No weird tale that I have read captures a sense of dread and impending doom so subtly and beautifully in its descriptions of the natural world as “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907), the third story included in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales.
In this story, two canoeists journey down the Danube and wind up stranded on a sandy island in the middle of a swampy part of the river that arrests their progress toward Budapest. This part of the river is described as a “region of singular loneliness and desolation…covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes” (27). No one can imbue the natural world with quite the same sense of terrifying, pagan dread as Blackwood. His other story, “The Wendigo,” also captures a sense of a predatory natural world, but nowhere near so exquisitely as in “The Willows.”
The willow forest the canoeists have entered is a living entity, a character in itself that is “full of tricks” and holds a “secret life” (29). The plants and creatures that inhabit it leave an undeniable affect on their human observers. Though the river may be treacherous at times, the two men “forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores” (29). But it is not long before the river matures and leaves the men at its mercy, aware of their “utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements” (30). In one of the most memorable images, what at first appears to be a man’s body floating in the water–perhaps the body of a fisherman spotted earlier–turns out to be nothing more than an otter that “looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current” (32).
In the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, rapid industrialization and urbanization triggered a pang of guilt in the minds of those who revered nature as a Romantic entity and as a sublime refuge from the bourgeois city. Blackwood’s species of the weird represents this contradiction in literary terms through its othering of nature, which has turned into an active predator. Representing this breathless terror in the content and style of his writing, Blackwood writes about how the narrator’s emotions of awe, wonder, and uneasiness
seemed to attach [themselves] more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting listening. (31)
Something of the paranoia in “The Wendigo” emerges here, except that the terror is not associated with some separate, carnivorous entity (a First Nations flesh-eating monster) but with the natural world itself. This demon is a projection of the guilt of the industrialized world and a premonition of the environment’s ‘revenge’ upon humanity. Blackwood’s weird tale is all the more horrifying a hundred years after its publication because of our retrospective knowledge that mass extinctions and climate change have been triggered by industrialization.
Perhaps the strangest moment in this story occurs when the narrator thinks he perceives the shapes of non-human entities in the willow branches:
They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes–immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying branches. […] They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. (35-6)
These creatures are of the kind that overtired eyes might spot in the complex, swaying patterns of a willow tree in a breeze. After all, humans like to see patterns in random shapes. Yet, for all that the narrator acknowledges the possibility he might be seeing things, he becomes utterly convinced of their absolute reality: “I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon” (36). These creatures exist according to a different set of laws than Enlightenment science provides. In this singular willow grove, scientifically-defined reality no longer holds sway, suggesting modernity has spread unevenly across Europe, leaving this glade untouched. As one of the characters states, “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world” (39).
Next week, I will review Saki’s much shorter, though no less bizarre, “Srendi Vashtar” (1910).
Last week’s post discussed the Indiana Jones series and the works of pulp fiction author A. Merritt, who may have partly influenced the movies. One modern (or postmodern) narrative continues the tradition of what I call archaeological adventure fiction: the video game series Uncharted.
Hero Nathan Drake is a professional thief, who believes he is a descendent of English explorer/pirate/privateer Sir Francis Drake, who is most famous for sailing around the world. Like Sir Francis, Nate travels to various exotic locales in search of treasure. And he has a crew: ex-Marine Victor Sullivan, who is nearly a father to him, Elena Fischer, a reporter and love interest, Chloe Fraser, an excellent getaway driver and competitive love interest, and Cutter, a Jason Statham look-alike.
The Uncharted series breaks boundaries in the fluidity of its third-person gameplay and in the quality of its storytelling. It is possible to play the game straight through without consulting any level-select menus, for example, and the narrative is supported by many cut scenes that play out almost like a movie. The games offer the pleasure of imagining that there still might be uncharted locales around the globe in this age of satellite imagery and Google Earth. The world has been thoroughly mapped now, but Nate follows in the footsteps of those first explorers like Drake, Marco Polo, and more modern figures such as T.E. Lawrence. Spoilers lie ahead.
