The Uncanny in China Miéville’s “New Weird”: An Examination of Perdido Street Station and The Scar (December 2003)

In the course of this essay we shall examine the Weird Fiction of China Miéville, considering it as Uncanny literature. We will also consider the advent of the “New Weird”, specifically in how this relates to the Uncanny. Critical and theoretical works will be utilised to these ends, including Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s chapter on the Uncanny from An Introduction to Literature [1], as well as articles and interviews from various sources. We will focus upon Miéville’s two most recent novels, both set within the fictional world of Bas-Lag. These are Perdido Street Station and The Scar.

Miéville, in a recent guest introduction to the magazine The Third Alternative [2], committed his support to the “New Weird”, a term coined by M. John Harrison. This term is conceived as a response to a number of factors affecting and affected by the literature of the fantastic, including but not limited to the increasing breakdown of genre boundaries. The “New Weird” is not intended to be a new category to replace the old, but rather demarcates a time when some things are changing and new things are happening within a field of literature. Despite this, “New Weird” is characterised by certain factors: it is implicitly political – not polemical, but “[it] is literature which knows that the world, and the literature embedded in it, are politically constructed.” [3] It is “messy” because of this reflection of reality. It is cannibalistic, drawing on the diverse heritage of fantastic literature – and “in attempting to invert, subvert, culvert and convert the clichés of the fantastic, [it is] both a renunciation and a return.” Finally, it is “fiction that trusts the reader […] New Weird knows that it means something – it is engaged – it loves the aesthetic it uses to mean – it is weird – and it does not presume to tell what it means – it is not didactic.”

The questions and ideas that this changing view of contemporary fantastic fiction provokes will be considered in greater depth later in the essay. First, though, we will examine Perdido Street Station and The Scar using Bennett and Royle’s essay on the Uncanny. This essay includes a ten-point ‘checklist’ of forms that the uncanny may take in literature; whilst it takes care to point out that “‘the uncanny’ has to do with a troubling of definitions” [4] rather than being a clearly defined and distinct area of literature, this ‘checklist’ is itself an invaluable tool in considering some of the characteristics of uncanny fiction. Perdido Street Station and The Scar feature a number of these forms. First and foremost amongst the manifestations that the uncanny takes is in the idea of repetition – of a feeling, a situation, an event, or a character. This “doubling” effect is perhaps one of the few categories that Miéville’s fiction does not obviously fulfil, although arguably, in one sense, it is obsessed with it. The world of Bas-Lag is populated not only by humans, but also by a vast range of humanoid species or “xenians” [5] . These include the cactacae or cactus-men, the khepri (antlike in aspect), the garuda birdmen, the grindylow (a manifestation of ancient aquatic fears coupled with a cold, elder intellect), the anophelii or mosquito-people (a species bifurcated into two very distinct sexes), and so forth. If the idea of the double is extracted from the individual sense, then it can be applied to these concepts.

Another form is anthropomorphism, which is somewhat implicitly fulfilled, particularly in Perdido Street Station, by the pervading sense of the city of New Crobuzon as a living organism. This is also evident in The Scar with the drifting city of Armada, although to a lesser extent. Specific examples in Perdido Street Station include “Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins” [6], or “Emerging in two concentric circles from its skin were colossal girdered arms, nearly the size of the Ribs” [7] – the latter a description of a vast construction known as the Glasshouse, home to certain of the city’s populace, with the “Ribs” referred to being other artefacts within the city. In The Scar, we have such examples as a drill bit descending “to puncture the seafloor like a mosquito and feed” [8], imagery akin to anthropomorphism.

The concept of automatism is fulfilled in a variety of ways. The Construct Councili [9] – crude clockwork and steam-powered robots that share a united mind and many bodies – are uncanny in their juxtaposition of human-like characteristics with artificial bodies and often-alien thoughts and motives. The Remade – criminals who are adjusted by the sciences of metallurgy and thaumaturgy – often experience the inverse of this. They are originally human but find themselves equipped with caterpillar tracks or other forms of mechanical locomotion, often powered by boilers, and so forth. In a much more sinister vein, the antagonists of Perdido Street Station – the “slake moths” – leave their victims drained of their intellects and consciousness but physically unharmed. It is a terrifying fate to imagine, and an uncanny experience to see one’s loved ones reduced to such a state – as the anti-hero protagonist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin realises when his beloved, the khepri Lin, is left half-drained of her mind during the final struggles with the slake moths [10].

