Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Review: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

(Even though this is a cross-post, there might be genre-specific discussions that would better be served here at SF Safari than at my other blog.)

In my reading life, I can list only a handful of books that have truly captured my fascination: To Kill a Mockingbird, Mystic River, The Shadow of the Wind, Ender's Game, Money Shot, Hyperion, The Dawn Patrol, Tarzan of the Apes, and Treasure Island. These nine novels just landed themselves a tenth sibling.

Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville, is a huge, engrossing, towering, dense, baroque, and incomparable novel. It's a fantasy story in that magical elements exist in the world of New Crobuzon. It's also a science fiction novel in that there's a prominent steampunk element running throughout the entire story. It's part horror since there are monsters in this land, as well as man-made monstrosities. It's part social fiction in that Mieville's political philosophy clearly comes out in how his characters interact with each other. Perdido Street Station (PSS), however, is more than the sum of its parts.

Other reviewers have tried to put into words the scope and style of this gorgeous novel and more than a few have chosen Dickensian. That adjective carries with it more than a century of baggage and not everything to which it is applied deserves it. PSS does. In his novels, Charles Dickens explored then-contemporary social issues within the framework of a complex, sometimes convoluted, plot structure. Characters abound in a Dickens novel, little ones and big ones, some playing only a minor part, others consuming whole chunks of the story. Mieville's characters operate in a similar way, only their world is fictional, fantastical, and more than a little depressing.

The level of detail in which Mieville describes the architecture, history, geography, and population of New Crobuzon warrants it's own, separate essay. If you've followed my discussion of world-building over at SF Safari, you'll remember my thoughts on world-building. In short, I think many SF/F books suffer from bloated world-building--too much travelogue, too little narrative-- so much so that the plot gets sacrificed along the way. It's why you see so many thousand-page doorstops on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Mieville straddles this line tenuously. He doesn't stop the action so long as to give a five-page mini-history. Instead, he gives you a page here and there, the cumulative effect being a wider understanding of New Crobuzon and it's place in the world of Bas-Lag.

By now you're probably knocking on your computer screens and saying, "Yeah, Scott, but what is the book about?" [Deep breath] Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is a scientist, a human, who studies crisis energy. His girlfriend is Lin, an artist and a Kepri (a humanoid with a insectile head who "speaks" in sign language). Isaac and Lin each get commissioned at the same time for different jobs. Isaac is hired by Yagharek, a Garuda (race of humanoid-bird creatures) to restore his flight (his wings have been hacked off for an unknown crime). Lin is hired by Mr. Motley, the godfather of all crime lords in the city, to sculpt a statue of him. (If you thought Jabba the Hutt was disgusting, you'd be horrified at Motley's description. He has altered, AKA "re-made," himself by adding various body parts to his original human frame.)

For the first third of the novel, you see Isaac and Lin accept their commissions, interact with their friends, and you, the reader, are treated to a sepia-tinged snapshot of New Crobuzon. The novel is hardly flawless and the dense prose at the beginning--replete with overly descriptive passages detailing just how old and fetid the city is--can be daunting. More than once I wondered when the story was going to pick up and what the main narrative arc was going to be. It shows up in the most unlikely source: Isaac's research. In an attempt to learn how natural things fly (to better understand how he can give Yagharek new wings), Isaac sends out secret word that he'll pay for anything with wings, even things like caterpillars who will eventually get wings. His is given a stolen larva that has been secreted out of the main research area of Parliament (located in a giant tower named Perdido Street Station, so named because of the elevated railway that crisscross the city). Oddly, this larva only responds to a hallucinogenic drug called "dreams--t." Not knowing what the creature is, Isaac buys some of the drug and feeds it to the larva.

You remember when your mom told you never to mess with things you don't understand? Clearly, Isaac forgot that lesson. The larva grows and the thing--yes, Thing--that emerges is a slake-moth. One of the more unique aspects of Mieville's writing is that he gives you just enough description of an object or person but you still never quite get the entire picture. In addition, different readers will have different takes on the same creatures. To say the slake-moth is bad news is a gross understatement. It's wings hypnotizes it's victims, bringing in their minds myriads of nightmares. The moths then drink the dreamlike juices. Yuck. It's been a long time since I read any horror literature. I'm not squeamish by nature but the first time a moth fed just about got me. To give you an idea of how ferocious these things are, the aliens from "Alien" wouldn't stand a chance.

And there are five slake-moths. The one in Isaac's lab escapes and frees it's siblings. The rest of the novel is Isaac and his friends trying to kill the moths. Other characters enter the stage. The mayor of New Crobuzon, Bentham Rudgutter, rallies the military and other Re-Made creatures, trying to capture the moths for his own corrupt reasons. The Weaver, a giant, spider-like, god-like creature who has human hands but can also travel between planes of existence, has his own agenda when it comes to the moths. There are other things that populate this chimeric city but I won't spoil the fun of their discovery.

Perdido Street Station is not without its weaknesses. Certain characters that you think are important drop from the main stage and, inexplicably, never return. There's a giant coincidence that pushes the story along that I saw coming and was a little let down when it proved to be true. The denouement at the end of the story is satisfying. I can't say the same thing about the epilogue after the big ending. It was rather disappointing and it keeps me from giving this novel my complete five-star recommendation.

But I wholeheartedly give it four-and-a-half or more. It's not a perfect book. But it is unlike anything I've ever read. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite it's flaws. I was completely engrossed by the world and want to return. After I finished the book, I was spent. It took me a week to figure out what to read next. There are so many books and authors I want to read that I usually have a rule: I don’t read the same author back to back. In my audiobook world, I’ve kept that rule, listening to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (completely the opposite type book). In my reading world, I’ve broken the rule. I realized that the only person who can follow Mieville is Mieville.

 
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