Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: Perdido Street Station

When China Miéville set out to write Perdido Street Station, he deliberately wanted to do something different from most fantasy stories. Therefore, you won't find any medieval maidens riding beside silent champions on the cover of Perdido Street Station. No orcs, no elves, no dragons. In fact, the setting is not medieval at all, but industrial. If you can't remember the last time I talked about Steampunk on this supposedly Steampunk blog, here you go: Perdido Street Station is definitely Steampunk.

You won't see any gentlemen in top hats and waistcoats. There is no Victoriana in the city of New Crobuzon, which is where the novel takes place. The Steampunk elements are steam-powered trains, constructs with surprisingly advanced analog computer brains, and humans who have been Remade by fusing their bodies with steam-powered machines.

The Remade are one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Remaking is a form of punishment in New Crobuzon. The oppressive capitalist government (more on that later) sadistically combines people with machine or animal parts for transgressions against the state. Sometimes these punishments fit the crime, but often they are simply malicious ways to punish and cripple people.

Remade aren't the only interesting people you'll find walking the streets of New Crobuzon. There are also Cactacae, big cactus people who live in a domed ghetto called the Greenhouse. There are Khepri, beetle-headed women whose heads are actually whole beetles, complete with legs and everything. The third major non-human race of New Crobuzon are the Vodyanoi, froglike water dwellers who can shape water temporarily. Miéville loves spicing up his city with other creatures, too, so you'll hear about more exotic creatures from time to time. The most important of these are the Garuda, bird people who usually live far away in the Cymek desert, but also have a small immigrant population in the city.

The city of New Crobuzon itself is one of the best things about the novel. Based on what I've read of his work, Miéville loves architecture, and he has a talent for making his settings feel completely believable. One of the ways he does this is by describing the ways in which the various parts of the city relate to each other, for instance the way a blue-collar district turns into a slum, or the way a high-rent area has fallen into disrepair and become a series of tenements and squats. He then fills these areas with people of all sorts, who live fully realized, everyday lives of all kinds. And of course, squatting at the center of New Crobuzon, at the point where the train lines converge, is the massive Perdido Street Station, the hub and heart of the city.

There are a lot more unpleasant ghettos than posh neighborhoods in New Crobuzon, and that bleakness extends to whole novel. Miéville pulls no punches in populating his city with gangsters, thieves, whores, and homeless. The mayor and his cronies are more than happy to keep the populace living mostly in squalor, though there are nicer areas for the wealthy middle class, university students and faculty, and artists. Miéville is well known for his extreme left-wing politics, and he sometimes lays it on a bit thick as the mayor and his fascist militia crush the unions and keep the people living in fear.

The plot of the novel concerns a Garuda, Yagharek, who arrives in New Crobuzon to seek out a scientist, Isaac Dan Der Grimnebulin. Yagharek had his wings torn off by his tribe as punishment for a crime, and he has heard that Grimnebulin is his best and only hope to ever fly again. Isaac takes on the case, believing that his research into the near-legendary "crisis power" is the key to restoring Yagharek's flight. Meanwhile, Isaac's girlfriend Lin, a Khepri artist, takes on an enormous commission to create a statue of a man who turns out to be a prominent gangster. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so I'll just stop right there.

Perdido Street Station is extremely well written. Reading it reminded me of the works of William Gibson and Neil Stephenson in the sense that I constantly felt like the author must be an absolute genius. Miéville's descriptions of analog computers, for instance, are completely believable and fascinating, and he gives each race a unique philosophy and mindset that is convincingly and mind-bogglingly inhuman.

I wouldn't recommend the novel to everyone, though. New Crobuzon can be a terrible place, and some atrocious things happen along the way that can be hard to read. It helps the setting feel more believable, but it also makes the book unsuitable to certain readers.

I have a few other complaints about the novel, mostly minor, that I can't get into for fear of spoilers. But despite all that, Perdido Street Station was an absolutely fascinating book that I highly recommend.

One last note: at one point late in the novel, the protagonists hire some adventurers to help them. These are clearly D&D characters, re-imagined for the setting. We even heard that they will do just about anything for "gold and experience." In interviews, China Miéville admits to having played RPGs as a kid, though he's quick to note that he hasn't played one in fifteen years. (It's nothing to be ashamed of, Mr. Miéville, sir!) Oh, and also, he collaborated with Wizards of the Coast to make a 3.5 ruleset for the world of Bas Lag where the novel is set, which is available in Dragon 352. Currently he's working closely with Adament Entertainment on an entirely new pen-and-paper RPG, called Tales of New Crobuzon.

1 comment:

bluefish said...

Hasn't played in 15 years, but makes supplements and rulebooks, eh? In the immortal words of an owl, o rly?

That being said, I don't care how many times I hear you say it and try to convince me otherwise, the idea of people with scarabs for heads is freaking asinine.