China Mieville – Perdido Street Station (2000)



Introduction

So, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get around to reading this book. It is often discussed or recommended in online fantasy circles but I wasn’t sure I would bother. This was mostly because I had read Mieville’s The Scar (2002) earlier in the year and, although I enjoyed it, I felt slightly let down at the end. There was so much build up, weight and I was fully engaged by The Scar but I didn’t feel like it paid off in the last fifth of the book. Ultimately, I grabbed some other stuff to read instead of more Mieville including the first book of N. K. Jamisin’s ‘Broken Earth Trilogy’: The Fifth Season. Something like the inversion of my experience with The Scar happened with that. It didn’t initially wow me and wasn’t as wild but the ending was very satisfying, tied everything up and together and left me wanting to continue the series. However, when I finished The Fifth Season I was visiting home and needed something else to read while there. So I popped in to a second hand book shop, a relative who works there thought they might have some Jamisin. Sitting on display in big ole hardback form, like an irresistible door stop or book shaped weapon was Perdido Street Station. It was also only two quid…so it was unfortunately, irresistible. Not travel or bookshelf friendly but I could leave it at the train station bookshelf for someone else to read. I devoured Perdido Street Station pretty quickly for a large novel, generally a good sign but it left me with a similar but different impression to The Scar. So I thought I would do a post-mortem of the book to gather my thoughts and simultaneously note what I thought would be cool to steal from it for TTRPGs. Perhaps book reviews or debriefs might become a feature in future…who knows.

What is it?

Winner of the August Derleth award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Perdido Street Stationis an imaginative fantasy thriller, and the first of China Miéville’s novels set in the world of Bas-Lag.

The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of its own bewildering world. Humans and mutants and arcane races throng the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the rivers are sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years, the parliament and its brutal militia have ruled over a vast array of workers and artists, spies, magicians, junkies and whores. Now a stranger has come, with a pocketful of gold and an impossible demand, and inadvertently something unthinkable is released. Soon the city is gripped by an alien terror – and the fate of millions depends on a clutch of outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crime-lords alike. 

The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground as battles rage in the shadows of bizarre buildings. And a reckoning is due at the city’s heart, in the vast edifice of Perdido Street Station. It is too late to escape.

Panmacmillan Website (2021)

Warning Spoilers Follow


Overall Impressions

I enjoyed it, overall a lot, in some places not as much. It seemed both less polished and more energetic than The Scar. Mieville’s writing style is very engaging. It flows really well off the page and he has a great knack for turns of phrase and descriptive text. His use of language and lexicon feels like a good balance. It is not wilfully obtuse but he is not scared to put in less common vocabulary where it conveys a particular nuance better. His characters are generally interesting and well drawn and the overall cast is good. The world he constructed is intriguing and forms a unique melange of different aspects of fantasy. Some people have termed this style ‘New Weird’ but that seems a bit naff and there isn’t much that I would consider brand new. I guess though at the turn of the century this may not have been common. That’s not actually a criticism even though it sounds like one. The different elements of fantasy, steam punk, mythology, Jules Verne, Lovecraftian horror etc. are all woven into a nice blend that does feel, if not new, stylistically distinct. It is relatively long and sometimes feels it but the ease of reading and well paced language mitigates this. I rarely found myself skim reading, although it did happen in places. It really felt in parts like it had the potential for being perfect but missed the mark slightly for me. I certainly felt in places that a stronger editorial presence would have pushed it much closer to that height.

Grumping

It’s probably a very minor gripe but the book is called Perdido Street Station but the Station is a very minor and essentially meaningless location in the book. Sure it gets mentioned sometimes and part of the finale takes place there but the characters all but admit to the reader that there is no significance to the location except that it is away from the Machine Intelligence.

Some of the world building elements felt tangential and did not provide enough additional weight to relevant aspects of the story. Alternatively, they occurred once and then were discarded and not mentioned again. For example, the introduction of the devils as a second-last ditch hope from Rudgutter. The section is interesting, hints at broader elements to the world and sets up having to resort to the weaver. However, the basic non-occurrence again of this element left a slightly hollow feeling. We get something similar with the hand lingers, introduced, defeated and no further part in the story. Sort of like side-quests that don’t impact the main plot or world meaningfully. I suppose a counter to this grumble would be that most of these elements add to the overall atmosphere of the work in a positive way by building character, setting and mood. Another caveat is that some of the not fully explained world building is excellent a la Tolkien’s Entwives: The Ravening that drove the Khepri refugees to New Crobuzon for instance is delightfully unexplained and Torque is fascinating as a strange mutating, unknown and uncontrollable force.

