Perdido Street Station (2001)
Author: China Mieville
Genre: Fantasy (Dark)
Mieville’s fictional city of New Crobuzon is a literal melting pot of different cultures and races. It is dark, hot, gritty, and it stinks. The fascist and corrupt government lays low except to protect its own interests. Labor woes and general unrest beset the city. Corruption is the way business is done, even in the most noble of professions. Isaac is a freelance scientist interested in unified energy theory. His lover, Lin, is kephri, a marginalized bug race, and their relationship must be kept secret. Lin is a sculptor and they largely run with a group of artists and academics in squalid cafes and bars where their relationship is less of an issue. Simultaneously, both Lin and Isaac receive new and strange patrons. Lin is commissioned by a prominent and grotesquely disfigured drug lord (a human “Remake”) to sculpt his likeness and Isaac is visited by a wingless Garuda who implores Isaac to restore his flight. In his pursuit of information to assist the Garuda with wings and flight, Isaac puts a message out on the black market that he is interested in obtaining any winged creatures or pre-winged specimens. He receives more specimens than he knows what to do with, one of which is an oddly colored caterpillar who won’t eat anything it is fed. Isaac is at a loss for what to do with this specimen, but his other experiments take precedence. He is working on building a crisis engine that can generate the energy needed to restore flight to the Garuda. Meanwhile, the caterpillar keeps growing, but his colors are becoming bland and he seems sickly. One day, a drugged up acquaintance stops by Isaac’s workshop and they notice that the caterpillar perks up at the visitor. He is a user and seller of a new drug called “dreamshit” that produces vivid dreams in its users. Isaac is amazed to see the specimen react and buys a large quantity of “dreamshit” to feed it. Over the next week, the caterpillar grows and grows, begging for more and more of the drug. Isaac is still hard at work perfecting his crisis engine and makes a breakthrough. He leaves his office early to celebrate and coincidentally on the same night his caterpillar hatches, showing itself to be a large dark winged figure, later said to be a slake-moth. He preys on Isaac’s flatmate, leaving him still breathing but unconscious. The narrative follows Isaac’s newly hatched creature as he frees four other slake-moths from the captivity of Lin’s drug lord patron. “Dreamshit,” a now lucrative drug, is produced by these dangerous creatures after they feed on the dreams of sentient beings. They are under armed watch, but Isaac’s brood frees his fellow slake-moths and they wreck havoc on New Crobuzon. They are dangerous enough that the government attempts to intervene, as do drug interests, and other creatures of New Crobuzon, human and otherwise. What ensues is a chase of epic proportions and twists and turns. SPOILER: In the end, the slake-moths are defeated when Isaac rigs up a crisis machine on the fly that siphons the tasty sentient matter of humans into an irresistible flow for the slake-moths and they gorge themselves to death. Isaac finds Lin, who has been tortured by her patron, and they must run from the militia as well as her patron’s gang. The Garuda learns a valuable lesson about acceptance when he makes peace with his wingless back and no longer feels like a half-breed, but a human.
Geographical Setting: New Crobuzon (imaginary city)
Time Period: irrelevant
Series: book one in New Crobuzon series
In many ways, Perdido Street Station feels too big for its britches. It tries to do so much and encompasses such a large page span but still leaves characters and themes unexplored. It is a slowly paced novel in which the characters and plot are deliberately unveiled. After Mieville lavishly introduces the setting, he begins to delve into the action of the novel. There is more description than dialogue, it is densely written, but the chapters are manageable and the book is broken up into several sections, which makes it feel less daunting. Fans of gothic/horror/dystopian urban settings will greatly enjoy Mieville’s sprawling and graphically described New Crobuzon. Lots of verbiage here. Because Mieville spends so many words on the setting, the plot is difficult to follow. There is a lot going on in the novel and many details to keep track of. There is a focus on several intertwined characters and the secondary characters are fleshed out well. However, the characters often take a backseat to action or description, making them difficult to identify with. The story line emphasizes situations and events more than people. The setting focuses on the ways in which government corruption affects quality of life in a diverse atmosphere. There is a good mix of action and psychological, philosophical, and scientific musings. Perdido Street Station was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo, and the Nebula. It received the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as the British Fantasy Society Award.
Perdido Street Station is the first in a series that follows with The Scar and The Iron Council, in that order. Readers who enjoyed the imaginary setting of New Crobuzon and Mieville’s rich, dense prose would definitely enjoy these follow-up novels. The Scar explores the world of slavery when a slave ship en route to New Crobuzon is taken over by pirates. The Iron Council is closely related to Perdido Street Station in setting and themes as it more deeply explores the totalitarian city-state and militia government of New Crobuzon. Perdido Street Station belongs to a speculative fiction subgenre called Steampunk in which works set in fantasy or Victorian era historical settings rely heavily on steam- or spring-powered technology. One of the major Science Fiction novels in this subgenre is William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, in which the information age is ushered in a century before schedule by a steam-powered super computer. This novel would appeal to fans of Mieville’s setting and scientific/philosophical themes. Readers who enjoyed the setting and social themes explored will enjoy Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a novel set in the seedy underworld of London populated by “disappeared” people. It has been suggested that Mieville’s setting is the major protagonist in this novel. Likewise, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy's gothic setting will appeal to readers who enjoyed the grit and darkness of New Crobuzon. Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen: the Book of Ambergris will appeal to readers who enjoyed the fantastical biological aspects of Mieville’s novel as well as the imaginary world and interconnected characters.
Red Flags: sex, drugs, profanity.