Putting the Punk in Steampunk
I was not born into, or around, the punk generation.
The music my parents fed me with was quintessential sixties-folk, psychedelic stories of love, equality, justice and peace. The music I gravitated to in my teens was a glamorous rebellion, not a real one – it extolled the virtues of independence in the name of pleasure, and the spiked black leather made to threaten the establishment had become a fetishized sex toy wielded by stiletto-heeled women and men made up like women. I knew the Sex Pistols, eventually; but knew them through that same pheromone haze – No Future meant no rules, and no rules meant it was time for a party.
But this post isn’t really about music. It’s about a book.
I’ve been sick, which is when I traditionally get a lot of reading done. China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is seven hundred pages long, and starting it when I came down with the chills seemed like an excellent idea. I loved it until the ending.
It’s a steampunk novel that takes its punk side seriously.
The way I understand it, serious punk sees No Future as, well, no future. There’s nothing to look forward to in life – realism writ large and angry, waving a black flag against an empty sky.
At a given level, I get that. I understand it, especially given the political situation of the seventies and the desperation that still clings to the environments in which punk was born – unemployment, police brutality, a surfeit of casual violence.
But in entertainment, I didn’t think I quite understood it. These days I can see no future by turning on the evening news. Nihilism doesn’t take you away, it takes you apart, and by the end of Perdido Street Station I was in pieces. I was honestly angry that I’d invested as much time as I had to be denied the catharsis of heroism rewarded, to be reminded that good often – hell, generally – does not win and that crime tends to pay quite nicely.
Let me stress that if the book had been written badly, I’d have had no trouble wrestling with this. I’d put it down to a snotty author who pulled a dirty trick. But Miéville is an excellent author, one who kept me not only interested but dancing for about six hundred and fifty pages and had me burning through those pages in under two days. Every chance I got, I was in the book, wanting to know what would happen next; and in the end what happened was … no future.
That stewed for about a day. I woke up thinking about it. I stayed upset and off kilter, tossing things back and forth in my mind … and then I thought about my own writing.
My wife doesn’t read most of what I write. Neither does the rest of my family, because when I talk about it with them, they get unnerved. The levels of horror that I put into something like Vorare bothers them in the same way that this was bothering me. On thinking about it, I was forced to admit that, yes, the end of Vorare was originally meant to be the death of the primary character with no end to the injustices that he fought – something my editor called me on after receiving the draft. Miéville was doing what I tend to do, only he was doing it better than me.
My qualms with him ended at that point. I can safely say that he writes a mean novel in more ways than one, but that isn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed the Sex Pistols even once I understood them better, and I enjoyed Perdido Street Station even after my original shocks.
Still, I’m probably going for Richard Scarry the next time I feel sick.
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