To read Perdido Street Station is to have one's cranium sundered open, to have great scoops and handfuls of sweetmeats torn bloodily out and devoured by this great imaginary beast, savoury piece by lascivious chunk, to be consumed, to be devoured, to be wholly absorbed and digested as one passes through the hundreds of intestine-pages, to be excruded out the other end in such a fashion that, though one is reassembled in outward form identical to what came before, the inner being has been subtly transmuted and transmogrified into something altogether different, something that will never quite be the same. China Miéville is a demented priest, who will pass his hands over the reader and say the magic words that transform the yeast and juices into body and blood, transubstantiating inner substance on some ephemeral, intangible, ethereal level.
Clearly influenced by Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy and M. John Harrison's Viriconium books, Perdido Street Station's city of New Crobuzon is the true star and central character here, realized with a love and authenticity far beyond many other mythical realms (and perhaps many that are not so mythical). Miéville leads the reader like some mad piper on a journey through meticulously constructed alleys and streets and paths and corridors and tenements and slums and offices and laboratories and cages and brothels and riverbeds and bedrooms and dens of iniquity and dimensional rifts and rooftops and forests and swamps and courtyards and gardens and pubs and parks and fairs and no fares and cabs and cactus-dwellings and ghettos and a myriad alleys and railways and byways and skyways and archways and sideways and this-ways and that-ways and every-which-ways in a rich cornucopia that is enthralling, engrossing, all-encompassing. The tome's language teeters precariously on the edge of pretentiousness, while somehow remaining merely precocious and never quite spilling over into being ponderous.
Into this excruciatingly detailed world, Miéville introduces rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, whose unorthodox research into Crisis Theory (think Quantum Mechanics meets Alchemy) is given a boost when a mutilated bird-being known as a garuda enters his lab one night. The garuda enlists Isaac's services in restoring his power of flight, brutally taken from him as punishment for some unrevealed and abstract crime. Meanwhile, Isaac's lover Lin, a member of a scarab-headed race known as Khepri, is hired to render a likeness of a shadowy underworld boss in the bizarre artform of sculpting in Khepri spit. Their separate commissions dovetail disastrously when, in pursuit of the dynamics of flight, Isaac unknowingly nurtures and releases a terrifying creature upon the city. Aided by a bizarre cadre of characters and hunted by an equally bizarre slew of villains (governmental, criminal, and extra-dimensional), Isaac seeks to contain the nightmare he has unwittingly unleashed upon New Crobuzon before any of his multiple pursuers catch up with him. Passing through equal parts of comedy, tragedy, action-adventure and philosophical asides, the resulting narrative is intimidatingly brilliant in its execution, containing enough originality in its seven hundred plus pages for a dozen or more lesser novels.
China Miéville has been compared to Neal Stephenson, but given that the only obvious similarities are that both men are geniuses who like to write big books, more apt comparisons follow: Perdido Street Station is as inventive and self-consistent in its mad imagery as a Dalí, as scatological and entomological as Burroughs (William S., not Edgar Rice), as uncompromising and brutal as Moorcock, as intricate and elaborate as Tolkien, as mind-altering as Philip K. Dick, as absurdly and comedically metaphysical as Grant Morrison, and as original and as enjoyable a work as anything to come along in years. It is as though Charles Dickens and Gary Gygax sat down to write a Godzilla movie on the scale of Moby Dick. (Miéville meets Melville?)
Read it as science fiction. Read it as urban fantasy. Read it as horror. Read it as the wish-fulfilment of a devout Dungeons & Dragons fan. Read it as slipstream, as comedy, as steampunk. Just make sure that you read it.
Review by Lou Anders.
See also: Andy Sawyer's review of the UK edition of this novel.
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© Lou Anders 28 July 2001