Book #25: Perdido Street Station (2000)

perdido street stationauthor: China Miéville
language: English
length: 867 pages, some virtual
finished on: 25 January 2013

Let’s just start off by saying this is a huge book. I honestly had some logistical problems reading it because it was big. Originally I couldn’t bring it to Japan with me because it was heavy and wouldn’t fit into my luggage. In about November, after I finished the previous book, I realised that I still wanted to read it and I downloaded an ebook copy. I subsisted on that (reading mostly on the train on the way to work) for a while, but when I got back home for Christmas I started reading the hard copy, mainly because it was typeset better. Yeah, that’s the kind of shit I care about sometimes. Well, in the end I brought it back on the plane with me and it’s now sitting on my shelf. It still took almost three months to finish in the end because it was long and I’m a slow reader.

Enough with the length. Despite that, it was a great book from start to finish. China Miéville doesn’t shy away from complex language, and I actually managed to stumble over a few words in the opening pages (eg, chitin) – as soon as I saw that I was spurred on, because I knew it’d be much more challenging than anything else I’ve read recently. That was later confirmed.

The book’s set in a fantasy world called Bas-Lag, in the city of New Crobuzon, which is based very obviously on London. The setting is pseudo-Victorian, and calls to mind the Steampunk genre easily. The title refers to the main station and hub of the city, and trains frequently feature as a background element. A few misspellings on some words set it apart from the real world, such as “elyctric” or “chymical” (such that sometimes it becomes difficult to work out what’s a made-up word and what’s just an uncommon word, which is a lazy criticism that I’ve seen being levelled at Miéville). Magic exists, but the word is never used in lieu of the more cryptic “thaumaturgy”. Many races exist in his world, but he explicitly and deliberately avoids using “classical” fantasy races that would be used by the likes of Tolkien. In this book we’re introduced (among others) to humans, khepri (human women with insect heads), vodyanoi (frog people), garuda (bird people), cactacae (cactus people, perhaps the most original of all), and Remade, who are magically-altered people, generally done as some kind of severe punishment – they are the lowest possible tier of society. Names randomly vary between familiar English names and gobbledigook names that don’t match any real-world template, which I found strange.

The basic story thread is that the main character, Isaac, who is a scientist working in cutting-edge research but not really respected by his peers, is given a task, but in doing so, sets loose a group of literally nightmarish moth-shaped monsters on the city. With his motley crew of friends and allies he has to search and try to kill them. As far as the monsters go, at one point it seems like it would be totally impossible for them to be defeated, because their power over humans and almost all the other races seems complete, but a solution eventually develops out of nowhere – I think to the story’s immense credit, this doesn’t come across at all like deus ex machina, because all the elements are laid out quite early on, and it takes a long time before it comes together into a coherent whole.

Another place in which the story excels is in showing background detail and characters. Even settings that won’t be seen again are often fleshed out fully. The names of places in the city are almost universally descriptive of decay and dirt (for instance, the two rivers are called Tar and Canker… not very nice!), and nothing seems at all pleasant in the city. This does get a bit much sometimes, and we occasionally get glimpses into a part of the world that for the story’s sake was strictly unnecessary – a few times I had to stop and wonder why I was reading about certain things.

The story does dip into horror elements on quite a few occasions – particularly describing the monsters – which I wasn’t particularly keen on, to be honest. On the topic of genre in general, descriptions of the book often use the phrase “weird fiction”, which is annoyingly undescriptive, but it does fit well enough. It fits well into the fantasy genre, although not high fantasy like Tolkien. It fits the steampunk genre, which ties in with a statement by Miéville that he wants to write at least one book in “every genre”, as I found out later when I read more books that were completely different in tone and setting.

In the end it left me wanting more, despite the horror elements and the sheer length, and by the last few chapters I was on a roll. While this one took me a couple of months, the next two books of his were finished pretty swiftly – Miéville’s writing style is quite addictive. There are two more books in the Bas-Lag world, and I’ve read the next but not the final one, now. Just gotta keep going, perhaps!

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