Monday, 29 May 2017

Cities of Fantasy: New Crobuzon

There is a city of towers and skyrails, of delights and obscenities, a city of elevated rail lines and glasshouses inhabited by sentient cacti. It is a city of squalor and beauty where insects make art and politicians dine with the ambassadors of hell.

Welcome to New Crobuzon.

New Crobuzon is the largest city-state on the east coast of the continent of Rohagi, one of the major landmasses of the world of Bas-Lag. The city lies south of the ruins of Suroch and north-east of Cobsea, spreading for miles along the banks of both the Canker and the Tar before they meet to form the Gross Tar.

The city is separated from the rest of Rohagi by the Dancing Shoe Mountains to the south-west and the Bezhek Peaks to the north-west. South of the city lies the Rudewood, a substantial woodland which gives way to the Wetlands. South-east of the city, forming a huge peninsula, lies the Grain Spiral, a vast and fertile hinterland which keeps the city of New Crobuzon fed. South-west of the city lie the Mendican Foothills.

The mountains, the Wetlands and the Sully Swamp, which lies to the west of the city, effectively limit the approaches to the city to a few rail lines and roads. These natural defences go some way to explaining why New Crobuzon has survived for almost two thousand years despite its imperialistic tendencies and occasional wars with other powers.

New Crobuzon also exercises control over several smaller settlements, most notably Tarmuth at the mouth of the Gross Tar, which serves as the city’s port.

Further to the south-west lies the Cacotopic Stain, an area of unrelenting danger, whilst to the north-west, beyond the mountains and swamp, lies Wormseye Scrub, a vast plain. New Crobuzon’s nearest rivals are located well over a thousand miles from the city itself.

These geographic limitations make sea travel a more popular alternative. Ten miles south-east of the city, the Gross Tar opens into Iron Bay, an inlet of the Swollen Ocean. Shipping lanes lead to the nearby island of Chet and, further away, the islands of Perrick Night, Gnurr Kett, Dancing Bird Island, the Jheshull Islands and Gnomen Tor. Eventually, thousands of miles to the east, the continent of Bered Kai Nev can be found, where New Crobuzon has established a colony city called Nova Esperium.

The continent of Rohagi, based on China Mieville's own map.

Physical Description
New Crobuzon is centred on the confluence of the Rivers Canker and Tar into the Gross Tar, and has spread outwards in a rough oval shape, nine miles wide from east to west and seven from north to south. The city is furthered defined from the towering grand structure of Perdido Street Station, the city’s major transportation hub, located a mile or so from the confluence. From the station a series of major and smaller skylines radiate outwards, linking the districts of the city together. The Spike, the headquarters of the feared New Crobuzon Militia, is located nearby.

Lying between the rivers are the districts of the Crow, Brock Marsh, Sheck, Skulkford, Gross Coil,  Kinken, Rim, Tar Wedge, Raven’s Gate, Canker Wedge, West Gidd, Spit Hearth and Petty Coil. Strack Island, located south-east of the confluence of the rivers at Brock Marsh, is the location of the New Crobuzon Parliament Building and is the seat of city governance. Broadly speaking, these central districts clustered around the centres of power (civil and military) are richer and more developed, but also older and more decadent.

East of the Canker lies Dryside, Flag Hill, Chnum, East Gidd, Mafaton, Nigh Sump, Abrogate Green, Saltbur and Ludmead, the site of New Crobuzon University. South of the university lies Bonetown, a poorer district famed for the Ribs, the gigantic remains of some vast creature killed millennia ago. East of Bonetown lies Mog Hill, Pincod and Badside, whilst Sunter, Kelltree and Echomire lie to the south. West of the Tar lies Chimer, Creekside, Smog Bend, Saint Jabber’s Mound, Gallmarch, Serpolet, Lichford, Spatters and Howl Barrow. South of the river as it curves around to the confluence are Ketch Heath, Sangwine, Sobek Croix, Salacus Fields, Barrackham, Riverskin, Flyside, Aspic and, located near Strack Island, Griss Twist and Griss Fell. South of the Gross Tar lie Syriac, Murkside, Syriac Well, Pelorus Fields, Dog Fenn and Stoneshell.

