I’m reading Whitechapel Gods in conjunction with Perdido Street Station and Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (written in 1893 and set in Manhattan) and finding poor S.M. Peter’s novel suffering greatly in comparison.
In fact, I’m finding that it’s taking an effort to read his book. I’m only about 40 pages in, and there’s still a lot of potential for things to pick up, but in comparison to Mieville’s descriptions of New Crobuzon and Crane’s ability to depict the raucous and terrible life of the poor and desperate in New York, Peter’s Whitechapel is coming across as two dimensional and hard to picture.
One thing that Mieville does exceedingly well is ground his reader in all the chaos and complexity of New Crobuzon. His introduction, written from the POV of the garuda, articulates and depictes New Crobuzon in a fantastically graspable manner, leading us by slow degrees into the city’s heart. His first chapter is a paean almost to the street market outside Lin’s apartment, to the people who throng it and the neighborhood around it. He weaves this description into the interactions between Lin and Isaac, so that it doesn’t stick out but rather enriches the strangeness of their love affair by providing context and setting. And he doesn’t stop there; throughout the rest of the book he periodically pulls the camera back and pans it across the city, pointing out landmarks, neighborhoods, rivers and ethnic enclaves, naming things and describing the atmosphere in such a way that we’ve always got a sense of place, of versimilitude.
Whereas Peters seems to leap from disconnected scene to disconnected scene, describing at one moment an isolated house, and then a street with an alley attached to it, and then the interior of a deadly tower filled with traps and a perverted mastermind. Dense, oily smoke covers everything, and there’s a sense of height to the buildings, but that’s all there is thus far—the focus is clearly on the characters, and the setting is but backdrop, quickly sketched, much to the book’s loss.
Though Peter’s does have flashes of brilliance here and there—his description of Tommy, the mechanized bruiser was inspired, and the description of the mechanical disease in the first chapter was also brilliant and revolting. The names are evocative, and I definitely want to know more about the Boiler Men, and about the Gods themselves. John Scared is too villainous and two dimensional at the moment, and the heroes fighting for the Queen have as of yet to be given enough space to flesh themselves out.
I know it’s unfair to compare anything to a prodigy like Mieville, especially something like Whitechapel Gods that seeks to exist in the same niche of steampunk weird, but the contrast is almost shocking. It’s the difference between a good author and a master. When I think of Mieville’s writing style, I recollect gorgeous colors, fantastic shapes, textures and nuances. The skies, the streets, the walls and people are all described in vivid relief, and the senses are engaged too; you can smell New Crobuzon, you can hear it. Whereas thus far Whitechapel is more akin to a mid 90’s computer game, where the buildings and backdrops are done in solid slabs of uniform dark colors, smoke is set on repeat swirl and the same five stock background characters march stiffly to and fro.