The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

After a less than convincing introduction to the New Weird (Steph Swainston’s – The Year of Our War), it’s make-or-break time for this hard to define and famously, dead-as soon-as-it-was-named sub-genre.  I’ve been working my way through Jeff Vandermeer’s The New Weird, a compilation of short stories by influential and practicing authors (more on that in a future post).  In the foreword, Vandermeer cites Perdido Street Station as the genre’s defining text, the one in which Miéville creates ‘just the right balance between pulp writing, visionary, surreal images and literary influence to attract a wider audience’. As Vandermeer is also one of the leading exponents of weird fantasy, it’s going to be hard not to give up entirely, if I don’t get on with Perdido.

Early indications were good however.  My complaint about The Year of Our War was over the lack of rigour and consistency in its world building.  I know that Miéville places much emphasis on these traits, even if he nonetheless enjoyed Swainston’s debut; and from the tone of the prologue alone, it’s clear that the city of New Crobuzon – with Perdido Street Station at its thrombotic heart – is a far more fully realized and multi-dimensional place.  A stranger arrives by river boat and describes his sensations as the city grows around him, becoming a dark, sprawling, industrialized, super-polluted yet disturbingly fecund, urban mass; alive with a kind of decaying dynamism, as life clings on for survival in whatever niche it can find.  And some of the niches are bizarre to say the least.

Besides humans, New Crobuzon is populated with a menagerie of different species, including sentient insects – where the females have human bodies and distinctly non-human carapaces for heads; a kind of toad / human hybrid who live in mobile water tanks to prevent dehydration; some green and prickly (in all senses) walking cacti and a couple of races of birdmen, with contrasting degrees of intellect.  Then there are the Remades: humans with augmentations, in the form of animal parts as replacement limbs or similar mechanical appendages.  These bolt-ons are rarely helpful to the wielder, as they are usually bestowed as a form of punishment.  Like The Year of Our War, this isn’t your standard fantasy fare – not an elf in sight and only a couple of swords (and I have a theory about that – for another post). Then again, a bunch of new races living together in a city isn’t in itself especially new, or weird.  This is just the platform however, for further strangeness: inter-species sex, mind expanding drugs, caterpillars which feed off said drugs, research into latent crisis-energy, inter-dimensional spiders, ambassadors from Hell, dream-eating monsters, water elementals, parasitic worms who talk through their host, sentient machine minds with ghoulish avatars; the list goes on.  Miéville is super-inventive, ramping up the weirdness factor in compound ways.

Crucially, he is able to earth this strobe-light of ideas through a detailed and convincing representation of New Crobuzon itself; its regions, demographics and power-bases.  This is very much a study of the city from the bottom-up, using consistently well thought-out detail as the building blocks of a believable whole.  So for instance, an event taking place in the city’s red-light district, is preceded by a brief passage on the history of that part of town, how it developed and interacts with the neighborhoods surrounding it; or a chapter chronicling a police-state like intervention in a dockyard strike, imparts information about the underlying causes of the strike and the methods used by militia to police the streets.  In the wrong hands, such exposition could become turgid but Miéville gives us enough information to create the impression of a real place – local colour, historical detail and entrenched issues – without interrupting the flow of the narrative.  The detail also extends to the philosophical and physiological aspects of Miéville’s world; where for example: academic research into new-weird sciences, or intercourse between trans-dimensional monsters, or sentience-mimicking algorithms in the mind of mechanical constructs, though all wildly fantastic, are nevertheless worked through with sufficient rigor to sound plausible.

There’s lots of information to convey and Miéville allows himself a couple of hundred pages to set the scene.  Isaac Der Grimnebulin is an academic with loose connections to the University of New Crobuzon.  He and his girlfriend Lin – a khepri, one of those insect / human cross-breeds – are also prominent in the city’s bohemian arts scene; indeed it is only in this libertarian social circle that the two are able to acknowledge their relationship, for fear of ostracism elsewhere.  Isaac’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades academically, knowing just enough about everything to attract the attention of Yagharek, the aforementioned stranger, who turns out to be a birdman without wings – they were amputated as punishment for a choice-crime, his race’s cardinal sin – who now seeks desperately for a way to fly again.  Lin is an artist, whose work impresses Mr Motley, one of New Crobuzon’s most powerful organized-crime figures.  Both protagonists are drawn obsessively into their own commissions: Mr. Motley wishes to sit for Lin, while Isaac, in attempting to understand the mechanics of flight, acquires – amongst other winged beasts – the caterpillar of a very rare and potentially deadly moth.