The first game, Drake’s Fortune, involves the classic search for Eldorado, which Francis Drake was supposed to have discovered shortly before his supposed death. It is both Nate and Sir Francis’ fortunes that are at stake. Nate discovers Drake’s journal in the explorer’s barnacled, but otherwise empty lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and is soon on the trail after the fabled city, which turns out not to be a golden city at all, but a large statue.
Picking up the trail from where a Nazi U-boat expedition failed horrendously–the crew mauled by some kind of animal–Nate ventures to an island in the Pacific with Elena. An old forgotten Spanish colony, the island is where the conquistadors brought Eldorado. After their plane is shot down, it’s a race to find the statue before some old creditors of Victor Sullivan get their hands on it.
Evidence emerges that Eldorado is cursed somehow. A ledger reveals that the statue was the last shipment the colony received, before Sir Francis set gunpowder to the town and sank the fleet in the harbour. A precautionary measure to keep people out, or keep something in? Deep in the catacombs, they find Francis Drake’s skeleton, his true final resting place, and are soon swarmed by a race of naked zombies who crawl around on all fours like possessed things.
In the end, the bad guys get the statue, which the leader of the expedition opens, only to find a rotten mummy within. Immediately, he turns into one of the zombies, attacking his own second-in-command in pure instinctual rage before he gets shot through the eyes. It turns out the number-two knew about this strange effect all along and was only waiting for a moment to steal the statue and sell its dark properties to the highest bidder. Nate grabs onto the statue as a chopper hauls it away and later fights the villain on the deck of his ship. The final blow is one of poetic justice: Nate knocks the statue overboard so the rope holding it wraps around his enemy’s leg, dragging him into the ocean along with it. You want your treasure? There, take it, pal.
A classic move similar to some I might have seen in movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Evil punished for its lust for wealth, so that it gets just what it wants, only too much of it, so that it is beaten to death in a shower of gold–like the villain in The Mask of Zorro. Why does this kind of ending prove, on wider inspection, to be such a key part of a good formula across so many narratives?
If you read Drake’s Fortune seriously enough, you discover that it dramatizes the problems associated with imperialism. In fact, I argue that the quasi-supernatural disease that underlies the golden idol of Eldorado is an expression of an anxiety about capitalism. Beneath the luxurious facade of the statue–the treasure par excellence that really did impel so many conquistadors to drive out the Aztecs and Inca and establish their own rule over South America–there lies the reality of exploitation and thievery. This unfairness and its accompanying guilt is expressed not directly, but through the metaphors of disease and zombie.
If capitalism finds a monstrous metaphor in the figure of the vampire–who sucks the blood of its subjects without producing any blood of its own, the same way the higher classes never work in production but exploit workers–then late capitalism, the socio-economic condition of our consumerist, postmodern society, finds an apt metaphor in the zombie, which is reduced to blind instinct and an appetite for brains. Brains are the very thing that make us human subjects and the zombie’s urge to consume becomes a metaphor for ‘the age of consumption.’
That such a potent symbol lies behind the gold facade of the statue that was supposedly Drake’s fortune, should be read as highly suggestive.
The Spanish colony being destroyed by the zombie virus further suggests how colonialism, and capitalism more generally, are not sustainable practices. The acquisitiveness of the Spanish–and Sir Francis Drake’s crew–results in their own undoing, their transformation into zombies. This sixteenth-century disaster finds a link to the modern-day phenomenon of neoimperialism in the arms dealer’s attempt to sell the statue in a black market auction. The zombie disease would have not only become a commodity, but a weapon. In a world where ‘Third World’ countries, frequently in turmoil, are exploited and impoverished by wealthier nations, Eldorado would have gone to the very mercenaries who maintain that instability through constant warfare.
