Author Archives: Jonathan Newell

A Deconstruction of Miéville’s Dæmon

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.

Works Cited

Miéville, China.  Perdido Street Station.  New York: Random House, 2000.


Theseus. The catacombs were labyrinthine, like twisted entrails. In its descent the decryptionist lost its bearings, all reference to an exterior reality. And yet this was more than a free-fall down the rabbit hole. The eerie maze into which the creature delved obliterated distinctions between aboveground and below. The red string that would guide it through the corridors led not to an exit but to the heart-chamber of the complex: an ambiguous center at best. A library, an archive, its walls carved with niches, each bearing a scroll. The decryptionist felt a vague sense of transgression, a voyeur in the minotaur’s den. It unrolled each vellum text, caressed the ciphered words. Its task could begin.

Biomechanoid. Newel stirred cream and honey into his coffee and brought up the discordant array of windows on the dusty LCD screen of the aging computer. The Atrocity Exhbition attempts to vivisect its cultural moment by dissecting the past or memory of a surreal and quasi-speculative future,’ Newell wrote. ‘Its structure resembles both a disjointed cityscape or unfathomable machine and a fragmented human body, a fleshscape, as confused and dismembered as a mutilated anatomical textbook whose spine has decayed and whose pages have been shuffled like a pack of sallow and near-pornographic tarot cards – the Pudenda, the Abdomen, the Ulcerous Lip, the Radiation-Seared Thorax. And yet, as it collapses real and imaginary into the single undifferentiated phantasmagoria that is the Baudrillardian hyperreal, the text fuses these two parallel metaphors into a machine-flesh hybrid, an erotic cyborg, as fetishized and grotesquely appealing as a Giger Biomechanoid – thus the prevalence of the billboard-labyrinth, the malformed sculpture gardens, and above all the car-crash. The world of The Atrocity Exhibition is not a straightforward escape as in a dream narrative but a psychosis in which real and unreal/imaginative are rendered miscible and indeed indistinguishable. To quote, Andrzej Gasiorek’s Deviant Logics, “…this fragmentation of the prosaic world, which blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality, creates a liminal space in which memories begin to stir” (63). The breakdown of distinctions between organic and inorganic mirrors the more fundamental deconstruction of the Real at the heart of the text.’

The Nectar of Exegesis. Clippings from the text hung from clothes-pegs like developing photographs in some proto-cyberpunk pornographer’s darkroom. Others were plastered against the walls of the tomb-like subterrane, overlapping with pages culled from medical dictionaries and coffee table books of surrealist painters, with esoteric critical texts. The decryptionist flitted about the secular sepulcher, hovering at some particular constellation of words and images, a quizzical clockwork hummingbird. Early on it had decided that the cipher, the ambrosial nectar of deconstruction, would never be extracted through a linear reading. It inhaled the heady perfume of its efforts with detached pleasure.

Moulting. ‘By depicting its atrocities as endlessly repeated, the text transmutes their raw horror or shock value – their affective capabilities – into a kind of numbed and detached nausea.’ Newell flickered between screens, a morass of information. He sipped at his third cup of coffee. ‘This is intrinsically connected to the breakdown between real and imagined. The Atrocity Exhibition is commenting on the capacity for the media to not only desensitize its consumers to depictions of violence but to transform our entire relationship to representation itself, to “mimetization.” Authenticity becomes not so much disputable as unimportant through the lens of the text, just as the difference between dream-world and real-world collapses for the reader as the protagonist’s psychosis (“simulation”) develops. As we explore the catacombs of the text we gradually come to inhabit this disaffected space, becoming ourselves mechanistic, shedding layers of shock and perturbation and metamorphosing into something both more and less than human.’


Troglodytic Knot-Tying. The Atrocity Exhibition’s peculiar algebra could only be understood through a more complete subsumption into its baroquely chaotic quasi-narrative; yet even complete immersion inevitably failed to distill the book into a wholly comprehensible form. Variables in its intricate formulae remained unsolved and numinous. The decryptionist gnawed at fraying strands of meaning in the muted barrow-light, tying together knots of texture and imagery and then watching its configurations unravel.


This is my critical response – a pastiche/homage of the book, hopefully with some critical engagement.  Matthew, if this isn’t what you’d envisioned, let me know and I’ll write up something else, and this can just be an example of my pretentious pseudo-creative writing.


Works Cited


Ballard, J.G. The Atrocity Exhibition. Great Britain: Flamingo, 1993.


Gasiorek, Andrzej. “Deviant Logics.” Contemporary British Novelists: J.G. Ballard, 58-80.,+JG+Ballard&ei=TL2DSeDyOIPIlQST4vXuBQ#PPP1,M1, Feb. 7.