Book review: Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

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Perdido Street Station is evocative, hard-hitting, and startlingly intense. Wonderfully detailed, it is rich with explanations and explorations, and both structured and solidified by a strong dedication to establishing the facts on which the story hinges. There are no plot holes and no attempt to brush over details with the hand-wavy dubiousness that occasionally rears its extremely ugly head (no, uglier than that), and Miéville’s incredible prose is matched only by the truly admirable lengths to which he reaches in presenting and bringing to life his vibrant setting.

With impressively varied vocabulary and a plot that practically oozes from the pages, Perdido Street Station is provocative in its content, intriguing in its structure, and gloriously imaginative in its detail, rife with constant complications and frequent misdirection. Unpredictable and often brutal, the events of the novel leave no room for sentimentality (and even less for the shining hero), but yield not to the temptation to shock the readers above and beyond what is strictly necessary. There are no needlessly escalated scenes, and despite not inconsiderable savagery, the content is fundamentally believable, in the context both of the unfolding plot and the setting to which the reader is thoroughly introduced.

In Perdido Street Station, the main character, Isaac, an innovative scientist, offers his not inconsiderable services to a strange, isolated creature motivated by just one thought – to recover the wings that were torn from him as punishment. The circumstances are murky, and the potential consequences even harder to parse, but Isaac is drawn irrevocably in by the ambrosia of new discoveries, and by the exciting prospect of delving into a topic that has yet to be adequately plumbed, and he agrees to do what he can.

He furthers his stipulated intention with confidence, wielding resources and connections without impunity. In doing so, an unanticipated chain of events means that Isaac unwittingly unleashes a creature far more powerful and dangerous than he knows, to tragic effect. Removing the threat calls for the combined efforts of many, and no few sacrifices, but abandoning the matter to the attention of others is untenable, when so many have fallen by the wayside. Isaac does not, strictly speaking, consider himself to be responsible, but he does what he can, regardless.

Miéville leaves no stone unturned (and they are wonderful stones) in his smooth prose. From his depiction of the setting to his extensive character development, he is in every respect a master at work. New Crobuzon, the city in which the events of the novel take place, is carefully defined and fully explained, as are the characters that live in its difficult environs. From the historical details to cultural shifts, New Crobuzon is richly inhabited, and should the reader be so inclined (I am absolutely always inclined, and cordially invite you to join me), the unrelenting amount of detail ensures that imagining all that transpires is no difficult task, aided not insignificantly by Miéville’s varied imagery. Reading Perdido Street Station is a singularly unforgettable experience.

The plot is, arguably, taken in broad strokes, simple and identifiable, but its execution is unparalleled, and the twists and turns to which it plays amiable host are decidedly unpredictable, taking the parameters of the novel far wider than an original impression of the plot might suggest. Perdido Street Station is not a novel that would benefit anyone to underestimate (you have been warned), and to bypass the spectacular content on that basis would be a colossal miscalculation.

The characters are detailed and extraordinarily well explored, and their personalities, motivations, and deepest, darkest desires are discernible from the text without being explicitly and/or clumsily shoved into the foreground. The reader is able to understand and connect to the various characters and the roiling setting with ease, and Miéville’s distinctive adjustments in vocabulary and sentence structure help to underline changes in perspective, thus aiding comprehension and eliciting a sense of sturdy realism. The most obvious instance of character development occurs, predictably, with Isaac, the protagonist, but it is by no means solely restricted to him.

Morality is a complex and unforgiving topic in the dark streets and dubious alleys of New Crobuzon, and survival so often predominates over friendliness, in accordance with practicality. Moral decisions are complicated by clashing cultures and personalities and thrown into vast uncertainty by conflicting personal beliefs, and the decisions made by the characters that err on the side of the angels – that is, Isaac, and the team he builds to fight the creatures that plague the city – arguably give rise to the most shocking ramifications, justified somewhat inadequately by reference to some vague greater good. As the catalyst of the novel’s events, Isaac can be interpreted as singularly responsible for the destruction, and his subsequent actions are not entirely morally pure.

This is not a world in which there are easy choices, and by generating unavoidable complexity, Miéville arguably presents Isaac as, on one hand, the hero that helps purge New Crobuzon of the creatures that stalk it, but, equally validly, on the other as a destructive force whose thoughtless experimentation and belief in his own superiority are directly responsible for the terrible situation in the first place. Miéville’s characters resist categorisation, and Perdido Street Station avoids the pitfall of presenting easily definable moral decisions and behaviours based solely on the notion of a ‘greater good’ and absent of a mature understanding that the consequences rarely behave in accordance with this prior determination of black and white morality.

I loved Perdido Street Station. I lost myself in its pages, and never really wanted to emerge. There are no happy endings, and the subject does not lend itself to easy, unbothered reading, but it would be a lesser novel if it had those things. It is truly extraordinary and startlingly evocative, pulling no punches and offering no apologies. It is also well rounded and admirable in its detail and structure, and the tremendously varied vocabulary, alongside an unutterably vibrant setting, ensures that reading it is an experience that registers on many exciting and unforgettable levels.

This is, in short, the kind of novel that I could genuinely conceive of reading multiple times, and discovering something – a detail, an idea, even a particularly intuitive description – wholly new and exciting each and every time. Reading it was an honour, and it is of course well worth 5 stars. For any fans of solid, immersive, and exquisitely imaginative fiction, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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