Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review of "Perdido Street Station' by China Mieville

Perdido Street Station, British author China Mieville’s second novel, is an original work of fantasy that’s sure to turn heads.  Whether homage or theft, elements from a wide variety of sources present themselves in the book.  The visceral descriptions of character and place are in the spirit of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast works or Michael Swanwick The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The monsters are in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, an overt Gene Wolfe, or any comic book.  And the story elements draw upon a wide variety of sub-genres--steam- to cyberpunk, horror to epic fantasy.  That being said, Mieville is able to combine these disparate elements into such an enticing mix of monsters and mayhem that the setting, characters, and the storyline plumbing their depths form a cohesive whole unique in fantasy.

Perdido Street Station resides at the heart of Mieville’s fictional New Crobuzon.  Like London or New York’s main terminals, its trains disperse into surrounding suburbs, boroughs, and neighborhoods that have a unique cultural, economic, or social status.  Home to a wide variety of human and xenian species, Mieville goes to great lengths, particularly in the first third of the book, to properly set the scene.  The cactus, frog, and insect-esque peoples populating the city are all detailed.  There are also lengthy descriptions of the crusty grime and stagnant filth that saturate the dark alleys and narrow streets, the smoke languoring ominously overhead, and the polluted sludge calling itself a river flowing through the city.  While this may not appeal to readers with a weaker stomach, the dystopian disgustingness nicely compliments the ever-evolving mix of steampunk tech that the city’s population depends on, produces, and exploits. 

Playing a witting - and sometimes unwitting - hand in New Crobuzon’s propagation of technical advancement and knowledge is the book’s main character, Isaac Grimnebulin.  Having left the university where he was teaching on moral grounds (the school was openly performing experiments that even Goebbels and Hitler would have nightmares about), Isaac is a rebel in more ways than one.  Involved in a taboo relationship with a khepri artist named Lin, a half-human, half-insect woman, Isaac’s liberal views also allow him to take on the commission of a garuda, a bird man who has had his wings removed for committing the crime of “choice-theft” in his own community.  An interesting moral concept, one that plays itself out nicely in the novel’s denouement, it is in solving the puzzle of how to get the garuda to fly again that the plot really starts to takes shape, corrupt government, crime-ridden underworld, and the seedy side of society complementing the story nicely. 

Needing a wide variety of birds, insects, and unnamable creatures which fly to go about his research, one day Isaac receives a mysteriously colored caterpillar that refuses to eat any of the food it is given.  It is the accidental discovery of the sustenance the caterpillar desires that springs the book to life, action thereafter moving in an ever gosh-wow direction.  Fascinating visuals and jaw-dropping scenes steadily take over the pages, bringing the reader on an exciting joyride of mud and slime, unearthly creatures, and scenarios that defy description out of the book’s context.  Dogs fly, spiders sing, dance, and play with scissors, and corpses are animated by powers all too tangible.  While pace may suffer at the novel’s outset as Mieville sets the scene, Perdido Street Station picks up steam like a freight train on its way to delivering a wonderfully satisfying, exciting, and unpredictable conclusion that is the reward for those who stick it out.

Mieville’s sixth novel, The City & the City, had a high degree of polished, focused prose effortlessly moving the story forward.  Published at the inchoate stage of his publishing career, Perdido Street Station instead features a more workmanlike command of language, flashes of true understanding of the craft escaping only here and there.  Viriconium and Gormenghast acknowledged by Mieville in the intro, readers should expect a lot of adjectives and descriptive elements as Mieville goes about worldbuilding - the setting a character unto itself.  (For my money, however, I would put The Iron Dragon's Daughter as Mieville's greatest influence--right down to "puissant" and "thaumaturgy", but that's for another day.)  His imagination worth the effort, memorable images and ideas with finite color and shape will hang in the mind long after the novel is finished despite the more than occasional clumsy or pretentious passage.  It goes without saying readers who don’t mind visuals more implanted than suggested will probably enjoy the novel the most, but will have to forgive Mieville the inability to match the mood of Viriconium.

In numerous interviews Mieville has deflected the question “Is there a political agenda to your writing?”, with the response “Not really.  Genre, plot, character are of foremost importance.”  Constantly hanging around the edges, tinting the story are, however, a number of elements which can be nothing less than class struggle, commentary on economics, and cultural relativism.  One never quite sure whether these elements amount to a thematic whole, sheer storytelling and visuals are the workhorses of the novel.  As such, it may be best to sit back and take the dirty, visceral, utterly weird ride Mieville has created to Perdido Street Station.  It is wholly original genre work for the 21st century--a feat increasingly difficult to pull off.   

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