Monday, August 13, 2007

Review of Perdido Street Station -- China Miéville

Seen as a whole, the genre of fantasy has been solidly medieval in its flavor for many decades now. For many, fantasy fiction is synonymous with horses, dragons, knights, fairies, trolls, wizards, woodlands, and castles. Against a larger backdrop, this can be seen as the flowering of a rich tradition of European fairy tales, and most specifically, the wide and lasting popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Some writers, sensing a stagnation in the literature of fantasy, react strongly against these associations and seek other realms in which to paint their epics. This is the starting point for China Miéville's Perdido Street Station. We stand near a shadowy character at the beginning of the book, seeing through his eyes the slow revelations of New Crobuzon, the dystopian city at the center of Miéville's story. In lavish detail, the city appears to our eyes, and with each passing paragraph, we realize we have never been here before:

The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow...It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water.

How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveler?

It is too late to flee.
Here is New Crobuzon, our polluted-twisting-stinking setting for many hundreds of pages. If you can stand the stench, it is a vivid and striking place which will last in the mind long after the details of the story are lost to memory.

Miéville's sprawling story moves something like this. A lazy-genius scientist, Isaac dan Der Grimnebulin is contracted by an alien exile who has had his wings shorn for a crime he won't discuss. The alien pays well enough for Isaac to undertake the task of restoring his ability to fly, searching all the realms of science for a possible solution. In the process of conducting research, he accidentally comes into possession of a bio-weapon of awesome power, inadvertently releasing it into the wild to wreak havoc on the city. Isaac and a growing cadre of misfits compete with city powers and figures of the city's underworld in an attempt to stop the menace. Along the way, Miéville weaves in such diverse themes as inter-racial sexuality, Marxist political reform, the search for unified field theory, the near impossibility of cross-cultural communication, artificial intelligence, the use and abuse of technology for re-making humanity, and more.

The Spectacle of Weird

The greatest strength of Miéville's story is his ceaseless creative imagery. The city itself is a marvel of images: dark, slimy, gloomy, rotten, twisting, decaying. Around each corner is a new vista painted in original tones. The inhabitants of the city are a motley parade of human and alien, nearly all of which we have never seen before: the cactacae, a race of plant creatures covered saguaro-style in spines; the clockwork artist khepri, mantis-headed humans who speak in signs and pheromones; the sprawling frog-like vodyanoi who can shape water at will and crawl around the city soaking in wheeled bathtubs; only the raptor-winged garuda have we seen before.

Magic and technology are blurred here, and both are pervasive. Steam-powered constructs stomp around the city, coal-fired furnaces and analytical engines "elyctrical" and "alchymical" abound, and Miéville's version of the mage-wizard, the "thaumaturge" work like technicians and plumbers around the city. The horrid Re-made make their appearance frequently: people who have committed serious crimes and subsequently transformed by bio-thaumaturges into mockeries of their crime, i.e., a child-killer has the arms of her dead child grafted onto her face.

Cults are everywhere, worshipping both powerful alien figures and abstract philosophy. There is no "faith" reminiscent of the real world here, only fanatical devotion to a niche ideal, such as the accumulation of knowledge, concrete forms of bizarre alien beauty, mechanical perfection, or cold logic.

The center of the book's imaginative power revolves around a bio-weapon which Isaac releases into the skies of New Crobuzon: the utterly alien slake-moth. The creatures are gorilla-sized moths with hypnotic wings, inhabiting multiple dimensions at once, physically powerful, and nearly impossible to kill. They "taste" human emotion with dripping prehensile tongues, searching the city for humans on which to feed. It is not their flesh they are after, but rather their dreams: the "intoxicating brew of conscious blended with unconscious". They drink their victims with impunity, leaving them mindless husks covered in citrus-smelling slime. These slake-moths run rampant through the plot, plowing through increasingly desperate and fascinating attempts to stop them. Miéville has stated his goal in the writing of fiction as the creation of great monsters, and here he has spectacularly succeeded.

