Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
The last time I read this, I wrote: “While this book is remarkably huge, it’s a swift read – well-paced, interesting, creative and clever, which are all good things to have in a book.” At the time, that was true, but this time? Not so much.
I don’t know what changed in the intervening years. The first time I read this book, it gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. I fell into it, into the vast and horrible city of New Crobozon and all the madness that was built into it, and when I came out I was filled with wonder, surprise, and regret that I hadn’t spent a lifetime perfecting my skills at fantasy art.
This time was different, and I knew it pretty quickly. I found myself spending more time listening to podcasts while on the train, or playing games on my phone. I ate lunch at my desk and checked my RSS feeds instead of bringing my book up to the cafeteria with me. I actively avoided reading this book and I really wish I hadn’t because it deserves better.
It is the job of every fantasy writer to bring to life not only characters but an entire world. Whether you’re Jim Butcher, creating an alternate Chicago, or Robert Jordan, creating an entire planet, the writer has to know the world inside and out. Every country, every type of people, every custom and culture, climate and weather – everything.
This is because the characters that populate the tale will inevitably be shaped by their environment and its history. Would Tolkien’s fellowship have come together if it were not for the millennia of tensions that existed from having such diverse people living in such a small piece of the world? Probably not. Would the warring princes of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight books fight so hard if it were not for the terrifying storms and the power they bring? I doubt it.
Whether the world is built before the story is made or during the process of telling the tale, the author is responsible for it. In the case of Miéville’s New Crobuzon, you know from page one that he has put more time into thinking about his city than almost anything else.
There is almost a palpable feeling of dereliction and disrepair that comes off the page when he describes the city. It’s a dirty place, a wet place, a place that has seen better days. It’s mayor is a tyrant, who uses a secret militia to keep the populace under control and horrifying thaumaturgical techniques to punish those who break the law. It is a great, sprawling metropolis at the confluence of two rivers – the Tar and the Canker – which should tell you a bit about the city they run through. In the tradition of modern urban fantasy, it’s a place of magic and technology, ruined by political greed and social apathy. There are desperate poets and mad scientists, gang bosses and petty criminals, whores and saints and madmen for every occasion.
Independent scientist Isaac der Grimnebulin is looking for the thaumo-physiological secret to flight in order to help a disgraced bird-man regain his wings, and to prove his theory of “crisis energy” that may well change the world. In the process, he accidentally unleashes an unstoppable horror that threatens to slowly destroy the city and everyone in it. He also manages to make enemies of both the city militia and the leader of organized crime in New Crobuzon. He and his friends have only days before the city is overrun, or they are killed, and if they hope to survive they must somehow get the help of two of the most powerful entities the city has ever known.
Miéville has created a new flavor of fantasy here – a kind of steampunk world of brass and wood and gears, analog computers and over-designed firearms that really appeals to all the reader’s senses. He describes the city in unrelenting detail, and if pressed he could probably give you a tour from memory. You get the feeling that New Crobuzon has been sitting in his head for a long time, and all he’s done is finally put it to paper.For me, that might have been what changed. The first time I read this, I was swept up by the city, but this time… this time I kept thinking, “Yes, yes, the city is a cesspit, I get it. What about the giant moths?” I wanted the story more than I wanted the setting, and my impatience (combined with a whole lot of backed-up Radiolab episodes) kept me from really settling down, slogging through the descriptions of decaying brickwork, overgrown rooftops and beggars wrapped in filthy rags who crawled through the pestilential streets. In a way, it was kind of like Tolkien, but slightly more restrained.
But perhaps, like Tolkien, that was the point. For all that we’re reading an adventure now about a scientist and the horrors he has unleashed upon the world, about a strange patchwork crime lord, a tyrannical mayor, a sentient clockwork intelligence, a dimension-hopping super-spider and moths that will swallow your soul, this book really isn’t about them. This is just one event in the long and bizarre history of New Crobuzon and the vast and strange world it inhabits, and we’re granted a glimpse into it. When you get to the end of it, whatever else you think of the story, you’ll be stunned by what Miéville has been able to come up with.
I know that a lot of the cognoscenti of science fiction and fantasy just adore Miéville, and I can certainly see why. He’s creative, he’s imaginative, and he’s built a wonderful world for the imagination to play in, populated with some of the most bizarre races and people you could think of. He’s grabbed the trend of Steampunk retro-futurism and made it his own in a way that few other writers can do. He deserves all the credit he can get.
For me, though… Perhaps it was the right book, but not the right time.
“New Corbuzon was a city unconvinced by gravity. Aerostats oozed from cloud to cloud above it like slugs on cabbages. Militia-pods streaked through the heart of the city to its outlands, the cables that held them twanging and vibrating like guitar strings hundreds of feet in the air…”
– China Miéville, Perdido Street Station