Quintessence by David Walton

QuintessenceJohn Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet asks the question, “What if there was more than one history of the world?”; David Walton’s Quintessence, on the other hand, actually explores one of these alternate histories. It is set in a world that follows the rules of known science in the sixteenth century–which means the world is flat and alchemy is possible.

Lord Chelsey arrives from a voyage to the edge of the world on board the Western Star, but his arrival in London is unlike any undergone during the Age of Exploration. His entire crew is dead before they dock and the diamonds, gold, and silver that they brought from the distant continent of Horizon has turned to salt and sand.

Christopher Sinclair wants to find out why. A world explorer with enlightened views of science in a scholastic society that still reveres Aristotle as the final authority of knowledge, he has his eyes set on Horizon, a continent literally situated at the end of the world. In Protestant England he is feared as a sorcerer and a heretic, but he is really an alchemist who employs the empirical methodology of Sir Francis Bacon decades before the founding of the Royal Society.

Stephen Parris, a surgical doctor, is similarly beset by a European culture that misunderstands his work. Cutting corpses open to see how the human body works is considered a desecration of the sacred, but it is what obsesses Parris: the chance to see how illnesses work and find a way to cure them. Both Parris and Sinclair are united in their quest to conquer death using science, but they are at cross-purposes until the Spanish-led Catholics coup the Protestant kingdom and an inquisition descends on them both.

Soon Parris, Sinclair, and Catherine, Parris’ adventurous daughter who is eager for science as well and has made the acquaintance of a mysterious manticore, are off on an epic ocean voyage to discover the remains of Lord Chelsey’s colony. Sinclair leads the desperate crew onward with the promises of wealth and riches, but he really has eyes for only one thing: to discover the secrets of quintessence, the fifth element than binds earth, air, fire, and water.

Quintessence may be called the quintessential historical fantasy, situated as it is at the historical moment where what we consider fantasy is about to give way to rigorous science, as superstition slowly becomes erudition at the end of sixteenth century. Only in this alternate history, the fantasy stays through the dawn of science.

What is truly original about Walton’s historical fantasy, more than the idea of alchemy being real, is his combination of the ideas of quintessence and Darwinism in his explanation of the evolution of magical Horizon creatures. From the leviathan in the great ocean to the iron fish that can transform at will into heavy metal to the memory-sharing manticores, all the creatures on Horizon use quintessence to hunt or protect themselves from hunters in a science-magical ecosystem. Slowly the settlers learn from these creatures’ physiognomies in order to develop new kinds of technology.

Quintessence is a unique mix of historical fantasy that never forgets its historical situation, even if it might introduce Darwinism in all but name, along with other modern ideas–that’s the game of alternate history, after all. It is also unique in being equally a science fantasy. Finally, it’s a fun comment on some tropes of sixteenth century colonization and exploration, such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Davies, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ferdinand Magellan, who were each either lost at sea, brought worthless metals home thinking they were gold and diamonds, founded failed colonies, converted the natives, or made Europeans aware of the true size of the globe.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

20140730_163408Every once in a while, I pick up a book that inspires me into creativity and haunts my dreams. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is one such book, a celebration of the alien, the urban, and the grotesque.

New Crobuzon is a corrupt city with an underground network of criminals–only a part of whom reside in Parliament and control the ruthless militia. Furthermore, its hundreds-of-years-old decaying architecture sprawls amid the bones of a vast, ancient beast. It is home to humans, xenians, and Remade, a class of condemned criminals whose body parts are replaced by animals limbs as a kind of cruel, creative punishment. The human architecture has been replaced in certain districts by the xenian architecture of khepri, vodyanoi frog-men, and the cactacae, each of whom form their own societies within the complex city landscape.

We are introduced to the life of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an unconventional scientist within this vast, minutely detailed world, a universe where various branches of science–mechanical, biological, computational, and thaumaturgic–all thrive. Miéville’s science fantasy world is one where miracle-making, amputation, and difference engines can coexist without contradiction, a hodgepodge patchwork of different systems, just like New Crobuzon itself is a motley ecosystem of various coexisting species.

