Perdido Street Station
by China Miéville
Published by Ballantine/Del Rey
710 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
There's much talk these days of urban sprawl, of cities expanding in ever-increasing concentric circles, resulting in deforestation, the destruction of local ecosystems, increased automobile usage, pollution and encroachment on the habitats of other species. China Miéville's second novel, Perdido Street Station, is set in a huge, sprawling city called New Crobuzon. Perdido Street Station is itself a gargantuan, sprawling tale. This kind of sprawl, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. If well planned and conceived, novelistic sprawl can be beneficial for the environment of the imagination.
New Crobuzon is a city-state in a strange world inhabited not only by humans but also by a wide variety of "xenians" -- humanoid beings that are part insect, part bird, part cactus, etc. Humans are the dominant species, although the other species live, work and even, to varying degrees, interact socially and commercially with humans and with each other. New Crobuzon includes many ghettos where xenian species live. The origins of these species are never discussed -- this is simply the way of the world. Actually, much about the background is left mysterious and unexplained and that contributes greatly to this novel's engrossing charm. Miéville has left generous space for the imagination of readers to roam, speculate and wonder. He's never sly or obfuscating; his story is so vast, as is his canvas, that the reader feels that no matter how much detail would have been added, there would still have remained much to explain. It would be like trying to explain in detail the entire richness of earthly cultures, history and science -- and tell a story with a large, diverse array of characters -- in less than 800 pages; an impossible project.
Acknowledged by the author, and obvious to anyone who has ever been exposed to that classic of fantasy fiction, is Perdido Street Station's debt to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. Both Miéville's New Crobuzon and Peake's Gormenghast inhabit the texts that spawned them like living creatures: they are not only settings, they are characters. Both works also show a predilection for baroque -- and oddly evocative -- names. Perdido Street Station is no mere imitation, though; it is a work of relentless inventiveness.
Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is a loud and corpulent scientist whose methods and ideas have made him something of pariah in academic circles. His tenuous relationship with the university (and thus access to its resources) is, he convinces himself, endangered by his taboo romantic relationship with a xenian woman, specifically, with Lin, a khepri sculptor. Khepri women are fully humanoid -- except for their headscarab, which is exactly what the name says: a head-size scarab body sitting atop their necks. (Khepri males are a different matter: small, swarming, scarab-like creatures of instinct whose only purpose is to mate with the females' headscarabs.) Both Isaac and Lin receive commissions that will eventually cross paths with disastrous results -- harrowing on the personal level for Isaac and Lin and potentially cataclysmic for New Crobuzon. A mutilated xenian -- Yagharek, a garuda -- comes to Isaac hoping the maverick thinker may find a way to restore him. Meanwhile, New Crobuzon's most powerful gangster hires Lin to sculpt his likeness. The ensuing tale brings together characters from many species (humans, xenians and other even stranger beings) and from all strata of society -- from the most oppressed to the awesome powers behind official authorities.
Perdido Street Station presents a world where science evolved not from the scientific tradition as we know it but from a combination of alchemy and magic. The world articulated in its pages, just like our own, is redolent with social inequities and corrupt officials. It is a world suffused with both wonder and terror, where hitherto unimagined creatures inspire at once fascination and revulsion, excitement and fear. And the city-state where this tale occurs, New Crobuzon, is both a magnificent edifice and a crushing behemoth. In it, different cultures and species coexist peacefully. Yet, it is home to deeply divisive racisms. Its heart beats with dichotomies of tolerance and hatred. It is a city where possibilities seem endless and, yet, where many cannot escape the rigid roles city culture has imposed on them. It is a city of modernity -- of an alternate modernity where narratives of progress and equality are articulated from altogether different historical paradigms -- haunted by powerful monsters and demons. It is a metropolis where cultures, species, histories, stories, worldviews and literary antecedents mingle to create unlikely resonances and vivid images.
New Crobuzon and Perdido Street Station defy easy categorization. They are the mesmerizingly complex creations of China Miéville's intricate imagination. They are seductive and perverse, beautiful and menacing. They have sprawled into my imagination. I welcome the encroachment -- but with a reservation. The very last scene, in particular Yagharek's closing words, left a rather sour taste. To me, the ending was repugnant, but Miéville wrote it as an epiphany. Is this an intentional dissonance? It's a powerful moment, no question; but it may -- and I emphasize "may" -- express an unexpected and unwelcome xenophobia. | March 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.