On whether or not Drake’s Fortune is fantasy or at least scientifically plausible, it would all have to depend on whether the curse is scientifically explained. In fact, it is not given such an explanation in the game, although the various zombie films in recent years, such as I am Legend and World War Z, have provided now-famous scenarios of a rabies-like epidemics going rogue. Gamers are left, therefore, in an ambiguous state of mind in which science and the supernatural provide competing explanations. Whatever the case, the disease does make a certain moral point that makes such explanations unneeded.
Of course, to really decide on the extent of Drake’s Fortune‘s use of the fantastic, one would have to factor in awkward questions like whether ancient civilizations really had the technology and manpower to construct elaborate temples underground fitted with counterweights, rising platforms, and wall-climbing footholds simply for the purpose of constructing an enormous puzzle. Nate runs into these Legend of Zelda-style temples frequently in Tibet in Among Thieves and in the castles of Drake’sDeception. But the hidden question of who provided the labour to build these enormous buildings–slaves, perhaps?–is elided by the game’s need to make a complicated level.
Continuing on the thought of puzzles, it is worth noting that Uncharted, although filled with similarities to archaeological adventure fiction and the Indian Jones movies, is not so much about archaeology as treasure hunting and antiquities in general. The quests follow an ‘X marks the spot’ pattern rather than one of scientific excavation. All the temples are accessible above ground, even if they later lead to subterranean levels; there is nothing actually buried. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones does dig up the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, but even the fabled city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands in Drake’s Deception, is accessible by a front door.
The ‘X marks the spot’ formula for an adventure story has a history. “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe tells how Mr. William Legrand, his black slave Jupiter, and his dog methodologically follow a trail of clues to the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe, while mostly known for his morbid first person narrations, is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, for example, in “Murder on the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The same obsessive interest in signs and symbols that characterizes his detective stories leads Poe to develop the treasure-hunter story.
Legrand is bitten by a golden scarab beetle and might be going mad. He invites the narrator over so he can see his sketch of this scarab, but the narrator sees a human skull instead of a beetle. When the narrator returns some weeks later, Legrand leads him outside in search of buried treasure, and orders him to climb a tree, find a skull resting on a branch, and pass the scarab on a string through the skull’s eye. He uses the place where the scarab touches the ground as an indication of where to start digging. Legrand then elaborately begins to describe how he knew that treasure was buried there. In an extended retrospective speech, he describes how he heated the parchment with the sketch on it because he suspected the skull the narrator saw was a sign of a pirate’s treasure map. He discovers a code written on the parchment and deciphers it step-by-step in one of the first examples of a cryptogram in literature.
The resulting paragraph is still a cypher: “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seven limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out” (95). Upon close analysis, these words are separated into sentences, and then the locations and angles are deciphered.
In this kind of story, maps, cyphers, and old texts hold the signs needed to locate treasure. The quest traces a horizontal line towards a goal, rather than a vertical line into the earth. It is this paradigm of sign interpretation that forms the basis of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake’s searches after lost cities. Usually a main text, such as a diary of an explorer who has gone before–whether Henry Jones’ Grail diary, or Sir Francis Drake’s lost journal–supplements a map and some kind of key, like the Tibetan ritual dagger in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which can unlock special secret doors.
The interpretation of signs on these artefacts–scrawled symbols for example–add hints and clues to the location of the quester’s goals–but also enables the antagonist to steal the items needed to find the treasure. Such maps, journals, and keys almost become McGuffins–items around which the narrative revolves, with all the characters having their reasons for pursuing them. It is no surprise then that Uncharted and Indiana Jones contain not only a quest but a race.
This sense of competition runs strong in Among Thieves, in which Nate must discover Ximbala (aka Shangri-La), where the fabled and unspeakably powerful Cintimani Stone is kept, a legendary sapphire supposedly discovered by Marco Polo. Nate races against the sinister leader of a mercenary army–Zoren Lazarovic–who uses the instability caused by Tibet’s civil war to search for the powerful stone with brutality and impunity. The medieval past of Polo’s voyage becomes the path which Nate must follow through the chaotic world of modern urban warfare. Lazarovich wrecks a Tibetan city, slaughtering resistance fighters while searching for a certain temple that will lead to his goal. He later attacks a peaceful mountain village with a tank, in his extreme obsession to have what he wants.
