A Maze of Death: China Miéville's Perdido Street Station
Reviewed by David Horwich
25 June 2001
Steampunk, fantasy, science fiction, horror. . . what's in a name? China Miéville's second novel, Perdido Street Station, is a sprawling, intense book that defies precise genre definition. Its publisher has seen fit to label it "fiction," and given the book's bleak vision, that's a reassuring thought.
Perdido Street Station takes place in the relentlessly squalid city of New Crobuzon, on a planet that may or may not be Earth in the distant future. Humans coexist with a wide range of non-human sentient species (collectively referred to as "xenians"), and terrestrial flora and fauna are intermingled with non-terran species. The city-state of New Crobuzon is a nightmarish place, with a brutal government, a well-developed criminal underworld, and a grim early-industrial environment. First seen by a traveller approaching by river, its horrific and foul atmosphere is its most prominent feature:
It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky. . . . 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.
The atmosphere of violence and corruption that greets the visitor never relents; torture, madness, and death pervade the city, and Miéville's imagery is dark and foreboding:
Smokestacks punctured the membrane between the land and the air and disgorged tons of poisonous smog into that upper world as if out of spite. In a thicker, stinking haze just above the rooftops, the detritus from a million low chimneys eddied together. Crematoria vented into the airborne ashes of wills burnt by jealous executors, which mixed with coaldust burnt to keep dying lovers warm. Thousands of sordid smoke-ghosts wrapped New Crobuzon in a stench that suffocated like guilt.
The novel's epigraph is taken from Philip K. Dick's We Can Build You, an apt and clever choice with many resonances:
I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That's a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.
In a general sense, the Dick epigraph signals that we're entering a disturbed and disturbing world, and Perdido Street Station takes place in a twisted and uncertain reality, the underpinnings of which often seem ready to slide away and leave the reader (and characters) confronting something new and frightening in the abyss below. More specifically, Dick's novel deals with constructed intelligences, which also play a key part in Miéville's story. And the quote itself, with its overtones of death in an urban setting, foreshadows the violent action to follow.
New Crobuzon is full of alienated individuals, social groups, and species; Miéville's main characters live on the margins of society, either by choice, or social pressure, or both. Identities are fluid, allegiances shift suddenly; spies and moles infest the city and its underworld. Betrayal is commonplace, and trust is at a premium. The main character, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, embodies this tension. (Isaac -- the sacrificial son? Isaac Newton? Both?) A marginalized scientist pursuing his own quixotic line of research -- the "crisis engine" -- he is also socially outcast by virtue of his romantic relationship with a xenian, a khepri artist named Lin. The khepri are partly insectile, partly anthropoid, and Lin, too, is an outcast from her society -- an alienated artist who has broken away from her brood in pursuit of a more individualized art. Isaac and Lin's relationship leaves them vulnerable to blackmail and manipulation, and makes their lives in an already hazardous society even more precarious.
The book's action begins with the appearance of yet another marginal, outcast character, a garuda (avian-derived) named Yagharek, who has been stripped of his wings by his species as punishment for crime; he commissions Isaac to help him regain his ability to fly. In the course of his research Isaac inadvertently unleashes. . . well, something Not At All Nice.
A bare outline of the subsequent plot would read, "and then he and his friends try to correct the results of Isaac's actions." As the crisis takes over 450 pages to resolve, rest assured that this is not a straightforward process.
Structurally, Perdido Street Station displays an intriguing thematic dualism, between characters, between social structures, and so forth. The above-ground society of New Crobuzon is shadowed by several alienated groups: religious cults, xenian communities, and a revolutionary underground, to name a few. The authoritarian Mayor has a doppleganger in the arch-criminal Motley, who has paramilitary forces under his control and a vast influence on the city's demimonde. Reflected images abound -- in fact, reflections and mirror images play an important role in the plot.
Isaac and Lin are, in a way, reflections of each other, a pair of outcasts in pursuit of original research or original art. Both suffer, socially and professionally, and both are drawn into dangerous schemes because of their outsider status.
Movement between the margins and across borders fills the action of the book. To resolve the crisis, Isaac must descend, both figuratively and literally, into the underworld, at first led by a professional thief and fence, Lemuel Pigeon -- "crossing the border was his speciality." Isaac and his friends are drawn further and further into new underworlds they never expected existed, and they penetrate into hidden and secret regions of the city in a desperate haste:
Isaac and Derkhan, Lemuel and Yagharek drifted seemingly at random through a parallel map of the city. They made their way through backstreets. They flinched uneasily as they felt the smothering nightmares descend on the city.
In addition to living on social margins and crossing physical borders, many of the characters exist in liminal or transitional stages ("mine is an interstitial existence," says one). One form of punishment in New Crobuzon is to be Remade -- to be surgically altered in a variety of unpleasant ways, often with the addition of prosthetics (both the Mayor and Motley have small armies of the Remade, specially configured to serve as security forces). Several key players in the novel undergo metamorphic processes that are central to the plot's unfolding.
Characters also cross the border between the conscious and subconscious mind on many occasions -- indeed, Isaac manages to invent his "crisis engine" in a flash of insight that complements his scientific investigations. In Miéville's universe, the boundaries between rationality and madness are far from clear, and the power of dreams and nightmares is unquestioned -- the novel's crisis is set in motion by the drug known as "dreamshit":
Awareness and reality intertwined. Isaac had not come unstuck in others' lives, but in others' minds. . . . The dreams were in Isaac's mind, and there was no escape. He dreamed that he dreamed other people's dreams, and realized that his dream was true.
Magic and science uneasily coexist in this world; New Crobuzon's industry is mainly steam-powered and coal-fueled, and the overall atmosphere of the city is reminiscent of the early stages of industrialization. Babbagesque "analytic engines" play the role of rudimentary computers, and "bio-thaumaturgy" is a respected academic discipline. But, as noted, the power of dreams and the power of the subconscious mind are equally as important as rational scientism. More than one species exists in a transcendental state, their reality not entirely concentrated on one plane of existence.
Miéville's novel is an ambitious work; his writing flows smoothly, and the deepening crisis in the plot pulls the reader along, but at over 700 pages it's not a quick read. The theme of the meaning and nature of consciousness, sentience, and rationality underlies the frantic action in the malevolent city. Bizarre new characters enter the stage deep into the action, and loyalties and alliances shift rapidly as the plot unfolds. Again, I'm reminded of Dick's tendency to twist the reality knob a couple of clicks over just when you think you finally have things figured out. Perdido Street Station is an impressively imaginative novel from a promising new writer.