Far be it from me to criticize my generous and wise patrons, on whose behalf this essay is written, but I suspect that Perdido Street Station is not, in fact, the best way to start with China Miéville. Jack Graham tells me Un Lun Dun is superlative, and a lot of people seem to plug The City and the City, each of which are, notably, about half as long as Perdido Street Station. Indeed, at a glance, Perdido Street Station appears to be the longest of Miéville’s works.
It is not, certainly, that the book is too long, although its length and the at times willfully undisciplined nature of its plotting can be frustrating. One of the book’s most interesting characters, Lin, the insectoid partner of the protagonist, essentially drops out of the plot halfway through and reemerges at the end just in time to be violently lobotomized, a move that is both disappointing in light of the fact that she’s one of two significant female characters (and by far the more interesting and fleshed out of the two) and just plain frustrating. An action sequence towards the book’s end is resolved in part by the sudden appearance of a quasi-mythical figure mentioned early in the book, but basically ignored for the middle half of it, making his appearance jarring in the extreme. And the book’s primary plot, a group of horrific creatures called slake-moths that are stalking the dreams of New Crobuzon, doesn’t really start up until a third of the way through, causing all prior plots to be set aside until the last chapter, at which point several of them have been resolved by dint of the relevant characters having died horribly at some point.
It is, in other words, a profoundly messy book. Even this is not quite a flaw; its messiness is tangibly an artistic choice. I’ve not looked into interviews or anything, but it would not surprise me to discover that a draft or at least fragments of Perdido Street Station predate Miéville’s first book, King Rat; it has the characteristic sprawl of a first novel, desperate to get every bold idea and sweeping theme that’s been stewing in his brain for twenty-eight years into a single book. But I’ve an obvious soft spot for mad ambition, or at least a well-developed enough sense of irony to recognize that I really oughtn’t criticize another writer’s sense of literary hubris.
Because, of course, there’s a real pleasure to messy sprawl. The clarity and depth of a tidy novel is certainly a pleasure worth indulging in, but the messy novel, with all its implications and half-elucidated ideas that leave the reader wondering if it’s they or the author who is actually playing with a given theme. And Perdido Street Station is particularly well-poised to take advantage of this. It is a book grounded in weird fiction, after all, full of fantastic creatures existing at a strange and deliberately hazy junction of magic and science. Humans live alongside frog people, beetle people, cactus people, bird people, all of them strange and genuinely alien to one another. And, of course, the slake-moths, the awful monsters at the heart of the plot, are, well, awful monsters. Also multi-dimensional hypnotic moths who eat your consciousness.
Which is to say that the sense of implication and vaguely inchoate ideas given by the book’s sprawl and its genre work together well. It does not, at any point, really give the sense of being a book that requires complete coherence and clarity. Certainly that would be a poor match for Miéville’s themes. And it has to be said, Miéville has very, very thoroughly worked out themes. He’s a well-read Marxist of the sort who writes 25-page essays on the symbolism of tentacles (although Perdido Street Station lacks tentacles and, indeed, cephalopods). Perdido Street Station is not a morality play in the tedious Vox Day/John C. Wright sense, but it is nevertheless a fundamentally Marxist book, in a way that permeates every aspect of it.
Certainly New Crobuzon is a city that is tangibly designed from the bottom up, starting with the experiences of the bulk of its impoverished residents. The first description of it, from the perspective of an outsider arriving at the city, focuses on its filth: “its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow… it is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night.” The first event of the book proper features Isaac, the protagonist, waking and discovering a grub feasting on him within his bedsheets. The view of the city slowly widens from this, and eventually the book becomes in part about its politics and its (corrupt, obviously) ruling class, but the city starts in material filth and squalor and builds outwards, working its way through things like dockers strikes and the radical press on its way to the top.
There is a careful detail to this sprawl. The book opens, as grand fantasy novels do, with a map of New Crobuzon, mapping out over fifty separate locations within the city, including naming every station on its train lines. The city and its inhabitants are worked out in dizzying detail, a meticulous act of worldbuilding at its most gleefully perverse. Usually this sort of thing leaves me a bit cold; worldbuilding is not my aesthetic, and seems at best silly and at worst pathological, albeit at times (Game of Thrones) fascinatingly so.
