Cannonball Read IV: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
From the first convoluted, rambling monologue to the final disturbing image, Perdido Street Station is a novel that tries to get into your head. The language is dense, the subjects are macabre and the book drips with the some of the most disturbing nightmares to every crawl onto the page. While the masses still think of fantasy as the bright nostalgia of knights, elves and evil vanquished, Miéville has crafted a world that bypasses our ego and plunges straight into the id, grabbing hold of the brainstem and refusing to let go.
New Crobuzon is a city of sex, violence, corruption and greed. All of the darker impulses of humanity, lurking just below our civilized veneers, thrive in this fantasy world that has more in common with Sin City than with Tolkien. Even the marginally respectable citizens are quietly full of deviancy or rebellion. The story focuses primarily on Isaac, whose biggest sin at the start of the novel is his inhuman affair with a Khepri, a mildly disturbing hybrid of scarab beetle and human female. Isaac is our window into a world where the horror of everyday life and the eldritch unknowns aren't so very far apart. He is like us, not a hero, but a man pushed to extremes by society and situation.
The plot follows Isaac's research into the possibilities of personal flight. His avenue of inquiry inadvertently triggers a chain of events that throw the entire city, from the corrupt government, to the militant drug czars, to the beggars on the street, into mortal and immediate peril. Unwilling to see the city burn, Isaac is forced to try and repair the damage while under attack from every side. But the book isn't so much about this crisis as it is about the way people react to the crisis. The real stars are the people of New Crobuzon that Miéville gives life to, and the fascinating world they inhabit.
Bas-Lag, the world of Perdido Street Station and its follow up novels, The Scar and Iron Council, is terrifyingly original. There are enough strange and original creatures here to fill a score of lesser novels, let alone Miéville's unique insights into religion, science, magic and the very tropes of 'fantasy.' Miéville very much threw out the books on both fantasy and horror, and rebuilt them into a captivating tapestry that speaks to our darker desires and refuses to let us look away from the darkness within. The key is that for all the evils of New Crobuzon, these people are not so very different from us. Their actions are motivated by survival and loyalty and even patriotism, and ultimately we can't just comfortably sit in our chairs and judge these fictional characters for the lengths they go to save everything they know. Except for Pigeon. He's a jackass.
Critically, Perdido Street Station is a superior piece of speculative fiction. There's a little bit too much going on to call it a masterpiece though. The high volume of PoV characters, slightly overwhelming technical detail, and dense language make for a challenging read. I could argue that Miéville made these choices for the express purpose of keeping the reader off balance, but interrupting one of the major climax scenes of the novel with three pages of magi-technobabble is a little excessive. Fans of deep world building will appreciate the detail and won't care as much about laundry list of characters, but for the rest of you, you'll just have to suffer through and refer to the Wiki pages to help keep things straight.
I fall cleanly into the 'fan of world building' category but one thing that I found a little odd was the strange dénouement. The striking climax and brilliant final moments of terror are somewhat undermined by a lengthy and convoluted exercise in comparative sociology that doesn't quite fit with any of the themes the book has been working on so far. Even Isaac had pushed this particular issue aside very early in the novel, only to have it come back and unexpectedly dominated the last chapters.
But overall, Perdido Street Station is a brilliant piece of writing. As much commentary on modern speculative fiction as it is a member of that genre, the book will make you think and challenge your preconceptions about fantasy and our own imperfect society. What more could you possibly want from a novel?
For more of fofo's reviews, check out his blog, Librum Incurso.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.