China Miéville, “Perdido Street Station”
I commented yesterday on my love of genre fiction, and my ability to appreciate works that do not transcend their genre but are excellent within it as “peak genre experiences”. In that category I put China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station”. Do not expect to like it if you do not like science fiction or Victorian literature set in London or Gothic horror. This has elements of all those, and I ate it up.
All right, first a few criticisms and failings. The characters are not always brilliantly drawn. Those representing the criminal underworld could just about be interchangeable cardboard cut-outs. Pretty much ever character (and here’s the Gothic element) has one major character trait they remain true to throughout. They confront adversity, yes, but do not necessarily grow much as a result. The character who is meant to undergo the most profound inner journey, Yagharek, remains in many ways distant and unempathically engaging.
Yes, his name is Yagharek. If you don’t like the names in fantasy novels, this one will irritate you.
The plot starts off with nice divergent strands, but by two thirds of the way through the book - most of them have converged. Certainly, there are twists and turns left to fathom, but a number of these operate by withholding information from the reader. The tension has ebbed before the final switchbacks in the ride, though you still want to see how it turns out. As genre plotting goes, this is not William Gibson.
The novel’s towering strength is exactly what I always fall for: atmosphere, a richly thought out and complicated world, a narrative that constantly hints at a scale and architecture that the reader will never have fully explained but which feels consistent throughout. His Victorian-gothic-steampunk city of New Crobuzon is richly baroque in its imagining. Indeed, there are passages and sub-plots - largely redundant from a strict narrative point of view - that seem included for no reason other than to heighten the strangeness and complexity of the author’s imagined world.
And having panned the characterisation somewhat, there is one central relationship which is, at least at the outset, touching in its complexity. That is the relationship between the scientific outcast Isaac and his lover Lin. Lin is Khepri – a race whose females appear human (if red skinned) to the neck, but whose heads appear to be giant scarab-beetles. Their relationship is taboo, and as Isaac acknowledges, “I am a pervert, but so is she.” Over the course of the first half of the novel, the delicacy of their affair is examined – and as the crisis deepens around them, they become increasingly “out” about their love. However, as the monsters crawl from the novel’s shadows and Lin is abducted, the relationship sub-plot is resoundingly sidelined.
I would also contend that for all its “steampunk” backdrop, structurally this novel is a classic nineteenth century vampire tale (despite the fact that the only literal vampire in the story turns up dead in a mere sidebar detail, a throwaway to emphasise the dangers posed by the real monsters). By the mid-point of the novel, we have a nightmarish threat terrorising the city and it is up to an unlikely collection of otherwise scarcely related individuals, lead by a renegade, uncategorisable, mad-thinking scientist – and, oh yes, the most significant woman in the narrative is abducted by a hostile power. Mr Stoker would find its rambling, detailed byways entirely familiar.
Still, the great achievement of the novel is it’s dizzying invention and grotesquerie. In this manner the novel owes a clear, and acknowledged, debt to Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy – the enormous, rambling city with its strange institutions and promiscuous proliferation of characters, alien races, subcultures and technologies is full of the baroque imagination that makes the Gormenghast novels interesting.
Among his more bizarre (and nasty) concepts is one that is hinted at before it is explained. There are references to “the Remade” and “Punishment Factories” before the link is explained. This is a society without much by way of prisons. Criminals are mutilated by surgery, magic or engineering in a manner that reflects their crime, or merely the perversity of the sentencing Magister. Deformed human-animal/human-machine hybrids wander the streets seeking what employment they can, branded forever with their crime. Ick.
On the lighter side, the city is home to a wide array of religions, including a god of knowledge represented in religious paintings as a fat man reading in a bath. All his worshippers are effectively librarians and teachers.
He also manages to imbue his monsters or god-like beings with a genuinely sinister and compelling aspect. His presentation of the Ambassador and the Weaver are particularly well-imagined.
For all these creative leaps, it is hard to consider his fictitious city as other than a re-imagined Victorian London. The map of his city is littered with English-sounding anachronisms – Aspic Hole, The Splatters, Griss Twist. His sense of Victorian atmosphere is heightened by a deliberate use of arcane spellings (“chymical” for “chemical”) and vocabulary (“thamaturgy” for “magic”). As the Ruminator will attest, I am a man unused to being sent scrambling for the dictionary, but on over 40 occasions in the course of 710 pages I felt obliged to make a note of a wholly unfamiliar word, or a familiar one I couldn’t be 100% sure I knew. My list included:
I am now on top of all of these except “desquamating”, first correct definition wins a prize.