Perdido Street Station
Reviewed: December 3, 2004
By: China Mieville
Publisher: Del Rey
640 pages, $11.99
Perdido Street Station begins with the bizarre and gets stranger from there. In its opening pages we meet the voice and reflections of Yagherek, a birdman cruelly shorn of his wings for a crime we will never totally understand. We don't know who this voice is at first, but eventually realize that the interludes are about his trip to the setting of Mieville's novel, the extremely odd city of New Crobuzon.
There's a map provided for the city, and you will need it, because you are going to visit a lot of places and meet a lot of strange people is this cosmopolitan otherworld. We must be on some other world or in some other reality, but this is the only one these people know, a world where steam powered robots meet surgically (or magically?) altered cyborgs and city administrators who are prepared to make pacts with demons in order to solve problems involving monsters.
Our main window on this world is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a down at the heels academic and polymath inventor who seems to be approximately human. We meet him and his girlfriend in the early chapters of the book and realize right away that we aren't in Kansas (or even Oz) any more. Lin is a member of the kepri race. Her body is humanoid enough, but her head is the complete body of a winged insect something like a beetle. They are secret lovers, for interspecies fraternization of this sort is frowned upon by both their races. Lin is also an artist, whose working materials are a kind of spit (or maybe something else) that she processes internally in her head-body. It hardens into lucite firmness once it is shaped.
Quite a bit of this massive book is spent just wandering around the city, meeting strange beings and exploring its stranger enclaves. How about that area of town which is built under the stripped skeleton of a gigantic creature that no one can name? How about that refuse dump where a species of inorganic life has somehow evolved from the technological debris of this strange society?
The problems begin when Isaac takes on a commission to restore the power of flight to Yagharek, who is a member of the garuda race. Investigations into how things fly lead him to assemble a menagerie of winged creatures of every variety. Because he got them by less than legal means, Isaac has no idea what a lot of this stuff actually is, especially that one, really big grub that doesn't seem to want to transform into what he expects will be its winged form.
While Isaac is engrossed in this activity, Lin has what can only be called a really gross commission to sculpt a man (being?) appropriately named Motley, who seems to be a powerful crime lord. His name might also be his description.
There are other characters in the story, including anarchists who run underground newspapers, unionized dock workers who go on strike, and some very nasty civic leaders who will make packs with almost anyone to maintain what they see as the order of their city.
The reason they need to make a pact with someone is that Isaac's plump grub finally hatches about midway through the story and turns out to be something awful, a deformed version of a creature called a slake moth which feeds on people's essences and excretes their dreams. In fact, this poor runt is not the worst of his kind, but he knows where the others are, how to free them, and what they have to do with the potent new drug that Lin's client has been peddling.
In a city which is already not a place that I would ever want to visit in real life, things get a lot worse very rapidly. That's why the administration needs allies, and when the demons chicken out, they hook up with something worse, a completely amoral spider like being called the Weaver, whose only real concern is that the web of existence not be altered in unaestheic ways. The Weaver can dance in and out of reality with ease, following the lines of the web which only it can see, and it is capricious indeed when it comes to working with allies.
Isaac becomes its unwitting ally, and the balance is that it costs him an ear. What it costs a lot of other people is just as startling, but not worse than what four live slake-moths can do as they steal the soul of a city night by night.
Yes, the book does become a monster hunt of epic proportions, complicated by the fact that Isaac's dabblings have led him close to the development of a kind of unified field theory somewhere between technology and magic - and everyone wants that, too.
So what am I reminded of here? Well, there is a flavor of Dickens, especially in the names of people and places. There is also a taste of Mervyn Peake, who is kind of like Dickens on dream dust. But there is also a sense of Thomas Pynchon; New Crobuzon puts me in mind of the Zone in Gravity's Rainbow, and equally of the blasted urban landscapes of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. Not the detail, but certainly the feeling.
This is not a happy book, but it is an engaging one. It picked up the Arthur C. Clarke Award in the year it was published and was short listed for the Nebula as well as the Hugo. It has already been translated into several languages and won awards in both Germany and Italy.