Novel * China Miéville *Steampunk Mothpocalypse * 2000
Have you ever read a China Miéville novel before? If so, you might know what you’re in for. On the other hand, I’ve read two other of his novels and yo, this isn’t like either one of those. The first was City and the City, which was a trip, but otherwise enjoyable. I wouldn’t call it breezy, but it didn’t overstay its welcome. The other, Un Lun Dun, is a young adult novel, and proceeds as such. I liked it too, even if it did suffer from Too Many Proper Nouns. Perdido Street Station has a few things in common with both of those novels. Like City and the City, it’s quite often bonkers. However, City and the City is focused weirdness. It has a thematic concept (if you’re unaware of this novel, the conceit is that two cities that have entirely different cultures are directly overlapped in the same physical space and the citizens of either city refuse to acknowledge each other) whereas the Perdido Street Station is just widespread weird. And all that weird has a name, often expressed with Proper Nouns. So it’s like if Un Lun Dun were gross and violent and full of swears.
I can’t decide if I like this kind of world building or not. This book is dense with it. The name of the city is New Crobuzon, and it is the home of several million weird fucking fantasy people. There are bird-people and bug-people. There are frog-people and cactus-people. There are Remades, which are regular people who are spliced up with all kinds of weird shit. I would say it’s like a grown-up Adventure Time, but that’s essentially Rick and Morty, which you know, isn’t entirely off the mark here. Well, the book isn’t all that funny, but there is an important character who is a bird person. He doesn’t have gross sex with a human high school girl, however the actual protagonist, Isaac, is in love with a bug-lady. If I’m kind of all over the place trying to explain this thing, well, that’s because Perdido Street Station is also all over the place. It’s a long, messy, often confusing novel filled with a ton of extraneous detail. It’s the kind of book that takes like 200 pages to really get into its own plot, and even then there are constant detours. And all that is totally fine if you’re into the world Miéville is crafting. If so, I think there’s two more books which take place in it.
There are some decent characters in Perdido Street Station, but really the star of the show is New Crobuzon, that’s the focus. It’s a massive, grimy, unsavory place, but as a setting it really does come alive. Eventually a plot materializes, and our characters move throughout the city, usually in its seedy underbelly. Isaac, the one in love with a woman with an insect head (yes there’s a sex scene, and I don’t care if it makes me bug-racist I cannot even deal with it), is also a large scientist. He’s like an edgy science man, but whatever. He’s contacted by the aforementioned bird-person, who is missing his wings and would like to fly again. Eventually, his studies lead him to discover a kind of fucked up psychedelic caterpillar which in many very weird ways promises doom for the city of New Crobuzon. After the break I’m just going to talk openly about the story, and how I liked it once it eventually happened, and hated the denouement. If all this sounds intriguing, though? Well, I guess I enjoyed it overall. If you’re into dark urban steampunky fantasy, you’ll get some great cosplay ideas out of this thing.
The thing is, considering the avalanche of details and names and descriptions, Perdido Street Station is too much. The characters get lost sometimes in the effort to make New Crobuzon come alive. There’s also the sense that the city exists in and of itself, independent from a larger world. That’s not to say there is literally no other world. All the various hybrid races come from distant lands, and there are references to other areas and environments, not to mention rival cities. However, the entire novel takes place within the city and everything else just seems vague, like rumors in a tavern. While that might be the intended effect – all but one of the main characters are natives of New Crobuzon – as a reader it can alienate you from feeling like part of a larger world. To be fair, there’s two more books in this series that I haven’t read, so maybe the lore and whatnot get expanded. I kind of hope so.
Aside from the density issue, there’s also the fact that this novel switches its plot up maybe halfway through. The initial story of Isaac and his rebellious science takes a while to spin up itself, but eventually bird-person shows up in an effort to regain the ability to fly. Isaac becomes all-consumed by his desire to work on this project, and yes, I am very aware that it is his mania to collect as many flying things as possible which leads to his acquisition of the caterpillar which eventually becomes the main plot. When the caterpillar changes into a slake-moth, who then goes on a jail-break thus unleashing the apocalyptic moths onto the scene, the narrative gets a beat switch. What began as a supremely dense fantasy world with a relatively slight-but-intriguing story suddenly becomes a ragtag-group-saves-the-world story. And I don’t know. It’s not like the main plot comes out of nowhere, but the stakes of that plot does. It’s jarring.
Also, I’m not entirely convinced I like how everything plays out. There’s too many loose threads, not the least of which is what the fuck is up with the Weaver? It’s like a humanoid spider demon what flickers in and out of meat space? Whatever, you have to learn to roll with a lot of weird shit. I mean, the slake-moths are insanely destructive hunters which eat the mind-vibes of its victims leaving them drooling vegetables, so whatever. It’s mostly that there are character threads which never really pay off. We see the repressive arm of the State, get their perspective, but after a while it just peters out. Characters disappear for large swaths of narrative. Some are mere mentions, then they get their own POV section, then are never mentioned again. It’s werid.
But that’s the whole book, actually. For all its detail and density, Perdido Street Station just kind of… ends. Our heroes save the day, but they can’t go forward and live in the city because too many powerful factions want them dead. For saving the city I guess? Meanwhile, the story tries to come around full circle as Isaac tries in vain to fulfil his promise to bird-person. He’s got his crisis engine (and this might just be me, but I kind of hate reading about fantasy science, just call it magic, it’s fine) which something something algebra is going to made bird-person fly again. OH BUT WAIT, then there’s the last second reveal that bird-person is actually a piece of shit, because the lady bird-person he raped showed up and asked Isaac to maybe not revoke bird-person’s punishment. And I just cannot fathom the reasoning behind dropping this in the last few pages. Nothing is resolved. Lin is a drooling invalid, everyone else is all bummed out, they’re exiled, and bird-person is a rapist fuck. Look, I’m a Modernist, I do not require a happily ever after. I do, however, prefer an ending that isn’t just a big middle finger to the reader.