Review Date: 20 July 2003
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
DelRey, New York, NY, 2001 (published in the UK in 2000), 710 pages, Paperback, US$18, ISBN:0-345-44302-0
a review by Rich Horton
China Miéville's second novel, Perdido Street Station, was published in the U. K. in 2000, and in the U. S. in 2001. It made the 2002 Hugo shortlist -- as such it was a beneficiary of a recent Hugo eligibility change, whereby a book can be eligible for a Hugo nomination based on the first U. S. publication date. (Neil Gaiman's American Gods was the winner.) I had shied away from reading it for some time, intimidated mainly by its length, and to a lesser extent by comments about it which emphasized the grossness of its imagery and situations. However, it was the only Hugo-nominated work I hadn't read, so I thought it would be silly to skip it. I've just finished it, and I'm very glad I read it: I was overall quite impressed, and I placed it second on my Hugo ballot to Robert Charles Wilson's The Chronoliths).
The novel is set in New Crobuzon, a large city in a fantasy world. New Crobuzon seems overtly modelled on London, and the fantasy world, the rest of which geography is rather vague, is somewhat "steampunk" in nature. There is considerable magic, openly recognized, even systematized, operating side-by-side with tech of a somewhat Victorian feel (but on the whole more advanced than that: for instance, the computing tech is ostensibly based on Analytical Engines a la Babbage, but the level of computing power is comparable at least to say 1980s electronic computing). The city is controlled and mainly inhabited by humans, but there are also a number of different alien (or "xenian") races (all to some extent humanoid): the water-dwelling vodanyoi, the cactus-like cactacae, the flying garuda, and the bug-headed khepri.
Isaac der Grimnebulin is a human scientist living in a rather bohemian quarter. He is in love with a khepri artist named Lin, though because interspecies relationships are looked on with much prejudice they keep their affair a (rather open) secret. One day they each get a valuable commission. A garuda named Yagharek, who has had his wings ripped out for some terrible crime, asks Isaac to find a scientific means of giving him back the power of flight. And a radically Remade crime boss named Mr. Motley asks Lin to sculpt him (the Remade are surgically altered people, usually altered for punishment, but apparently sometimes for enhancement: Motley's alterations are extensive and chaotic).
Isaac's investigations into the possibilities of flight lead him to a potentially world-changing scientific discovery. Unfortunately, they also result in him accidentally releasing another sort of flying being on New Crobuzon, something called a "slake-moth", which preys on sentient beings' dreams, in the process literally sucking out the sentient part of their mind.
The major portion of the plot turns on Isaac's attempts (with a small band of friends and temporary allies: the garuda Yagharek, a radical journalist named Derkhan Blueday, a criminal named Lemuel, a spontaneously generated AI, and an extradimensional spider-like creature called the Weaver) to track down and destroy the slake-moths. These intersect the similar attempts of the city authorities to deal with the slake-moth threat, and with Mr. Motley's interests, which are more ambiguous: he had been keeping slake-moths in captivity because they secreted a valuable drug, and he resents what he sees as Isaac attempting to horn in on his business.
The plot itself is interesting, though probably not worthy of over 700 pages. It is reasonably well worked out, though. Miéville's imagination is fecund, however, and his descriptions of New Crobuzon and the various alien inhabitants are continually fascinating. His political parallels are often rather crudely drawn, but not fatally so. Isaac and Lin and Yagharek and Derkhan are good characters, people we learn to care for. The prose is sound but not spectacular, and it does stumble in places. The book's structure does have one mild flaw: it is framed with Yagharek's story, and the eventual revelation of his crime is rather anti-climatic, and by ending with the resolution of his story things seem to go on beyond the proper end. But all in all this is a fascinating novel, an involving read that only rarely drags over 700+ pages, a very worthy award nominee.