The fractious, baroque cityscape of China Miéville’s New Crobuzon as portrayed in Perdido Street Station, transition points, the so-called “hybrid zone” (37) so lovingly rhapsodized by the sinister but fascinating Mr. Motley. One such liminal space – perhaps, in fact, the most ontologically disorienting transition in the entire novel – can be found in a scene set in Perdido Street Station itself (the ultimate symbol of transition and conglomeration), in which the Mayor, before supplicating himself before the Weaver, approaches the ambassador of Hell in an attempt to regain control over the Slake Moth problem. The confrontation takes place in a small, spare room whose “dimensionality is… a damn touch unstable” (241), in which Bas-Lag bleeds into Miéville’s version of Hell – a major threshold. Though I’ve never been inclined towards biographical criticism China Miéville’s vocal socialist political preferences make a Marxist reading of the text very tempting, especially in this scene. Considering the dim view Marxism takes towards religion, Hell becomes an immediately problematic concept, even in a fantasy world, but Miéville’s use of Hell redefines it from a fundamentally Christian place of punishment for sinners into a materialist parallel reality that stands as the ultimate source of suffering (some might say “evil”) from a Marxist perspective.
The ambassador’s appearance alone positions it (not “him”) very clearing on the capitalist side of the socialism/capitalism binary operating throughout Perdido Street Station. “A heavy man in an immaculate black suit,” (ibid.) the ambassador embodies the quintessence of late capitalism, made manifest as the powerful, fleshy businessman, grimly affable but still intimidating atop his secular throne; he resembles the allegorical evil angel in some medieval psychomachia updated for the modern audience. As the passage progresses, however, it becomes evident that this avatar – and the ambassador’s “pleasant, low voice” (ibid.) – are illusions, projections cast upon a rawer, less savoury truth. The glimpses we catch of the ambassador’s truer form and the “echo” that was actually spoken first (245) suggest that capitalism’s true face is not that of the powerful businessman but something infinitely more primordial, bestial, and dangerous. The image of the ambassador “inside of a slatted cage; iron bars moving like snakes” (242) indicates the limiting, fettering nature of capitalist consumerism, enslaving the consumer wile presenting the illusion of choice, the illusion of free will. Behind it is the ambassador itself, “a monstrous form… a hyena’s head staring… tongue lolling. Breasts with gnashing teeth. Hooves and claws” (ibid.). This malformed and animalistic thing symbolizes the thanatotic hunger, the insatiable appetite, latent behind the façade of enlightened self-interest Miéville sees capitalism as proffering. Ultimately, of course, this creature is not happy with its predicament, never sated: it speaks in screams (ibid.). It should also be noted that Hell is apparently ruled by a Czar (ibid.), a more direct indication of the dæmon’s, and Miéville’s, politics. The Hellkin’s self-professed liberalism (244) functions similarly.
Later, in the same chapter, we get the Mayor’s commentary on the ambassador’s psyche, in contrast with the Weaver’s. While such bizarre protocols as the inverted word-game the ambassador forces the Mayor to participate in might imply an essentially alien mindset, Rudgutter suggests that: “I’m wondering if we were wrong in thinking of them having a different psychic model. Maybe they’re comprehensible. Maybe they think like us” (246). Later, in chapter twenty-eight, the Mayor reflects that “the Hellkin were appalling and awesome, monstrous powers for which Rudgutter had the most profound respect. And yet… he understood them. Tortured and torturing, calculating and capricious. Shrewd. Comprehensible. They were political” (286-87). The Mayor’s ruminations tell us as much about his own psychology as the dæmon’s. If we equate the ambassador with capitalist ideology then this passage can be read as a Marxist critique. It suggests that capitalism operates, essentially, on a sadistic basis: on the level of predator versus prey, the hunter and the hunted, depending on pain and fear and idiot hunger – a monster with a hyena’s head.
Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. New York: Random House, 2000.