Monday, January 17, 2011

Frankenstein To Rome By Way Of Perdido Street Station

This one's late. Here's why: I'm not doing these with a buffer. It's my fault and no one else's. In response to and because of the fact that I'm going to be away from the Internet for the weekend, this is the first of the three pieces that will be up tonight. Call it the China Mieville Triptych. I have another two books by Mieville with me, so I don't see his influence becoming less pronounced on me, but also, because the other book I read, Jim Butcher's Storm Front, (the first book of the Dresden Files series) also has magic and a cynical outlook and was sooooooooo much quicker to read. That doesn't necessarily mean it was better. Anyway. This one is a comparison to Frankenstein, which I have chosen for my next A Theory Of book. What will be Wednesday's will be whatever Mieville I remember, on its own. And what will be Friday's is Perdido Street Station compared to the first Dresden Files book.

The other reason why is because my flights to Rome ended up arriving...eight hours late, I just went to bed Monday night and didn't have internet access until today, Thursday.

Which means I need to stitch this thing together, using whatever I've been reading and whatever I remember from Frankenstein. As you might have guessed from the title, I've been working my way through China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, a book about a lot of things, but also about a far too curious scientist meddling with things he shouldn't. In Frankenstein, it's, well, the scientist named Frankenstein, shooting life into a waiting creature he curated and created, using miles of blood vessels, discarded brains, body parts and whatever else he could find. In Perdido, it's an absent minded sorceror called Issac, living in a cosmopolitain shithole called New Crobuzon feeding a curious recreational drug to a caterpillar that blossoms into a soot-black terrifying creature of the night, which exists in multiple dimensions, can cut through armor like a knife through a receipt, flies adroitly and drinks the dreams and knowledge matter of its prey (anything, including apparently, a very Hell, who'se ambassador refused overtures to help the city.). Issac didn't know that going in. He just kept the caterpillar around because it didn't eat normal food and he pitied it.

Perdido and Kraken have a number of similar plot elements (along with The City & The City.) There's a skunky/manipulative head of an academic department who seems haughty and ends up being evil and behind one of the growing threats. There's a failed strike against a overclass (not present in City, IIRC). Authorities are at best, well-intentioned and ineffective (well-intentioned in City and Kraken, evil in Perdido and ineffective against the growing threat in all three) at worst, careless, responsible for the threat and ineffective (the trifecta is in Perdido.) There's also a cobbled together resistance which is startlingly effective against the threat (Kraken, Perdido).

In all these though, the cobbled together bits work the best. Apparently, trained militia can't hit the snake moths any of the time, but our heroes, only a couple of which have any kind of history with pistols can, 2/10 times. Oh shit, there's also a member of the underclass, ignored and underestimated by their masters, who rise in ways that save our heroes' ass. (Kraken, Perdido, maybe City) Honestly, when I read the Scar next, I am putting money on the idea that there's going to be a rising underclass member, an evil academic, and negligent, myopic authorities.

That said, Dr. Frankenstein could be a villain in a Mieville book: He brings life to something he created and then treats it like a thing without autonomy. He's also evil, but in a way that doesn't see himself way, or at least bad. Frankenstein feels a lot, lot denser. The type is smaller and is spaced even more shorter than Perdido, but I think the expectation of Frankenstein weighs on me.

There's another bit about Frankenstein that Mieville doesn't have. (Mieville's also not one of the celebrated authors of all time. That's a thing.) Frankenstein, or at least the first forty-nine pages of it I've read is immensely quotable.

“I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime.” Gives you an idea of the guy's state of mind as well as the fact that he might in the back of his mind, thinking about what he's doing is wrong.

“I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling.” This might be Mary Shelley in a self-deprecating moment. I can see her writing that with a sly smile.

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never allow a passion or transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge ought to be an exception this rule.” That last one was on page 44, just before Chapter Five of Volume One and just before Frankenstein flips the switch on his now famous monster. That, kids, is how you do foreshadowing.

Song is called The Disarming Smile, by the World/Inferno Friendship Society. It's from their new record, which is a lot...jauntier than I would have expected. (Except for the track about a friend's suicide.) Think of what the band would be whistling as they're walking away from a crime sporting a shitfaced grin and that's about it. Not exactly new territory for the band, but less agitated. It's clear: the band knows something you don't.

Think more Hothouse Flowers and less Brother of the Mayor of Bridgewater and you're about there.

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