Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Perdido Street Station

I'd read good things about China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, so I bought it from the World's Biggest Bookstore on Sunday. Here be a great many spoilers, if you haven't read the book.

What worked

Reading China Mieville is a little like reading Jack Vance - both are highly imaginative authors who create wonderfully alien worlds. I especially love the twisted science of Mieville's New Crobuzon. The Remade are humans with the body parts of other humans or animals or even metallic devices grafted to their bodies. The khepri are insects, except the males are large nonsentient scarabs and the females have human bodies and heads that look like giant scarabs grafted on to those bodies. Note to self : consider sexual dimorphism in future work. There are all kinds of evocative names like the Canker River, the Cold Claw Sea, Bonetown in the Ribs. There are mechanical constructs, computers with programme cards and dirigibles, all crammed into a great city of art and drugs and workers' strikes. This is the first fantasy novel I've ever read which used the word Biohazard, and I loved every bit of this.

I read Perdido Street Station in parts, but in other parts I found myself dipping, leaving the story as I thought about some idea or image. In other words, the book was more of a vast colorful landscape filled with intriguing details. I admired from a distance, studied close-up and drew back to admire again the vision and scope and skill in worldbuilding. But except for one instance, I wasn't actually in the book. The same thing happens for me with Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series. I enjoy those books for their settings, and there's nothing wrong with this - they're great inspiration for a writer of speculative fiction, and so was Perdido Street Station

What didn't work

The story begins when Isaac, a scientist, receives a commission from a garuda, a winged humanoid called Yagharek. Yagharek's wings have been amputated, and he wants to fly again. At the same time, Lin, an artist and Isaac's khepri lover, also receives a commission. Hers is from a mobster called Motley, and he wants her to sculpt a statue of him. Since Motley is like New Crobuzon itself - a vast shambling mass of lots of different limbs and heads and so on - this might take a while.

Isaac dives headfirst into the study of flight, buying up all kinds of winged creatures on which to experiment. One of those creatures is a stolen caterpillar which turns to a huge, magnificient slake-moth that feeds on people's minds. Isaac and a motley (excuse the pun) crew of friends have to stop the slake-moth and build a crisis engine that will somehow help Yagharek.

While I loved the setting, I couldn't identify with any of the characters except Yagharek, at the very end. Some reviewers on Amazon said they couldn't buy a human having sex with a woman whose entire head is a huge dung beetle. I didn't mind this, but I did get the impression that most of what fascinated Isaac was below the neck. Their relationship seemed to be based on sex and the fact that they were both rebels against the status quo - not really compelling for me. And both characters acted in ways that I didn't find heroic. When Isaac screams at Lin to come to him and not look back (because a slake-moth has unfolded its hypnotic wings behind her), she thinks something like, Hey, there must be something really interesting behind me, and she looks back. For his part, Isaac reluctantly writes Lin off after Motley kidnaps her, so she ends up being horribly tortured. I could understand this, but later he reneges on his bargain with Yagharek and abandons him, because Yagharek once committed a terrible crime in taking away someone's choice. This is after Isaac has used a helpless and dying old man as mothbait.

Speaking of Yagharek, I really liked him at the end. The story closes on a first-person account from him, when he realizes his former friends have turned their backs on him after they found out he raped another garuda and had his wings sawed off for it. The descriptions of the crime, the sentencing and the punishment were incredibly intense and painful to read, and his shame and guilt came through clearly. I've said before that a skilled enough author can make me like almost anyone, and this book proved that. That's why I felt so upset about Isaac's abandoning the person who had stood at his side and risked his life to fight the slake-moths. I felt Yagharek had redeemed himself, but he had to keep on paying, over and over again, for the crime he regretted. This ending fits with the gritty, nihilistic feel of New Crobuzon, but it's depressing.

Then Yagharek climbs up to a tall tower, and I thought, Oh, he's going to throw himself off. He'll have one last flight, a free fall, an instant of sky before the earth finally takes him. But no... he pulled out all his feathers and decided he would now live as a man in the city. I'm not certain how many men in New Crobuzon have talons and a beak, or what Yagharek plans to do in order to feed himself and keep a roof over his head. It wasn't the most satisfying ending, in other words.

One reason I bought this book was because I'd planned to write a quasi-urban fantasy (part of a modern city wrenched away and slammed down in a primitive world) and I wanted an idea of how different fantasy authors handled their cities. This was an interesting glimpse into a dark, fetid, violent place. I enjoyed it for what it was, but now I think I need to read some George R. R. Martin to cheer myself up. Yes, you read that right.

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