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Rereading Perdido Street Station: Mieville and the Boundaries of Steampunk

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I confess that I spend relatively little time trying to define steampunk.   While I was drawn to the genre though my interest in Victorian literature and culture and in how people were using steampunk to play with and interrogate the ideas and boundaries of the period, its technology, and its ideologies,  I find myself in agreement with a more open conception of the genre.   While one still occasionally comes across statements implying that setting a steampunk story in the American West of the period is a radical departure from the norm, that seems par for the course to me:  I remember watching syndicated reruns of the proto-steampunk television series The Wild, Wild West as a child.   Moving away from Eurocentric settings, multicultural steampunk is a vital and important part of the genre, valuable for its critique of imperialism and other problematic aspects of the time period, and filled with rich storytelling possibilities.   Dieselpunk and other forms of retrofuturism clearly belong in the Big Tent with steampunk, and when elements of fantasy and horror are incorporated alongside the historical and science fictional aspects, my only question is how they fit into the story and whether they’re done effectively.

Nonetheless, when I sat down to reread China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station for discussion with a local steampunk reading group, I found myself wondering: it’s art, but is it steampunk?[i] I was delighted to be rereading the book, which I had loved on my first encounter with it some years back.   But, despite the John Clute quote on the back of my copy, claiming it as “the best steampunk novel since Gibson and Sterling’s” [their monumental The Difference Engine], and despite my keen appreciation of the book as a vast Dickensian social problem novel, it hadn’t shouted “steampunk” at me.

The book claims a place on many steampunk reading lists, certainly has a Victorian-inflected aesthetic, and engages with social issues that echo Victorian reality.   But it takes place on another planet, one with a rich variety of nonhuman races.  Miéville has been publicly identified with the New Weird, not with steampunk.  I’ve never heard him mentioned as a prospective guest for a steampunk convention, though he’s someone whose readings  I’ve attended on a number of occasions.   And, considering he’s not shy about political critiques, I wonder if he might be disturbed by the perceived uncritical embrace of Victorian imperialism in steampunk.[ii] Taking all this into consideration, I find myself wondering why, or why not, Perdido Street Station might be considered steampunk.

Adopting Mike Perschon’s definition of steampunk-as-aesthetic[iii], the novel fits very well.   Miéville’s wonderfully envisioned city of New Crobuzon, and Bas-Lag, the world it is a part of, is very much not our own earth or our own history, of course.  But the city itself, which many readers have commented on as being perhaps the book’s real hero, has a feel which echoes Victorian London.  The various neighborhoods, especially the slums, have a vivid feel, often decaying and squalid, but filled with the persistence and determination of the inhabitants who make of them a home.  From the opening scene, where a basket is let down into a marketplace square, and the food retrieved by two of the characters who will become major viewpoint characters, the city is real, and lively, and compromised, and vital.   Whether Yagharek’s approach to the Glasshouse, inhabited by the core of the city’s cactacae population, or Lin’s travel through Spit Market into the khephri districts, or Derkhan’s visit to the editor of the underground newspaper, Runagate Rampant, among the abattoirs of Dog Fenn, we see again and again the lives and the existences, both marginal and mainstream, of a city comparable in every way to Dickens’s London.

But not only is there a parallel to Victorian London in its vital, overcrowded urban context, haphazard in design and in growth.  This is a port city, a city filled with factories and warehouses.  References to technology are rich in both steam power and thaumaturgy; the rivers of New Crobuzon are polluted sometimes with post-Industrial Revolution toxic sludge, and sometimes with equally dangerous magical overruns.  Transportation is by elevated rail, by airship, or by horse-drawn cab . . . or rather, by Remade-drawn cab, as the cruel technology of altering humans and animals alike into cyborgs, for functionality and for punishment, means that a passenger in New Crobuzon may find herself in a taxi drawn by a horse with steam-powered mechanical limbs, or a restructured ox, or even a human/animal/machine hybrid.  Pubs are filled with artists and writers, or working class drinkers, or the tragic and the destitute.  The government looks down from its towers in the heart of the city.  This is neither our world, nor the nineteenth century, but it is a city which contains many echoes of that London.

Finally, and perhaps most important, what makes this novel steampunk are the social issues with which it engages.   Steampunk is not necessarily political, but there is no reason why it cannot be.  And one of the political functions it can productively engage in is to critique the society that gave rise to its ascetic.   The Victorian social problem novel, such as Dickens’s Bleak House and Hard Times or Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South , is inherently a mode of the period, and certainly represents one possibility for steampunk; it’s a challenge that Miéville easily meets.   The range of political issues in the novel echoes the reality of nineteenth-century Britain quite strongly:  laborers’ strikes, ruthless military actions against working class unrest, press censorship, voting inequities, and a government that seems only to support the upper classes (and possibly only to support itself).  Karl Marx, of course, was writing and working in nineteenth century London, and his doctrines were shaped by the reality of workers’ lives in that time and place;  Miéville has serious Marxist credibility, having written his dissertation at the London School of Economics on Marxism and international law.

Perdido Street Station gives us one model of what steampunk can be.   Fans of airship pirates need not fear that I’m attempting to redraw the boundaries in order to exclude them; far from it.  But if steampunk is to grow as a genre, it must include novels of purpose, of politics, of ideas.   This novel does that.  Before you walk away, you might want to know that it also includes an interdimensional giant spider, and dream-moths that can suck your brain; it has adventure and romance and long monster chases.  It has those things, but it also has ideas[iv], and it’s not afraid to consider them.


[i] Thanks to the fabulous Katherine Moseley for making it, and for the NY Steampunk meetup group for a great discussion!

[ii] I hope it is needless to say that the steampunk community is aware of these associations, and through various forums including Steampunk Magazine, blogs like Beyond Victoriana and Silver Goggles, and efforts by various writers, musicians (the self-parodic rapper Professor Elemental, with his pith helmet and explorer’s gear, for one), artists, makers, and other steampunks, at least some portion of the community has been addressing them.

[iv] As do I, but for fear of this post becoming too long, I am saving them for another day.  I want to further consider gender and politics in the novel, among other things.

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Written by Catherine Siemann

March 4, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Posted in steampunk

8 Responses

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  1. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that in my personal reading, I have a tendency to just read and enjoy (or stop reading if I’m not enjoying), without thinking deeply about anything bigger or more complex. You make me regret that. Also, I wish the one semi-local book club I joined for a while weren’t so set on reading Book Club Books (on a par with Oprah Books imo, and that is most emphatically not a compliment), because I would love to be able to read and discuss someone like Mieville with like minds. Ah well. Such is life in the suburbs. It’s all Three Cups of Tea and The Elegance of the Hedgehog. *sigh*

    Leslie Wainger

    March 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    • So, I’m at a library computer and I’m not sure how to reply as myself, but anyway, this me.

      On the other hand, you’ve pointed out technical stuff (in a certain steampunk/paranormal series that I enjoy) that I skated right past. So there’s a kind of detailed reading that you are just amazing at. One of the reasons I started this blog was to make a bridge between my academic work and my pleasure reading — to give myself a space to take look at things that weren’t getting the full-scale journal article treatment . . .

      I thought The Elegance of the Hedgehog was overrated, but I’ve heard good things about Three Cups of Tea? I don’t think I’ll ever get around to it, though.

      catherine

      March 9, 2011 at 11:18 pm

  2. Liking Miéville is pretty much why I would say that I like steampunk, so it is curious to me that people would question whether or not his work is such.
    Of course, scenes are always changing and evolving, and perhaps it has moved onto something rather different.
    I’m also rather curious as to where these fabled uncritical embracers of imperialism are, as I’ve never happened to encounter one. I see steampunk, like cyberpunk, and plain old punk-punk, as being socially subversive and critical at its very core. Regarding that, however, I find it more effective to identify oneself by what one IS rather than what one is not – something I feel Miéville does with aplomb. Although his books are highly political, his social criticism comes through without feeling polemical (well, maybe with the exception of Iron Council – but still.)
    “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces.”

    Althea

    March 9, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    • *laughs* I just answered another comment; I’m at a library computer, and apparently I’m going to have to approve my own response when I get home, because I don’t know how to go on as me from a public place.