“The quest for the Grail is not archaeology,” says Sean Connery, playing Henry Jones in The Last Crusade. “It’s a race against evil.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve a valuable treasure becomes a race to prevent Lazarovic from becoming unstoppable. The Cintimani Stone lends whoever holds it the power to subdue all their enemies. An elderly German in the village, Carl Schaffer, tells Nate that Genghis Khan held a mere fragment of the stone and conquered all of Asia with it. The Nazis had been searching for it too, but Schaffer, seeing the power of the Stone, shot the SS who were trying to discover it. Lazarovic leaves a path of destruction in his wake, demolishing statues and flattening buildings–everything that stands in his way. Just when Nate feels like turning back from finding Ximbala, Schaffer, echoing Henry Jones, tells him he cannot simply walk away.
The archaeological themes fall away when the story becomes about good versus evil. Although Nate and his companions are thieves who work for various clients, they have no pretension of being archaeologists like Indiana Jones in the first place. They are not necessarily highly educated, although Nate does know Latin from his Catholic boarding school education. This sidesteps the problem of representing archaeology as a romantic profession. The quests in Uncharted are therefore “Gold-Bug”-style treasure hunts with pistols, rifles, and RPGs that retain the Jones movies’ themes about evil’s lust for power, wealth, and dominance.
Whether Nazis, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Communists, as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, or the arms dealer in Drake’s Fortune, Lazarovich in Among Thieves, or the occult secret society in Drake’s Deception, evil represents the forces that seek too much power for themselves, who are willing to use objects considered sacred, cursed, powerful, or simply valuable for their own selfish and world-destroying ends.
There is a connection between antiquities and power expressed by these narratives. Something is being expressed about how society imagines history and the deep past–as a place of wonder and yet of danger. Cheering on Indy and Nate as they fight, we are hoping to preserve the past from those who would corrupt or destroy it. Archaeological adventure fictions symbolically resolve tensions about capitalism and imperialism, while imagining the defeat of the bugbears of history such as the Nazis, from ever claiming possession of the past.
In light of the recent advance of ISIS into Palmyra, the site of awe-inspiring Roman ruins, and their explosive demolition of the ancient cities of Babylon and Nimrod, I hope I am not alone in observing who the bugbears (the Nazis, the Commies, the Lazarovics, the Genghis Khans) of today are. Their so-called ‘caliphate’ is a real-life force bent on destroying the past. They wish to obliterate all memory of pre-Islamic antiquity, and have, like Lazarovic, brought ageless statues to dust, although they do it for the additional reason of abolishing idolatry. If only there could be a hero, we might pray, who can come around to stop them.
“Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. […] So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. You do not follow maps to buried treasure and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading. We cannot afford to take mythology at face value.”
These words were rather hypocritically spoken by none other than Harrison Ford, in his role as Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, to a classroom of eager archaeology students. The funny thing about this speech is that it accurately describes the real study of archaeology, which has nothing to do with chasing Nazi caravans through the desert or running away from massive, rolling boulders. Yet the Indiana Jones series pretends to be about archaeology and the discovery of the past.
The romanticized view of the archaeologist tends to reduce the real work associated with the profession–including excavation, survey, applying for funding, and all that library time–to what amounts to a treasure hunt. A certain set of clues leads Jones to a particular location, where the Grail or the Ark awaits discovery. Rather than reading soil samples, Jones reads his father’s diary and the inscription of a knight’s shield, which tells him exactly where he has to go.
What this does is speed things up to the pace suitable for an action movie. It also makes the plot more linear. It eliminates any scientific processes that would stretch out a long search for an ancient city over months and years. In short, it makes the archaeologist’s journey into a quest instead of a complicated search for evidence.