At one time the city extended further south and west, but the Rudewood has encroached on the city limits. A railway line continues into the woods before terminating in disarray, a remnant of the settlement in this region.

New Crobuzon is a city of rails and rivers. Among the largest bridges in the city are the Batley, Rust, Sheer and Danechi’s, but the most impressive was the Grand Calibre Bridge, built over the Gross Tar at its widest extent in the city itself. Unfortunately, the bridge’s ambition exceeded its engineering and the bridge shattered after being opened. It has still not yet been repaired.

Lee Croyer's splendid map of New Crobuzon.

The port town of Crobuzon was founded at the mouth of the Gross Tar River some 1,800 years ago. The port thrived for a century before a major pirate raid destroyed it. The survivors fled over ten miles upriver to the junction of the Tar and Canker rivers. Here, in what is now Brock Marsh and on Strack Island just to the south, they founded a new fortified settlement. “New” Crobuzon soon prospered and grew. Its location further upriver, with the two rivers used for defence, made it much more difficult to attack.

New Crobuzon grew slowly over a period of about a thousand years. Circa 1000 AU (Anno Urbis, Year of the Town) the merchant Seemly discovered the continent of Bered Kai Nev and its khepri inhabitants, opening the way for trade and exploration.

Around 1300 the city was battered by a Torque storm, one of many “reality storms” which wracked the world of Bas-Lag and left parts of the land battered and changed. An “aeromorphic” engine was built to help defend against future storms and, as a side-effect, also allowed the government to control the weather around the city.

Between 1300 and 1500 New Crobuzon experienced a golden age, a period known as the “Full Years” when the city became the centre of mercantile trade for much of eastern Rohagi. This period also saw the city make many enemies in its quest for greater riches. This culminated in the Pirate Wars, a lengthy conflict between New Crobuzon and many of the island states of the Swollen Ocean, along with several other ports. The war was “won” in 1544 when New Crobuzon deployed “Torque bombs” against the port city of Suroch to the north. The other combatants were so horrified that they ended hostilities. An expedition to Suroch to investigate the effects of the Torque bombs in 1644 uncovered horrors so unspeakable that all records of the mission were purged. Several photographs of the ruins and the creatures left living in them leaked out in 1689 and sparked immediate riots in the city.

The detonation of the Torque bombs seemed to attract the attention of other, extradimensional entities. Hell would begin dispatching ambassadors to the city and the enigmatic, capricious and a bizarre, spiderlike entity known as “the Weaver” took up residence in the metropolis shortly after these events.

The end of the Pirate Wars did not restore New Crobuzon’s former prosperity, and the city has struggled to recreate its former golden age. The aeromorphic engine ceased functioning, the Rudewood encroached on the western approaches to the city and further tensions rose with other city-states. In 1689 the city also experienced a massive influx of refugees from Bered Kai Nev, khepri fleeing a horror known only as the Ravening. New Crobuzon would go on to establish the colony of Nova Esperium on the continent to conduct an exploration and learn more about the Ravening, but ultimately this would fail, with the colony instead becoming a dumping ground for criminals.
In 1779 the city was troubled by a slake moth which caused untold damage and despair before being defeated. The following year an expedition set out from the city which culminated in the discovery of the floating city of Armada and the hunting of a powerful and mysterious aquatic creature. Between 1780 and 1804 New Crobuzon would fight a war with the powerful southern city of Tesh for control of the Firewater Straits separating Rohagi from the southern continent. New Crobuzon would declare victory in this conflict, but has not yet capitalised on this victory in any meaningful way, making some citizens believe that the war was less of a success than first reported.

Most recently, in 1806 the city was wracked by disorder and chaos as poor workers and militants fought the militia in a series of political riots.

Three of the well-known races of Rohagi and New Crobuzon: from left-to-right, a cactacae, garuda and khepri. From The Bas-Lag Gazetteer.

