Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Title: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: William Pan Macmillan

Perdido Street Station is the first in what has become a loose trilogy set in China Miéville’s New Crobuzon. For some time I had been put off Perdido Street Station, partly because of its sheer size, and partly the impressions I’d gotten of it as an unwieldy read. However it is one of those books that consistently comes up as being particularly worth reading. So while Miéville was doing a promotional tour for the third volume, Iron Council, I decided to go along and check him out. From which I walked away with a signed copy of Perdido Street Station and the admission that I might as well give it a proper go.

Just as well to, as it turns out that Perdido Street Station isn’t really the novel I was expecting it to be at all, and rather than unwieldy I found it to be quite an easy read, even at its 800 odd page length. China’s second novel, he admits he became caught up in the idea of having managed to get his first novel published, and as a result tried to cram as many ideas as he could into his second novel. Which shows, from its length and from the way it weaves back and forth with ever multiplying layers of characters, history and detail.

New Crobuzon is a sprawling city, intended in some ways to be a fantasy equivalent of London. The city houses a number of races, and exists on a cusp point of technology represented by steam engines. The city is run by a notorious mayor and his harsh secret police. Which is contrasted by a bohemian culture – artists, experimental scientists, and an underground which provides illegal magazines that criticize the establishment.

At this centre of all of this we have the two characters Isaac and Lin. Isaac is a human scientist who has a certain reputation, partly because of the mad science he is involved in, and partly because he never managed to fit in at the university. Lin is a Kepri, an insectoid race, which is represented by scuttling beetles in male form and insect/human hybrids in female. Lin is an artist who is pushing the boundaries of Kepri art while rejecting the Kepri social structures. While cross-species relationships are not unheard of, there is still something illicit in their relationship - particularly for Isaac who has to maintain some level of respectability for funding and the like.

In the first half of the book we have more of an impression of the cultural and avant-garde lifestyle that these characters live. Both find themselves with challenging commissions, which fill them with excitement and push them to excel. The two commissions are unconnected, but have parallels, as they deal with the nature of the physical, and the ideas of the boundaries as they meet and construct this hybrid environment. In Isaac’s case he is given the task of understanding and creating flight. While Lin is presented with the most perverted remade – criminals are punished by having their bodies warped – something the city’s top criminal has pushed to it’s limits and now wants immortalised in art.

This is the half of Perdido Street Station that I found particularly enjoyable. The characters and their lives, the way those fit together and were part of this sprawling vibrant city. To a degree this is all set up, and an effective way of establishing the base before adding the big plot, that which drives the whole. In the background of the first half we can piece together things as they go wrong. The results of which is that some monster is released into the city, a winged, shifting thing which starts to hunt and terrorise the entire city – something from which no one is safe.

The second half becomes the big adventure, which is perhaps what most readers will expect. The thing is lose, various forces that have been plot tendrils in the first half come to the fore as either being complicit or willing to join together to fight the good fight. Which is also where Miéville accelerates his mix of ideas, with a dose of madness at play.

Despite it’s length and the sheer density of material that is implicit in that, Perdido Street Station is a much easier read than I expected. One which the reader can tear through quite happily, with plenty going on to keep you turning the pages, even through the sections of the book that can be considered to be the set up of background and the foreshadowing of the big plot.

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