New Crobuzon: The Dystopian Ideal

The central character in Perdido Street Station is New Crobuzon. The weight of this city in Miéville's imagination must have been profound, since Miéville seems unable to keep from lavishly describing every corner of the city in which a scene was set, every journey across town, corners and places at best incidental to the plot. We are meant to see New Crobuzon as a decaying living thing, the literal bones of which rise high above the city, bleached by the sun and visible from every street corner.

New Crobuzon is the ideal Dystopian city. The sprawling city government is corrupt to the core, every member of which is amoral and self-interested in the maintenance of power or personal gain. The city is policed by faceless militia which move and violate with impunity. There is no middle class in Miéville's vision: only the city government in power supported on the backs of the oppressed worker laboring ceaselessly at the dock or factory. Within the urban squalor, children wander the city covered in grime, ready to steal from passersby or to rat them out to the government. Industry fills the air with soot or pooling oil into the city's rivers.

The plot of the novel winds exclusively through the interstices of New Crobuzon: the city's counter-culture, the domains of minor criminals, nomadic street markets, deserted homes, sewers, forgotten garbage dumps. Even the eponymous Perdido Street Station is not visited for the transportation center that it is. The final climax of the book takes place here; not within the station mind you, but on its roof, invisible to all but the city's outcast poor who huddle in camps high up in a world of angular elevated tile. For Miéville, the only safe place is well clear of the corrupt establishment, whether it be government, the academy, industry, or religion.

The Stumbling Outcast

Miéville's characters are perfect for such a journey through the underbelly of the city. Each character is an outcast from one or more groups: Isaac begins the story living from contract to contract with the city university, unable to hold a position there because of laziness and difficulty sustaining interest on any one project. His love-interest, the insect-headed Lin, is a rogue artist who is rejected by her peers; she is also a dubious member of a counterculture gathering of artists who also look askance on her whims. The wingless alien who comes to Isaac has been exiled for crimes against his people.

Later in the book, other outcast characters make their appearance: the editor of a forbidden, Marxist revolutionary newspaper; a low-level criminal operator who has connections with all of the underworld figures; a vast artificial intelligence hiding from the eyes of the city; an incomprehensible extraplanar creature who literally exists only in the fate-like connections between events; and many others.

The figures that oppose them are almost always institutional: the city mayor and his lackeys; the city militia; the heads of powerful organized crime. Miéville does not paint the outcast as hero necessarily, making sure that each character undergoes and fails crises of conscience. Here, no semblance of traditional morality exists. We journey with characters on the margins of a corrupt society, carving out what meager existence they can and failing even at that.

Miéville paints a beautiful picture of the love between Isaac and Lin, moments which stand out against the bleakness of the rest of the book. While Miéville makes much of the forbidden nature of inter-species relationship, the taboo comes across as somewhat hollow given the thoroughgoing counterculture of the book. It is difficult to imagine an underworld populated by figures of fragmented identity holding on to a traditional view of sexuality in this one case. Still, little of the plot rests on this conceit, and the emotional moments between Isaac and Lin throughout the book offer a welcome "humanity" amidst the gloom and grime.

[Spoiler alert] At the end of the book, Miéville reinforces the hopeless image of these outcasts by leaving all of the major antagonists alive and in power, forcing the surviving protagonists out of the city they love. The tender relationship between Isaac and Lin is ruined by her having been psychically shattered by a slake-moth attack, ultimately Isaac's fault. Even the exiled alien is left without resolution to his desire to fly, instead embracing a delusion of transformation involving vivid and painful self-mutilation. We are left with bitter images and little consolation as the book comes to an end.


Miéville's vision revels in darkness, a shadowy dream that never quite ends. Critics continually praise Miéville's work as original and creative--they are quite right. Miéville's work is already being considered definitive for this generation, and here is a good example of his genius. If brooding fiction and the spectacle of the grotesque are marks of interest for the reader, then proceed into the rich minings to be found here.

But be warned: here is no balanced or nuanced picture of humanity, but rather a journey into darkness which leaves the reader with precious few glimpses of beauty by the end. If the underbelly of urban culture is off-putting, pervasive foul language offensive, and the thoroughgoing absence of goodness disturbing, then this book is one to put back on the shelf.

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