Archaeological quests imply something else than the analysis of dry data. Quests bring the archaeologist into the search for truth, and not just fact. The cities they discover become more than remains scattered in a certain area of land; their job ceases to be about conducting empirical analyses of whatever they might find. It becomes a journey towards a specific goal. In The Last Crusade, that goal is none other than the Grail, a modern-day medieval romance, heavy with incident.
The Indiana Jones movies belong to the genre of ‘archaeological adventure’ that finds precedents in literary works. Published in Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, an anthology that republished some long-unknown pieces of fiction, A. Merritt’s novella “The Moon Pool” involves a band of scientific adventurers who attempt to map the ruins of a fallen Pacific Islands civilization, only to be haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force that eliminates the members of the expedition one by one. Merritt wrote in the early part of the century. Several of his works were turned into films in the 1930s.
The editors, Hartwell and Cramer, confirm in their description of the novella that “this kind of pulp fantasy is the source of such contemporary off-shoots as the current  Indiana Jones movies” (540). The novella creates an “aggressive blend of what we now call science fiction with the fantasy, using scientists and professionals to heighten the contrast between the scientific present and the magical past, mysterious and wonderful and very dangerous” (540).
Although the Jones movies do not emphasize science so much, the ‘science versus magic’ dichotomy reflects the contrast between Jones’s rigorous attention to fact in the classroom and his experience of the healing power of the supernatural Grail at the end of the film. Jones’ inner journey is towards what his father, Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery, calls “illumination.” A new faith that facts are not all what’s important.
Dr. Throckmartin, Merritt’s protagonist, encounters what appears to be the supernatural, but always finds a way to rationalize it, at least until the very end of the tale. The fantastic in Merrit is more dangerous here, however. Madness waits for Throckmartin if his rational faculties fail, if he lets himself be taken in by illusions.
A giant door opens to an inner temple–triggered only by the light of the moon. The natives claim that the ani, or spirit, opened it. But Throckmartin says, “The assertion of the natives that the ani had greatest power at this time might be a far-flung reflection of knowledge which had found ways to use forces contained in the moonlight, as we have found ways to utilize forces in the sun’s rays” (567). A mysterious sleep befalls the adventurers. But this might “have been some emanation from plants or gaseous emanations from the island itself” (567). The adventurers seek out scientific causes of the effects they must endure. They enact the kind of demystification of nature that Sir Francis Bacon outlines in his treatise on the Great Instauration: the depersonalizing of nature and the reduction of forces to matter that acts on other matter. Everything explained, no mysteries, and above all, nothing beyond or above natural causes.
“The Moon Pool” also illustrates certain themes of imperialism. Throckmartin’s request for white men to join his team rather than natives might appear racist to modern audiences; he justifies himself saying the white man is less superstitious. Scientific men who hold no irrational fears of haunted places make better workers. This dynamic of the archaeological adventure reflects the politics of imperialism, which accompanies enlightenment. The white man has science, while the natives are represented as ignorant animists who believe in spirits and carry prehistorical or medieval beliefs. Yet, the white man is at a certain disadvantage: he is ignorant of the dangerous secrets the island stores for him, while the natives are more familiar with these dangers–and are wise for avoiding them. The result is an encounter of the white man with the unknown supernatural other, a conflict that threatens to undermine the certainty of empirical discovery and rational explanation.
I would like to speculate that the imperialism of “The Moon Pool” is reflected to some extent in the Indiana Jones movies, in which a highly educated Western archaeologist–American no less– ‘discovers’ the secrets of the East, while the East remains incapable of discovering its own treasures. To an extent, I find this dynamic replicated in certain of Lord Dunsany’s Orientalist fantasies in The Book of Wonder, in which the object of wonder is usually a valuable gem or other glistening item that becomes a target for thieves. When Jones steals the golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, no one asks if he has the right to steal what the natives clearly worship and value. It seems like an act of American imperialism in the name of increasing the collections of Western museums.
