Wednesday 24 November 2010

Book review: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

(Pan Macmillan, 2000)

China Miéville has been winning numerous awards for his novel The City and the City, but his ability to attract awards like a magnet attracts iron filings is nothing new: his second novel, the sprawling Perdido Street Station, also won plenty of plaudits, including the Arthur C. Clarke award and British Fantasy August Derleth award (among others; it was also nominated for the Nebula and Hugo). Aside from the hugely positive critical response it received, Perdido Street Station is notable for being both the first book in Miéville's Bas-Lag sequence of novels, and also one of the major works of the 'stillborn' New Weird genre. The second Bas-Lag novel, The Scar, totally redefined the landscape of secondary world fantasy for me; it really opened my eyes, and I've never looked at the genre quite the same ever since. I figured therefore that it was time I delved into Perdido Street Station, to see whether it would have a similar effect on me.

I mentioned that Perdido is a sprawling novel, however I don't mean that purely in terms of size (although at 867 pages it certainly is that too). No, I mean more in terms of subject matter: there's a lot going on in this book, with the story merging romance, action and tragedy together in a heady mix, whilst also riffing on politics, science and artificial intelligence. All of this plays out against the industrial backdrop of New Crobuzon, a teeming industrial metropolis where trains shudder along skyrails above the sluggish Tar river, and where numerous bizarre races co-exist with humans in the crumbling buildings that cower beneath smog-tinged skies.

New Crobuzon will probably go down as Miéville's greatest creation, and rightly so: it's a stunningly well-realised setting, and can comfortably stand alongside other great cities and urban settings of secondary world fantasy such as Viriconium and Gormenghast (tellingly, Miéville name checks both Harrison and Peake in the acknowledgements). Miéville really does imbue New Crobuzon with a character all of its own; it feels more like a sentient creature than a mere passive setting - though it works perfectly well as the latter. It really is a fascinating place, and often evokes interest just as easily as the unfolding story does.

Speaking of the story, it intrigues from the very first few words:

Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark. 
We pitch. We rock in a deep current. 
Behind me the man tugs uneasily at his rudder and the barge corrects. Light lurches as the lantern swings. The man is afraid of me

I'll gladly go on record and say that I've read few more effective opening lines than those above. The bulk of the novel is written in third person, however the prologue and occasional interludes are written in first person from the perspective of one of the major characters. It's a neat ploy that enables Miéville to really get under the skin of the city and its people in these first person segments, demonstrating what an alien place it is to an outsider.

The outsider in this case is Yagharek, a garuda who has come to New Crobuzon with an impossible request, and it's this request that inadvertently sets into motion a terrifying chain of events that have dire implications for the entire city.

Except that before these events unfold, we have a couple of hundred pages of build-up. We're introduced to the gruff, affable character of  Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and his lover Lin, an insect-like Khepri, as well as a host of other colourful characters, such as the shady Lemuel Pigeon and the horrifying gangster Mr Motley. Miéville takes his time to develop the complex relationship between Isaac and Lin, as well as the setting of New Crobuzon, while simultaneously laying the foundations for the story to come. He manages this balance extremely well, though at the cost of pacing: it's only after 200 pages that the story really kicks into gear and momentum starts to build. And then after a series of events that crank up the tension and excitement, the electric pace suddenly winds down again and the story meanders along for another 100 pages before once again sparking into life. Such unpredictable pacing may prove a negative point for many readers, though for others - and I include myself here - it gives the novel a more organic, lifelike feel. Because life, of course, doesn't happen at a steady pace.

The story itself is equally unpredictable. As mentioned above, Miéville spends a lot of time laying a lot of foundations: there's the romance between Isaac and Lin, played out while Isaac undertakes a demanding research project and Lin takes on the artistic commission of her career, there's the underground newspaper that's trying to take on the government, and this is before we even get on to the political strikes or the strands being woven by the mysterious, enigmatic Weaver. Yet just when you think these various strands are being merged into some deep, multi-faceted story, they're all suddenly condensed into one major storyline: that of a hunt for some terrifying creatures that pose a threat to the entire city. It's a strange transformation, one that perhaps indicates that Miéville didn't quite know what he was initially shooting for with this novel. It could be argued that the simplicity of the novel's eventual premise isn't deserving of the pages of careful build-up that precede it, but ultimately it doesn't matter - the simple fact is that this is one exhilarating monster hunt.

The subjects of said hunt - the slake moths - are a wonderful creation: terrifying, yet strangely beguiling at the same time. The menace they exude dominates every scene they appear in, and fortunately there are plenty of those. But the moths are not the only strange creatures to make an appearance - the Weaver is another intriguing creation who lends a degree of unpredictability to proceedings, while the Construct Council is quite simply a brilliant idea that I will say nothing more about for fear of spoiling it. Of course, this being Miéville, there's some utterly bizarre stuff in here - not all of which works, yet there's rarely a dull moment.

Despite the weird and wonderful creations that Miéville cooks up in Perdido, the novel remains human-centric. The overriding premise may be that of the monster hunt and the bid to save the city, yet the love story between Isaac and Lin plays a huge role, and it is this element that really ignites the novel's emotional fires. Miéville really nails the characterisation of these two figures, and carefully builds their complex relationship before giving it a firm shunt in the direction of tragedy. The end result is emotionally powerful and leaves a lingering impression long after you've put the book down.

Verdict: Having already read The Scar, I had a rough idea of what to expect from Perdido Street Station, so the fact that it still managed to surprise and enthrall me speaks volumes. It undoubtedly has issues, most clearly with pacing and length (caused largely by Miéville's tendency to sometimes get too self-absorbed in his own world) but this is forgivable when you take into account what Miéville has achieved here. He's created a striking, memorable setting, and has then told a story worthy of this grim, industrial city: a story that combines love, beauty, horror and tragedy, told in the wonderfully evocative, baroque prose that Miéville has become famous for. In short, it's an excellent novel that showcases both the New Weird genre and Miéville's own individual talents. Compulsory reading for those who wish to see what secondary world fantasy can do when the pseudo-medieval shackles are well and truly cast off.


Glenn Kiwi said...

James, if you loved this you will be enthralled by Iron Council. In my opinion it's a Perdido Street Station refined and distilled with a rhythm that make the work a masterpiece

Anonymous said...

@Glenn Kiwi: FWIW, I loved both PSS and "The Scar", but absolutely hated "Iron Council". Too preachy, astoundingly bad plot, drags on in monotony for ages. It is almost hard to believe it's written by the same guy.

Unknown said...

Oh my god. Are you really leaving us, James?

Well, for a job at Orbit I can hardly blame you, mate. I do believe congrats are in order!

The Dude said...

My favorite of the Bas-Lag novels is also Iron Council.

I can understand some of the criticisms that people have towards the novel, but in my opinion it has something that Perdido Street Station and The Scar(despite being amazing books) don't have:a great ending!

Jared said...

Way to go out on a high note :)

Excellent review & good luck in the new role.

AparecidaProtectUs said...

Great review. Sorry to read just now you're actually discontinuing the blog. I hope you'll leave it up so newcomers can read your posts for awhile.