China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”–Reading the first item in a trilogy as a prequel

After waiting for a considerable while for China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station to become available at my local library, long after I’d already read his loosely (very loosely) connected second and third books pertaining to the same world (The Scar and Iron Council), I was ready to write a post.  Nevertheless, it was the middle of the Christmas-New Year’s holiday break, and so I gave myself a few weeks off to do what people do during the holidays, at least partially due to the grim nature of the first book, which since I read it last functioned as a sort of prequel, willy-nilly.  Somehow, it was so masterful that I wanted to comment upon it, but so dour and again “grim” that I couldn’t bring myself to put a blight on the holidays by focusing on it.

Now, however, the New Year has begun, and it’s time to face realities, so since my New Year’s resolution, such as it is, is to get back to a more regular posting schedule, it’s time to face Perdido Street Station head-on.  First let me say that the book begins at the beginning in the sense of building the world of New Crobuzon, a city which reminds me very much of a world-class city like London (the city of which Miéville is a citizen).  It’s in the first book thus that we get hints of themes and types of characters developed in all three of the books.  For example, the government and the militia are overwhelmingly strong and overbearing, putting their fingers not only in every legal “pie” going, but also in most of the illegal ones, whatever will turn a profit for the individuals in power.  As well, there are drugs and illicit activities abounding in the society at large, which the government polices on the one hand and attempts to regulate for their own use on the other.  Challenging the nature of this corruption are such bodies as the outlawed rebel presses, one of which publishes the forbidden newspaper Runagate Rampant, and folk heroes such as Jack Half-a-Prayer, a rebel who helps from the shadows to set things right in whatever way he can.  Caught in between are natives of many races, like the khepri (semi-human semi-beetles) and the vodyanoi (frog-like characters capable of controlling water power), and cactacae (cactus people), who must choose sides and duck prejudice and unfairness.

The main character of this book is a scientist-cum-renegade named Isaac Grimnebulin, who is approached by a member of a humanoid bird race from the desert, called a garuda.  This garuda asks him to rebuild or restore his wings, which have been removed as a punishment for a crime against another garuda.  The garuda claims that he is unable to explain the crime in the language that a human would comprehend, but it involved depriving another garuda of choice in one of his/her life decisions.  They become friends, and in the process of trying to study flying things in order to know how to use aerodynamics and his special study of crisis technology, Isaac unintentionally becomes involved in a massive plot which brings danger to the whole city, and which he and his friends must correct.

At the center of the conspiracy is a costly drug known as “dreamshit,” a substance which not only the government but also any number of criminals are trying to control the distribution of.  This substance comes from a phenomenally powerful and dangerous creature known as a slake-moth, a huge flying being whose larvae are fed on the dreamshit which humans steal and take as a drug.  When Isaac unknowingly raises a caterpillar that becomes a slake-moth and breaks free, freeing as well its brothers and sisters from a laboratory where they are kept, all hell breaks loose, to put it mildly.  The government is hunting Isaac and his friends for even ever having had the slake-moth, and for interfering in their plans to sell them to a gangster.  And in ignorance of this conspiracy between the government and the gangster, Mr. Motley, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin accepts a job from the gangster which she thinks is simple because it seems only to involve making a statue of him.

The book is involved, painful, and full of incident; it is as full of harsh events and no-way-out circumstances as any realistic novel.  There is no way that this book could bear the typical label of science fiction/fantasy, “escape literature,” because the creatures, characters, events, and symbols of everyday life are all paralleled by what is actually in our world, regardless of how unrealistic they at first seem.  Note, however, that I am not calling it a bad book; on the contrary, it’s a real gem of a book to read and think about, and I’m even glad that I read it last, because I think it’s no less substantial than the other two books and even surpasses them in the sense that it initiates the reader into a new kind of fiction which while fantastic in specifics is full of humanism and moral pointedness in its generalities and themes.  Don’t go here if you are looking for an escape; but go here if you are in search of a finely-crafted, highly artistic literary experience that fulfills most reasonable expectations of surprising you and rewarding you and confirming your experiences and intuitions of how living beings should and should not treat each other.  You will certainly find what you seek in this book by China Miéville.

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6 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

6 responses to “China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”–Reading the first item in a trilogy as a prequel

  1. You see once again you whet my appetite for this author, I think I will head to the local library and see if I can pick up a copy, or maybe use it as an excuse to spand all afternoon in the library on one of my few days off. I want to like Meiville as you regard him so highly and this series sounds more up my street than Kraken, although you did entice me with that book but I think the fault is mine for not enjoying it so much…I look forward to round two with China, which sounds like another Cold War right there.

    • I hope you do like him, but I won’t insist; we all have our favorites. It’s interesting that it sounds to you like a Cold War–he blends elements of medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and more modern magics and sciences to approximate a total world view. One of the elements I found the most interesting is that he mentions machines like the early computers which use programming punch cards, but never really in my memory calls them computers. And he has them operating side by side with thaumaturgy and typewriters and magic and physics, and so on and so forth. What a world!

  2. I must confess that the main reason I like Sci-Fi/Fantasy as it is that is an escape from the real world. That being said, your reply to Ste J about what Mieville mashes up to make his stories is interesting and intriguing.

    It sounds interesting. I must hunt down these titles, though there does not seem to be any Mieville books at the local bookstore or exchange.

    • I guess what I’m saying when I say that it is not “escape” literature is that it has a definite moral universe and worldview, and it is a serious picture of the way our own world works, though so much is unreal and imaginary. I do think you would like it, and i think if you look hard enough you should be able to find something by Mieville somewhere (maybe try “The Kraken” first), because he’s a British author, and you’re in Australia, and after all, there is a cultural connection.

  3. Valerie Stivers-Isakova

    This is very helpful, because I read this book several years ago and I think even at the time my impression of the plot was confused at best. I love and adore Mieville’s world-building. He’s an original, and a trailblazer, and I’d cower in admiration if I ever met the guy. But still I find his book-construction to be wanting. The City and The City was a bad execution of a cool premise, I thought.

    • Yes, I too adore Mieville, but “The City and the City” was the first book I read by him, so I was adjusting to the rest of his compositional tricks, and therefore didn’t perhaps notice construction quite so much. That may sound funny to say, but I was so caught up trying to keep track of who was and wasn’t “seeing” whom that I lost sight of whether or not the book was well constructed. I’ve done a post on it somewhere in all my pages. I suppose at that time it was still fresh in my mind, and so I might have felt closer to the text than I do in retrospect.

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