Returning to the dialectical tension between science and magic in “The Moon Pool,” it is interesting to note how this dynamic strongly reflects one definition of fantasy that Brian Attebery provides in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” He suggests that fantasy might simply be the “meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10). An older world (historical materialists would say, an earlier mode of production) meets the empirical, ‘rational,’ and capitalist present. The result is a conflict between the epistemologies and beliefs of ancient and modern societies, whose systems are thrown into conflicting simultaneity. The archaeologist does not unearth the past as a past, but encounters it in the present, where it can affect and change him.
The powers of the Grail and the Ark of the Covenant may not be explained away by Doctor Jones. But the continuity between the movies and this novella by Merritt is there, suggesting that there does exist an archaeological fiction genre, little named or acknowledged, that possesses a certain set of rules that distinguishes it from fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction. The tension between conflicting epistemologies in this genre could make it a fascinating object to excavate and survey more deeply, as a way of discovering how they encode ideas about enlightenment and imperialism.
In the twenty-first century, there is one return to archaeological fiction that explores the dynamics of science and magic in popular culture: the Uncharted video game series. With its placing of importance on old diaries and maps, rather than on archaeological excavation, and given its obvious debt to the Jones movies, I would like to discuss aspects of this series next week. Also, I will speculate about how Edgar Allan Poe may have influenced this genre since its inception, in one of his short stories, “The Gold-Bug.”
Continued next week.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport: Greenwood, 1995.
Hartwell, David and Kathryn Cramer. “The Moon Pool.” Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Script. Courtesy: dailyscript.com.
Every 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.
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.
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…
To create the animated stone, take the juice of a Saturnine herb to extract mercury and evaporate it to get the purest earth. Join this with its like in equal weight and dissolve both with a crude metallic humor. Putrify for forty days. You may also calcine the earth with fire alone, join it with sublimatic arsenic, and it will be the greatest arcanum for human bodies.
If visions of a middle aged man in a dark robe fumbling in his laboratory to create the elixir of life appear to you when reading this alchemical recipe, then you already have a sense of the alchemist’s quest.
Immortality and infinite wealth were the boons such alchemists pursued, thinking it possible to turn base metals into gold. Although modern-day atom-smashing, particle-accelerating science has proven this technically possible on a tiny scale, early chemists such as Nicholas Flamel, Gerhard Dorn, Cornelius Agrippa, and Thomas Vaughan dreamed of attaining the impossible.
Yet for all their obvious mistakes, alchemists were pioneers. Their techniques of manipulating matter through sublimation, coagulation, putrefaction, and distillation eventually benefited early scientific chemistry. Furthermore, the philosophy of turning lead into gold–that humanity had the power to increase the quality of the world around them through their knowledge of the natural order–has remained a central motive behind many scientists.
Today I will take you into the world of the alchemists, and you can judge for yourself whether they were hacks, or spiritual idealists devoted to an old magic system.
First let me show you inside the laboratory, the best place as any to learn about the alchemist trade. The main piece of equipment was the athanor, a cylindrical furnace stove where the alchemists lit fires in order to refine lead. Inside the hollow chamber within that athanor are a series of pots placed within each other, linked to the outside via narrow tubes where substances may be poured in for experiments. The athanor represents the womb where the Philosopher’s Stone was made. It is also the name I selected to brand my editing service.
Gerhard Dorn described four steps to the process of attaining the Stone. To attain the quintessence of matter, it was necessary to putrefy the body, decomposing all matter to a uniform blackness, purify it, then attempt to coagulate or condense the resulting spirit into a gold body. If you have any idea what that means, then I applaud you: alchemists concealed their secrets behind a web of symbolism and occult language, rather like the notation doctors use when they write subscriptions.
In order to attain the Stone of Harry Potter fame, the alchemist went through four processes using the athanor. These are called nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo: blackness, whiteness, yellowness, and then redness, each earthly colour endowed with its own symbolism. Not only did these processes for alchemical transformation correspond to actual techniques used in a laboratory, but Carl Jung found archetypical resonances charting the progress of self-individuation within this symbolism. Whereas nigredo represents “the dark night of the soul,” albedo represents the male and female aspects of the self, citrinitas represents wisdom, and rubedo wholeness.
