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Authors: China Mieville

Perdido Street Station

BOOK: Perdido Street Station
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Perdido Street Station

China Mieville

"I even gave up,
for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the
lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying,
that losing contact with the city like that."

—Philip
K. Dick,
We Can Build You

Prologue

Veldt to scrub to
fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the
earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the
river’s edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark.

We rock. We pitch in
a deep current.

Behind me the man
tugs uneasily at his rudder and the barge corrects. Light lurches as
the lantern swings. The man is afraid of me. I lean out from the prow
of the small vessel across the darkly moving water.

Over the engines
oily rumble and the caresses of the river small sounds, house sounds,
are building. Timbers whisper and the wind strokes thatch, walls
settle and floors shift to fill space; the tens of houses have become
hundreds, thousands; they spread backwards from the banks and shed
light from all across the plain.

They surround me.
They are growing. They are taller and fatter and noisier, their roofs
are slate, their walls are strong brick.

The river twists and
turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the
landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills,
like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am
compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into
existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a
stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even
now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the
city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the
calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as
huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding
veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic
things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town,
culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new
landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten
volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift
cargoes from the water.

How could we not see
this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the
sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveller?

It is too late to
flee.

**

The man murmurs to
me, tells me where we are. I do not turn to him.

This is Raven’s
Gate, this brutalized warren around us. The rotting buildings lean
against each other, exhausted. The river smears slime on its brick
banks, city walls risen from the depths to hold the water at bay.
There is a vile stink here.

(I wonder how this
looks from above, no chance for the city to hide then, if you came at
it on the wind you would see it from miles and miles away like a
dirty smear, like a slab of carrion thronging with maggots, I should
not think like this but I cannot stop now, I could ride the updrafts
that the chimneys vent, sail high over the proud towers and shit on
the earthbound, ride the chaos, alight where I choose, I must not
think like this, I must not do this now, I must stop, not now, not
this, not yet.)

Here there are
houses which dribble pale mucus, an organic daubing that smears base
façades and oozes from top windows. Extra storeys are rendered
in the cold white muck which fills gaps between houses and dead-end
alleys. The landscape is defaced with ripples as if wax has melted
and set suddenly across the rooftops. Some other intelligence has
made these human streets their own.

Wires are stretched
tight across the river and the eaves, held fast by milky aggregates
of phlegm. They hum like bass strings. Something scuttles overhead.
The bargeman hawks foully into the water.

His gob dissipates.
The mass of spittle-mortar above us ebbs. Narrow streets emerge.

A train whistles as
it crosses the river before us on raised tracks. I look to it, to the
south and the east, seeing the line of little lights rush away and be
swallowed by this nightland, this behemoth that eats its citizens. We
will pass the factories soon. Cranes rear from the gloom like spindly
birds; here and there they move to keep the skeleton crews, the
midnight crews, in their work. Chains swing deadweight like useless
limbs, snapping into zombie motion where cogs engage and flywheels
turn.

Fat predatory
shadows prowl the sky.

There is a boom, a
reverberation, as if the city has a hollow core. The black barge
putters through a mass of its fellows weighed down with coke and wood
and iron and steel and glass. The water here reflects the stars
through a stinking rainbow of impurities, effluents and chymical
slop, making it sluggish and unsettling.

(Oh, to rise above
this to not smell this filth this dirt this dung to not enter the
city through this latrine but I must stop, I must, I cannot go on, I
must.)

The engine slows. I
turn and watch the man behind me, who averts his eyes and steers,
affecting to look through me. He is taking us in to dock, there
behind the warehouse so engorged its contents spill out beyond the
buttresses in a labyrinth of huge boxes. He picks his way between
other craft. There are roofs emerging from the river. A line of
sunken houses, built on the wrong side of the wall, pressed up
against the bank in the water, their bituminous black bricks
dripping. Disturbances beneath us. The river boils with eddies from
below. Dead fish and frogs that have given up the fight to breathe in
this rotting stew of detritus swirl frantic between the flat side of
the barge and the concrete shore, trapped in choppy turmoil. The gap
is closed. My captain leaps ashore and ties up. His relief is
draining to see. He is wittering gruffly in triumph and ushering me
quickly ashore and away and I alight, as slowly as if onto coals,
picking my way through the rubbish and the broken glass.

He is happy with the
stones I have given him. I am in Smog Bend, he tells me, and I make
myself look away as he points my direction so he will not know I am
lost, that I am new in the city, that I am afraid of these dark and
threatening edifices of which I cannot kick free, that I am nauseous
with claustrophobia and foreboding.

