Perdido Street Station
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.
June 18, 2015 @ 1:08 am
Embassytown. You'll be wanting to read Embassytown.
June 18, 2015 @ 2:08 am
im going to say Railsea, because it's the only one of his books I've read that affected me emotionally. The others (City and the City, Kraken and Embassytown) were all good, but I felt like I was being held at arm's length from any emotional core. With Railsea, there was a part that was genuinely uplifting, and made me want to cheer.
June 18, 2015 @ 2:50 am
Embassytown feels to me like Miéville doing lesser Miéville imitator; in that he does with the premise pretty much what one would expect Miéville to do with the premise and not much more.
June 18, 2015 @ 3:08 am
Perdido Street Station was the first Miéville I read. I think the sheer excess of spectacle over plot in Perdido Street Station is an essential part of the Miéville experience. The use of spectacle and demonstration of spectacle seem to me hard to distinguish. The Scar and Iron Council may have more controlled plots, but the general weirdness doesn't work so well if it's not out of control.
The City & The City is his book least like what a Miéville pasticheur would write; it is I think his best.
June 18, 2015 @ 5:09 am
Knowing what I know about Miéville, I know exactly when he's going to pop up in the Last War in Albion: the Black Dossier. Also yes, The City and The City is a great book, my Intro to Literary Studies teacher used it to explain the concept of psychogeography.
June 18, 2015 @ 8:24 am
I shall be accused of being perverse but my favourite Mieville is either Un Lun Dun or Iron Council (the one everyone hates), and I consider The City & The City (the one everyone loves) to be his least impressive novel. It's basically a one-joke-book, and far too literal for my tastes. To pick up on a point Phil makes about PSS, TC&TC demonstrates its themes to you rather than exploring them the way Mieville's better books (IC, ULD, Embassytown) manage. Of course, Mieville's least impressive novel is still much better than most other novelists ever achieve…
June 18, 2015 @ 9:40 am
No love for The Scar? I think out of all of his, that one worked the most for me. Perhaps because Bellis Coldwine quickly grew from annoying to endearing, watching Tanner learn to read was one of the sweetest and saddest things I'd read in a long time, and the send up of seasteading is right up my alley?
I don't know if it's his best, but it's the one I like the most.
June 18, 2015 @ 10:08 am
Have to second that. It has a playfulness about it, especially chapter sixty-four. Of his Bas-lag work I found Perdido Street Station to be the weakest, prefer The Scar.
June 18, 2015 @ 10:27 am
The only problem I found with Iron Council was the slog that the Anamnesis: The Perpetual Train section was. I don't know if Mieville was triying to evoke the endless physically demanding effort of building a railway would have been relying on manual labour but it's the only time I almost gave up on one of his works. Having said that the 'light at the end of the tunnel' after it was pretty fantastic.
June 18, 2015 @ 1:06 pm
Bellis is my favourite Mieville protagonist, by a mile.
June 18, 2015 @ 1:14 pm
Thinking about why Perdido Street Station works for me:
Marxism is a total explanation of history that believes an apocalyptic resolution is imminent. Postmodernism can be characterised as a belief that total explanations of history are impossible as things stand and any apocalyptic resolution will be endlessly deferred. What genre aesthetic can contain both? A novel in which sprawling attempts to contain a totality of weirdness are continually defeated by additional weirdness, and in which a large number of potential plots are suddenly aborted by the apocalyptic onslaught of Lovecraftian lepidoptera.
June 18, 2015 @ 4:47 pm
Like you I tend to turn up my nose at worldbuilding, in that it works that spend a lot of time on it seem to be making excuses for being weird or outlandish when they should just own it and move on.
For this reason, while I've read and enjoyed both The City & the City and Railsea, I think the latter gets my vote. There's not much in the way of explanation or apology. It's "railroads are oceans, let's do Moby Dick."
June 18, 2015 @ 7:54 pm
I have never read a book of his that I didn't enjoy. However Embassytown* is my least favourite and I think The City and The City is his best but not his best in so far as exemplifying what a Mieville book is like.
Railsea? Yeah. Fun.
June 18, 2015 @ 9:58 pm
'Looking For Jake and Other Stories' features Mieville's best work by miles, in my opinion. 'Reports of Certain Events in London', 'Familiar', 'Different Skies' and 'Details' are stunning.
June 18, 2015 @ 11:54 pm
I've only read Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, but of the two the latter is by far my favourite, partially because of the tighter focus, but mainly because I can't forgive the former book for its utterly grotesque eleventh hour fridging.
June 19, 2015 @ 12:14 am
Embassytown is the only Miéville book I've read, so although I enjoyed it (once I adjusted to the style, which took a little while) I can't do any comparisons. The comments have been interesting in that there seems very little agreement on his best and worst works – a healthy sign, I think!
June 19, 2015 @ 3:17 am
I haven't read any of Mieville's work yet, which is why I voted for it in the last Patreon round, so I could discover a bit more about him through the eyes of Phil.
Even if some people were a bit ambivalent about this work I certainly want to read this and others, as I so far really am fascinated by and enjoy the sound and texture of his writing presented in the sections above. Thanks Phil!
August 7, 2015 @ 12:46 pm
I tried to finish Perdido Street Station and just couldn't. On the other hand, I loved Kraken, so maybe I just needed to find my favorite flavor of messy Mieville.
August 7, 2015 @ 3:27 pm
The Scar is the only one I've read, and I think I enjoyed it, although it's all a bit hazy now. I do remember having the Hunting of the Snark gag pointed out to me online somewhere.
August 7, 2015 @ 3:29 pm
IMO, Terry Pratchett had the right idea about worldbuilding. (Yes, I think Terry Pratchett had the right idea about an aspect of storytelling. I'm sure you're all amazed.) It's a thing worth doing so your story isn't floating in the middle of nowhere, but it shouldn't actually be in the story unless it's relevant.