China Miéville’s ‘The Scar‘ is the second novel in the Bas-Lag series, and quite possibly, the best. There are plenty of excellent reviews of the book elsewhere and I don’t intend to add to them here. Rather there is an interesting allegorical reading (one of many it has to be said) to be gleaned from the wonderfully multiplicitous world that Miéville creates.
The story revolves around Bellis Coldwine, a fugitive from New Crobuzon, on her way to a distant city when her ship gets set upon by pirates. They commandeer the ship and take it to Armada, an urban conglomerate that is made up of hundreds of ocean vessels that are roped, chained and linked together. Armada floats the sea, ruled by The Lovers, a couple who cut symmetrical scars into each other’s face during their ‘intimate’ times. The Lovers have a plan, involving raising a Leviathanical sea creature called the Avanc, yoke it to Armada and navigate to The Scar in the Earth, a site of mystical and untold power. The story is however full of so much more complexity, intrigue and fantastical aesthetics though, and is by far the most enjoyable of Miéville’s Bas-Lag series to date. Because Miéville is an articulate, competent and highly accomplished Marxist weaver-of polysemic narratives, it is no surprise therefore that the story has resonance with the way in which we can critique the capitalistic idea of the Global City. In what follows, I will attempt to conceptualise Armada’s Global City-ness, and show (through links) how it can be used to narrate the contemporary paradigm itself. Armada is a city made up of ships that have been forcefully obtained, and strung together without a proper planning structure; like the Global City (Region?), it sprawls untamed. To do this, The Lovers send out groups of armed vigilantes to target particular ships that contain the resources needed by the Lovers to achieve their meretricious goals. The people who survive the pirating are ‘press-ganged’ into being citizens of Armada; some of whom relish in their new status at citizen, some of whom resent it. It is a pirate city that grows by leaching off the resources of others, it is parasitic. The city is also distinctly dichotomous and socially polarized – the parts below the sea level are harsh, dirty, characterised by manual labour and populated by the ‘Remade’ (criminals who have been punished in their previous habitat by having mechanical, animal or tentacular appendages surgically added). Parasitic, polarized; these are critiques readily levelled at the Global City. The rhetoric of people being forced into urban centres to search for work is all too familiar, and their subsequent exploitation even more so. Armada’s quest for the absolute power that The Scar can deliver (and the brutality that such a quest bestows upon its citizens) represents the Global City’s constant quest for growth, for financialisation and for profit. London, for example, as I detailed in a previous post is a city so obsessed with growth and fulfilling the Global City prophecy that it is creating vast injustices, inequalities and ineptitude seemingly daily. As Armada, led The Lovers ceaselessly search for The Scar, they spread propaganda, spy on people, suppress violent uprisings and force people into working jobs they do not want to do; all strategies of Global City control. While the Lovers are swift to brutalise civil unrest (the vampir race led a rebellion, but when quashed, their leader is subjected to horrific torture), they tell everyone who comes to Armada they are “no longer slaves”, inculcating a sense of freedom. However, the journey of Armada shows that such freedoms are illusionary, typified by Tanner Sack, the remade humanoid who is pivotal to the eventual cessation of Armada’s search for The Scar. Tanner, a slave in New Crobuzon revels in his new found citizenship of Armada, but he comes to realise that, like the other key protagonists of the story, he has been used and manipulated by the Lovers as a means to a more profitable end. Such illusion of active citizenship is predicated upon the repression of political power by over-hyped consumption patterns; Armada redacts the political power of its people by selling the intoxicating idea of The Scar to them. Therefore, The Lovers are managing Armada like the archetypal Global City. The ending to the story, in which the citizens of Armada, led by Tanner Sack force the Lovers to turn the city away from The Scar at the final moment speaks to the optimistic utopianism of Miéville’s disposition, and represents a society which can ‘design out’ the need for leadership, although it does in the end return to more just, if still hierarchical structure with the Lovers bodyguard, Ulther Doul, seizing control (in fact, it is perhaps Doul who has been the manipulator all along). This does not take away from the fact that Armada’s characteristics are highly commensurate with that of the Global City. There are plenty more vignettes throughout Miéville’s prose that speak to this allegory (and many others, including assemblage theory which would require a whole new blog post). But for me at least, The Scar is a fantastic literal and fictional, but highly appropriate metaphor for the Global City.