16 November 2009 ~ 3 Comments

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

PerdidoCoverVERDICT:Â Recommend, try to read at least 50 pages to get through the slow beginning.

Perdido Street Section is a great book, well worth the read. This is the first story I’ve read by China Mieville, but I will now be on the lookout for more from this author. It doesn’t take long to recognize China Mieville’s obvious skill at worldbuilding. The city of New Crobuzon is multi-faceted and schizophrenic, populated by humans and a multitude of semi-human races. But it does have its flaws. The good parts were great enough that I am still happy to recommend it.

It seemed to me that perhaps Mr. Mieville has been told too many times how great he is at world-building. He depends on it too much. The best stories are a balancing act between many different aspects: setting, character, plot. If the aspects are unbalanced, the result can be boring, confusing, or just plain annoying. In the case of Perdido Street Station, the unbalanced emphasis on setting made many sections tend toward boring. Unfortunately, the first part of the book fell under this category. The first thirty or forty pages go by without a whiff of conflict. The main characters are introduced and different areas of the city are explored, but there’s no reason why I should care. If I had picked it up for a test read at a Barnes & Noble, I would have given up and found a different book. Luckily, I’d come across the book via a friend’s strong recommendation. He has not steered me wrong before, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept reading, and I am very glad that I did. I highly recommend the book as well, but you need to stick with it for a while. Don’t worry, it gets better!

Isaac Dan Grimnebulin is the lead character, a freelance scientist and researcher, is approached by Yagharek, a garuda. The garuda are a desert-dwelling species shaped like men with wings and a beak. Yagharek, though, has no wings. They have been removed as punishment for a crime he has committed, and he asks for Isaac’s health in regaining flight.

Lin, Isaac’s significant other, is a khepri. Khepri are one of the many races in New Crobuzon, and are sort of like a mix between a beetle and a human. From the neck down, she is indistinguishable from a human, but in place of her head is a large beetle, with 6 legs, useless wings, and fully functioning head and rear parts. The khepri are particularly interesting, because the males are so different from the females. The males have no human parts, they are just the head-sized beetles, and they are not sentient.

Anyway, as I was saying, Lin is a khepri artist. She can make sculptures out of “khepri-spit”, which isn’t really spit at all. She eats colorberries and the beetle body processes them and spits out colored mush from its hind end that can formed into sculptures. As the book begins, she is recruited to create a sculpture of Motley, one of the kingpins of crime in the city.

They all live in the city of New Crobuzon, a world that’s very different from ours. The world is full of non-human creatures, steampunk-style machines, magic. The city is depicted in loving detail (sometimes too much detail), giving the nitty gritty details about many different districts from the rich neighborhoods to the poor. Some of my favorite sections followed the administration of the city, giving us a view into the government that keeps this whole place running.

The most interesting subgroup in New Crobuzon are the Remade. “Remade” is a very broad term which just means that the person has been altered in some fundamental way by a bio-thaumaturge. Most Remade have been given twisted forms as punishment for crimes, turning their heads backwards, replacing their legs with a metal tripod, any number of bizarre things. Besides punishment, Remaking can also be used to enhance soldier’s abilities and other advantages of body alterations.

Besides the slow beginning, there are also slow and pointless sections scattered throughout the story. Most of them are just expositionary lumps to show off Mieville’s worldbuilding. The world they reveal is complex and interesting, but to explain them at the cost of the momentum of the story is a mistake. Near the end of the story, there is a long segment when the main characters are all working together on a plan, and the book goes through the steps in painstaking detail, without explaining what the plan is! With everything else going on in my life, I tend to read only for a short period of time every day. At the slow rate I read it took me more than a week to get through this plotless unexplained section.

The climax of the book is exciting and satisfying, but after that the book just kind of keeps on going like a guest who doesn’t know when he’s overstayed his welcome. It spends a long time solving a “mystery” that none of the characters had shown any interest in before. If he wanted to end the book that way, I wish he would’ve made more effort to make its importance clear throughout the story.

There were quite a few loose ends that were never tied up, many hints that seemed to be designed to get you thinking about the significance of certain people or places, and then they were never mentioned again. Perhaps there will be more stories set in New Crobuzon and this is just a stub to leave some things open to tie up in the next one. If there are, I would definitely read them, but if not, I’d really like to know how some of those plotlines tie off.

