“You Would Call It Rape”: Sexual Assault in China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”

[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]

Cover of Perdido Street StationAfter reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.

Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.

Some background for those who haven’t read it:

Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.

Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.

This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.

But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:

“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”

“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”

“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”

Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.

Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”

Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.

I would call it rape.

Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.

As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:

“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.

“He stole choice,” she said flatly.

“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.

Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.

“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.

“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.

“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.

“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”

So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.

Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.

Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)

After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.

He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:

He tried to extricate himself.

He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.

He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.

But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.

And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.

After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.

While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.

I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.

In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”

Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.

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