New Crobuzon is home to many diverse and interesting races from all over the world of Bas-Lag. Humans are the most numerous and influential, but several others are notable.

Most common in the city, after humans, are the cactacae, enormous living catacus-people with thorns growing out of their bodies. They are large, strong and formidable, making excellent workers and very bad enemies. They are hollow, with bullets and arrows passing straight through them, making them almost impossible to kill in combat.

Garuda are winged humanoids capable of flight. They are native to the Cymek Desert far to the south of the city, but a small enclave lives within New Crobuzon.

The khepri are a race of humanoid/insect hybrids native to the eastern continent of Bered Kai Nev. They resemble human women in all respects apart from their heads, which have been replaced with scarab beetles. The females are sentient, highly intelligent and communicate with other species via sign language. The males of the species, who simply resemble large scarab beetles, are non-sentient and treated with disdain by the females.

The Remade are people (human and otherwise) whose body parts have been replaced with mechanical counterparts. Sometimes this is due to industrial accidents, but in most cases is the result of the criminal justice system.

The vodyanoi are an aquatic species, noted for resembling frogs. They can create objects out of water through their innate magical powers.

Most disturbing is The Weaver, an interdimensional spider-like entity of untested power and capabilities. An interloper from another universe, the Weaver took an interest in the city shortly after the detonation of the Torque bombs. Other Weavers are believed to exist, and it is regarded as highly fortunate that only one has shown an interest in Bas-Lag. It is possible that the Weaver’s presence has gone some way to dissuading the city government from ever using Torque bombs again. The Weaver resembles a huge spider. It is highly intelligent, but speaks in bizarre verse and random observations that are difficult to parse. The Weaver regards life as a form of art and moulds it to its own sense of aesthetics. In a crisis situation, the Weaver may remain aloof, preferring to observe; it may aid the beleaguered; or it may make things considerably worse, just to see what happens and satisfy its inscrutable curiosity. The Weaver is capricious, unpredictable and utterly alien, and its guidance should be sought with caution.

The original cover art to Perdido Street Station by Les Edwards.

Origins, Appearances and Influences
New Crobuzon first appeared in Perdido Street Station (2000), the second novel by British fantasy writer China Miéville. It is the primary setting for the novel, in which a group of unlikely characters are drawn together as a slake moth stalks the city and its bizarre inhabitants. The city is also the launching pad for the events of The Scar (2002), although the primary setting for that novel is the floating city of Armada. The city returns to prominence in Iron Council (2004), which concentrates on both a hunt for a missing train far to the south of the city as well as political turmoil within the city itself. The short story “Jack”, from Looking for Jake (2005), is also set in the city and expands on the character of Jack Half-a-prayer from Perdido Street Station.

Bas-Lag was created by China Miéville as a setting for both stories and roleplaying campaigns. He was heavily inspired by The Malacia Tapestry (1976) by Brian W. Aldiss and The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers. The world and the city seem to be a partial rejection of Tolkienesque notions of fantasy conservatism, but Miéville has also credited Tolkien with inspiring his creation of memorable, horrible monsters. New Crobuzon is also clearly inspired by London, Miéville’s adopted home town.

Since 2005, despite interest from readers, Miéville has not returned to the world of Bas-Lag or the city of New Crobuzon. Instead his books have gone further in exploring fantasised versions of the real London (most notably in Un Lun Dun but also Kraken and many of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion) or even leaving fantasy behind altogether for SF (as in Embassytown and, arguably, Railsea). A planned development of Bas-Lag as a roleplaying campaign setting has also fallen by the wayside, resulting in this fine (but 100% unofficial) effort from fan Bryce Jones.

Despite – or maybe because of – its relative lack of exposure, New Crobuzon is one of fantasy’s most popular, iconic and impressive cities, a city which is genuinely weird, offbeat and atmospheric but is also highly convincing in its offbeat detail and captivating in its colour and stories. It is to Miéville’s credit that he hasn’t just bashed out 20 novels in the same setting, but there is also the feeling that there is much more to explore in this city, and the hope that the author may one day return to it.

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