Ancient Egyptian Khepri
Ancient Egyptian Khepri

Isaac’s lover is Lin, a khepri. It is a scandalous kind of love for a human to be enamoured with a xenian. She is half-human, half-insect, her body apparently human-looking–below her head-scarab, that is. The males of her race are oversized beetles without sentient brains, only good for reproduction, and so she has bitterly left her home to become an independent artist.  She and Isaac keep their relationship secret, although it is an open secret among their friends in artistic community.

Isaac and Lin’s lives get complicated, however, when Isaac encounters a garuda, a half-man, half-bird xenian, named Yagharek, who has lost his wings. Yagharek hires Isaac to find a way to get him into the air again. Isaac, being the pioneering scientist he is, agrees to the challenge. Meanwhile, a shady employer hires Lin to produce a sculpture unlike any she has ever created, a very portrait of the grotesque.

As Isaac searches for a way to make Yagharek fly again, he peruses all the technologies and scientific systems at his disposal. It’s his specialty to combine disparate ideas to create new technology. His unified field theory proposes that there is a  center where all the sciences converge, like how all the skyrails and trains in New Crobuzon converge on Perdido Street Station, the giant tower of sprawling architecture that forms the city’s central hub.

While Isaac gathers data to build wings for Yag, it swiftly becomes apparent, however, that in trying to analyze and document the physiognomies of all manner of flying creatures, he may have wandered out of his depth. A terrible danger arises out of his unsavoury deals with the criminal underworld, and it will lead to a nightmare from which the entire city will not be able to awaken.

A Thai garuda
A Thai garuda

I came to learn about this book while researching my Honours thesis. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendelsohn calls Perdido Street Station an immersive fantasy, because the protagonist, Isaac, takes all the strangeness in the setting for granted. The scientific principles that formulate how the world functions makes that world “arguable.” The reader is therefore “immersed” in the perspective of  a New Crobuzon native. As a scientist, Isaac can combine technologies in ways never conceived of before, and even set their forces in paradoxical contradiction to each other. The word “grotesque” means “attaching to an object qualities that do not belong to it,” for example, a wingless garuda, or a human with his head turned around 180 degrees. Isaac’s science–crisis theory–is itself a kind of grotesque of science, fusing magic and technology.

As if these ideas–strange concepts of science and art, religion and magic, the urban and biological–were not enough, China Miéville paints such a vivid, believable, and detailed picture of New Crobuzon that it was impossible for me not to imagine some scenes as paintings. His style is poetic, especially during Yagharek’s first-person scenes at the end of each part of the novel, where he appears as a lost soul at war with his own deformation, wandering the dirty city streets, longing for the feeling of wind in his feathers.

The epigraph to Perdido Street Station is from Philip K. Dick’s We can Build You: “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.” New Crobuzon is itself a character. Just as the war against the vampiric creatures that will be unleashed tests Isaac’s relationship to his city, Yagharek loses touch with the sky, which is his home. Readers grow to be highly sympathetic towards old Yag, forgetting sometimes that he lost his wings because he committed a crime.

I have only just scratched the surface in describing the complex, sprawling, political, and fascinating world Miéville creates. I forgot to mention the Ambassador to Hell, for example, and, my favourite extra-dimensional entity, the Weaver, a giant crooning spider whose metaphoric structure of speech left me imagining him in a fedora snapping to Beat poetry. You’ll have to read Perdido Street Station to taste the rest of this whacky world. I’ll say it certainly made me hungry for more. Maybe I will read Iron Council next…

China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station
China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station

Photo Credits:

Garuda: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thai_Garuda_emblem.png

China Miéville: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_Mi%C3%A9ville.jpg

Khepri: http://www.zin.ru/animalia/coleoptera/rus/chimera.htm