Fantasy, like all readily definable genres of literature is beset with cliché, plagued with formula and riddled with so much of the same old drivel that you have to wonder what could have inspired someone to write such an uninspiring piece of rubbish to begin with. And then, every so often a fantasy novel comes along that defies all preconceptions of the genre, defines new boundaries and completely rewrites the standards for what good fantasy should be. Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville is such a novel.
Perdido Street Station – Redefining Genre
Perdido Street Station is set in the fictional world Bas-Lag, and centred in the enormous city New Crobuzon. To classify the novel within a subgenre, you might first say Steampunk. All sorts of technological contraptions run on steam, ticking dials and punch-card computing, and the grit and grime of New Crobuzon is definitely reminiscent of industrial revolution era London. Urban Fantasy also springs to mind as a classification though Perdido Street Station does not come anywhere near the realm of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance trend that fills the fantasy sections these days. Magic, called Thaumaturgy (which in our world means Miracles), exists in the sprawling city of New Crobuzon, sometimes working hand in hand with the Steampunk technology so yes Urban Fantasy it is. Miéville has also been categorised as “weird fiction”, and while there is some definite weirdness happening here, this world takes us deep into the uncanny, the grotesque, the all together odd, but “weird fiction” as a generic classification doesn’t really encapsulate the strangeness happening in Perdido Street Station, the true sense of the fantastique.
Perdido Street Station – Writing Style
Stylistically, Miéville demonstrates some very fine writing. He is often accused of being a “thesaurus” writer, and yes, he does enter into sesquipedalian territory. However, unlike some other writers who may try to use complex words to make up for their lack of talent, Miéville’s eloquent prose does not come across as conceitedness or an act of compensation. The complexity of the writing, I believe adds not only to the complexity of the story, but also the complexity of the setting. This is a book to stimulate all the senses. Miéville’s writing bringing you all the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and visuals to life – not always a pleasant experience, I assure you
Perdido Street Station – Plot Summary and Thoughts on Multiculturalism
The plot is multilayered and infinitely nuanced. Renegade scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin takes on a project to build Yagharek, an exiled and de-winged Garuda a contraption that will once again enable him to fly. Obsessed with the mechanics of flight, Isaac starts collecting all manner of flying creatures including a strange caterpillar he hopes to study during its metamorphic phase. The caterpillar turns out to be a juvenile Slake Moth, a fearsome and hellish creature that spreads nightmares all over the city, feeding on its victim’s consciousness and leaving them empty, catatonic shells.
Meanwhile, insect headed Kephri, Lin, Isaac’s lover despite the social taboos against interspecies relationships, takes on a project for the ruthless crime lord Mr. Motley who has more to do with the Slake Moths than anyone could dare to think. With a rag tag assortment of other characters Isaac must hunt and kill the seemingly unslayable Slake Moths, creatures so malevolent not even the Ambassador of Hell wants to take them on.
One of the many strengths of Perdido Street Station is its host of unusual fantasy races. To name only a few, we have the Cactae, cactus like beings; Kephri, insect headed creatures with human bodies; The formidable flying Garuda; Vodyanoi, a froglike water race capable of forming water into a malleable substance; the Weaver, a giant multidimensional spider that is able to transform reality in accordance to its own aesthetic preferences; and the Constructs, electronic technology that have developed sentience. While many of Miéville’s races are drawn from folklore and existing mythologies and as such are not purely original, the ways in which they are developed and adapted into this weird world displays a rare character of true innovation.
In New Crobuzon Miéville has created the ultimate multicultural melting pot. At its essence, this multiculturalism is what Perdido Street Station is really all about. Named after the central rail hub in the city, Perdido Street Station, where all of the trains come and go from the multitude of New Crobuzon suburbs and districts, all culminating together in one enormous network. Just like the citizens that make up the city. Following Isaac’s adventure we’re drawn into this world, these multiple worlds their levels of connection and the points of dissolution that all live entwined and while never entirely harmoniously, the system works. For this reason, Perdido Street Station is often thought of a socialist novel. As Miéville is involved with numerous socialist groups and has published numerous writing on Marxism and other political theory, I have little doubt that this social commentary was unintentional.
Perdido Street Station – Awards
I’m not alone in my adoration of this book, and recognising it as a truly great piece of fantasy literature. Perdido Street Station was nominated for the 2002 Nebula Award for Best Novel and Hugo Award for Best Novel. It won the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award in 2000, the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2001, the Premio Ignotus Award in 2002, and the Kurd Laßwitz Award in 2003.It also won the Amazon.com Editors’ Choice Award in Fantasy in 2001.
I’ve previously been accused of being a member of the “Oh Wow!” School of Criticism but I believe an “Oh Wow!” Is sincerely warranted here. Anyone who enjoys good fantasy, real fantasy, anyone who harbours any fears that there is nothing new in the genre should definitely get their reading muscles around this novel. Trust me. You won’t come out of it the same.
by Kate Krake
© 2011, Kate Krake