      Some of our mutual friends have blogged about this perception at more length (links not here with me in the library); I think it’s based largely on the cosplay aspect of steampunk — people dressing up as explorers with pith helmets and wearing military uniforms that seem to be endorsing British Victorian imperialism. It’s one of those things that outside observers — academics and people who write genre fic but not steampunk — keep saying over and over again. And then we keep saying “er, no, not really, that’s not really what it’s about” over and over again.

      I honestly wasn’t thinking “steampunk” when I first read these books; I suppose the New Weird designation seemed to cover it. So it was interesting to reread it within the context of the reading group. But I so wish there was more steampunk along these lines.

      catherine

      March 9, 2011 at 11:26 pm

  3. I admit I hadn’t thought of _Perdido Street Station_ as steampunk until our steampunk reading group discussed it, either; though in retrospect the more-important-to-me elements of… well… political punk in a setting that works much *like* Victorian London, are all quite consciously foregrounded. In my heart of hearts, I tend to unfairly think of “airship adventure, and it’s fun!” stories with no implied politics to speak of as not really being steampunk proper at all, though I’m aware that that’s simply a factually inaccurate prejudice on my part.

    That’s why I’ve sometimes tended to think of capital-S Steampunk as, essentially, cyberpunk that avoids growing outdated by pre-anachronizing itself. Adventures With Cyberspace Cowboys, like Adventures With Airship Captains, are plenty fun; but I think the core of the original Mirrorshades writers’ work (as opposed to, say, _Cyberpunk 2020_–though on second thought, it’s there too, if you look for it) was satire of hypercapitalism. And I’d argue that steampunk, when it’s not simply sprinkling fluffy Victoriana over standard adventure/fantasy plots, does *exactly the same thing*. (It sure does in the fairly seminal Bastable books by Moorcock–_A Warlord of the Air_ and so forth–though I’d caveat that those novels tip too far in the other direction, pretty much taking it for granted that of *course* Marx was right, how could any smart non-indoctrinated person think otherwise?)

    Basically, all the elements of PSS that are reminiscent of funhouse-Victoriana are there for important reasons of plot–and, I think, for extraliterary (?) political reasons on Mieville’s part.

    FredH

    March 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    • I agree. I think William Gibson in particular writes well about how technology interacts with people and society. He’s very witty, very satirical, and very accurate. It’s not just adventure with mirrorshades stuck on or a circuitboard glued in. He’s critical, but at the same time, he is ‘writing about’ rather than ‘railing against,’ which often makes for a better story, IMHO!

      Althea

      April 1, 2011 at 3:43 pm

  4. Thanks for checking in, Fred — this is exactly the type of conversation I’m hoping to see more of on this site.

    You know, even when I’m reading steampunk that centers around the adventurous (Cherie Priest’s books, for example), it’s the embedded social commentary that makes them work for me, combined with engaging plots/characters/worldbuilding; I’ve read very little of the airship captain adventures sort of book, to the point where I sometimes wonder if the stereotypical steampunk narrative of which we hear so often isn’t actually mythical. (I’ve heard it in Abney Park songs, but have I actually read it?)

    With your comparisons to cyberpunk (and I confess I mostly read that years ago, when it was new and fresh), I think you’re making the “punk in steampunk” argument, and that’s something I’m wholeheartedly in agreement with. I confess that, although I have a copy of The Warlord of the Air, it’s in my massive TBR pile; I tend to be wary of vintage sf because I’ve got that litsnob side to me, but I know Moorcock is highly influential in sf generally. I really need to explore steampunk’s 20th century origins in more depth — I did not love Homunculus, but I should look more at what happened between Wells and The Difference Engine.

    Catherine Siemann

    April 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    • Moorcock is a peculiar author in that he can write in a literary fashion, but he does not always choose to.
      For example, I think that his “Gloriana” is an ambitious and rather impressive work of literature – unfortunately, personally, I didn’t like it at all (it’s dedicated to Mervyn Peake, whom I don’t like either; if you like Gormenghast you will probably like it.) It’s chock-full of historical and literary references, too.
      On the other hand, his Elric (&etc) novels are pulp fiction, and incredibly poorly written. But I still love them. Go figure.
      I haven’t yet read Warlord of the Air, perhaps I should!

      Althea

      April 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm


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