Are you tired of special snowflake protagonists consisting of assassins, royalty and demigods? Ever wish fantasy featured people a little more like us?
As it so happens, Perdido Street Station is a shoo-in for anyone craving unconventionally conventional leads. Case in point: The main cast is composed of a scientist, artist, journalist and nomad.
I should mention that the scientist also happens to be an embezzler, the artist is a beetle-headed lady, the journalist dabbles in insurrection and the nomad has talons.
Has relatability flown the coop? Nope, it’s still sat here among the other winged things. So let’s make proper introductions.
Perdido Street Station is a novel that expertly blends the outstandingly odd with the intimately familiar. Where I would’ve thrown up my hands at an arbitrary barrage of monstrosities, Perdido‘s characters served as beacons within a mad world.
And oh, how that world tests them. New Crobuzon is a corrupt, festering metropolis full of foul creatures and deadly crime. Every citizen is a congealed mass of neuroses, questionable substances and skin-dwelling parasites.
There are mud huts covered in beetle juices, bars run by water-dwelling vodyanoi and vast universities full of arcane knowledge. It’s London doused in Cthulhu ooze and radioactive slime.
It’s steampunk. It’s edgy. It’s New Weird.
Strange as our heroes may be, they lead lives any fellow urbanite will recognize. The story leeches itself to Isaac der Grimnebulin, a scientist who spends his days toiling over half-formed hypotheses, longing to convince the intellectual world his pet project has merit.
“I wish that there was nothing to hold me here, that gravity was a suggestion I could ignore.”
As different as Isaac’s reality is from mine, he immediately endeared himself to me. His boisterous attitude, enthusiastic lectures and good-natured pontificating reminded me of several friends in academia, to the point I could practically transpose them onto his character.
This realism carries across the cast, no matter their biology. It’s a good thing, too, since the spark of Perdido‘s plot hinges on a bird man.
When the garuda Yagharek visits Isaac in the hopes of restoring his ability to fly, Isaac sees an opportunity to put his theories on crisis energy to the test.
Miéville’s exceptional style (or should I say “acroamatic confabulation”) further distinguishes each character while providing a pleasing density in narration. Many cite the worldbuilding in Perdido Street Station as its strongest point, and I agree, precisely because it’s framed by each player’s unique perspective.
This is more impressive when you consider the book is mainly written in 3rd person, though Miéville does delve into thoughts through the use of 1st.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at two different POVs.
Here’s Lin, the earthy, beetle-headed artist with a dangerous love of novelty:
“You sanctimonious bitches, I remember it all! On and on about community and the great khepri hive while the ‘sisters’ over in Creekside scrabble about for potatoes. You have nothing, surrounded by people that mock you as bugs, buy your art cheap and sell you food dear, but because there are others with even less you style yourselves the protectors of the khepri way.
I’m out. I dress how I like. My art is mine.“
And now we have Yagharek, the poetic traveler searching for a miracle:
“I remember the desert winds: the Khamsin that scourges the land like smokeless fire; the Föhm that bursts from hot mountainsides as if in ambush; the sly Simoom that inveigles its way through leather sand-screens and library doors.
The winds of this city are a more melancholy breed. They explore like lost souls, looking in at dusty gaslit windows. We are brethren, the city-winds and I. We wander together.”
It’s amazing that where some authors struggle to make even humans feel three-dimensional, Miéville had me caring for beings that could’ve strolled out of a Dali painting.
The story eventually transforms from a portrait of everyday life to a nail-biting horror/adventure. Isaac’s research leads him to gather New Crobuzon’s largest collection of winged things, dipping into criminal connections to find the rarest specimens.
A creature of shadowy origins arrives at the lab, and what it grows into is more insidious than anyone could’ve imagined.
When the city darkens, Perdido Street Station presents a startlingly human look at terror. Miéville has a PhD in international relations with a leaning toward socialism, shown through his focus on the harsh realities of the dispossessed and immigrants.
The narration never becomes ham-handed, but the dubious politics of New Crobuzon play out in every grungy alley, among the ghettos and poor houses.
Due to the accidental overlap of Isaac’s research with government interest, Perdido Street Station partly tells of what happens when the “little people” try to take on the establishment.
