January is a somewhat tough month for me – preparing exams, checking them, the paperwork related… It takes a lot of time and, in consequence, much less is left for reading. And so it took me a while to finish Perdido Street Station – not because it was boring, but because I didn’t have time to read it. But here I am, the book finished, exams waiting to be checked, and a review due today ;).
Perdido Street Station is Miéville’s second novel, first set in the Bas-Lag world, and a mammoth of a book (880 pages). It’s urban fantasy/steam punk/alternative reality something born from a really wickedly bright, and/or stoned, mind. It won several awards, Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2001 being the most prominent. It is the perfect example of New Weird. New – to some extent, but Weird – all the way.
It’s really a bit of everything, as if Miéville just took every weird, surrealistic, nightmarish idea that came to his mind and mixed them all together. And it’s great. It does start slowly, very slowly, in fact, but when the plot eventually thickens and the main story arc emerges, it becomes riveting and smart really fast. I loved the Dr. Frankenstein/sorcerer’s apprentice angle, I thoroughly enjoyed the first ruthless steps of barbaric capitalism (vodyanoi dock-workers strike is a view to behold), the systematized, catalogued and dissected world of magic and technology, the crazy scientific ideas – crisis engine, anyone? I also very much appreciate the underlying current of guilt and shame, responsibility and vengeance, of betrayal and redemption.
The main protagonist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, is such a human creature (actually, he is a human when it comes to species, but that’s beside the point), full of vices and flaws, making bad, or even catastrophically bad decisions, but also possessing that spark of ingenuity and of inherent goodness (moral angle is an important one in this novel) that makes him transcend his limitations and strive for more, that I simply could not dislike him, or not root for him. There is also a wingless garuda, Yagharek, a humanoid avian from a desert tribe, whose wings were chopped off as a punishment for a crime. Yagharek’s musings form a counterpoint to the main story arc, he is a commentator, a poet, a conscience of the city of New Corbuzon. It’s Yagharek’s commission that puts der Grimnebulin on the path to a discovery of immense importance, as well as the path to a total catastrophe. There’s also the Construct Council, an artificial intelligence somewhere between a Transformer and a hive, part of which reminded me of R2-D2, and there’s the Weaver.
The Weaver. He is something special. A spider living in many dimensions at once, on a web spanning and encompassing them all, a deranged, utterly strange and strangely comprehensible at once, is by far the strongest presence in the book. The Weavers, Miéville writes,
evolved from virtually mindless predators into aestheticians of astonishing intellectual and materio-thaumaturgic power, superintelligent alien minds who no longer used their webs to catch prey, but were attuned to them as objects of beauty disentaglable from the fabric of reality itself.
The Weaver is like an insectoid Cheshire cat. Almost all-powerful, a reality unto itself, charming, fascinating, unsettling and super cool :D.
Just one more quote about the Weavers and their web:
Spread across the emptiness, streaming away from us with cavernous perspective in all directions and dimensions, encompassing lifetimes and hugenesses with each intricate knot of metaphysical substance, was a web. Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry… each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether.
Miéville says that Tim Powers is one of his literary heroes, and that shows. The language and imagination are Miéville’s strongest points. He writes very well, fluidly, languidly, with a certain dose of surrealism mixed with hyper-realism. And here we come to the less-than-perfect parts :). There had to be some, you know :P. The city of New Crobuzon in Miéville’s description is an awful place to live: stinking, dirty, cruel and mean, greedy and soulless. This vision is tiring sometimes and its uniform murkiness seems strained. Some of the creatures, or sentient beings, seem to live only at Miéville’s whim. Like khepri, the idea of whom seems forced to the point of absurdity. Yeah, I know I’m writing about a book [spoiler-alert] where awfully big multi-dimensional moths eat people’s brains out! Still, khepri seem outside even the logic that governs the Bas-Lag world, and that says something.
The last thing I didn’t like was the ending. It somehow fell flat, without the emotional impact it should have. I get why Miéville chose to end it this way, but I preferred to have this one secret left unrevealed.
Still, the whole novel is great. I loved it enough that when I finished it I grabbed another Miéville’s book, Kraken.