Once these steps had been accomplished, the alchemist made “gold.” But saying this was the only goal of the alchemist’s quest would be limiting. “Gold” was merely a symbol for attaining “God,” specifically, attaining God’s creative matter, the power of the Word, or logos, itself. In the beginning was the Word, reads John’s Gospel, and many alchemists had as their goal the discovery of this primal creative substance. It was also called prima materia.
Within all matter, this piece of God’s own substance supposedly resided, and the alchemist’s job was to penetrate the form of matter in order to reach this seed. Indeed, some alchemists believed all matter to be alive in a way reminiscent of plants. Iron, gold, copper, and other metals supposedly “grew” underground. And attaining the “sperm” of the prima materia was a way to impregnate the “womb” of matter, giving birth to new substances. A menstruum was a solvent used to reduce a substance to prima materia and was considered the mother from which all metals were derived.
Since attaining the Stone required alchemists to search into the heart of matter itself (not dissimilar to our current search for the God particle), it is no wonder that the alchemists used VITRIOL as their motto. This sulphate of iron or copper makes a powerful sulfuric acid and forms the first letters of a Latin phrase: Visita Interlarem Terrae Rectifando Ivenies Operae Lapidem. “Go down into the bowels of the Earth; by distillation, you will find the stone for the Work.”
Often venturing this deep into the mysteries required the alchemist to go “underground” in more than one sense. The quest for the Work proved too expensive to pursue for many. Many alchemists fell into debt. They were often lonely, ostracized from a society that did not understand their beliefs. Though they thought they had greater insight into the beliefs central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the representatives of orthodoxy would beg to disagree, claiming them to be heretics. This required alchemists to be secretive, to pass as much as possible under the noses of those who wished them evil.
Usually alchemists kept their athanor outside for ventilation, ordering clay materials from the local potter to construct their all-important furnace. They would also require an assistant–or accomplice–to keep the bellows going, like at a smithy. They had to face dangers from the authorities and may have had to pay them to turn a blind eye to their experiments. Furthermore, there was always the risk of lead and mercury poisoning, which may have caused some of the delirium experienced by these early scientists.
Given the risky nature of the work–especially in terms of finances–it is not surprising that many “alchemists” were less interested in unearthing the blessed Word, but in swindling kings and dukes of their money. These charlatans would place a rock in a pan of mercury, which they stirred with a hollow stirring rod stoppered with clay at one end. After stirring the mercury and claiming the everyday rock to be the “Stone,” the mercury would evaporate and the clay melt, letting the gold powder stuffed in the stirring rod pour into the pan. From the observer’s perspective, this would seem magical. Once their sleight of hand trickery was discovered, such alchemists had to ditch town and flee the king’s men.
This is not, however, to imply that all who practiced alchemy were charlatans. There were those like Gerhard Dorn who believed alchemy was best used to cure the sick, rather than for self-enrichment. Whether their cures worked is another issue. While it is doubtful alchemical cures were anything like modern medicine, a well-versed alchemist who was aware of the sympathetic bonds between planets and metals may have also know of the bonds between planets and herbs. Since planets and stars were said to direct the fate of humanity due to the phenomenon of stellar influence, perceived bonds between planets like Venus and Mars to metals like copper and iron supposedly contained great power. Medicinal herbs, whether due to their inherent chemical properties or their magical affinity to the planets, in all likelihood really did heal certain diseases and afflictions.
It may be possible that, even in their blindness, alchemists found certain effects that they observed to work reliably, though they ascribed them to sympathetic magic rather than the physical properties of the plants and metals themselves. However, one thing is certain, and that is that modern science would not have been the same without the efforts of alchemists. At the turn between the Renaissance and Early Modern period, alchemists participated in one of the great transmutations of European history: the transition from a traditional, magical worldview into the stabilized, rationalized, scientific mindset that defines the worldview of our own age.