It’s hard to say much more without major spoiler warnings, so this is the end of the spoiler-free section. And I do mean spoilers, I’ll be telling a lot of important details, including details about the ending. Read the book!

SPOILER WARNING!!

The major focus of the plot shifts as the book goes on. As part of his investigation, Isaac arranges the procurement of a variety of winged creatures, and those who will metamorphise into winged creatures. One of these is a vibrantly colored caterpillar. For weeks it won’t eat anything he feeds to it, until he happens across dreamshit, a hallucionogenic drug new to the market. The caterpillar eats that stuff up, grows like crazy, and builds a cocoon. What breaks out of the cocoon ends up being the main focus of the rest of the story.

Near the end of the book, the survival of the characters ends up being determined by a Deus Ex Machina character who has only been mentioned in passing beforehand. Not only that, he has no apparent reason to be interested in the protagonists, certainly not at the risk of his own life. Maybe he’s really that selfless, but he’s so undeveloped, only appearing for that one scene, that I will never know.

And in the end, Lin’s character ends up serving no purpose to the story. The first few scenes show their Isaac and Lin’s relationship together, so it seems like that will be vital. Then they get so involved with their own projects they barely see each other for the next few hundred pages. Then Lin is kidnapped by Motley the crime lord, and Isaac is convinced that Motley will kill her. He is very broken up about it, true, but it changes none of his actions. She shows up again at the very, very end, and he saves her life, but she ends up with half her mind wiped away so she is little more than a child. None of her actions really affected the plot, and her presence or absence would not have changed a single event in the story. So why was she there?

I’ve pretty much decided to retcon out the last section of the book after the major conflict is resolved, because if I acknowledge its existence, then Isaac becomes a major scumbag in my view. At the beginning of the book, when Yagharek approaches Isaac, Isaac does ask what Yagharek’s crime was that caused the removal of the wings. Yagharek told him it was “choice -theft in the second degree with utter disrespect”, which is a cultural thing of the garuda. Isaac thinks about asking what that is, but ends up kind of shrugging it off for 90% of the rest of the book. To me, his lack of interest during this period of time signals his acceptance of whatever crime has occurred. If he would refuse Yagharek for his crime, it should be now at the very beginning. But he doesn’t. He decides it’s none of his business, and puts his mind fully into the research. By the end of the book Isaac does create a means to fly, which is a huge groundbreaking discovery that will most likely be Isaac’s greatest scientific achievement. Without Yagharek, he would never have pursued the line of research that caused the breakthrough. Besides that, Yagharek pours significant amounts of his own money into Isaac’s pocketbooks. When the main conflict of the book goes into full swing, Isaac depends on Yagharek’s unique skills as a hunter to help resolve it and in the very end, Yagharek saves Lin’s life. Yagharek has done a LOT for Isaac. These actions were not selfless; he is desperate to fly again and he will do anything to help Isaac do it. And, on top of all that, Yagharek never lied to Isaac about his crime. He told him exactly what he did, though Isaac didn’t understand the meaning. If Isaac had asked, Yagharek would have told him.

Then, at the very end of the book, Isaac is finally on the verge of creating a flying device. But before he can give it to Yagharek, a delegation of garuda arrives to ask him not to do it. As if this is supposed to be the driving conflict of the story, instead of having been completely unmentioned for over 500 pages. She explains that what Yagharek did would be called rape by New Crobuzon culture. But then goes on to explain that “rape” does not describe it. In her own words “I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled… or ravished or spoiled[…]He stole my choice, and that is why he was… judged.” Throwing someone’s lunch in the trash would be pretty much labeled as the same crime. Isaac is horrified despite his earlier disinterest. In the end, Isaac decides not to give the flying device to Yagharek. Even worse, Isaac just ducks and runs while Yagharek is out of the house. He’s not only willing to take extreme advantage of Yag, he doesn’t even have the guts to tell him in person.

But despite these parts that I really disliked, the world and the main conflict are interesting and unique enough that I recommend this book without any hesitation. Give it a chance!

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