Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book review: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

I struggle a bit with how to describe Perdido Street Station by China Mieville:  steampunk-science fantasy?  It's self-proclaimed "New Weird," I guess, complex and realistic world-building that jumps off into both science fiction and fantasy realms.  One thing it isn't supposed to be is comfortable and in that regard, Perdido Street Station is very successful.

A half human/half bird creature (a garuda) comes to fringe scientist Isaac in the scruffy city of New Crobuzon, asking for his help.  As Isaac researches the solution to the garuda's problem, he comes across a biologic specimen that is strange and beautiful and, once it reaches adulthood, wreaks a kind of havoc never before seen in New Crobuzon.  Isaac, his lab partners, his part-insectile artist lover, the criminal underworld, the city's municipal government and even more fantastical New Crobuzon denizens are drawn into the terror.

That all sounds pretty good ... except for that Mieville seems to be much more interested in his world-building than in constructing the narrative.  Perdido Street Station is plot-light but description-heavy, going on and on about the neighborhoods and architecture and subversive politics and the xenian inhabitants of the rotting city (cactus people! human/machine hybrids! Alien face-hugger-shaped parasites that show up for a couple of chapters and then disappear!).  It's very difficult to connect and relate to the novel's protagonists when the author keeps such distance from them.

Perdido Street Station is also not a fun or happy book.  There is very little levity to break the bleakness and things end badly for pretty much everyone.  I'm not a Pollyanna, I don't need all the books/movies I consume to be happily ever after.  But unremitting rot, horror and squalor for 700+ pages is rough - even the grimmest of Stephen King's book have some light bits.  I'm glad I read it, I wanted to finish it, and I'm intrigued by the premise behind another of Mieville's books, The City and the City; I just can't wholeheartedly embrace this one.

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