It is a form of telepathy that allows the Construct Council’s hive consciousness to communicate, and this fulfils a further category – although this ‘private telepathy’ does not violate the sense that one’s thoughts are private or concealed. However, there is also the communicatrix Umma Balsum, who uses her mind as a conduit to another’s to allow, for example, conversation between an imprisoned man and a friend, demonstrating that at least some forms of telepathy are existent. However, fears of mind-reading seem to be secondary to fears of the all-powerful Parliament that rules New Crobuzon who, if anything, are far more proficient at revealing what is private or concealed.

Death is far from uncommon in the violent and cruel places of Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but as a theme it is not dwelled upon, so arguably this is not really considered in the novels. However, in an interview with Andrew M. Butler, Miéville does make his position clear: “…as soon as the mystery of death is taken away, then the loss is totally lessened. Even if characters are revealed to be in a terrible hell, that is still a consolation, because the terrible mystery, the loss, is gone” [11]. Death, then, if not a theme, is still respected with the same sense of mystery and the unknowable that its essential uncanniness is derived from.

The sense of odd coincidences or fated events is not considered – Miéville as a writer is more concerned with the events that are brought about by the actions of people than with the preordained, thus precluding that sort of potential strangeness. Manipulation is a major theme of The Scar, in particular. Several other of Bennett and Royle’s ‘types’ of uncanniness are similarly not considered in either novel.

Of course, this ‘checklist’ is not all-inclusive. There are many elements of Miéville’s fiction that is tremendously uncanny that could not possibly have been included in such a list. For example, the character Silas Fennec in The Scar is in possession of a grindylow artefact that permits him to somehow bend space – or himself into spaces – the finest example in The Scar is where he uses it to evade guards and infiltrate a top secret factory:

“He was not invisible. Nor did he pass into another plane. Instead he moved to the wall and watched its texture, looked at its scale anew, saw the dust-motes close up so that they filled his view, then he slithered behind them, hidden away, and the patrol passed by without noticing him.” [12]

Then there are creatures such as the Weaver in Perdido Street Station, the most alien of the denizens of New Crobuzon – a spider-like creature that only partially exists in the known dimensions of reality, and which subsists on appreciation of aesthetic beauty – using its strange abilities to enhance and guide events towards the most attractive patterns [13] – an unknowable strangeness that is uncanny precisely because it does, if only so slightly, impinge upon what we know and how we think. This effect is enhanced by occasional recognisable moments – at one point in the novel the Weaver clasps its pair of human-like hands together in a recognisable gesture of delight [14]. This sort of alien identity, which is unlikely to be found in literature outside of the genre of the fantastic, could not have been predicted by Bennett and Royle’s checklist! Perhaps the same could be said of the daemons of Hell, who make a brief appearance in Perdido Street Station, as the New Crobuzon Parliament make a plea for assistance in dealing with the slake moths. The daemons refuse, and it comes to light that perhaps the denizens and masters of Hell are not so far divorced in thought and aspect from ourselves – they too are vulnerable to the predations of the slake moths, and they too are vulnerable [Note – this is a typo, but I can’t recall what I originally meant. Sorry!]. The dealings with the daemon ambassador – business-like and clinical (particularly the reference to “units of merchandise” [15]) – provoke an uncanny feeling in and of themselves, but the revelation that in mind the Hellish are not so far from the living is far more disturbing. Then, too, there are the other strangenesses of the novels – the avanc, a mountain-sized otherworldly swimmer, that forms such a major part of the plot of The Scar; the fabled Fractured Land [16] and the Scar itself – rents in the fabric of reality through which chaotic “Torque” energy leaks (this is perhaps the source of the xenian species and the thaumaturgical sciences). There are the interlinked sciences of “crisis energy” and “possibility mining”, considered in Perdido Street Station and The Scar respectively, which are essentially manifestations in this one reality of other possibilities or options. The point is that all of these strangenesses, woven in with elements of what we know, understand and recognise, form part of an indivisible whole – a new world which is at once inviting and alienating; appealing and disturbing. In this way, Perdido Street Station and The Scar are fundamentally novels of the uncanny; exhibiting not merely uncanny characteristics, but being defined by the juxtapositions that produce the effect of the Uncanny itself.

