Perdido Street Station
The first time I read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, I was not only confused, I was repelled. Too much was happening in a rank, unpleasant world where everything seemed to end badly for everyone. I kept the book only because I’d paid good money for it.
A few years later, I read it again. Maybe it was because this time I was determined to understand what was happening, or maybe it was just that the initial shock had worn off, but whatever the reason, I ended up enjoying the story. Not that occasional moments of it were any less stomach-turning, but the rest of the book made up for that.
In the grimy, industrialized city of New Crobuzon, scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin lives with his girlfriend, a sculptor called Lin. She’s a khepri, a member of a species where the males are large, mindless scarab beetles but the intelligent females have scarab-heads on women’s bodies. She accepts a commission from a powerful gangster called Motley, who wants a statue of himself. Let’s just say he looks… unusual. At the same time, Isaac is also hired by someone out of the ordinary—a birdman who’s lost his wings and wants to fly again.
Isaac buys vast numbers of birds and winged insects as he studies the mechanisms of flight. Word spreads about the scientist who’s paying for specimens, and a greedy clerk diverts a caterpillar from a top-secret shipment. Isaac discovers the creature eats only a new type of drug called ‘dreamshit’, but grows prodigiously once gorged on this substance. Insert your own Very Hungry Caterpillar joke here.
What’s a lot less amusing is that it transforms into a slake-moth, taller than a bear, immensely strong, and equipped with wings where the patterns change in such a way that anyone who looks at them is instantly hypnotized. The slake-moth then devours that person’s mind. Oh, and since it’s got some rudimentary intelligence, it flies off to find its siblings, who were bought by Motley to produce the dreamshit drug, which the moths excrete as food for their young. It frees the other moths, who escape. Motley is not pleased. He finds out Isaac bought the caterpillar, and that Lin is Isaac’s lover – but his revenge is the least of the resulting problems, since the moths are now loose, preying on people, mating and preparing to lay their eggs.
Everything snowballs from there. The ruthless mayor of the city calls on the forces of Hell, who back off because slake-moths are too vicious an enemy for them. That leaves the mayor no choice but to approach the Weaver, a giant hyperdimensional spider who speaks in a bizarre stream-of-consciousness, and who’s as likely to disembowel people as to help them. Other factions of the city – the machines making up the Construct Council, and a secret society of parasites – join the struggle. All the while, Isaac evades the government militia hunting him down, tries desperately to destroy the slake-moths, and finds a way for the birdman to fly.
So the plot is jam-packed, which was why I needed to reread the book to understand what was going on. The start is also a bit slow-paced, because nothing terrible happens until the first slake-moth escapes. But there’s enough intrigue even then, such as how the birdman came to lose his wings. Major, major moral dilemma here. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
As for the world-building, this review only scratches its surface. The sheer depth of culture and mentality and technology and religion for the various species is fascinating. That said, if you like your fantasy with a sense of beauty and splendor, this is not the book for you. It isn’t grimdark so much as grotesque. Mieville never heard of a body fluid that he didn’t include in the story, and the brief mentions of the child prostitutes in a brothel are disturbing (they’ve been physically altered – remade – to suit perverted clients).
I’ve left a discussion of the characters until the end because while I like the diversity in the story – Isaac is a fat black man, while a close friend of his is a lesbian – I don’t recommend anyone get attached to a character. You’ll just end up depressed. No one is safe, physically sound, compos mentis or happy. Yes, they stop the slake-moths, but otherwise the story has a bleak, bitter conclusion.
So in summary, while I wouldn’t recommend Perdido Street Station to anyone new to the fantasy genre, if you’re looking for a different reading experience – not to mention some truly spectacular world-building – you might want to give it a try.