After waiting for a considerable while for China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station to become available at my local library, long after I’d already read his loosely (very loosely) connected second and third books pertaining to the same world (The Scar and Iron Council), I was ready to write a post. Nevertheless, it was the middle of the Christmas-New Year’s holiday break, and so I gave myself a few weeks off to do what people do during the holidays, at least partially due to the grim nature of the first book, which since I read it last functioned as a sort of prequel, willy-nilly. Somehow, it was so masterful that I wanted to comment upon it, but so dour and again “grim” that I couldn’t bring myself to put a blight on the holidays by focusing on it.
Now, however, the New Year has begun, and it’s time to face realities, so since my New Year’s resolution, such as it is, is to get back to a more regular posting schedule, it’s time to face Perdido Street Station head-on. First let me say that the book begins at the beginning in the sense of building the world of New Crobuzon, a city which reminds me very much of a world-class city like London (the city of which Miéville is a citizen). It’s in the first book thus that we get hints of themes and types of characters developed in all three of the books. For example, the government and the militia are overwhelmingly strong and overbearing, putting their fingers not only in every legal “pie” going, but also in most of the illegal ones, whatever will turn a profit for the individuals in power. As well, there are drugs and illicit activities abounding in the society at large, which the government polices on the one hand and attempts to regulate for their own use on the other. Challenging the nature of this corruption are such bodies as the outlawed rebel presses, one of which publishes the forbidden newspaper Runagate Rampant, and folk heroes such as Jack Half-a-Prayer, a rebel who helps from the shadows to set things right in whatever way he can. Caught in between are natives of many races, like the khepri (semi-human semi-beetles) and the vodyanoi (frog-like characters capable of controlling water power), and cactacae (cactus people), who must choose sides and duck prejudice and unfairness.
The main character of this book is a scientist-cum-renegade named Isaac Grimnebulin, who is approached by a member of a humanoid bird race from the desert, called a garuda. This garuda asks him to rebuild or restore his wings, which have been removed as a punishment for a crime against another garuda. The garuda claims that he is unable to explain the crime in the language that a human would comprehend, but it involved depriving another garuda of choice in one of his/her life decisions. They become friends, and in the process of trying to study flying things in order to know how to use aerodynamics and his special study of crisis technology, Isaac unintentionally becomes involved in a massive plot which brings danger to the whole city, and which he and his friends must correct.
At the center of the conspiracy is a costly drug known as “dreamshit,” a substance which not only the government but also any number of criminals are trying to control the distribution of. This substance comes from a phenomenally powerful and dangerous creature known as a slake-moth, a huge flying being whose larvae are fed on the dreamshit which humans steal and take as a drug. When Isaac unknowingly raises a caterpillar that becomes a slake-moth and breaks free, freeing as well its brothers and sisters from a laboratory where they are kept, all hell breaks loose, to put it mildly. The government is hunting Isaac and his friends for even ever having had the slake-moth, and for interfering in their plans to sell them to a gangster. And in ignorance of this conspiracy between the government and the gangster, Mr. Motley, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin accepts a job from the gangster which she thinks is simple because it seems only to involve making a statue of him.
The book is involved, painful, and full of incident; it is as full of harsh events and no-way-out circumstances as any realistic novel. There is no way that this book could bear the typical label of science fiction/fantasy, “escape literature,” because the creatures, characters, events, and symbols of everyday life are all paralleled by what is actually in our world, regardless of how unrealistic they at first seem. Note, however, that I am not calling it a bad book; on the contrary, it’s a real gem of a book to read and think about, and I’m even glad that I read it last, because I think it’s no less substantial than the other two books and even surpasses them in the sense that it initiates the reader into a new kind of fiction which while fantastic in specifics is full of humanism and moral pointedness in its generalities and themes. Don’t go here if you are looking for an escape; but go here if you are in search of a finely-crafted, highly artistic literary experience that fulfills most reasonable expectations of surprising you and rewarding you and confirming your experiences and intuitions of how living beings should and should not treat each other. You will certainly find what you seek in this book by China Miéville.