Thursday, October 1, 2009

Perdido Street Station - China Miéville

I am currently in the process of reading Steven Erikson's Dust of Dreams. It is of average length for one of the Malazan books, which by most standards means it is enormous. I expect it will take me another five or six days to finish it so in the mean time I am going to keep you entertained with this review of Miéville's Perdido Street Station. I wrote it in July 2008 but didn't post it on bscreview because of the one review per book policy that site had back then. It is one of the few reviews on my private blog I consider halfway decent so next time I am reading an encyclopaedia sized novel I will have to come up with another trick :P


I've finished this book almost two weeks ago and I still haven't gotten around to writing the review. Partly because I didn't have the time but mostly because I didn't have a clue how to approach this book. It does a marvellous job of not fitting in any category of speculative fiction I can think of for one thing. Miéville himself calls it weird fiction, which is perhaps the most fitting label one could think of. It took me a long time to make any sort of sense of the story, which, in hindsight, was not that complicated. The book is highly praised for it innovative approach to speculative fiction and awesome world building. While I don't dispute these judgements, upon reflection, I do think the book is slightly overrated.

The story is set in the sprawling metropolis of New Crobuzon. A Victorian London-like city state that is at the same time corrupted and falling apart but also at the edge of modern science. A centre of power that shows both it's long history and new initiative. A city full of strange creatures, held together by it's five magnificent railway lines that join at the cities heart. Perdido Street Station. One of these strange creatures is a the new arrival Yagharek. He is a member of a species capable of flight and has come to New Crobuzon with a lot of gold to buy the impossible.

The man who is to supply this miracle is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin. Isaac is an independent scientist with an obsession for finding a practical application of his favoured theory. He is looking for means to harness crisis energy. To sustain himself and his research he works for various clients on both sides of the law and isn't above "liberating" pieces of equipment from New Crobuzon's university, his one time employer. His private life is equally colourfully. He is currently in a passionate affair with Lin.

Lin is a member of the Khepri species (the name is a reference to an Egyptian god). The females of this species look human except for the fact that she has the body of an insect, complete with legs and rudimentary wings, where her head ought to be. Lin is an artists, sculpting great pieces of art with her spit and so-called colourberries. Her work is unusual for a Khepri and attracts the notice of one of New Crobuzon's most notorious criminals, Mr. Motley. He commissions her to create a sculpture of himself. A worthy challenge indeed as he is "Remade". A process of adapting the human body to all manner of biological impossibilities. Being remade is usually the result of a punishment handed out by New Crobuzon's notorious system of justice, but can also be used to create highly specialized workers.

Lin keeps her commission carefully secret but soon Isaac is to caught up in his own commission to notice her behaviour. Yagharek's wish proves to be the ultimate challenge, one that Isaac thinks can only be solved by the application of crisis energy. Before Isaac reaches that conclusion however, his investigations inadvertently release a creature that is both of great value and extremely dangerous. Soon the city is in the grip of this creature that leaves a string of victims robbed of their wits in it's wake, if it doesn't kill them outright. Various parties in the city set out to end the crisis but Isaac seems to be the one that can actually succeed.

It took me quite a while to get into this story.
Miéville has two habits that distracted me in the early stages of the book. His vocabulary is impressive. It way exceeds even my passive English vocabulary which is seizable for a second language speaker. I have long ago learnt to ignore the urge to reach for the dictionary every other page but almost Miéville had me there a couple of times. Another thing that makes the first part of the book rather inaccessible too was the way Miéville looses himself in descriptions of various parts of the city. I have to admit, they are marvellous. He makes his city come alive, paints a vivid image of the fantastic environment in which the story is set in his readers' minds. But the fact remains that he does so rather a lot and that especially early on it breaks the flow of the story. Miéville seems to frequently get lost in his own city (no pun intended).

On the other hand
Miéville introduces a lot of very interesting technological concepts. If I understood one of the passages set in Isaac workplace correct Miéville suggests New Crobuzon possesses computer-like technology based on steam power. The Construct Council's rise to intelligence from what is basically a scrap heap is also a very interesting, if somewhat disturbing, concept. Especially in the second half of the book, where the story gains speed, Miéville blends a lot of the technological concepts, Isaac's outlandish scientific ideas and even the local pantheon into a finale that will keep you up too late just so can finish the book. I will have to admit Isaac disappointed me in the end, when he finally faces the ethical side of accepting his commission. It felt like he chickened out on Yagharek in the end. Can't say it was entirely out of character though.

Miéville's approach to speculative fiction is certainly refreshing but Perdido Street Station remains an overwritten book. The story
Miéville tells does not justify the 867 pages in my copy. That being said it was well worth the read. Should you decide to pick it up though, remember that it takes a while for the story to get going. Miéville is demanding on the reader but I am tempted to find copies of the other Bas-Lag novels The Scar and Iron Council as well. Maybe when I have managed to reduce the to read pile to more manageable proportions.

Book Details
Title: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: PAN
Pages: 867
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-39289-1
First published: 2000


  1. Nice review. I'm about halfway through it myself and I mostly agree with you - fantastic wordbuilding, but my God he's wordy, and it takes 300 pages for the plot to get going.

  2. Yea, I got a couple of his books lying around the place but I still haven't gotten myself to the point of having another go at Bas-Lag. I'm used to reading English but Mieville takes so much effort that I won't pick it up lightly. That shouldn't stop anyone from trying though ;)