China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is, I think, the longest book on my Classics Club list, at 867 pages, and so is the jewel in the crown of my Chunkster reading challenge entry!* I’ve read Miéville’s Kraken before, but none of the Bas-Lag series. I heard him speak at a few different events during the Edinburgh Book Festival’s 50th anniversary World Writers Conference, and I was impressed with his insight and bold, uncompromising politics (try his London’s Overview for an example).
I’m glad that I read this and got through it quickly enough that I could keep up with the thread of the story (sometimes a challenge with chunksters!). The plot revolves around an unorthodox mixed-species couple, renegade scientist Isaac and artist Lin, both commissioned by unusual customers: Yagharek, a criminal looking to use technology to reverse his punishment (the loss of his wings), and Motley, a drug-lord who has used technology to become an enormous, composite creature and who wants his form immortalised. The two commissions collide when one of the devilish, almost indestructible moths that Motley is farming — sold to him by the corrupt government — ends up in Isaac’s lab as a possible winged specimen, resulting in five moths being released and terrorising the city.
The book is political in its presentation of an unwholesome urban landscape run by a corrupt government; overcrowded, dirty, full of little warring factions, stricken by poverty. The way that Miéville develops and draws New Crobuzon, particularly the religious factions (one of which Lin has escaped) and the scientific community (a totalising university and creatives working outside it). However, the book loses its way about 70% through, when it becomes plot focused. Along the way, the book shifts from being contemplative and mysterious to being a relatively straightforward ‘renegade bands defeat evil where the authorities cannot’ story, á la Diehard or a Clive Cussler novel.
The rag-tag group surrounding Isaac becomes more of a set of stock characters. The political activist (Derkhan), wounded and troubled, but willing to do whatever is necessary; the troubled misfit (Yagharek) who it transpires has all of the skills others are lacking (agility and impressive strength); and the small cast of criminals and mercenaries who are just enough to get things done. Intriguing characters are introduced but hardly used to their full potential, such as the Council (a self-constructed AI) and the Weaver (a multidimensional spider responsible for the ‘world weave’). I found myself reading simply to get to the end, to find out how they achieve their mission, but not because I had any particular interest in the characters or the world anymore. Isaac’s kidnap of a dying man to be sacrificed in the crisis engine that will destroy the moths hardly registers because, unsurprisingly, the main characters are trying not to think about it, and therefore neither does Miéville.
Despite its length, I think the novel therefore fails in its efforts to be an epic. Yagharek’s journey bookends the whole novel, and its individual chapters. At the end, he is abandoned by Isaac after Isaac is confronted by the victim of Yagharek’s crime, for which he was dewinged: ‘choice theft’ in his homeland, but as the visiting garuda says, “You would call it rape”. This final fling with moralising is literally tacked on to the main story, part of Isaac, Lin and Derkhan’s escape from the militia that are supposedly hunting them (although the government also essentially drop off the radar about 70% through the book, left as only a stock dystopian presence). It is a shame that with 850+ pages, the book wasn’t able to balance the need for a clear plot with the spirit of sketching a convincing new world.
* I’ve been slightly remiss in posting the links to my reviews on the Chunkster page, but will be doing so for this one and will try to remember in future.