I had particular grumbles with the ex-machina appearance of Jack Half-a-Prayer near the end. There are some hints of a figure watching the protagonists, for example during meetings with the Machine Council. However, Jack doesn’t figure in the story except by small mention before he leaps in to save the day. Simply sowing the seed for him more thoroughly throughout would have made his appearance more satisfying and logical. Similarly, the appearance of Yagharek’s victim out of the blue towards the end without earlier hinting or such felt weird since it spurs the final conclusion. I also think the way Yagharek is used as a narrative framing device is good but after the conclusion it felt somewhat unpleasant. I had similar character/narrative issues with Lin’s treatment. She is an interesting and reasonably well developed character and you feel the connection between her and her friends. Her imprisonment by Motley is ok I guess but it removes her and any agency she has from the story. Motley’s quick turn to violence against Lin also felt slightly unbelievable for such an ‘intelligent’ character. When she is rescued, she then gets mind chomped by a Slake-Moth and ultimately ends up infantilised in a weird way. The end result is that it ends up feeling a little like Lin is only there to motivate the protagonist Grimnebulin. For me, it would have been more effective if Grimnebulin himself had suffered Lin’s fate. That would also have removed the Crisis-engine from the equation and the Machine Intelligence in an interesting way. Meh, just my tuppence.

I think, arrogantly, that I would also have edited Mieville’s text in several places. Some short sections felt a little pointless, like the description of the vodyanoi adventurer’s leaving. I don’t think much would have been lost removing this. For a minor character it felt strange and the opposite happened with some other more developed characters who didn’t get a ‘send off’. Finally, the repetition was occasionally irritating. The descriptive qualities which make the text so vivid in places grated when repeated. By the time you are in the last quarter of the book, the endless naming of streets, re-describing elements of the citizenry and the list like imagery gets a little grating. Before it over stays its welcome these are good points the help make the world more lived in.

Praising

The Slake-Moths are a brilliant invention. They are terrifying and suitably bizarre in shape and purpose. They are employed with suitable mystery and fear that slowly builds and frames the story. The city being wracked by nightmares as a result of their feeding sets a great tone. There is a gritty down to earth reality attached to their otherworldly presence through their exploitation by Criminals and Government and the connections between them. They are never explained too much physically or their origins, which I think helps to keep them otherworldly and terrifying. Whilst the tiny interlude of talking to the demon felt slightly dropped in, it also helped to build the logic of the Slake-Moths and the terror of their existence. This is something that would be good to rip off, using fear of an entity by theoretically immortal beings certainly rams home the threat level. The life cycle and connection to Dreamshit etc. is good and weaves into the atmosphere and plot well. Let’s put them in the ‘stuff for stealing section’.

The City of New Crobuzon, its politics, people, power and decay. A sort of shit and steam streaked Gotham mixed with London, Mad-Max and magic. Writing that out makes me remember what a cool blend there is. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t tried to do some conversion of it to another medium. A comics seems obvious but it would be interesting to see it visualised elsewhere. The people and races of the city and world are all interesting and quirky. Sometimes they do feel a little cartoonish but this still fits in the general melange. The overall attitude is great, a vibrant complex city with a multitude of different inhabitants interacting in different ways. The magic and mechanical interactions and the strange ‘ologies’ the inhabitants engage with are great. The description of crisis energy, difference engines etc. never felt forced and had strong roots in the real as well as fantasy in a great way. The remade and their creation as a punishment for criminals is delightfully macabre. It fits the steam-punk Victoriana vibe well too and connecting it to Motley’s Slake-Moth handlers kept them embedded in the story. Motley is also engaging and his weird brick-a-brack mutant physiology is cool.

The Weaver. Perfectly executed and believably weird and wonderful. I’ve seen it described as ex-machina but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It doesn’t straight up solve the problem or save the day and in fact introduces several complications due to its behaviour. The unintelligible thought patterns and complex motivations are presented well. They don’t come across as trite or weird for weird’s sake or irritably ‘quirky’ which might be the result of a lesser writer handling such an idea. The descriptions of the web behind the world was well handled in a lovecraftian incomprehensible vibe too.

