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This is the fourth and final lesson I’ll cull from Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. This one’s a bit longer than the others. It has to be: the whole point is to unpack everything Miéville manages to cram into one tiny little scene.

Lesson four: By making relationships unique, detailed, and specific, you can reveal volumes about your characters and about their world, and you can do it without a whole lot of fluffy text.

Perdido Street Station gives an example of this right out of the gate, in the relationship between two protagonists, Isaac dan der Grimnebulin and Lin. Isaac is an obese human polymath; Lin is a sculptor and a khepri, which is to say a red-skinned humanoid alien with a huge beetle for a head. Not a beetle’s head; a beetle, complete with headlegs, headwings, and headbody.

These lovebirds are already worth getting to know. It’s almost impossible to imagine being sexually attracted to a partner so alien from one’s own physiology. I want to keep reading just to figure out what the hell they see in each other.

I love the fact that Lin, a khepri, took on a name that is pronounceable by humans, easy to ascribe a gender to, and yet alien. (We already have Lynns and Lynnes, but my first association seeing the name Lin in print is with a Chinese surname.) Isaac’s name is evocative too (and in a much more subtle way than, say, Rowling’s Remus Lupin or Lucas’s Salacious Crumb). “Isaac” contains historical and religious significance, and “dan der” sounds a lot like “van der” (making me envision a northern European), and yet I’m thinking of pet dander too, something flaky and allergenic. So far his name sounds familiar, but anyone named “Grimnebulin” definitely ain’t from around here. We expect grim and nebulous things from a Grimnebulin, but we’re not beaten over the head with the idea. (George Lucas, take the hint! No more character names like Sleazebaggo, okay?)

Miéville describes these two by contrasting them, a technique I’ve used too, and one I find valuable. Lin is lithe with bright red skin, as if all her skin had been stripped away and she is just naked musculature. This could have been a gory description but in her case it’s sexy; Isaac’s the point of view character here and she just got out of his bed.

Then we see Isaac, who is fat like a blimp is fat (taut skin), therefore definitely not fat like a sack of potatoes is fat (blobby, knobby, and apt to spill out over his belt). A vivid image for me is of his many gray body hairs sticking straight up from his blimp-taut skin. I’m thinking, How can she stay with this guy? She’s sexy; he’s a hairy blimp. Eww.

Of course, then we get to see her fully, with that beetle of a head. Eww. Now I’m thinking, how can he be with her?

See how much tension Miéville has generated already? The only thing that’s happened is Isaac has watched Lin get out of bed. Two paragraphs, and I’m engrossed.

Then they eat breakfast together. This turns out to be utterly perfect as a vehicle for describing exactly how alienating they are to each other. She can’t talk, so they need to communicate by sign language—easy if your head can clutch your food in its own claws; not so easy for people who need their hands to eat. So Isaac has to deal with a lot over breakfast: apart from having to juggle his food, his drink, and his conversation in the same fumbling hands, he also has to watch his girlfriend’s mandibles rip and tear at her food in a way no human being could ever get used to.

In making us note the ripping and tearing, we readers are forced to realize that surely Isaac’s eating habits—hell, even his eating physiology—is just as icky to Lin as hers are to us. So why are they together?

The question becomes even more pressing when they leave his apartment: they dare not walk arm in arm like lovers, nor even walk close enough to allow others to suspect intimacy. Inter-species romance is strictly forbidden in New Crobuzon. Because of their relationship, Lin and Isaac are aliens in their own city, and even if they weren’t, they’re aliens at their own breakfast table.

And yet they’re perfect for each other. Lin is an artist and an outcast; Isaac is an Edison-like genius and an outcast. They’re both deeply sensual, Isaac because he’s a profligate and Lin because she’s an artist . (I don’t think it’s an accident that Miéville chose clay as her medium; everyone remembers the sexy scene from Ghost, and to make it hotter still, Lin’s oeuvre involves liberal use of her mouth and, well, other bits.) In dating Lin, Isaac enjoys a certain bad-boy chic (Miéville’s words), and in dating Isaac, Lin enjoys a certain worldly, avant-garde air.

I find it staggering how much Miéville reveals about his characters and their world through this one tiny window. And no sappy dialogue! Neither of them ever has to say, “I love you.” The bare fact that they struggle with every conversation means they must be head over heels for each other. And look at how much else we know: there are humans and intelligent nonhumans on this planet; they commingle but they are not to date or marry; therefore there are strict social divisions; therefore there are people minding these divisions; therefore Isaac and Lin’s world is not safe for them.

It’s a tricky thing, choosing just the right details—vexing enough to make you want to give up, in fact. It’s a hell of a lot easier to give up, to just tell and not show. In that sense reading Miéville is downright depressing: he’s just better at this than the rest of us. But as I always say, pessimism is the new optimism.

(And surely clearing the bar he’s raised for us is easier than falling in love with a woman with a beetle for a head. Yeesh.)

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