Date finished: February 28th 2016
God, what a tome. Miéville’s most recent novella This Census-Taker left a strange taste in the mouth. It was by no means a bad story, but it wasn’t exactly a Miéville story. The cure to such a problem? Read another Miéville, of course! So I decided to take another stab at Perdido Street Station, a mad-scientist work of world-building and frenetic genius spanning nearly 900 pages. I had attempted the book before, but it’s sheer bulkiness combined with outside distractions led to me giving up. But such an eccentric and unique story had whet my appetite and was well deserving of a second attempt. And here we are now.
New Crobuzon – a vast sprawling, steampunk city; an industrial stew of wealth and poverty and corruption; inhabited by a huge number of varied and incredible races, all trying to get through life in this harsh and unforgiving conurbation. At the city’s heart lies Perdido Street Station, the centrepoint of this ramshackle cesspit. Within this strange world, our two protagonists, Isaac – an eccentric, human scientist; and his girlfriend Lin, a Khepri (bug-person) artist, receive a commission each from strange and enigmatic characters. They each become obsessed with their new jobs, Isaac desperately researching into methods of flight to restore this power to an exiled Garuda named Yagharek, and Lin trying to perfect a sculpture of her unimaginably grotesque employer, the Remade monster, Mr Motley. Their work leads them down strange avenues and into the seamy underbelly of New Crobuzon, and – once you add an empathic caterpillar that feeds on a powerful dream-stealing hallucinogen into the mix – things begin to get just a tad crazy.
That is the outline of the plot in a nutshell, but Perdido Street Station is so much more than this. Primarily, it’s a work of world-building. Miéville has built a fully-realised city from the ground-up: more fetid than Victorian London, and far more imaginative than any of the best fantasy authors you’ve ever read. There are different races, strange species, new cultures, mutating bombs, crimes beyond human understanding, authoritarian rulers, dissident citizens, mad-sciences, mind-boggling drugs, inter-dimensional monsters beyond comprehension, ambassadors from other planes, and much, much more to sink your teeth into. Miéville’s specialty is concepts, and Perdido Street Station highlights this talent of his better than any of his other works. He comes at his ideas from every possible angle to come up with fully-realised characters and cultures and objects that are explored in astounding depth. And then he uses this talent more subtly: to hint at mind-bending implications and objects in a tantalising way to tease at sanity. Miéville’s worlds would be tangible were it not for the fact that they’re so brain-achingly insane; your mind screaming that these things can’t be imagined.
Of course, man cannot read a work of world-building alone. Fortunately, Miéville doesn’t disappoint in any other regard. He can be at once gripping, philosophical, inventive and emotional, and always very eloquent. There are many threads at play in this enormous work and the main plot doesn’t even become clear until about the halfway mark. In some stories that would be terribly dull, but in this each thread is as tantalising as the last, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in the build-up. The protagonists are fully-formed with faults and weaknesses; virtues and strengths, and the antagonists are similarly complex. Nothing is simple with Miéville: he determines to make a madcap work of fantasy as realistic as possible.
Quite simply, Perdido Street Station is one of the most breathtakingly ambitious novels I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Miéville isn’t afraid to experiment with wild ideas beyond the realms of normal science-fiction and fantasy and blend them with real-world problems such as identity, religion, science and politics, to create something new, exciting and thrilling. It’s a workout for the brain but that doesn’t mean it’s not great fun too. The pace rarely slows, and there are always more twists and concepts being thrown at you from every angle. It’s by no means a perfect novel, but it’s hard to fault such a vivid experience; New Crobuzon is a tangible city full of intangible things, and by the end you’ll feel as though you’ve lived there.