I enjoyed the characters in the book overall and they feel well characterised. You get a really good feel for their attitudes, motivations and quirks. Lemuel in particular is cool and his attitudes are well maintained and consistent. I can see the criticisms from some that the characters don’t have that great arcs or that they are too simplistic or trope-y. However, it didn’t really feel that way to me. I liked them overall and they a suitably motley crew of messy people kind of bumbling through the story.

Stuff for Stealing

Remade – take right like they are if its a suitably steam-punk or post middle-ages game. If not, I think they would be recreatable simply through magical flesh shaping without the machinery. Along with the remade we also get flesh twisting magic of bio-thaumaturgy. This would be easily importable as well. Re-skinning spells to be flesh warping such as Fly causing you to sprout wings, Heal Wounds stitching flesh back together, inflict wounds being like Verminshank using the Clayflesh Hex.

The Weaver – Using it’s mind and purpose but maybe not making it a spider. A race of alien creatures who work in the spaces behind the universe. We could easily change the spider webs to: tides that flow and are navigated by elementals, mole-like creatures that burrow between dimensions, strange white-blood cells etc. Bringing strange gifts is cool too but careful not to frustrate the players, the weaver seemingly generally wanted mundane items.

The terminology and magic – It’s cool and very thematic e.g. cymical, meta-clockwork, crisis energy. steampunk type stuff is good especially because it is not too Victoriana and dirty and gritty. The descriptions of magic and its use are great – a sense of rawness and danger and different approaches is apparent. Thaumaturgy, Bio-Thaumaturgy,

Slake-Moths – The Slake-Moths themselves or perhaps just their ability and feeding on consciousness is cool. Their resistance to damage as a result of existing on several planes at once.

Motley – Although Motley doesn’t have a lot of depth in some ways, his situation is useful. He’s a powerful criminal but not without rivals and he has connections to the government. The plot point is useful. We put a connected criminal into the game, he gains a hold of something dangerous and the PCs find it, find out about it, get a hold of it or destroy it. Either way, they will fall foul of ‘Motley’ or the ruling powers.

Cactacae – Plant folk, what’s not to love. Strong, covered in spines and resistant to standard weaponry. They need sunlight so may suffer exhaustion if in the dark for too long. An enclave in a city with their own internal police force. Instead of hulking, tough creatures they could also be wan and lithe.

The city of New Crobuzon itself – There is enough, perhaps too much, detail here so it would be relatively easy to use as a setting. The issue of course is that PCs will likely know or realise. You are then bound to the information provided by the author or you might have to deal with fandom. As such, probably better to take the ideas and twist them. The stinking docks, the dump, the railways, the government etc. The militias and the floating men o’ war they ride. Bonetown and its weird giant ribs that jut out into the sky and even put off the Slake Moths with the energy they exuded.

Suroch – A wasted damaged ruin of a city. Destroyed by a Torque bomb and an attempted coverup. The inhabitants are mutated horrors. The inanimate become alive and the living are twisted beyond recognition. Terrain becomes alive. Who doesn’t love a mutated wasteland. Created by experimental weaponry and an attempted cover-up that causes political unrest. All good stuff.

Conclusion

If you like fantasy, steam-punk or weird fiction then yes you should definitely read it. It should be and probably is very influential in these areas. It is an easy flowing read, if a little under edited, and it is enjoyable to boot. Despite my criticisms it was still one my most enjoyable reads for a while. I will probably get around to Iron Council but I will also go in knowing that I may have a similar experience. A fun, interesting and inspiring work but with some flaws that will irk me. I think if I hadn’t read The Scar I would have been slightly more forgiving of this book. The fact that I had an unhappy feeling at the end of both meant the experience was magnified. Instead I would have said: ‘well its only his second novel and it’s incredibly promising, I can’t wait to read more’. As it is, Mieville is an interesting, enjoyable writer and excellent in the fantasy genre but for me not as good as some claim. In the end, I am glad I read Perdido Street Station, and The Scar, even though I had some quibbles with it overall. The irritating completionist in me will probably make me read Iron Council to finish the Bas Lag series. If forced into a rating, I think it would be an 8/10 or perhaps a mathematically equal 4/5. Its good and worth reading but does not feel like the masterpiece it is sometimes touted as. Without a doubt worth a go.



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