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Of Cities and the Fates of Heroes

August 26, 2011

So, now I’m back. And I finally found time to write again, and blog. My road trip with the ninja-girlfriend to Northern California was a greatly needed break from real life responsibilities, and possibly good fuel for imaginary life.

Guess where.

In particular, this trip got me thinking about cities. By cities, I mean sprawling metropolises as well as towns, villages and other centers of human civilization. Appropriate timing too, because it was during this trip that I finished reading an excellent book by China Mieville (accent over the first ‘e’) called Perdido Street Station.

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with China Mieville’s work (he’s fairly new to me), he’s known for his “weird fiction” novels combining magical fantasy, science fiction and horror, which collectively have been nominated for pretty much every prestigious award that they give for speculative fiction. Perdido Street Station is the first of his novels set in the world of Bas-lag, a steampunk and sorcery setting inhabitated by humans in addition to as many not-quite-human species as the author could possibly cram into it. Specifically, this book is set in the cosmopolitan city-state of New Crobuzon, where the various elements of mad science, magic, political corruption, interspecies sex, underground socialism,  and horrific things that go slurp in the night collide more often than is healthy for the local populace or the would-be heroes of the story.

This is not a book review.

The first important thing here is about how this book uses its city setting and what I can learn from it as well as real-life cities. In the book, we quickly learn that New Crobuzon is more than just a big place with lots of buildings and folks living in them. Like Los Angeles or San Francisco, it’s made up of dozens (maybe hundreds in this case) of neighborhoods, some almost entirely self-sufficient, and even the smallest has a character all its own. (There’s a convenient map near the front of the book with all the major neighborhoods and every train stop labeled.) Throughout the story, many of of these distinct town-neighborhoods are sharply contrasted with one another, owing not only to the cultural  and economic differences, but to the ecological and physiological needs of the inhabitants. A few of these neighborhoods, such as alchemically-tainted Brock Marsh and free-wheeling, anything-goes Salacus Fields, are practically characters all by themselves. But it’s all one city.

Obviously, the neighborhood barriers in real-life cities are created out of more human reasons. It makes me wonder- how separate a town is Hollywood really from the rest of LA? Is Beverly Hills really its own city? (It isn’t, but the people who live there seem to think it is.) Are racial and economic demographics all that separate Pacoima from the rest of the San Fernando Valley? In San Francisco, what’s the real difference between the Lower Haight and Upper Haight? In 2011, what really keeps Chinatown separate from it’s surrounding neighborhoods?

I don’t think I have the descriptive skill to bring an urban setting to life in the way Mieville does, but it’s something I would like to develop. In my own novel, the towns and one city mentioned aren’t really distinguished from one another in a meaningful way- yet. Due to the self-imposed time constraints when I wrote it, I mostly glossed over setting descriptions that weren’t absolutely critical to the story in favor of cutting to the character actions and interactions. Which is generally what most creative writing instructors will tell you to do.

There is always a danger of spending too much time describing a setting and not enough time telling the actual story. There’s even a few places in Perdido where I wished the author would stop telling me what’s around and tell me what’s happening. But the immersive feel he manages to create for New Crobuzon is something I wouldn’t mind being able to create for a city of my own. In my novel, the first center of civilization used for a setting, Hasnen, is an abandoned and burned out wreck by the time the protagonists enter it. Next up, there are the villages and one town that I didn’t give any real detail to. Maybe I don’t need to worry about those.

Then, there’s Westreach, the great city, the destination and the goal of my protagonists. When I started writing this thing, I envisioned having the final big scenes take place in Westreach or nearby. In my eagerness to conclude the damn thing (it was day 31 and my 50k word finish line was fast approaching), I brought things to a conclusion well before that, and Westreach got a brief mention in the epilogue, really only to remind myself and my readers that it was there.

That will have to be remedied in my revision. I think my new working title is Road to Westreach. That might even be publishable. It sounds a bit whimsical, but I think my story has enough whimsy for it to fit.

The second important thing is how the ending of Perdido Street Station disappointed me. Yes I thought the book was fantastic, it had some highly original elements, and I would totally recommend it to any fan of speculative fiction. But I was still disappointed with the ending.

I believe that in any story where your protagonists, especially your main protagonist, steps up to be a hero, you should treat them fairly as a hero. That doesn’t mean that I think they have to live happily ever after. It means that by the end, a hero’s fate befalls them. Heroes in literature are fated to either be transformed, rewarded, or to die.

There will be some spoilers following here, so if you haven’t read this book but plan to, you may just want to skip this last bit and go to my last paragraph. The thing that bothers me about Perdido‘s ending is the half-transformed and unrewarded states of three of the four still-living heroes, Isaac, Lin, Derkhan. Yagharek undergoes a forced and painful self-transformation at the very end of the story, which I found satisfying in a horrifying sort of way. Someone might argue that Yagharek was the story’s true protagonist all along, and the others were just minor players- but that someone should be bitch-slapped for ignoring the obvious. It was Isaac’s crisis engine and dealings with the Weaver that brought the story to it’s climax and moment of final suspense. It was Isaac’s foible in feeding the mysterious moth larvae that touched off the slake moth terror in the first place. He’s the fucking Hamlet of the story! And by the end, if you’re not going to kill Hamlet, and he isn’t going to live happily for at least a day after, he should not be the same person he was before the story’s climax. By the end Isaac has been partially rewarded by the proven success of his crisis engine and the vinidcation of his life’s research. But that’s mostly negated due to the fact that he’s a wanted criminal in his hometown, soon to be an exile, and the love of his life has been made permanently mentally retarded. The book ends with him, Lin and Derkhan in a tragic uncertain limbo. That is just not how you treat your hero, even a tragic one.

(On a slightly different note, I find it odd that it never occurs to Isaac that he might use his crisis engine to help Lin in some way. He previously discussed his invention’s god-like potential power. You’d think he would at least try researching a way to improve her mental situation, wouldn’t you?)

Well, for all my complaining I still recommend reading Perdido Street Station. Especially while on a road trip to a city that you don’t normally live in. I suppose the reason I let the ending bother me so much was only because I enjoyed it overall. There’s more to a story than just the end.

More regular posts from me next week (I hope). Enjoy your weekend!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2011 9:43 am

    As primarily a lover of horror, I’ll have to check out this book – I do enjoy a little science fiction from time to time. Thanks for the suggestion!

    As for the work you are doing on your novel: I’m currently working on my first as well, set in a suburb of Queens in 1985. I am having the same struggles, in fleshing out the separate personalities of Southside and Northside – similarities, differences, how the two are different yet come together at the same time. But yes, I’ve spent the majority of my time concentrating on the story and the characters within it. Once a solid plot has been established, then it’s time to go back and build on the surroundings.

    Good luck with your writing and I hope you had a great vacation!


  2. September 1, 2011 8:42 am

    I feel your doubt on cities. I’m trying to do a layout of a school campus in my novel and it’s difficult to place everything where it belongs. I would make a terrible city planner.


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