Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Published: Macmillan Publishing (2000), Del Rey (2001)
Series: New Crobuzon Trilogy: Book 1
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association, Locus Fantasy, World Fantasy, Hugo, and Nebula Awards
Awards Won: British Fantasy Society and Arthur C. Clarke Awards
“Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to none—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.
Isaac has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before fathomed. Though the Garuda's request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger.
While Isaac's experiments for the Garuda turn into an obsession, one of his lab specimens demands attention: a brilliantly colored caterpillar that feeds on nothing but a hallucinatory drug and grows larger and more consuming by the day. What finally emerges from the silken cocoon will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon, and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it invokes...” ~WWend.com
After months languishing in my upcoming review list, I’ve finally finished reading Perdido Street Station! This novel has gotten plenty of attention from genre awards, and I’ve heard more than one person say this is the first Miéville work a new reader should try. I’m not new to reading Miéville, since I’ve already read The City & The City and Embassytown, but those two novels inspired me to seek out more of his work. Perdido Street Station is the first book of a series, but I believe that each novel is effectively a stand-alone book set in the same world (Bas-Lag), of which New Crobuzon is a major city-state.
The complex and gritty city of New Crobuzon is one of the most impressive parts of Perdido Street Station. In a sense, one could consider New Crobuzon to be one of the most important characters in the story. The wealth of information on all of the architecture, neighborhoods, species, social groups and attitudes, and political factions could sometimes be a little overwhelming, but it was always fascinating to see how all of these pieces interacted to build up the whole of New Crobuzon. By the end, I felt like I not only had an appreciation for the geography of the city, but for the physical and psychological makeup of the population and their internal conflicts. All of this information was slowly dispersed throughout the story, so that it seemed there was always something new to discover on the next page. I’ve always been a fan of detailed world building, so I loved learning about the massive, diverse city of New Crobuzon.
In talking about the story, I think it is easiest to define two sections—“pre-metamorphosis” (of Isaac’s strange caterpillar) and “post-metamorphosis”. I ended up being more interested in the “pre” section. This part of the story was relatively low tension, and gave a feel for what normal, daily life is like in New Crobuzon. The main characters were a rebellious scientist, Isaac, and his khepri (part-insect, part-human) artist girlfriend, Lin. I enjoyed spending time looking at the world from their perspectives, and their existence in distinct racial and social groups gave a good view of some of the different lifestyles within the city. They also provided a window into how one practices art and science in this fantasy world. Aside from the perspective they gave on New Crobuzon, they were also pretty well-drawn, flawed, likable characters. I was thoroughly engaged in following Isaac and Lin’s ‘normal’ lives.
The “post” section was basically a monster hunt. The city was still interesting, and there were still more nooks and crannies to discover, but I found my enthusiasm for the story occasionally flagging. One thing that might have contributed to this was the proliferation of characters in point-of-view positions and their associated subplots. I was very invested in Isaac and Lin, and I just didn’t have the same interest in all the minor characters, especially since they were often not very fleshed out. Adding so many subplots also made me feel as though the pace of the story was slowing down as the tension increased. I was also less interested in the monster hunt, so this section began to seem a little unnecessarily long. Since there are very limited ways a monster hunt can end, I did not think that the ending would surprise me. While some things went as expected, I would have to call the ending, at the very least, unconventional. I’m not sure whether I appreciate leaving the story on that particular final note, but I’m still looking forward to returning to the world of Bas-Lag in the future.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Perdido Street Station is an impressively creative novel. The city of New Crobuzon is such a complex setting that I felt as though I were still learning about its intricacies up through the end of the novel. The city, its structure, its magic and science, its art, its subcultures and its various species and cultures all feel gritty and real. The main characters for the first part of the story, the scientist Isaac and the artist Lin, are well developed and sympathetic. I was most fascinated by the portions about the two of them going about their careers in this fascinating city. Midway through, the novel takes a wild left turn, and I was less engaged with the subsequent story. This section exploded with many new minor characters and subplots, which seemed to slow down the pace with the rising action. I’m still not sure if I’m satisfied with the ending, but this is definitely a novel that I will remember for a long time to come.