I admire science fiction authors for their ability to study society’s poisonous weeds and forecast the toxic futures we face should those weeds run wild. My favorite example is George Orwell’s 1984. It predicted today’s surveillance state when it was published 68 years ago. Recently, I’ve come to appreciate China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, published 17 years ago, for it’s social commentary on justice.
The story takes place in a police city-state, New Crobuzon, where citizens pity friends but disdain strangers who draw the state’s ire. New Crobuzon is an industrial city modeled on a steampunk London, and although the setting is Victorian, New Crobuzon’s models for punishment and restitution remind me of today’s criminal legal system and the toxic direction we’re headed.
In New Crobuzon, the city doesn’t incarcerate common criminals for long periods. Instead, they’re sent to “punishment factories” where magic transforms them into monstrosities called Remades. Examples range from a man with a fox embedded in his chest “there [the fox] snarls and bites at him in permanent terror,” to a woman fitted with a boiler to power her mechanical, tripod legs. The Remaking relegates them to a permanent underclass, often enslaved to private business interests. Instead of paying to lock people in prison, New Crobuzon imprisons people in their own bodies and regulates their behavior with a caste system.
One scene illustrates the effects of this system. Here, a woman named Derkhan passes a nightclub where Remades guard the entry:
I read Perdido Street Station years ago, but I remembered it this month while watching Ava DuVernay’s documentary, The 13th. The eponymous number references the Constitution’s 13th amendment, which legalizes slavery in jails and prisons. DuVernay’s film examines the reiterations of slavery as an institution to control black bodies in America: plantation slavery, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
I would extend DuVernay’s claim and say the reiterations of slavery are institutions for controlling poor bodies. For example, Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow how plantation slavery was as much about giving poor white people a feeling of status—similar to the Roman commoner watching gladiators bleed for their pleasure—in order to pacify poor white people’s dissatisfaction with economic and social inequalities of the day. This same offering of status as a means of control resurfaced during Jim Crow, during the mass incarceration of black men, and it gestures to a dark parable in black communities. In the parable, a marginalized citizen, like a white convicted felon, will complain about all the ways the status quo screws him. He’s sitting at a bar, frustrated at his lot, but he lifts his shot glass and takes solace, saying, “But at least I’m not black.”
DuVernay’s documentary reminded me of Perdido Street Station because her interviewees forecast a possible future that moves us closer to the horrors of New Crobuzon. Privatization of prisons has built a multibillion-dollar industry of incarceration, and with current demands to reduce prison populations; prison corporations are looking to maintain profits through the privatization of parole, probation, and community corrections. The latter is a euphemism for imprisoning people in their homes for profit. Responding to corporations’ evolving position in corrections, one community leader in DuVernay’s film expresses his fear:
In this age of Trumpsonian walls, how far off is this nightmare of perpetual surveillance and control from checkpoints and walled-off communities ala Escape from New York?
After considering my comparison of the fantastical atrocities of New Crobuzon’s criminal legal system and the direction of ours, one might cry, “Slippery slope fallacy!” Imprisoning people in their communities is a long way from imprisoning people in their own bodies. But our legal system already punishes people with the priority of causing lasting suffering (the principle was, in fact, signed into my state’s penal code). Our legal system already enslaves incarcerated people and puts them to work for state and corporate interests; it has already created a pariah underclass of people who have been convicted of crimes.
The slope is not slippery—it’s more of an escalator. We’re failing to face that. We’re failing to recognize that different representations don’t mean different phenomena in the same way that we, as a growing nation, failed to recognize Jim Crow and mass incarceration as reiterations of slavery. The same principles that underlie New Crobuzon’s “justice”—cruelty paired with retribution, control paired with dehumanization—underlie ours. While the governing principles of crime and punishment remain the same, why think that our end result will be any less horrifying than Mieville’s Remade?
Twenty years before Nazi Germany murdered millions of its own citizens in concentration camps, German citizens might have thought the idea of the Remade fantastical. But as Alexander writes, “The emergence of each new system of control may seem sudden, but history shows that the seeds are planted long before each new institution begins to grow.”
What are these seeds but the principles that give rise to the weeds?