (New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station) however is invested with a strong sense of realism. New Crobuzon is a city of factories, industrial chimneys and pollution populated by workers, scientists, politicians and professionals. The economic 'base' of the New Crozubon 'superstructure' is brought impressively to the reader's attention. Mieville almost hits us across the face with a sense of the brutal, concrete reality of the industrialised, productive economy of his imaginary city.

In addition, Mieville is critical of what he terms the 'tendency towards moral absolutism in fantasy, the idea that orcs/trolls/whatever are bad, as a kind of racial characteristic' (Quoted from interview with Mieville on the China Mieville site). The racist implications of such a tendency are immediately apparent - but in addition to this aspect, Mieville is just as critical of moral absolutism per se. His characters are not morally unambiguous - there are no clear cut 'goodies' or 'baddies' (although it is clear that some characters are better than others). Mieville prefers to present rather more complicated characters than this - characters with motivations, and reasons for what they do other than the simple authorial assertion that they are 'good' or 'bad'.

Mieville's involvement in the Fantasy genre of literature is pretty unusual for a committed Marxist. Fantasy and Science Fiction is often regarded as 'escapist' or 'irrationalist' by those on the political Left. But Mieville is surely right to point out that 'considerations of the fantastic have long been part of certain Marxist traditions. they stretch from the Frankfurt School Marxists and Walter Benjamin on Surrealism, Kafka and disney, to Ernst Bloch on Utopia, the Trotskysant surrealists such as Breton and Pierre Naville, and the sloganeering of the Situationists attempting to turn the fantastic and dreams into class weapons' (Mieville, Historical Materialism, 2002, 10. 4). In addition Mieville points out that the fantastic should be of interest to socialists for a more important reason - to do with the Marxist analysis of social reality under capitalism. For Marxists, the 'real' under capitalism is fantastic. 'The lived reality' he points out 'of capitalism is commodity fetishism' (op. cit.). Under capitalism '[o]ur commodities control us, and our social relations are dictated by their relations and interactions' (op.cit.). Any narrow 'realism' - any supposed direct depiction of reality as it appears to us on the surface unmediated by any form of ideologically clouded subjectivity - is as ideological as reality itself. Mieville, argues, therefore, that any putatively 'realistic' novel is not necessarily more insightful or, indeed, less escapist than a fantasy story. Mieville claims that '[f]antasy is a mode that, in constructing an internally but actually impossible totality - constructed on the basis that the impossible is, for this work, true - mimics the 'absurdity of capitalist modernity.... [T] he fantastic might enable us to open up for a critical art' (op.cit.).

A very brief synopsis: an academic scientist, Isaac, is approached by a Garuda - a winged bird man type creature who has been exiled by his people and had his wings amputated for reasons the Garuda is reluctant to explain - and asked to help him fly again. Isaac's experiments with a 'crisis engine' lead the pair to think that Isaac could indeed find a way to help the Garuda fly. Isaac's experiments lead to a series of events leading to the accidental release of creatures called 'slake moths' - insect like beings kept in captivity by organised criminals who 'milk' the creatures of hallucinogenic substances they then sell illegally to drug users - who wreak havoc on New Crobuzon society. The creatures feed on the consciousness of their victims - sucking their minds dry like insects feed on pollen-nectar. Isaac and a gang of associates attempt to deal with the flying horror, before the corrupt authorities of New Crozubon can descend on them.

It's actually a lot better than my synopsis sounds.

One of the most interesting aspects of Mieville's story is his presentation of the 'slake moths'. This is the aspect of Perdido Street Station that Shapiro focuses on in his essay mentioned above. The 'slake moths' are strikingly allegorical creatures in some ways - they are, as Shapiro suggests, particulary 'capitalist monsters'. I don't mean this in any crude sense - the moths don't go around in top hats attempting to screw people out of money. They are in many ways representatives not of capitalists, or of any particular human behaviour associated with the capitalist mode of production but of capital itself in a general sense. Shapiro reminds us of Marx's famous description of capital as 'dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks'. Capital, like the slake moths, is essentially parasitic, draining its victims of the surplus value - appropriating part of the energy we might say- they create. The slake moths do not suck human labour itself of course, but live off the psychic exudations of their human prey. In a fine description, Shapiro writes that ' in their rapacity and insatiability - and indeed, in their very presence in the air over the city - the slake moths are an expression... of the self-valorising movements of capital. As psychic vampires who prey on imagination and thought, they enact the appropriation and accumulation of human mental creativity. ' (Shapiro, Historical Materialism, 2002, 10.4) . Shapiro goes on to say that '[t]hey even transform this impapable intellectual capital... into a tangible commodity' (Op.cit) - that is they produce a substance which can be sold on as a consumer drug.

Shapiro argues that the 'escaped moths' unrestrained predation is a nightmare of surplus appropration gone mad' (op.cit.). While in captivity, their appropriation of human mental creativity was controllable and regulated by the criminals who owned them (capitalists owning the means of production?) and supervised by the corrupt New Crobuzon authorities (the capitalist state providing protection for its own national capitals?) . But once released the slake moths are uncontrollable. This Shapiro argues reminds us of the ultimately uncontrollable nature of capitalist accumulation - its tendency to devour all before it and, no less importantly, its inherent instability (what would the moths do once they had exhausted the supply of human prey?).

There are other aspects of Melville's novels which can be read in a Marxist light and which Shapiro does not mention. The unreal global web of the 'Weaver' (an ethereal spider creature) could be seen to parallel the global 'web' of capitalist social relations which both ensnares and links all inhabitants of the world. The idea of 'crisis' which provides the basis for Isaac's crisis engine - a dynamic ever-changing force inherent in reality and human activity which (through Isaac's engine can be harnessed by human ingenuity) is reminiscent, perhaps, of Marxist ideas of dialectical change and the forces which drive history and human development. The 'Vodyanoi' (amphibious creature who work the docks) who go on strike against their employers and the underground revolutionary paper the 'Runagate Rampant' are much more immediately apparent references to Marxist politics.

One of the most striking passages in the novel I think comes when it is explained what the Garuda's crime was - why he was exiled from his community. It appears that the Garuda is guilty of 'choice-theft' - the only crime that the Garuda can conceive of. Choice theft is to 'take the choice of another... to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choices of another being. What is community but a means to... for all we individuals to have...our choices.' (Mieville, 2000, 847). The Garuda explains that 'we have all the choices that we can. Except when someone forgets themselves, forgets the reality of their companions, as if they were an individual alone... And steals food, and takes the choice of others to eat it, or lies about game, and takes the choice of other to hunt it; or grows angry and attacks without reason, and takes the choice of another not to be bruised or live in fear'. (op. cit). This, it seems to me is a very interesting articulation of socialist ideas about freedom. There is nothing in the socialist conception of a just society that would mean that individuality was subsumed and lost within some communal totality. Quite the opposite. For socialists real freedom and individuality is only possible once we realise that we exist within a social whole. Individuals exist within a network of social relations - indeed are constituted by them. Freedom does not exist in some turning away from others - in some right wing libertarian view of 'negative' liberty - we can only become free through our relationships with others. A libertarian survivalist living alone in a cabin in Utah is not free in any substantial sense. We are social creatures and can only express and create our own individuality in cooperation with and respect for others as real and valuable creatures. We can be free only in and through our relationships with others. This, i think, is what Mieville is trying to express through the Garuda.

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