Sunday, October 31, 2021

Perdido Street Station is not your every day fantasy novel

I have read and enjoyed several of China Miéville's books, but never one quite like Perdido Street Station.

It is a 700-page fantasy tour de force. You could call it steampunk, I guess, but not in a recognizable William Gibson/Bruce Sterling kind of way. Some of it seems recognizable some of the time, but then Miéville will throw in bizarro aliens or dimension-shifting or entirely improbable thaumaturgical pseudo-science, just to keep you off-balance. It is, perhaps, alternative reality steampunk.

The book is set in the sprawling city of New Crobuzon, and the city is perhaps the most important character in the book, its protagonist. It bears some passing resemblance to some of the most sordid parts of Dickensian London, but more extreme and more varied: "...this towering edifice of architecture and history, this complexitude of money and slum, this profane steam-powered god". Words like "suffocating", "stinking", "gloomy", "monstrous", "grotesque", "decayed", "wasted", "putrid", "chaotic", "grubby", "noisome" and "gangrenous" abound in descriptions of the city's streets and neighbourhoods.

In the main, science has not progressed past steam power, gas lighting, trains and airships, and horse-drawn carriages are still the norm. But thaumaturgy (low-level supernatural or quasi-magical intervention) has been raised to an almost sciento-religious art, allowing for the incorporation of mechanical intrusions into flesh-and-blood bodies, rudimentary robotic helpers, and the grafting (both voluntary and otherwise) of other body and animal parts onto human bodies. Proto-computers, using punched-card technology, even put in an appearance. There are bits of science and pseudo-science thrown in for good measure (including "crisis mathematics"), but hard science fiction this is most definitely not.

Plus, there are bona fide alien species thrown into the mix: insect people; flying beings; water-based creatures with the power to mould and control water; cultured giant spiders that straddle different dimensions at will; giant moths that feed on the dreams of sentient species; intelligent cactus people, for God's sake! For most of these species, it's a dog-eat-dog-eat-garbage-eat-whatever-they-can-get-their-hands/claws-on world. Mistrust and cynicism are essential life-skills, and quiet desperation is the norm. It's not an edifying vision of civilization.

But, into this mix are thrown some genuinely likeable characters, both human and alien, and the book revolves in large part around the struggle of these lovable, error-prone "good guys" against some of the nastiest and most violent of the others. The most important character, though, is the city itself, in all its lurid and dissolute glory.

And, best of all, it is well-written, something that often gets overlooked in fantasy and science fiction circles. Everything about life in New Crobuzon is excessive, and much of Miéville''s prose is too. But this is a 700-page book, so words like "palimpsest", "scoriatic", "mephitic", "sussurus" and "ossified" are going to find their way in, no? The dialogue reads quite naturally too, not like the usual stilted sci-fi offerings.

For all its ambition, it remains immensely readable. I'm a slow reader, and 700 pages a big ask for me. But this one just flew by.

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