Returning to the concept of the “New Weird”, this developing area of fantastic literature can be related to ideas discussed in Bennett and Royle’s essay – specifically, to quote, “with how the ‘literary’ and the ‘real’ can seem to merge into one another” [17] when considering the uncanny. As Bennett and Royle observe, uncanniness could be considered to be when ‘real’ life takes on a ‘literary’ quality or, on the other hand, the ‘literary’ is the type of writing that most consistently invokes and engages with feelings of uncanniness. The “New Weird”, as earlier discussed, is a reflection of an inherently political (and social, and cultural, and personal) reality, but one which is intertwined with fantastic elements. Here is a most overt juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic; the uncanniness of Miéville’s New Weird fiction can thus be considered to derive from either the elements of the fantastic that infiltrate the real, or from the way that the alien contains so many disturbingly familiar elements that we recognise as real. Furthermore, to again quote Bennett and Royle:

“The uncanny, then, is an experience-even though this may have to do with the unthinkable or unimaginable. It is not a theme which a writer uses or which a text possesses. The uncanny is not something simply present like an object in a painting. It is, rather, an effect. In this respect it has to do with how we read or interpret […] In other words, the uncanny has to do, most of all, with effects of reading, with the experience of the reader. The uncanny is not so much in the text we are reading: rather, it is like a foreign body within ourselves.” [18]

Again this can be tied to the concept of the New Weird that Miéville describes – a fiction that implicitly trusts its reader. In it, the Weird aesthetic and its non-didactic meaning combine to form a self-reflexive text that looks to the reader to draw from it our own conclusions and sensations.

We must then consider the fiction of Miéville to be fundamentally uncanny, for what does this New Weird do but “[make] the familiar strange, [and challenge] our beliefs and assumptions about the world and about the nature of ‘reality'” [19]? Indeed, the “Torque” energy that, as previously mentioned, represents the source of much of Bas-Lag’s weirdness could even be considered as a grand metaphor for the mutability of the ‘real’, which is something “constructed through human perception, language, beliefs and assumptions” [20]. Whilst this sort of metaphorical approach is unlikely to represent the origin of the Weird aesthetic, it is an additional method by which fantastic fiction may be considered. The uncanniness of Perdido Street Station and The Scar, however, rests upon foundations more solid than the mutable world they portray.

Bibliography

  • China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (Pan Books 2000)
  • China Miéville, The Scar (Pan Books 2002)
  • China Miéville, ‘Long Live the New Weird’, in The Third Alternative #35 (Summer 2003)
  • Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle, ‘The Uncanny’, in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (London: Prentice Hall 1999)
  • ‘Beyond Consolation’: Andrew M. Butler interviews China Miéville, in Vector: The Critical Journal of the BSFA #223 (May / June 2002)

“The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a claxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water.

How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveller?

It is too late to flee.”

Perdido Street Station

Further Resources

  • Official Pan website: http://www.chinamieville.co.uk
  • Runagate Rampant unofficial website: http://runagate-rampant.netfirms.com/
  • Sivet’s China Miéville Page: http://home.triad.rr.com/tsmrr/china/
  • China Miéville Site: http://home-1.worldonline.nl/~wjtimmer/mieville/mainpage.htm
  • TTA Press (publishers of The Third Alternative) website: http://www.ttapress.com/
  • BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) website: http://www.bsfa.co.uk/

Footnotes

  1. See bibliography for further details on all texts.
  2. Issue #35, see bibliography.
  3. This quote and all those following in this paragraph are drawn from Miéville’s introduction in TTA #35 (see bibliography).
  4. P.36, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory.
  5. This term occurs throughout Miéville’s Bas-Lag books.
  6. P.2, Perdido Street Station.
  7. P. 622, Perdido Street Station.
  8. P.464, The Scar.
  9. In Perdido Street Station.
  10. P.816-817, and P.827-829, Perdido Street Station.
  11. P.5, Vector: The Critical Journal of the BSFA #223.
  12. P. 336, The Scar.
  13. The Weaver is introduced in Chapter 28, starting p.398.
  14. P.482, Perdido Street Station. The Weaver is pleased because it has been given a pair of scissors; for some unknown reason, these appeal to its sense of aesthetics.
  15. P.344, Perdido Street Station.
  16. The “Fractured Land” is also known as the “Broken Country” or “Ghosthead Country”, the latter after the ethereal and otherworldly “Ghosthead Empire” that is an important if obfuscate part of Bas-Lag’s fictional history. See P.481 of The Scar for a little more information on the “Ghosthead”.
  17. P.37, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory.
  18. P.43, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory, original italics.
  19. P.37, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory.
  20. P.37, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory.

Comments are closed.