This early section is relatively slow-paced but it is by far the most enjoyable, in my view.  There is much to learn about the city, its inhabitants, politics and philosophies and a tourist’s sense of discovery, as each new location or concept is introduced and our knowledge of the city blossoms; a very rough guide to New Crobuzon, if you will.  Miéville’s language is earthy and at times coarse, it is also rather baroque, loaded with compound descriptions and lurid images: ‘the knot of architectural tissue where the fibres of the city congealed…converging on the great variegated fortress of dark brick, and scrubbed concrete, and wood and steel and stone, the edifice that yawned hugely at the city’s vulgar heart, Perdido Street Station.’  Brilliantly evocative, though over-reaching at times, this style contributes to the feel of New Crobuzon as alien territory; new and weird.  There are some precedents however.  Miéville acknowledges his debt to Mervyn Peake and M John Harrison in the foreword and, while I’ve read little Harrison – an oversight I’ll be correcting soon – the Peake influence is clear, in the portmanteau names – Vermishank, Rudgutter, Grimnebulin all trace a direct ancestral line from Prunequallor, Sepulchrave and Steerpike – and the pervasive air of entropy.  Where Gormenghast is stagnant and decaying however, New Crobuzon is teeming with adapting, evolving, assimilating life.

Thematically, the emphasis on per-mutation underpins Miéville’s depiction of New Crobuzon and is referred to explicitly by Mr Motley – himself a monstrous composite of human and animal body parts, a personification of the city – in justifying his appearance to Lin:  ‘This is totality…this is not error, or absence, or mutancy: this is image and essence.’  City life, Miéville is saying, exists in a permanent state of transition ‘from the industrial to the residential to the opulent, to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the ancient to the colourful to the drab to the fecund to the barren.’ And the city’s inhabitants are themselves part of the kaleidoscope, different races intermingle and interbreed, creating new formations and further mutations; ‘the immigrants, the refugees, the outsiders who remake New Crobuzon every day.  This place with bastard culture.  This mongrel city.’  Miéville is known for his left-leaning political activism and while he refrains from hectoring, or overtly espousing his views, there’s a clear subtext.  Vandermeer talks about Miéville’s ‘surrender to the weird’, I’d say further that he is advocating, indeed celebrating, his surrender to the different, to the dynamic; to the cultural melting pots that are modern day cities and in particular London, Miéville’s home.

All this in the first 250 pages, barely a quarter of the book; I was frothing at the mouth with anticipation at what was still to come.  Then suddenly, the narrative shifts into break-neck gear; hairpin bends come thick and fast, life and limb(s) are all too frequently on the line and the body count rises.  Incredibly this pace, once set, doesn’t let up for the remainder of the book’s 600 pages!  It’s a white knuckle ride as Isaac and his rag-bag collection of allies go on the run, first from the city’s authorities, then from Mr. Motley’s crew and ultimately from the monsters Isaac has unwittingly unleashed on the city.  The sheer exuberance of the storytelling is compelling; a series of set-pieces and cliff-hangers keep the pages turning and the various fantasy / weird / horror elements established at the outset, blend into the relentless narrative to create a pulp fiction experience like no other.  The climax is well constructed and satisfying, though appropriately bleak and open-ended.   It’s a cracking read.

That said, it’s all very linear and there’s a marked reduction in both background exposition and thematic emphasis, as a consequence.   A game of two (unmatched) halves then, with much of the early promise – for Jub Jub readers – dissipating as the plot develops. Themes are hinted at but never followed through; several strong characters with parallel story-lines and clear interests in the outcome simply drop off the radar; the character of the city itself becomes far less pronounced; the absorbing political, philosophical and scientific speculation recedes; all are left trailing in the story’s demanding wake.  While an element of narrative drive is to be expected in a stand-alone novel, I’d have preferred 600 pages of scene-setting and development followed by 300 pages where we cut to the chase.

Perhaps because my expectations were so high, I’m being unduly harsh on what is undoubtedly still a unique and hugely enjoyable book; perhaps anything would struggle to follow my last read: The Children’s Book.  Whatever the cause, I’m left feeling a little disappointed.   I remain optimistic however, first that this is a clear step-up from The Year of Our War but also that Miéville’s later works set in Bas Lag will themselves improve upon this promising, if uneven start.  In describing the concept of torque – a weird form of radioactivity – Isaac says: ‘It’s an entirely pathological force.  We don’t know where it comes from, why it appears, where it goes.  All bets are off.  No rules apply.’ On this evidence he could be talking about Miéville’s writing.  He’s a phenomenon and I return from New Crobuzon, my mind broadened and my consciousness expanded; and though it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect, I’ll be returning there just as soon as my quarantine period expires.

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | 5 Comments