Del Rey, 2000, 710 pages, C$27.00 tpb, ISBN 0-345-44302-0
I don’t read a lot of fantasy, in part due to a feeling that it doesn’t have much to offer: locked-in traditional high fantasy is almost as rigidly defined as today’s contemporary world, and that’s a straight trip to boredom. Granted, this is less a reflection on epic fantasy than it is a reproach to the writers unwilling to re-invent a genre fatally tainted by Tolkien.
But wait! China Miéville is a writer willing to shake it up and Perdido Street Station is the novel I’ve been waiting for. A smart blend of science-fiction and fantasy in an environment quite unlike anything ever written before, this is the kind of book that leaves a deep impression on neophytes and jaded cynics alike.
Some novels are about characters and some are about stories, but this one is about a city: New Crobuzon. Set in an imaginary universe where kinds of magic work nearly as well as Victorian-era technology, New Crobuzon is a vast playground, a place where rivers converge, races commingle and all railways end at the gigantic Perdido Street Station.
One character will introduce us to the city: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an eccentric human with an insectoid girlfriend and an interest in a magical science called Crisis Theory. His reputation has already travelled some way and so one day he is accosted by a stranger, a mangled bird-man who has crossed half a world in order to be able to fly again. Helped along by a generous quantity of gold, Isaac soon finds himself tasked with re-creating the gift of flight. In a universe equally shaped by science and technology, this would seem to be an easy task. The only problem would be to pick only one method. But Isaac is more meticulous, and before long he’s collecting all types of creature in order to study how they fly, and how he may be able to re-create the effect.
If Perdido Street Station has one flaw, it’s that the early part of the novel is riddled with coincidences. Isaac’s call for creatures just happens to net him a caterpillar than just happens to feed on something that her girlfriend’s manager just happens to have when he visits, and naturally his girlfriend just happens to receive a commission from someone who may know a lot more about this situation, but then Isaac just happens to be contacted by something that just happens to know of a betrayal… and so on.
But whereas in other novels the heavy hand of authorial influence would be too obvious for comfort, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much in Perdido Street Station. This, after all, is a novel of discovery, a novel of a place rather than of plot. Not that the plot doesn’t start moving after a lengthy set-up: Pretty soon, thanks to some unfortunate events, New Crobuzon is plunged in nightmarish terror and its denizens race feverishly to find a solution. Their appeals to the lowest powers are rejected (!) and so they must appeal to an even stranger force… even as Isaac discovers an occult conspiracy he did not suspect.
The delights of this novel are many, but few are as satisfying as the gradual discovery of the city and its inhabitants. Cactus-people, automatons, terrible dream-suckers, a dimension-shifting entity called the Weaver, insect humanoids and scores of other creatures all figure in Perdido Street Station, splendidly shown by Miéville as he delights in showing off the wonder of his world. There is a lot of material in those 710 pages.
In some ways, this is like a dream setting for a role-playing game. In others, it’s a pleasure to see Miéville introduce all of these elements, then use them all in the road leading to the spectacular climax of the piece. There are striking images throughout the novel, whether it’s the description of the city, scenes where our characters travel through dimensions or when they witness, helplessly, creatures feeding on a victim’s mind.
This, by almost any measure, is a major novel. Written with skill and reasonable clarity, it cuts right to the heart of fantasy to show us an original world. Characters are well-drawn, wonders are unleashed at regular intervals. There is deep horror, unconventional twists of fate, satisfying developments and heart-breaking conclusions. Modern and classical at once, Perdido Street Station combines the technological love of SF with the possibilities of fantasy and the unnerving tension of horror to deliver an experience unlike any other. Make a place in your reading stack for this book; it’s more than worth it.