Tuesday, 24 December 2013
Perdido Street Station - China Mieville
May contain spoilers
I'd been intending to read China Miéville's Perdido Street Station for so long that I've completely forgotten who recommended it to me in the first place. At over 860 pages, it's rather an intimidating tome, but when I found a second copy in a charity shop to give to my friend, we decided to make a book club of it. I enjoyed Miéville's shorter novel, The City and the City when I read it earlier this year, which was a gritty police procedural set in an alternative but not quite fantastical universe. Judith had read some of his more science-fiction books. Perdido Street Station is epic fantasy, but as you've never seen it before. There are no wizards or elves to be found in the city-state of New Crobuzon, nor is it interchangeable with medieval England or Europe. New Crobuzon is a steampunk or clockpunk ciry, grim and grubby, a melting pot of communities. Alongside the human residents live the khepri (insect-people), cactus-people, vodyanoi (water-dwellers) and a few garuda (bird-folk.) Gangs of criminals and drug-dealers run New Crobuzon's underworld, while the government is ruthless. Horrifying tortures for punishments fitting the crime mean that the city is also filled with "Remade" mutants. New Crobuzon is not a pleasant place to live.
Our heroes are Isaac and Lin, an inter-species couple - quite the taboo, though they mingle in more open-minded and bohemian circles. Isaac is a scientist (with a bit of what is never called magic thrown into the mix) while Lin, a khepri, is an artist. Both are commissioned with secret projects, and the opening part of the book kept me hooked.I was intrigued to see how the characters would rise to these seemingly impossible challenges. Though not science fiction, Perdido Street Station still came across as very scientific fantasy. As a science dunce, I found the pseudoscientific explanations and mathematical finale almost, if not quite, made sense to me. I would have loved to have kept on reading these storylines, but it was not to be. As part of Isaac's studies, he inadvertantly raises a giant killer moth from a caterpillar, and the story turns into a massive monster-hunt as he and his friends try to track down and destroy these insect-dementors with hypnotic powers that have been set loose on the city. Some of the creatures enlisted in the fight against the slake-moths are fascinating, while others are grotesque. The Weaver is a sort of giant spider-creature, who acts not out of morality but to manipulate the universe into patterns only it can see. Then, of course, there is the sentient hoover, which turns out to be part of a giant machine seeking omnipotence. But overall, I found the moth-battle far less interesting than the "commissions" plot in the first few parts.
After a couple of hundred verbose and action-packed but overwhelming pages, I found Perdido Street Station became much more readable once we were reintroduced to a character who had been believed to be killed off earlier on. Even though I didn't think I favoured one character over another, it seemed that this person provided an emotional core to the story, something that kept me involved in the story, and their absence made me feel like a spectator rather than in the midst of the action.
Perdido Street Station came to a bittersweet ending and ultimately revealed some of the more interesting plotlines to be shaggy-dog stories. I felt quite betrayed by a character who I'd felt the most curiosity and sympathy towards throughout the novel, but who in the end I could not forgive. It's not an altogether satisfying finale, but it was never going to have a neat little happy-ever-after. Some of my reading suggests that Miéville prefers a story to pan out more like messy real life than into a tidy narrative shape. I think the ending suited the tone of the novel, even if I did find it frustrating. I went from loving the novel to struggling with it, but in the end Miéville left me wanting to know more. Overall, I'd say that is a successful outcome.