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China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

I’m not one for fantasy, the thought of the genre immediately brings to mind hordes of orcs, objects with magical properties, and characters who are either good or evil with no middle ground; of course, for this, Tolkien has to shoulder some of the blame. So, with this concern, I took on board the recommendation of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, a fantasy novel that breaks with the stereotypes and thrusts us into a bleak world where science and magic work inharmoniously together, mutants go about their daily lives, and cities are powerful autarchies where even the slightest whisper against the government may lead to you joining the desaparecidos.

It begins with Isaac and Lin, a mixed species couple (he’s human and she’s khepri, an insect hybrid) whose lives change when both receive contracts of work. Isaac is asked by a mysterious visitor to restore his power of flight, while Lin is employed by the local mafia boss to craft his sculpture, an artform in which insect sputum is her medium. As they work at their respective jobs Isaac unwittingly unleashes his research specimens upon the city of New Crobuzon, an event that affects him in a number of ways, and with his friends he sets out to right his wrong.

At almost 900 pages Perdido Street Station is no breeze, but one can’t help feel that it is drawn out, stuffed with adjectives, and as tedious a read as life in New Crobuzon. It would certainly have benefited from large quantities of editing, but there are some who would argue that it’s a homage to the style of Mervyn Peake. The story, for the first two hundred pages, was nicely taking form, but, when the slake-moths Isaac was researching escape, the novel slides downhill into a depressing chase, which, despite the implied timeframe and urgency, seemed leisurely and unexciting.

It was incredibly drawn out so that small spaces of time were dragged over pages which added nothing to the tension. The story, at the beginning, was shaping up nicely and when the slake-moths escaped the book just went downhill into a really depressing chase which, despite the implied timeframe and the importance, seemed leisurely as the narrative failed to excite.

Miéville shows us that New Crobuzon, a city in the world of Bas-Lag, is a dirty place; grimy windows, littered streets, and scores of nefarious characters. It’s a well realised setting, and not difficult to imagine its soaring towers, its crumbling buildings, the rusted train network, but, by the final two hundred pages, the author still takes many opportunities from the pressing narrative to remind us of the extreme filth and depressive air surrounding the place.

The prose is mediocre, although, having never read Peake, I can’t say whether the tribute is fitting. The author, at times, seems more interested in displaying his extensive vocabulary, but, in an attempt to do so, he finds himself repeating a number of words that actually limits his lexis; ‘extraordinary’, ‘oneiric’, and all possibilities of ‘thaumaturgy’ making considerable appearances. And when Miéville wants to describe something as brown then, rather than say it’s brown, he uses the word dun. Repeatedly.

The citizens of New Crobuzon are well-crafted and, like the city, utterly loathable. They are also, due to different species, mutations, and immigrants, extremely varied. Aside from the aforementioned humans and khepri, there are winged creatures called garuda, evolved cacti, which I could never visualise without reverting to caricature, and the Remade, those whose bodies have been reconfigured in imaginative ways by the use of controlled magic, are just a few of the types to be found wandering the streets, or, like any society, living ghettoised.

While Perdido Street Station starts well, it devolves into little more than a moth hunt, punctuated with Miéville’s own socialist politics. The climax takes place in the station of the title, the main thoroughfare of New Crobuzon, but it is hard to tell why the book is named after this construction as it only appears in the denouement for approximately fifty pages. All in all, Miéville isn’t a bad writer per se but he is by no means great. Should I wish to read another fantasy novel then I may approach his fiction again, but I will wait until he has a substantial body of work behind him and hope, that with each book, he improves on his craft.

May 31, 2007

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