Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon Book 1) by China Miéville (read in 2015)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the story of Isaac, a thaumaturge/scientist in New Crobuzon, a city described in incredible and sprawling detail by Miéville. He lives with girlfriend Lin, who’s an artist. She creates sculptures using special materials that she chews with her mandibles behind her head. You guessed it, she’s not human. She’s kind of a combination fly/super-sexy woman. You’re not allowed to talk about her like that, but that’s the most succinct description.
There’s also Yagharek, an outcast member of a strict flying species, who commissions Issac to help him fly again—his wings having been ripped from him by the expulsion ceremony. In his investigations, Issac discovers an iridescent caterpillar that turns into one of the most evil, multi-dimensional beings known to Crobuzon. He feeds it dreamshit, a drug made from the shit of the caterpillar’s captive full-grown compatriots. This is a bad move. The creature escapes and frees its comrades.
They all begin to prey on the populace of Crobuzon, sucking souls and psyches and just basically bringing the whole mood down. The creatures were deliberately kept by the military of New Crobuzon as a military weapon that is now out of control. Isaac discovers so-called “crisis energy”, which is kind of analogous to harnessing the power of quantum foam, I guess.
There’s also an extra-dimensional spider called Weaver as well as a secretive Council that machinates throughout the city. The book was more intricate than that, but it was also about 800 pages long. Well-written but a bit over-detailed in places.
“Guilt passed visibly over his face at his one-sided conversation, but Isaac could not help himself. He was utterly in the throes of a new project. Lin felt a familiar melancholy affection for him. Melancholy at his self-sufficiency in these moments of fascination; affection for his fervour and passion.”
““The point is, Yag, that what you’ve got there is water behaving very much as it shouldn’t. Right? And that’s what you want. You want heavy stuff, this thing here, this body—” he poked Yagharek gently in the chest “—to fly. Are you with me? Let’s turn our minds to the ontological conundrum of persuading matter to break habits of aeons. We want to make elements misbehave. This isn’t a problem of advanced ornithology, it’s philosophy.”
“Lin’s broodma (who scorned a name as a decadent affectation) taught Lin and her broodsister that Insect Aspect was the lord of all creation, the all-powerful force that knew only hunger and thirst and rutting and satisfaction. He had shat out the universe after eating the void, in a mindless act of cosmic creation the purer and more brilliant for being devoid of motive or awareness. Lin and her broodsister were taught to worship Him with a terrified fervour, and to despise their self-awareness and their soft, chitinless bodies.”
“The thing drew on the stored energy it had drawn from the dreamshit and powered its transformation. It self-organized. Its mutating form bubbled and welled up into strange dimensional rifts, oozing like oily sludge over the brim of the world into other planes and back again. It folded in on itself, shaping itself out of the protean sludge of its own base matter.”
“Infinitesimal jolts of energy burst through tiny, finely engineered steamhammers. In the centre of the brain was a box crammed with rank upon rank of minuscule on-off switches that puttered up and down at great and increasing speed. Each switch was a steam-powered synapse, pushing buttons and pulling levers in intensely complicated combinations.”
“The thing unfolded. The sense was of a blossoming. An expansion after being enclosed, like a man or woman standing and spreading their arms wide after huddling foetally, but multiplied and made vast. As if the thing’s indistinct limbs could bend a thousand times, so that it unhinged like a paper sculpture, standing and spreading arms or legs or tentacles or tails that opened and opened.”
“He could not see its shape. Only its dark, glistening skin and hands that clutched like a child’s. Cold shadows. Eyes that were not eyes. Organic folds and jags and twists like rats’ tails that shuddered and twitched as if newly dead. And those finger-long shards of colourless bone that shone white and parted and dripped and that were teeth . . .”
“It was social. When it was born for the second time it was with a hunger for company. Its tongue unrolled and it tasted the gritty air for anything that was like itself. The thing shuddered. Faintly, so faintly, it could sense something in the east. It could taste frustration. Its wings trembled in empathy.”
Reminds me of venom, from the Spider-Man universe.
“There was an enormous window that looked out directly at Perdido Street Station and the Spike, and a variety of speaking tubes, calculating engines and telescopic periscopes stashed in niches around the room, in obscure and oddly threatening poses.”
“From out of shadows cast by some unseen shapes, shadows that seemed stretched-out and taut, tethered from corner to corner of the square room, something stalked into view. Into existence. It bulked suddenly where there had been nothing. It stepped out from behind some fold in space. It picked its way forward, delicate on pointed feet, vast body bobbing, lifting multiple legs high. It looked down at Rudgutter and his fellows from a head that loomed colossally above them. A spider.”
“The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry . . . each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the æther. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces. Every intention, interaction, motivation, every colour, every body, every action and reaction, every piece of physical reality and the thoughts that it engendered, every connection made, every nuanced moment of history and potentiality, every toothache and flagstone, every emotion and birth and banknote, every possible thing ever is woven into that limitless, sprawling web. It is without beginning or end. It is complex to a degree that humbles the mind. It is a work of such beauty that my soul wept.”
“I could not close down my mind. It scrambled, unbidden, to remember what it had seen. But it could not contain it. I was left only with a sense of it all. I remember it now as a description. The weight of its immensity is no longer present in my head.”
“Each successive exudation charged the air to a higher pitch of excitement. The moths bared their gravestone teeth and bleated their sexual challenge to each other.”
Here I get a strong image of Giger’s alien.
“Pengefinchess’s history is one of selfishness and plunder, yet it is made by the telling into a valedictory for dead comrades. My history of selfishness and exile resists transmutation. It cannot but be a base story of base things. I am silent.”
“Whichever, the Council don’t care about killing off humans or any others, if it’s . . . useful. It’s got no empathy, no morals,” Isaac continued, pushing hard at a resistant piece of metal. “It’s just a . . . a calculating intelligence. Cost and benefit. It’s trying to . . . maximize itself. It’ll do whatever it has to—it’ll lie to us, it’ll kill—to increase its own power.””