It does not go well.
Truth be told, our humble team would’ve been annihilated had it not been for multiple counts of deus ex machina by way of eldritch wonder.
“In Cymek we call it furiach-yajh-hett: the dancing mad god. I never thought to see one. It came out of a funnel in the world to stand between us and the lawgivers. Their pistols were silent. Words died in throats like flies in a web.”
This is normally a cheap plot device, but it didn’t feel inconsistent in the realm of New Weird. The being(s) that support Isaac are beyond comprehension; their whims just happened to align. They shake up the world order, else there wouldn’t have been much of a story.
That’s not to say this unlikely alliance leads to everything working out in the end. Those on the fringes of society, including members of Isaac’s group, are not so fortunate.
At one point a peaceful industrial strike is shut down through propaganda and police brutality. The workers dared ask for basic rights, so they’re beaten, jailed and killed to retain the status quo.
In another example, a petty thief could be fitted with drills for hands to “repay” the government by working in mines.
This punishment is called “Remaking.” Cause enough trouble and the government changes you. Puts your legs on backwards or melds your mouth shut or forces you to crawl for the rest of your life.
“It’s a difficult job, dealing with the Remade. There’s so much contempt, prejudice against them… it’s not like people don’t know they’ve got fucking horrendous lives… it’s that there’s a lot of people who kind of vaguely think they deserve it.”
Afterwards the Remade are ejected back into society, eternally marginalized since the rest of the world views them as freaks.
This is the literal realization of the worst qualities of capitalist systems: the idea that people are not people, but mere commodities.
“Justice” is performed by authorities who freely partake of those parts of the criminal underworld they find beneficial, padding their wallets while keeping vulnerable groups oppressed.
Is Miéville saying that without a giant interplanar beast to intervene we’re all doomed to live beneath the boot of oligarchs? I can’t speak on his behalf, but I’d guess he dreams of a time where people are their own agents of change.
Despite the intensity of certain scenes, it’s not all depressing. Perdido Street Station is an ode to genre fiction while simultaneously showing it can be used for more than feel-good wish fulfillment.
There are plenty of segments which toy at fantasy standbys, such as one passage where Miéville skewers the “heroic adventurer” trope:
“They were hardy and dangerous, lawless, stripped of allegiance or morality, living off their wits, stealing and killing, hiring themselves out to whoever and whatever came. They were inspired by dubious virtues.
A few performed useful services: research, cartography and the like. Most were nothing but tomb raiders.”
Gold, I tell you!
It’s rare a writer can maintain a balance of tension and plot progression just so, but for the most part Miéville manages it. It’s only three-quarters of the way through the book lets up on the gas.
This could’ve served as a reasonable pause in the action, but the segment runs overlong as the narration meanders away from the main group.
Afterwards, the ending left me conflicted. It provides a definite resolution, yet I was disappointed by the handling of some characters.
“Bad things happen to good people all the time!” Yes, that seems to be the reason Miéville wrote things the way he did. (Note: Don’t read that article unless you’ve finished the book.)
It just seemed excessive to have my image of those characters torn apart right at the finale, in what felt like a bait-and-switch.
Even so, my enthusiasm for Perdido Street Station was only slightly dampened. This book stands in a class all its own. If you’re looking for something fresh, gritty and self aware, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
New Crobuzon is a grotesque beauty built on the bones of fantasy and brought to life by its diverse citizens. In a land where our norms don’t apply, Miéville explores why parts of society might evolve into something entirely new—and why others might not change at all.
Underneath the weird, an unlikely family tries to survive and define what matters, searching for a way to take flight.
Prevent a Crisis with Perdido Street Station:
Images by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen, Mark Simonetti, Omercan Cirit, Les Edwards, Fred Gambino and Rivendel-on.
Latest posts by Rhylan Dane (see all)
- Perdido Street Station by China Miéville | Book Review - November 22, 2017
- The Yoshida Brothers Fuse Traditional Shamisen with Jazzy Sensibility - November 13, 2017
- Geekify Team to Produce Last Unicorn Tarot Deck, More Merchandise to Come - October 18, 2017