Wednesday, June 25, 2008

perdido street station & animal welfare

It's bad form to opine about something you haven't fully experienced yet, such as an unfinished book. But Perdido Street Station is a provocative work of fiction and I'm beginning to suspect it offers layers of analysis beneath its steampunk veneer. Written by China MiƩville, a rising star in the competitive world of fantasy/sci-fi literature, it offers up an intriguing cast of characters living in a deep, unique setting.

New Crobuzon is a steaming, dirty city, in which various humanoid species live and work amidst Victorian-era technology. Science and "magic" intertwine in complex and sometimes disturbing ways - as in the Remade: re-constructed criminals whose punishment is to have certain body parts added or altered (a woman who shakes her baby to death because of its crying has the baby's arms attached to her face). To some, the Remade are a symbol of the corruption and fascism of the ruling elite. There is a subtle current of socio-political commentary in Perdido Street Station, which never seems to detract from the continually evolving plot. Lately, I've been getting the feeling that one of the many issues Mieville is interested in exploring is animal welfare.

Without throwing too many spoilers out, the plot centers around a renegade scientist, Isaac, who takes on a difficult contract with a mysterious garuda. The garuda are basically bird-men - they have humanoid bodies, avian heads, and large wings - who live in a proud, nomadic desert society. Yagharek is an exiled garuda who has sawed off his own wings as a form of self-punishment. The reasons behind this are vague and yet to be determined. But he comes to Isaac hoping to regain the ability to fly, without which he has lived in a world devoid of meaning or joy.

As a scientist, Isaac is fascinated by the project and his first step is to study the biomechanics of flight by collecting samples. He sends out word to the New Crobuzon underworld that he's paying for any animal capable of flight, and pretty soon his entire laboratory is full of live specimens. Here's how chapter 11 begins, and while it provides a realistic description of a scientist at work, it also seems to offer a subtle critique:

"A pigeon hung cruciform on an X of darkwood on Isaac's desk. Its head bobbed frantically from side to side, but despite its terror, it could only emit a bathetic cooing. Its wings were pinned with thin nails driven through the right spaces between splayed feathers and bent hard down to pinion the wingtip. The pigeon's legs were tied to the lower quarters of the little cross. The wood beneath it was spattered with the dirty white and grey of birdshit. It spasmed and tried to shake its wings, but it was held. Isaac loomed over it brandishing a magnifying glass and a long pen. 'Stop fucking about, you vermin,' he muttered, and prodded the bird's shoulders with the tip of the pen. He gazed through his lens at the infinitesimal shoulders that passed through the tiny bones and muscles. He scribbled without looking at the paper beneath him."

Later, one of his colleagues sacrifices the bird with a twist of the neck. Is there an irony here? Death to a pigeon (or butterfly, or hawk), in pursuit of flight for a (humanoid) garuda? Does this irony pervade all of our own animal experimentation? Why is the life and well-being of a human worth more than the life and well-being of a non-human? As a scientist who works with rats, I'm sensitive to these kinds of questions. One's work can often be justified through its utilitarian value: a cure for cancer is worth the lives of many mice. But is Isaac's work, meant to help a single flightless garuda, worth the suffering and death of dozens of non-sentient animals? To his credit, Mieville never flaunts these issues in your face; he lets you discover and explore them on your own.

Here's a later scene, depicting a slaughterhouse in the slums of New Crobuzon. It is vivid and disgusting, and perhaps meant as another subtle critique:

"Again and again the massive, terrified pigs dropped from the alley in a flailing organic mess, legs folded in unnatural angles against their guts, again and again they were cut open and bled dry on ancient wooden stands. Tongues and flaps of ragged skin dangled, dripping. The channels cut into the abattoir floor burst their banks as a swamp of dirty blood lapped against buckets of giblets and bleached, boiled cows' heads."

Nothing new to those familiar with what goes on daily in American slaughterhouses, but rare to see in a work of fantasy. One begins to wonder if there is deeper meaning to these scenes, especially since New Crobuzon is depicted as a bustling, cosmopolitan city with a diseased soul. The disease is often expressed in explicit terms, and Mieville seems to derive pleasure from inducing disagreeable sensations within his reader as a means of infusing his city with life. I have been fascinated by this book since getting past the 1st chapter, and I'll be sure to let you know my final thoughts and opinions.

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