Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (2000) 867 p.
Many have commented that China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, of which Perdido Street Station is the first installment, defies easy categorisation. While I don’t think it’s quite the staggering anomaly that other reviewers seem to, it’s certainly a creative mix of fantasy, science fiction, steampunk and horror, and the world of Bas-Lag is one of the most intriguing I’ve come across. My opinions on this book are mixed, but I still want to read the next book in the series (The Scar) simply to spend some more time in this fascinating world.
This is Mieville’s first and foremost talent: worldbuilding. Perdido Street Station takes place in the city of New Crobuzon, a filthy, smoggy, industrial urban wasteland where dozens of different species rub shoulders under the shadow of a fascist government. The city itself is explored through the eyes of a large cast of characters: freelance scientists, artists, convicts, journalists, thieves and adventurers, who come across (or are themselves) a variety of wildly different inhuman races, ranging from the wyrmen, small and stupid gargoyle-like creatures that infest the city’s rooftops and slums, to the Weaver, a near-omnipotent gigantic spider that lives beneath the city and speaks in a constant poetic babble. And it’s not just monsters – there are a lot of strange concepts jockeying for space here, like the anti-reality energy source called “Torque,” the city neighbourhood dominated by an enormous, half-buried skeleton, or the primitive artificial intelligence assembling itself from discarded machines in a city dump. Thankfully Mieville manages to keep them all largely believable and consistent, soothing my fears that I was going to end up reading another clusterfuck of a book like The Court of the Air.
It’s unfortunate, given the clear passion Mieville has for his creations, that he often stumbles over his own language when writing about them. Vast swathes of each page are given over to some of the most ridiculously ornate prose I’ve ever seen. Every sentence is saturated in adjectives, and Mieville seems to rack his brains to think of the most obscure nouns in existence:
There was a suddeon burgeoning swell of foreign exudations. The surface tension of the psychosphere ballooned with pressure, and that hideous sense of alien greed oozed through its pores. The psychic plane was thick with the glutinous effluvia of incomprehensible minds.
It’s always frustrating when an otherwise talented writer believes that the best way to paint a picture with words is to cram as many complex ones he can possibly think of into a paragraph. It looks amateurish and slows down the pace of the story, and this is already a book suffering from bad pacing. Let me break down the plot for you: a birdman who has lost his wings comes to New Crobuzon to have them regrown with the help of our protagonist, a scientist named Isaac. In the course of his research Isaac enlists the city’s underworld to steal a variety of winged creatures for him to study. One of these is a strange grub that eventually creates a chrysalis and emerges as an extremely dangerous moth-like monster that escapes, frees its brothers from a government lab, and proceeds to terrorise the city with them. Isaac and his cohorts must then try to hunt the moths down.
It takes Mievelle literally three hundred pages to get to the point where the moth emerges from its chrysalis. That’s two other novels, right there. And those three hundred pages are not particularly enthralling; Mieville regularly spends pages and pages exploring the minds of characters who are neither relevant to the plot nor particularly interesting. Combined with the aforementioned purple prose, this makes Perdido Street Station an appallingly slow read.
Now, once the story does get going – again, you have to wade through three hundred pages of set-up first – it’s actually pretty damn good. Mieville combines elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror to create a very unique story, playing off the strengths of each genre and discarding elements that don’t work. His characters, for example, are extremely resourceful and intelligent, devoting themselves to learning as much as they can about the creatures they have unleashed – and Mieville does not hesitate in giving them answers when they deserve them, unlike in most horror novels, when the element of fear relies on the unknown. I was happy to overlook some of the typical problems found in speculative fiction (stilted dialogue, overly rational characters, in-depth explanation of emotions as though they’re some kind of bizarre phenomenon) because Mieville was telling an entertaining monster-hunt in an original way in a brilliant fictional city.
Perdido Street Station is, overall, a good book – just not good enough to justify 867 pages and four weeks of my life. I’ll certainly read The Scar, but I hope that after his first novel Mieville threw away his thesuarus and got a better editor.