I have been meaning to read China Mieville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION for years, now. It was the first book of Mieville’s to catch my eye, though I only vaguely knew it was supposed to be very strange and somehow involve wings. I ended up reading his later stuff first, and have only now worked my way back to this.
It is a marvelous book, but it is clearly written by a younger and not quite as sure-footed writer than the man who produced EMBASSYTOWN. It is a grand, sprawling creation. It is a giddy, horrifying, sweet, philosophical wonder of a book. And it is overwritten, clunky, confusing and oddly paced.
The story takes place in New Crobuzon, a bizarre city in the world of Bas-Lag built around the partial skeleton of a monstrously huge unknown creature. The city attracts all kinds, from a beetle-headed rebellious artist to a washout brilliant scientist to a wounded and broken refugee seeking a miracle. Mieville delights in the nastiness of the city—this is a deliriously gross book in a peculiarly poetic way.
Like most of Mieville’s work, this book is a philosophy told through narrative. His books are ultimately always more about the abstract concepts they grapple with than the characters who populate them. A main thematic focus of the book is transition and inspiration, how one begets the other over and over in a cycle. It comes up in the book in a hundred different ways. The other major theme is consciousness. The two are linked here, likely informed by Mieville’s politics: the ways in which thought and sapience transmute and transform the material world seems to have clear roots in Marxist dialectic thought.
The world of Bas-Lag is rich with sapience: there are humans, but there are also khepri and vodyanoi and garuda and wyrmen and a mention of vampirs and the horrific handlingers. That’s not even everyone. There are the Weavers: a race of multidimensional spiders whose ways of thinking are so far removed from our own as to be uninterpretable. And there is the Construct Council. Magic (here called thaumaturgy) and science bleed together to make possible the Remade: individuals whose bodies have been drastically and often grotesquely reshaped. The book is, in a word, colorful. And the plot comes to hinge on all these differences and all these paradoxes.
The plot is initially somewhat thin, but the richness and breadth of the worldbuilding is enough to hold interest. By the time the plot truly gets going the book builds momentum like nobody’s business. The last quarter of the book has some of the most urgent and affecting plot construction I’ve ever read—it’s truly shocking, and it’s deft enough to dredge up a hundred different responses page to page. The ending is haunting.
That said, the book could have been condensed. There are plot lines that go not quite far enough, that aren’t embedded gracefully enough, threads that could be pulled without damaging the richness of the tapestry Mieville weaves. This is a case of too much book: one where the focus feels occasionally spread too thin, where the hopping around from character to character can be frantic and disorienting instead suspenseful or revelatory. It’s a wonderful, lively book that is a hair too shaggy.