Friday, June 18, 2010

Perdido Street Station

by China Mieville, 623 pages

Clearly this was one of the major books of the year, which undoubtedly impacted on how I read it. To deal with my response to this book in regards to a number of overlapping categories: previous Mieville I'd read, the relative celebrity of this book, the setting it explores, the characters, what it does with deconstructing fantasy and finally the plot. For the first of these, certainly my order of approach is atypical--having first read Iron Council, then the City & the City, Un Lun Dun, Looking for Jake, The Scar, King Rat and finally concluding with this entry into the Bas-Lag world, Mieville’s first on the scene. I've owned a copy of 'Station' for months now, but have held off on reading it, partly due to not wanting to burn through Mieville too quickly. Finish it and it's gone, and I'll now have to wait for the cycle of more drawn out publications (Kraken is due for U.S publishing June 15 of this year). Given that there were extremely high expectations coming in, which it ultimately lived up to. There are a few quibbles I have with this, see below, and in totality it's not quite as affecting a text as The Scar, or even Iron Council. It burns brightly but perhaps a bit too hectically after the first half to really deliver satisfactorily, but it is very, very interesting. More than that--it manages to be a lot of fun while also offering some solid insights into how we frame the world, how use fantasy and what more can be done with it, and reflections into some relevant societal issues. All this without being preachy, and with a consistently engaging and off the wall adventure mold. That this book was able to meet my expectations was pretty astounding, given how much I'd heard about this as a genre-bending intro. Not long ago all the Internets were awash with discussion of the top science fiction and fantasy novels of the last decade. The discrepancy in such lists was perhaps the most valuable insight, but Perdido Street Station featured on a lot, and I think it's place was well deserved. Not as great as some of Mieville's other stuff, but certainly it deserves merit for its own sake and as an intro into the Bas-Lag world.

And what of that world? As always Mieville's most effective accomplishment is to make an invented urban environment credible and utterly engaging. The metaphysics of the world are all over the place--a pastiche of steampunk, spell-casting magic, alchemy and some technologies that wouldn't be out of place in a futuristic novel--but the way all the groups of different species interact frames an actual community. New Crobuzon is a complex city organism, thoroughly corrupt and exploitative, but also effective, having mechanisms for social forces and individuals to function. The Remade are more grotesque here than tragic, but their presence adds a necessary moral edge to the baroque nature of the city. The author's willingness to make the city's leadership thoroughly corrupt and yet effective makes for one of the strengths of the story. It would be easy to have it purely as the case of an incompetent plutocracy screwing up and needing the stallwart heroes to be the only ones capable of fighting the monsters, delivering the day and leading to a downfall of the dystopian regime. Instead, the problem comes about partly from failures of the regime, but more through the protagonists screwing up, and the mayor plus cronies makes a reasonable effort at combating things. This connects with one of the more chilling elements of the system--the rulers' thorough pragmatism in approach, turning from literal deals with the devil to investigations of science with the same focus on functionality. They are above all driven by a pursuit of cost-effective strategies, a grasping and demeaning manifestation of capitalism. In a way that market is all for this, and if it promotes a colourful array of interactions, it also forms fundamentally unequal access to resources.

Although with all this the actual plot is a bit of a let down. In contrast with the later volumes of Bas-Lag, the actual story turns out to be a lot more direct than I had been expecting--some very dangerous monsters get out, everyone scrambles to kill them, they are eventually killed. This gives an opportunity to show off the city at crisis and all the strange uneasy alliances that form, plus heaps of additional grotesque detail, but it seems to go on a bit too much at too frantic a pace. The Weaver is an over-convenient plot device to rescue the protagonists at key points, and the final conclusion could have more bite. Still, the revelation of Yagharek's true culpability is well played, and serves as a particularly effective bit of fantasy deconstruction. Overall, most issues seem rather petty as set against the main narrative. An impressive book, I hope it's not too long before I read another piece of its quality.

Worse than: The Scar by China Mieville
Better than: Market Forces by Richard Morgan

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