Monday, May 16, 2005

Perdido Street Station

This past week I finished China Mieville's epic Perdido Street Station. This book has received quite excellent reviews and had come highly recommended. Amazon lists it as one of the Best of 2001 and says this about it:

But Perdido Street Station deserves the acclaim. It's ambitious and brilliant and--rarity of rarities--sui generis. Its clearest influences are Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy and M. John Harrison's Viriconium books, but it isn't much like them. It's Dickensian in scope, but fast-paced and modern. It's a love song for cities, and it packs a world into its strange, sprawling, steam-punky city of New Crobuzon. It can be read with equal validity as fantasy, science fiction, horror, or slipstream. It's got love, loss, crime, sex, riots, mad scientists, drugs, art, corruption, demons, dreams, obsession, magic, aliens, subversion, torture, dirigibles, romantic outlaws, artificial intelligence, and dangerous cults.

Among other things. To further quote Cynthia Ward at Amazon,

Yes, but what is Perdido Street Station about? To oversimplify: the eccentric scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is hired to restore the power of flight to a cruelly de-winged birdman. Isaac's secret lover is Lin, an artist of the khepri, a humano-insectoid race; theirs is a forbidden relationship. Lin is hired (rather against her will) by a mysterious crime boss to capture his horrifying likeness in the unique khepri art form. Isaac's quest for flying things to study leads to verification of his controversial unified theory of the strange sciences of his world. It also brings him an odd, unknown grub stolen from a secret government experiment so perilous it is sold to a ruthless drug lord--the same crime boss who hired Lin. The grub emerges from its cocoon, becomes an extraordinarily dangerous monster, and escapes Isaac's lab to ravage New Crobuzon, even as his discovery becomes known to a hidden, powerful, and sinister intelligence. Lin disappears and Isaac finds himself pursued by the monster, the drug lord, the government and armies of New Crobuzon, and other, more bizarre factions, not all confined to his world.

It's quite a concept, but one that I found baffling. I was challenged to make sense of this world that Mieville created. Perhaps that was his point. I know that most of my science fiction and fantasy reading is of a more simplistic nature, especially the fantasy which tends to be more in the direction of the "high fantasy" of Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, Tolkein, Robin Hobb, George Martin, etc. This is a completely different kind of fantasy and I saw it described as steampunk. defines steampunk as "a genre of science fiction set in Victorian times when steam was the main source of machine power; also written steam-punk". That's close, but it doesn't seem to capture it either.

I've also seen the word "phantasmagoric" used, which is defined as

A fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as seen in dreams or fever.
A constantly changing scene composed of numerous elements.
Fantastic imagery as represented in art.

That seems to be more accurate. The book is a rush of images and ideas that left me a little confused. Good? I guess so. It didn't blow me away, not like has happened with other books. I think I was more impressed with Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

I'll probably give Mieville another shot and read The Scar, but I think I expected something more and different from Perdido Street Station.


RobB said...

PSS is good, but a bit disjointed. I found The Scar to a much stronger effort. Mieville is in more control of the story in The Scar, and the plot is a bit more striaghtforward.

Actually, if you enjoyed Neverwhere, you would probably enjoy King Rat by Mieville, which also explores the dark mythic underside of London.

Joe said...

I had always read that King Rat was Mieville's weakest effort, but maybe I should give it a try before The Scar. Then again, it all depends what is available at the library when I'm just browsing.