Imagine science and technology came to Middle-Earth. Now imagine that it’s not Middle-Earth, but Bas-Lag, and in place of hobbits, orcs, elves, and ents, you have remade humans, amphibious vodyanoi, desert-born cactacae, and gargoyle-like wyvern. In place of epic heroism, imagine cross-motivated realpolitik. Mix SF, fantasy, steampunk, and urban drama, people the result with psychologically complex (and complexed) characters, and have an extraordinarily gifted writer tell the tale. The book is China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, the mind-bending predecessor to this year’s Hugo-nominated The Scar.
Title: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Miéville
Original Publication Date: 2000
Cover Price: $7.99 U.S., $11.99 Canadian.
Several characters with conflicting motivations become entangled with a mind-numbing (literally) horror among the urban sprawl of New Crobuzon.
China Miéville has created a world as fully realized as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Perdido Street Stat lacks the mythic purity and widespread appeal of The Lord of the Rings, but in Bas-Lag we have a world as complex and dirty as our own, which must wrestle with issues that never plagued the Hobbits. There are no heroes here, and no simple moral answers. I didn’t entirely like anyone, but I never doubted them as characters.
Bas-Lag has a history and a geography that sound real, and which matter. We see and feel these things where they affect the story. The writer never forgets that this history exists and it influences events profoundly, but he understands perfectly what the Turkey City Lexicon calls “the Edges of Ideas.”
This author also tackles major themes. The book constantly returns to the edge where our simple classifications of things break down. He addresses the problems of behaving ethically and seeking redemption in an imperfect world. Corrupt politics appear in all their cloudy complexity, and in a manner which, while universal, cannot help but recall the dirty dealings behind certain recent world events.
Sauron would walk away from New Crobuzon’s leaders with a sneer of disgust. At least he believed in something.
I applaud Miéville for his brilliance; every chapter seems to contain enough bizarre and original material to fill several shelves in your local bookstore’s SF/Fantasy/Horror Departments. That said, I wish he had reigned himself in somewhat. The handlingers, for example, are interesting, but ultimately add little to the already labyrinthine plot. The encounter with the Ambassador of Hell is clever, in the manner of a well-written episode of Buffy or Angel; it’s rather conventional, by this book’s standards. We don’t need it to realize that New Crobuzon superabounds with (a) occultic magic and (b) corrupt politicians. Since Hell ultimately has no impact on the plot, this brief business is gratuitous. We don’t need a literal devil to account for evil in Bas-Lag any more than we do on Terra; as Waterson’s Hobbes once said, humans don’t require the assistance.
Originality: 5.5/6 I thought long and hard about this. Miéville may be the most original writer of the fantastic in decades, and Perdido Street Station, arguably, deserves the same 6/6 I gave its sequel. Yes, New Crobuzon constantly surprises, while remaining believable. At the heart of this novel, however, is a fairly conventional plot, with monsters one might find in Stephen King, and a reluctant Adventure Party on a Quest to save a World whose authorities will not thank them.
Imagery: 6/6 Everything– from the source of our reluctant hero’s itchy arse to the grief-striken woman punished for infanticide by having her dead child’s arms grafted to her face– remains in my mind.
I suspect, forever.
Story: 5/6 Perdido Street Station features a story as complex, sprawling, and full of twisted byways as its principal setting.
Characterization: 5.5/6 Miéville creates fully-realized characters, with motivations as tortured as anyone you will meet in real life. As in The Scar, he throws in additional characters towards the end who play key roles, but about whom we learn very little. He gets a bonus, however, for his portrayal of two alien consciousnesses. Another honorable mention goes to his recognizing that many people cannot grasp that others do not share their motivations. Mr. Motley’s inability to see beyond his own narrow world proves particularly memorable– and destructive.
Emotional Response: 6 out of 6. To quote from my review of The Scar: wow.
Editing: 6/6: It’s not enough Miéville has inventive concepts and believable characters (even those with insects for heads)– he crafts like few others in the genre.
Overall Score: 6 out 6.
In total, Perdido Street Station receives 40 out of 42
Additional Notes and Comments:
I would retroactively raise the score of the (In my opinion) superior sequel, The Scar, but it seems unfair to do so after the fact.