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perdido street station

11 may 2012

I described the plot of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station blow-by-blow to my partner as I read it. "And now the bad guys are trying to get the giant magic spider to help them fight the giant killer moths . . . except the good guys' vacuum cleaner has become sentient, and it's helping them . . . now the robot monkeys are helping the good guys infiltrate the headquarters of the cactus people . . ." Honestly, the novel is way smarter than it sounds. Yet at the same time Perdido Street Station has its roots in the pulp fiction that celebrates the sheer fun of monsters and magic.

I read Perdido Street Station on the advice of an omnivorous reader who praised its "world-building." Indeed, if you want to build alternative universes for speculative fiction, Perdido Street Station is magisterial. Miéville's exposition – executed in an elegant ratio to his breakneck plot – is pitch-perfect. Typically, Miéville will mention some aspect of his city of New Crobuzon in a matter-of-fact manner, as one if its characters would experience it. Only later will he backtrack and explain, much as a character might to another character with less experience – never as someone speaking to an alien who needs to suspend disbelief.

And New Crobuzon is quite a world, a multicultural city where humans are the majority but other sentient races abound: insect people, frog people, cactus people, bird people, and lots of others who are only gestured at, not evoked in full. Fantasy novels need a penumbra, a trick of perspective whereby more details are suggested than fully evoked: that's what gives them background and depth.

And of course you wouldn't care thing one about all these weird peoples if there weren't a plot to drive your interest. And Miéville provides the most vital kind of plot energy. People have to want things that are hard to get. Isaac, a renegade human scientist, wants to solve the big problems; a grounded garuda (or bird-man) named Yagharek wants Isaac to help him regain the power of flight. Isaac's girlfriend Lin, an khepri (insect-woman) artist, wants to create a masterpiece; Mr Motley, the hideous crime boss of New Crobuzon, wants to be sculpted in khepri fashion. These "commissions" are very dangerous business, and we're off like a shot in pursuit of them within pages of the novel's opening.

In New Crobuzon, alternative science and outright magic are everyday things. Psychic energy courses through their aether much as radio waves do through ours. Biology and physics are inseparable; dreams are reality; creatures slide from one dimension or state of self-awareness to another via sheer creative willpower.

One sometimes wonders about alternative worlds in fiction: are they meant to persuade us that our world is already like that? or that, possibly, it should be like that? (The third alternative is that they argue that their imagined world would be worse than ours, and to be avoided, but that's a drab and sermonizing kind of tone that works well only in upbeat fantasies like "A Christmas Carol" or It's a Wonderful Life – one might call it the Christmas option. Most good dystopian fantasies reflect a pessimism about the current: the 1984 topos, where '84 stands for '48; they're not really cautionary tales.)

In the case of Perdido Street Station, one can certainly see a lot of contemporary London in Miéville's New Crobuzon. It is a city built over by many generations and many waves of immigration. Most of New Crobuzon seems devoted to petty crime; it is a city with a tiny corrupt elite and a vast lumpenproletariat. Its placenames are evocative of persistent dirt and degradation: Griss Fell, Howl Barrow, Abrogate Green. (I defy anyone to consult a London Underground map while reading Perdido Street Station without a sinister sense of toponymy: Ickenham, Gunnersbury, Cockfosters.)

So we might see New Crobuzon as basically identical with London (or Paris, Berlin, Budapest, or other European capital where a river runs through it). New Crobuzon might be Miéville's way of holding a funhouse mirror up to the complications and corruptions of turn-of-the-millenium urban Europe. And more than that: Miéville might be suggesting that the various paranormal activities of his characters are forces that permeate contemporary real life, whether we know it or not. There are things in this heaven and earth undreamt of by our skeptical positivism.

Or possibly the second alternative is more powerful here: that such a world isn't ours, but would be preferable to ours. Now, there are things about New Crobuzon that would be entirely unpleasant. Gigantic moth creatures suck out your brains and reduce you to quivering undeadness, all the while scattering your dreams across the minds of others and reducing the populace to insomniac paranoia. Not much better are the gangsters who harvest the milk of these moths and turn it into deadly street drugs, or the Stasi-like militia who hover aboveground in what seem to be monorail pods, ready to pounce on the innocent and protect the guilty. Even the sentient vacuum cleaners are a little creepy.

But at the same time, what if there were alien wonders on every street corner, and life held out more mysteries than you could see and feel with your five senses and your Euclidean geometry? What if small urban mammals (the wyrmen) could fly and talk, giant frog bartenders could sculpt tchotchkes out of water, you could play tic-tac-toe with multidimensional spiders, and everyone had their own personal helper badger? Perhaps it would get as boring as the American suburbs after you got used to it. But perhaps, if its mysteries were inexhaustible enough, such a city would be Utopia.

Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. London: Pan Macmillan, 2000.