A little to the
south two great pillars rise from the river. The gates to the Old
City, once grandiose, now psoriatic and ruined. The carved histories
that wound about those obelisks have been effaced by time and acid,
and only roughcast spiral threads like those of old screws remain.
Behind them, a low bridge (Drud Crossing, he says). I ignore the
man’s eager explanations and walk away through this
lime-bleached zone, past yawning doors that promise the comfort of
true dark and an escape from the river stench. The bargeman is just a
tiny voice now and it is a small pleasure to know I will never see
him again.

It is not cold. A
city light is promising itself in the east.

**

I will follow the
trainlines. I will stalk in their shadow as they pass by over the
houses and towers and barracks and offices and prisons of the city, I
will track them from the arches that anchor them to the earth. I must
find my way in.

My cloak (heavy
cloth unfamiliar and painful on my skin) tugs at me and I can feel
the weight of my purse. That is what protects me here; that and the
illusion I have fostered, the source of my sorrow and my shame, the
anguish that has brought me to this great wen, this dusty city
dreamed up in bone and brick, a conspiracy of industry and violence,
steeped in history and battened-down power, this badland beyond my
ken.

New Crobuzon.

Part One : Commissions
Chapter One

A window burst open
high above the market. A basket flew from it and arced towards the
oblivious crowd. It spasmed in mid-air, then spun and continued
earthwards at a slower, uneven pace. Dancing precariously as it
descended, its wire-mesh caught and skittered on the building’s
rough hide. It scrabbled at the wall, sending paint and concrete dust
plummeting before it.

The sun shone through
uneven cloud-cover with a bright grey light. Below the basket the
stalls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But
today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of
dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these
streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot
oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.

The food stalls
stretched the noisy length of Shadrach Street. Books and manuscripts
and pictures filled up Selchit Pass, an avenue of desultory banyans
and crumbling concrete a little way to the east. There were
earthenware products spilling down the road to Barrackham in the
south; engine parts to the west; toys down one side street; clothes
between two more; and countless other goods filling all the alleys.
The rows of merchandise converged crookedly on Aspic Hole like spokes
on a broken wheel.

In the Hole itself all
distinctions broke down. In the shadow of old walls and unsafe towers
were a pile of gears, a ramshackle table of broken crockery and crude
clay ornaments, a case of mouldering textbooks. Antiques, sex,
flea-powder. Between the stalls stomped hissing constructs. Beggars
argued in the bowels of deserted buildings. Members of strange races
bought peculiar things.

Aspic Bazaar, a blaring
mess of goods, grease and tallymen. Mercantile law ruled:
let the
buyer beware.

The costermonger below
the descending basket looked up into flat sunlight and a shower of
brick particles. He wiped his eye. He plucked the frayed thing from
the air above his head, pulling at the cord which bore it until it
went slack in his hand. Inside the basket was a brass shekel and a
note in careful, ornamented italics. The food-vendor scratched his
nose as he scanned the paper. He rummaged in the piles of produce
before him, placed eggs and fruit and root vegetables into the
container, checking against the list. He stopped and read one item
again, then smiled lasciviously and cut a slice of pork. When he was
done he put the shekel in his pocket and felt for change, hesitating
as he calculated his delivery cost, eventually depositing four
stivers in with the food.

He wiped his hands
against his trousers and thought for a minute, then scribbled
something on the list with a stub of charcoal and tossed it after the
coins.

He tugged three times
at the rope and the basket began a bobbing journey into the air. It
rose above the lower roofs of surrounding buildings, buoyed upwards
by noise. It startled the roosting jackdaws in the deserted storey
and inscribed the wall with another scrawled trail among many, before
it disappeared again into the window from which it had emerged.

**

Isaac Dan der
Grimnebulin had just realized that he was dreaming. He had been
aghast to find himself employed once again at the university,
parading in front of a huge blackboard covered in vague
representations of levers and forces and stress. Introductory
Material Science. Isaac had been staring anxiously at the class when
that unctuous bastard Vermishank had looked in.

"I can’t
teach this class," whispered Isaac loudly. "The market’s
too loud." He gestured at the window.

"It’s all
right." Vermishank was soothing and loathsome. "It’s
time for breakfast," he said. "That’ll take your mind
off the noise." And hearing that absurdity Isaac shed sleep with
immense relief. The raucous profanity of the bazaar and the smell of
cooking came with him into the day.

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