Book Review: China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station
Let’s talk about sub genres. Again.
Sci-Fi & Fantasy are closely related genres, but at the same time, there’s that ampersand in the middle already separating the two. You know the difference; one book has a spaceship on the cover, and the other one has a dragon. But as you go deeper, one can see that there’s countless sub-divisions past that simple binary distinction.
This is hardly exclusive to SF/F literature, or even literature in general. Romance novels, action movies, anime series, music, horror flicks- there’s always going to be some little obscure corner to dig into. It’s part of the fun of nerding, to be honest.
Which brings us to China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and this week’s sub-genre: The New Weird.
Before you ask, yes, there is an old weird. Specifically, Weird Tales, a pulp magazine that ran from 1923 to 1954. Weird Tales is particularly important in the history of SF/F literature, as it launched the careers of authors like Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft. Other notable ‘old weird’ authors include, say, Jack Vance or Michael Moorcock.
The old weird and the new weird are very similar- the main difference is that New Weird works are, well, newer (post Tolkien, I’d say) and they can use swear words when needed. This said, the main thread that ties the two weirds together is that they’re…well, weird. Weird fiction doesn’t draw on established tropes or folklore; instead, it makes up strange and bizarre creatures and lands out of the whole cloth. You’re not dealing with stuff like werewolves or vampires (or orcs and elves, even), but whatever twisted creatures the author’s cooked up. Weird Fiction is unpredictable. Messy.
Ironically, one could argue that while H.P. Lovecraft is Weird Fiction, the various derivations of Mythos fiction…aren’t, as a lot of them just repeat or re-envision the crazy crap Lovecraft cooked up.
So yeah! China Mieville! I’ve read some of his stuff before, but Perdido Street Station is his first big novel. I’d heard it Mieville mentioned as a sort of ‘literary’ SF/F author- arguably like Ian M. Banks. As a result, I went into the book with certain expectations- which proved wrong, but more on that later.
Perdido Street Station is set in the city of New Crobuzon, a sprawling, bustling fantasy city in the vein of Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar, or even Saladin Ahmed’s Dhamsawaat. What makes this setting different from ye olde fantasy novel, however, is the fact that New Crobuzon is a city in the middle of an industrial revolution. Perdido Street Station is steampunk, but in a far more in depth manner than Carriger’s Soulless. It’s not just a matter of adding some goggles and gears to the character’s wardrobe- rather, Mieville puts the ‘punk’ in steampunk, focusing on all the filth, the noise, and the pollution that an industrialized city would produce. On top of that, there are definite elements of class struggle in the novel, with labor unions and riots and all that.
As a work of the New Weird, Perdido Street Station is, of course..weird. So weird, the second chapter of the book starts with Issac, a portly mad scientist (who would be played by either Paul Giamatti or John Goodman, I’ve decided) waking up to breakfast with his artist lover, Lin. It’d be a perfectly domestic scene if it weren’t for the fact that Lin has a scarab beetle for a head. That’s the weird stuff, right there.
Lin is a khepri, one of several races Mieville made up for the book. As really, for as ‘literary’ as I’d heard the book to be, that’s not what Mieville is going for. Rather, what he does focus on is the monsters.
Perdido Street Station is crawling with monsters- a veritable Monster Manual’s worth. The fun thing is, it’s all original. Instead of elves, there are amphibious frog-men. Instead of dragons, you have horrible Geiger-esque moths that will eat your brain. Instead of wizards, you have insane extradimensional spiders. Instead of dwarves, you have cactus people.
And again, these creatures are messy. They bleed, they puke, they shit- Mieville wastes no opportunity to remind you of how filthy his characters are, wading through sewers or chasing monsters or whatever. It’s a little steampunk, maybe a little splatterpunk. But still punk, either way.
The book takes a little while to get going- but once it does, it turns into a gory, messy horror novel. Thing is, it’s a well done horror novel. Like the best monsters, Mieville’s creatures follow their own twisted rules, and the characters do their best to use these rules to their advantage, one way or the other.
I enjoyed reading Perdido Street Station, once I realized how much fun Mieville was having throwing so many crazy monsters into it. I will say that things got a little muddled towards the end, with the entirely too convenient appearance of a character who’d not really played any part of the book earlier. Also, there are a couple of passages in the book that don’t serve much purpose other than shoehorning in some other horrible monsters Mieville cooked up- I’ll just write that off as first-novel-syndrome, or something.
Ultimately, Perdido Street Station is a sticky read, but well worth checking out for anyone who’s tired of typical elves & wizard fantasy. Well worth checking out, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing!