Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: Perdido Street Station


Perdido Street Station (2003), China Mieville. Paperback, 640 pages.

Awards: Nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel; won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2001 British Fantasy Award.

Summary: A rogue scientist unleashes a terrible monster on the city of New Crobuzon, and is aided by a motley group of companions in vanquishing the invading brood. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
Veldt to scrub to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark.

Excerpt:
     The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like trogolodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water.  

     How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveller?  
     It is too late to flee.

STATS

Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 7/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 9/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 8/10
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Overall Recommendation: 7/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 7/10. Mieville can write. I mean, really, he's got a flare for description that'd be hard to match. He uses a vocabulary (effectively) that is probably only rivaled by Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars, 2312). As much as any other sff novel I've read, this is one you could read with a dictionary at hand. Yet this novel doesn't have the sort of dry, professorial tone that marks so much of Robinson's work. This is a novel that glories in minute details, in gritty details, in descriptions of feces and brutality and art and love. You never feel like you're in a classroom with Mieville; his prose and tone are too immediate, too visceral. If anything, his love for a good juicy description actually holds him back, I think, from scoring an 8 or higher. The dude can't write a paragraph without throwing in about a billion metaphors; you can see as much in the excerpt offered above. The analogies are interesting; but the book is so chock-full of them that after a while you just want him to move a little quicker; you don't need another metaphor explaining how some portion of the city is a gross, decaying place. If only Mieville had edited this impulse a bit, I'd say his prose would be on par with Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). Still, a 7 is pretty dang good, and there are plenty of moments in the book that taken on their own stand up even better than that.

Depth of Concept: 7/10. I was tempted to score this a little bit higher, maybe an 8. But ultimately, I think Mieville was trying to do so much that some things got a little muddled, or suffered for lack of focus. The revolutionary/political aspects of the novel, for instance, are interesting, and are probably comparable with what Terry Pratchett does in Night Watch. But you get the sense that Mieville could have gone even further, more original and insightful, if only he'd not been trying to tie so many different threads together. Another aspect that had me a little ambivalent was the extent to which the story could form layered allegories for the society that we live in today. I kept feeling like that stuff was almost there, over and over again, but never quite with the measure of exploration that would make this a philosophically brilliant novel, instead of just an intelligent one. I also kept wondering if having an intimate knowledge of the city and society of London might offer some of the conceptual links that I felt were lacking. Mieville spends so much time lovingly describing the milieu of "New Crobuzon," I kept wondering if maybe the whole structure was some sort of meticulous analogy for London itself, in terms of its actual geography and political make-up and class structures. But as it was, my critical skills just couldn't seem to find a thread that led much deeper than an impressive effort at building an alternate world.

Rounded Characters: 6/10. Part of the reason I couldn't score the depth of concept higher was that the characters just didn't end up feeling as consistent as they needed to be in order to have really cathartic or meaningful character arcs. Don't get me wrong; Mieville puts plenty of care and effort into various aspects of his character's personalities, and does an impressive job weaving different ideas and character interactions together. It's not like he wasn't trying. But to start with, none of his characters are particularly sympathetic until you get halfway through the novel. Mieville spends so much time describing how corrupt and decayed and aberrant every aspect of (and character in) New Crobuzon is, that it's hard to relate to the mad scientist protagonist or anyone else in his company. At a certain point, various of the characters seem to grow consciences or express devotion to each other, but I just don't think Mieville quite provided a foundation for those transitions, or a context within which these attitudes are valued. In any given section, I'd suggest that Mieville's character thoughtfulness could be at least a 7, but the sum of these moments just didn't quite add up to believable cause/effect for me. Maybe a 6 is a little low . . . but I still think that this category is Mieville's weakest, even though a 6 is still above average.

Well-Developed World: 9/10. This is really where Perdido Street Station shines. Mieville populates an intricately constructed city with loads of different kinds of creatures, whether human, amphibious, avian, or even artificial intelligences. I might have wished that the behavior of each species could have been a little more consistently diverse (you could just as soon have had a character be a toad or a human, for instance, with no real difference in behavior), but Mieville did a really great job describing some of the differences between his most exotic monster characters. And there's no way around it, Mieville concocts some pretty great monsters. You won't think about moths or spiders the same way after reading this novel. I did feel a gap in the world in the sense that there never appeared to be much space offered for average citizens, for basically good, "middle-class" citizens who weren't driven towards one type of disreputable action or another. It's one of the reasons why it took so long for me to realize that Mieville was trying to paint his main characters sympathetically. I'd suggest that Mieville's effort here is on par with Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I also scored The Road and Red Mars a 9 in this category, though each of these novels also has other categories that score at least as high.

Page Turner: 7/10. It took me a while to really get into Perdido Street Station. Like Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Perdido Street Station is immediately marked by its quality, crafted prose and detailed, nuanced descriptions. But for quite a while in the novel, I'm unclear about what the stakes are, and about whether I should care about the characters. It wasn't until about halfway through the novel that the pace started to pick up, and the characters started to get into real danger. But even then, there'd be moments of action broken up with ever more pages of descriptions of the corrupt, filthy city. I was intrigued enough by Mieville's milieu that I wanted to see where he went, but the novel didn't grip me until late in the story. In the first three hundred pages, it was pretty easy to put it down and not pick it up again for a few days. 

Kept Me Thinking: 8/10. Despite scoring the depth of concept category a little lower, I still found Mieville to be admirably ambitious with his concepts, such that I thought a lot about them, even if I ultimately found some to be lacking. The bottom line is that there is a huge pile of intelligent musing and surprising connections in this novel, even if things don't all tie together. You've got your monster story, but you've also got social upheaval, and explorations of corrupt government actions, and thoughts about love and duty that bridge (and sometimes fail to bridge) seemingly vast differences between culture and species. Perhaps the best example is the final page of the novel, which makes a provocative, if somewhat hastily done statement about becoming human without actually being human.
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Overall Recommendation: 7/10. I almost want to score this an 8, but I just didn't feel it had quite the applicability of something like Red Mars, which I scored an 8, or the handful of others that I scored even higher (see the stats comparisons). It's a great creepy story, and if you're any kind of horror buff, you're missing the best of the genre if you skip this. But I'd suggest that it's more interesting than powerful, and while it might do a lot of things better than most sff out there, it didn't quite cross the threshold into seeming important for people to read.

Books To Compare: Perdido Street Station is a really interesting mixture of genres. You could probably describe its steampunk alternative world as either horror, science fiction, or fantasy, depending on your argument. To start way back, I'd suggest Milton's Paradise Lost might make for interesting comparisons to Mieville's book, as Mieville spends a lot of time describing the many devilish characters who inhabit his hellish city of New Crobuzon and the different ways that they are trying to get advantage over each other. It's reminiscent of Lucifer and his minions in hell, as they argue about different ways to live out the rest of their miserable existence. Perhaps Dante's Inferno would also be a worthwhile comparison because the characters in Perdido Street Station have to make their way through progressively distasteful settings and scenarios as they try to reach a final moment of absolution at the end of it all. There's a lot of creature horror here, so you could probably go with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is sometimes described as the very first science fiction novel. The two are also a good fit because they dwell on the consequences of technological (and biological) abuses of power. H. P. Lovecraft is another obvious choice, though my knowledge of Lovecraft is all second-hand. For a really interesting if unexpected comparison, you might even look to something like Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, as both authors seek a certain realism, social commentary, and exploration of personal sacrifice for a greater good. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Perdido Street Station on Amazon.

8 comments:

  1. If I never see this book cover again (or hear you ask me if I know where you left it), it will be too soon!

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    1. It can be like a call to remembrance, something like, "where are the snowdens of yesteryear?"

      Except it's "Where's Perdido Street Station. Are you hiding it from me?"

      I'll ask everyday for old time's sake.

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  2. Good review! I look forward to the week that I'll have this on my plate. I'm excited about what sounds like an interesting mix, intelligent steampunky horror. Sounds like fun!

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    1. I'll be curious how quickly you're able to get through it. It took me quite a while to get to the page-turner moments in the book, but I was always intrigued by it.

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  3. I've never read Mievelle before but I really want to! I think I might try The City and the City first... I am not sure which would be best for a first go.

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    1. I know I want to read more of him, but I'm not sure where I should go next either.

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  4. thanks for the review. a great read that went into high gear once the moths emerged. and important statements about choice by the characters. - Arthur

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    1. Arthur, thanks for the comment! To be honest, there's so much packed into this novel, It'd be really interesting to dissect it in an academic class; as I read it I kept feeling like there were layers to be uncovered. Whether they're all significant, I don't know, but there's no doubt it's an impressive accomplishment.

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