Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
2000, Pan Books
Review Summary: I highly recommend this book as a skilled work of literature, perhaps even matching the examination of the enduring human condition supposedly offered by more traditional “classics” of literature.
Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is unlike anything else I have read in the SFF world. The language is rich and involved, the characters, plots and motivations are vibrantly atypical, and the overall grimy, occult and gas-lit industrial feel throughout the world of New Crobuzon is eerily realistic. The closest comparison I could make would be to Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but Perdido Street Station far surpasses Gaiman’s work in scope and complexity.
Miéville’s skillful use of his characters and narration is what really allows the novel to shine. Through the main characters in particular he is able to quickly and elegantly describe the world they are living in as well as the characters themselves, without any waste and without taking the reader out of the world at any time. Lin and Isaac’s relationship, the different social circles and relationships they are a part of, and their individual goals and dreams and failings are at once intimately familiar and at the same time unique, bizarre creations of their dark fantasy world. The novel’s concluding chapters are all the more painful and poignant having known these characters.
The plotting of Perdido Street Station is almost unbelievable in a few spots as certain items fall neatly into place, but at the same time all of the action and schemes and twists seem to be very tightly and carefully scripted, and the overall result is a cogent and engaging story that keeps everything moving, advancing inexorably to the endgame. Unusual approaches toward resolving the different plot lines gives the entire novel a fresh look at the world of fantasy, and almost all of Miéville’s choices lend themselves brick by brick to the feelings and motivations of the characters and the advancement of the story.
While extremely well written and interesting in and of themselves, Miéville’s characters and storyline seem to be only vehicles for all of the different themes he expresses throughout the novel, touching on a vast number of topics; political power, balance, and corruption, immigration, cultural and individual identity, drug cultures, police states, dissenting minority opinions, ethics and the sciences, ethics and the arts, justice and moral judgements, and personal responsibilities and choices. Most impressive to me is Miéville’s incredible reserve in his use of Isaac as the “heroic” engine for the story. Although never allowing Isaac to become anything more than human, and without falling into any trite expressions of the ordinary man “discovering abilities he didn’t think he had”, the author was able to express a powerful belief in the strength possible in a mostly ordinary man. Even more powerful, I think, are the final, lasting trials he inflicts on this character, and the moral man who is forged from the choices he makes.
In addition to the comments above, I would also like to note that the extensive vocabulary (discounting, of course, the obviously made-up names and terms) the author uses is amazing – even granting that a handful were British slang, I don’t know that I have ever run into so many words (over 80 by my count) that I didn’t already know the meaning of, or which I was seeing a new usage of for the first time. It is unprecedented for me to have to note down unfamiliar words to look them up in the dictionary, and while somewhat distracting for me the selections never seemed out of place, and reading the book was something of a gratifying learning experience.
The only complaint I can lodge against the novel is the author’s odd choice to use the three “adventurers” towards the end of the book. Of the entire coterie, these three characters appear to be the most one-dimensional, the most out-of-place, and the least useful in the entire book. Nothing in the novel is really advanced through their inclusion, and the somewhat self-centered post-mortem tale told by the surviving adventurer left me with the strong impression that the brief appearance of these characters was more like a tribute of sorts to characters from some D&D-like campaign, rather than an integral part of the storyline. This cameo appearance was the only sour note in an otherwise spectacularly woven tale.
Overall, I highly recommend this book as a skilled work of literature, perhaps even matching the examination of the enduring human condition supposedly offered by more traditional “classics” of literature.