But Miéville takes worldbuilding in a fascinating direction; he has talked about his ambition in laying out the city, saying, in one piece, that his aspiration was “to read for New Crobuzon as Iain Sinclair does for London.” This is a bold claim, to say the least. I’ve not addressed Sinclair much on this blog, although he’ll come up in Last War in Albion at some point. He’s a stunningly verbose writer whose books, both fiction and nonfiction, are dense, difficult confections of psychogeography. Here – a sample passage obtained by grabbing the first Sinclair book I could find on my shelf and opening it at random:
“The space occupied by the deactivated Children’s Hospital disturbed my afternoon circuits of Haggerston Park. The way it glowered across the man-made pond and the little eco wilderness. Chickens pecked in the City Farm, the donkey was too depressed to utter its plaintive yowl. Buildings of such memory-displacement won’t let you pass, freely and without repercussion: I have to notice the broken panes, graffiti revisions, dirty bouquets of stone flowers.”
Some of the strangeness and difficulty of this passage may not be immediately obvious. The passage comes immediately on the back of a four-page transcription of an interview Sinclair conducted with a doctor at said hospital. Haggerston Park has not previously been mentioned in the chapter. Nor has City Farm. The next paragraph opens, “Brian Catling, rumbling through Hackney Road towards some performance venue in Vyner Street, or new lapdancing experience, paused to interrogate the proprietor of the handbag shop where the old Nag’s Head used to be.” Catling, Vyner Street, and Nag’s Head, obviously, have not previously come up in the chapter. It’s a very difficult and offputting style, but an effective one at what Sinclair is generally trying to do, which is to provide a sense of the psychic experience of London.
And Perdido Street Station is certainly working in a similar vein. The initial outsider’s description doesn’t just focus on the city’s filth, but on the phenomenology of New Crobuzon – the phrase removed by ellipses in my earlier quotation is “I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers,” and the quote is followed by the declaration that “it is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in.” A similarly revealing section comes early on when Miéville describes Lin’s experience of looking at the city through insect eyes: “a million tiny sections of the whole, each miniscule hexagon segment ablaze with sharp colour and even sharper lines, super-sensitive to differentials of light, weak on details unless she focused hard enough to hurt slightly. WIthin each segment, the dead scales of decaying walls were invisible to her, architecture reduced to elemental slabs of colour. But a precise story was told. Each visual fragment, each part, each shape, each shade of colour differed from its surroundings in infinitesimal ways that told her about the state of the whole structure. And she could taste chymicals in the air, could tell how many of which race lived in which building: she could feel vibrations of air and sound with precision enough to converse in a crowded room or feel a train pass overhead.”
This approach, as the novel goes on, develops into providing passages in which the city itself seems to be the POV character, such as the opening to chapter thirty, roughly halfway through the book: “One night the city lay sleeping with reasonable peace. Of course, the usual interruptions oppressed it. Men and women fought each other and died. Blood and spew fouled the old streets. Glass shattered. The militia streaked overhead. Dirigibles sounded like monstrous whales. The mutilated, eyeless body of a man who would later be identified as Benjamin Flex washed ashore in Badside. The city tossed uneasily through its nightland, as it had for centuries. It was a fractured sleep, but it was all the city had ever had.”
The effect is powerful; a fantasy milieu constructed with such thorough worldbuilding as to have a tangible psychic reality. And more than that, a tangible psychic reality based on a fundamental monstrosity. In the course of my Vox Day interview, he mentioned, perversely, that Miéville was one of his two favorite active SF/F writers, despite the fact that his best works are outright Satanic. And there’s a truism to that; certainly one suspects that Miéville would share my intense and fundamental comfort with being considered the devil to Vox Day’s god.
Which is to say that I have tremendous respect for the grandeur of what Miéville constructs here. New Crobuzon is a stunning achievement; a tangible monstrosity that crackles with totemic power. It earns the uncanny majesty implicit in the epithet “Satanic.”
And yet all the same, Perdido Street Station, while it may be the best demonstration of the splendor of Miéville’s approach, seems also to me to exemplify the slight superficiality of demonstration. I am sold on the potential of Miéville’s approach. But I cannot help but feel I’d appreciate a use of that approach as opposed to a demonstration of it.