A Novel Ian Likes: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, a freelance scientist with some dubious ties to the underworld, is commissioned to create a means of flight for a Garuda – a race of humanoid bird-like creatures – who has had his wings removed for reasons that are never made entirely clear until the novel’s conclusion. Isaac throws himself into the task and unwittingly unleashes a dreaming horror upon the city of New Crobuzon…

Perdido Street Station was China Mieville’s second novel, following the urban fantasy King Rat (1998). At first glance it comes across as a science fantasy in the weird tradition of Clark Ashton Smith coupled with the gorgeous prose of Mervyn Peake. So much so, in fact, that this novel became, rightly or wrongly, a figurehead for the “New Weird” movement that sprang up into prominence and then oozed back down again into another subgenre almost as quickly. However, on closer inspection you notice a lot of other traditions and subgenres poking their misshapen heads around the non-Euclidean corners of the bizarre universe the characters inhabit: horror and urban fantasy cross over in a setting that takes some grand SF ideas and plonks them down into a world that never invented the microchip because it found that magic was a convenient shortcut. Gangsters and artists inhabit the same streets as secretive underground newspapers; punch-card-driven AIs create religions; sentient cacti rub shoulders (carefully) with insect people; and petty criminals are torturously engineered into inhuman shapes at the whim of the authorities… All under – and over – the watchful eyes and other sensory organs of creatures beyond imagination that also make New Crobuzon their… dwelling…

And it contains a marvellous story that makes you love and hate the protagonists almost as much as the shadowy government and criminal forces that are chasing them. In fact, it’s possible that we are only on the side of Isaac and his fellow conspirators because they are the main characters: they certainly commit some terrible crimes that are only slightly leavened to the reader by the thought of the possible alternatives that might happen if they do not. Look, it’s hardly a spoiler to indicate that everything in this novel happens as a result of Isaac taking this work on. It’s a tragedy of errors and one that the characters are all grimly aware of.

But this dark plotting is something that you will barely notice until you are too far into the novel to turn back. And you won’t want to turn back because the world of New Crobuzon, which is held up as the most admired and civilised place on the haunted world of Bas-Lag, will have you firmly within its clutches. And the most beguiling snare is the wonderful prose committed to the page by Mr Mieville.

Of course, there are faults with this novel: Mieville is prone to coming prose that could be considered purple in the wrong light, and you sometimes find yourself wishing that there were more synonyms for “puissance” and “ineluctable” available to him but, more often than not, they fit the situation perfectly, only adding to the general air of a decadent and rigid society struggling to maintain its relevance. Frankly, though, if your tastes run to plain workmanlike prose that tells a story and moves a plot along you might not enjoy this book.

There’s also that continuing cavalcade of freakish wonders that inhabit the city of Bas-Lag: in the hands of a lesser writer it might feel as though the story is being populated by a series of plot coupons designed to distract the reader from a possible paucity of plot but there is so much going in this story and setting that you only occasionally wonder at the sheer number of demi-godlike characters that help or hinder the gang in their aims.

I was utterly captivated by this novel the first time I read it. I was based in a small town in Western Australia’s Pilbara desert at the time. It was a recent addition to our local library and I swept it up since I had read a few glowing reviews of it in the months prior. I utterly loved it… and when a remaindered copy showed up in a basket outside our local newsagency when we relocated to Perth a few months later, I snavelled that up as well. I was writing a lot at the time myself, and this was the sort of story that I admired: lush, decadent, dangerous, and filled with morally dubious characters and choices. I never wound up writing anything that emulated the style or – obviously – the success of this, but it didn’t matter: this sort of smart, literary fantasy was what I wanted to be a part of creating. It led me to other writers that were trying the same thing: it seemed to me that there was a push away from the traditional multi-volume commercial fantasy that was popular at the time and Mieville became a figurehead for what it could possibly become. For those playing at home, it led to a darker, grimmer multi-volume commercial fantasy but there were more opportunities – for a while – for authors who wanted to spread their batlike wings in other directions. It also led me to reacquaint myself with the work of Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft, and begin an appreciation of Robert E. Howard’s work, along with C. L. Moore and other writers from the distant past of fantasy literature. I also read a lot of newer authors but few of them seemed to stick.

Mieville, though, continued to impress; following Perdido Street Station he wrote The Scar, and The Iron Council, both set in the same world. I loved the former but had mixed feelings about the latter. He’s also explored other worlds in the novels he wrote after that and pushed himself as an author to expand his range and themes.

But I always come back to Bas-Lag and Isaac’s experiments with flight. It’s not comfortable, but it’s a sort of home. So long as you take care while you’re sleeping…

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