Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
(Macmillan, £16.99, 717 pages, hardback; published 2000.)
New Crobuzon is Metropolis meeting Gormenghast in the heart of Dickensian London, inhabited by humans, mutants, alien species and modified criminals of all kinds. Into this city polluted by industrial effluents and the less natural by-products of sorcery comes a stranger punished for an almost incomprehensible crime and a life-form which becomes an almost unimaginable threat. Drop-out scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and his khepri lover Lin find themselves threatened by the city's law-enforcers and its criminal underworld.
The first sentence of the last paragraph looks to past art-forms to describe the book. But what is remarkable about it (or one of the things which is remarkable about it) is its contemporary feel. China Miéville is a new writer (his previous novel, King Rat, charted some of the meaner London gutters) with an ambition to pull fantasy out of the reactionary faux-medieval trough in which it has languished for several decades. He's not the only writer with this ambition. In New Crobuzon's environment of shabby scholars and underground-press journalists living in a world which offers both what appears to be magic and a firmly post-industrial revolution economy, he echoes Mary Gentle's stunning Rats and Gargoyles. Unlike Gentle, though, Miéville gives us not Renaissance Hermeticism as a touchstone but (as I am not the first to remark) delves farther into cyberpunk thaumaturgy with crisis engines, machine intelligences, and Isaac's search for a Unified Field Theory "which unifies all the forces: mental, social, physical". Isaac remarks to himself at one point, "He was a scientist, not a mystic."
If one of the traits which has bedevilled science fiction over the past few years is the way it so often reads like fantasy, Miéville is giving us fantasy which reads like science fiction. The insect-headed khepri, the vodyanoi, and the cactacae are firmly-imagined beings which in a slightly different context could be aliens from another world. The urban environment, perhaps too fashionably squalid (a legacy from cyberpunk as much from Mervyn Peake?) is vivid. One can see, behind it, our own metropolitan wastelands and inner cities. The plot is complex and at times - as surprise is piled upon surprise - shocking, but it is heightened by the numerous grotesque set-pieces: the references to the horrific practice of "Remaking" criminals (a woman has the arms of her murdered baby grafted to her face to remind her of her crime) or the torture of one major character by a drug-lord. Some of the characters - the spider-like Weaver, the handlingers, the above-mentioned khepri (who sculpt using a bodily excretion) and the garuda - are magnificently hallucinatory creations. There's possibly a sense in which Miéville is throwing too much at us - what can he possibly have up his sleeve for subsequent books? But even if he is, this is a feast of excess which we can only stand back and wonder at. And I suspect that this is only the beginning.
See also: Lou Anders' review of the US edition of this novel.
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© Andy Sawyer 3 June 2000