Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Reading List: Perdido Street Station


I don't know whether China Mieville would like hearing this or not -- and judging from the back jacket photo, he could easily beat the crap out of me if he didn't -- Perdido Street Station is a stylistic fusion of modern science fiction and the works of Charles Dickens. The modern science fiction aspect is obvious: the story takes place in the imagined city of New Crozuban, populated by humans and a wide range of sentient humanoid and non-humanoid species, and incorporates an alternative physics in which the paranormal is treated as just another craft or science. Classic science fiction themes of dystopianism, machine sentience, and the relationships between humans and bug-eyed monsters abound.

Take away these trappings, though, and the novel is pure Dickens. It has the sprawling cast of characters, introduced continuously and as late as the denouement. The thousand little coincidences that fuel a Dickens plot are somewhat camouflaged by the science-fiction setting, but they are there, and the Great Big Coincidence at the center of the book is pretty obvious. But more than that, I think that Perdido Street Station can be seen as a "State of England" novel of the kind pioneered by Dickens and written by so many other British writers ever since (Zadie Smith may be the most prominent modern practitioner). As in a classic S. of E. novel, Mieville treats a broad range of social types, from government officials to slum dwellers, scientists to outcasts, and explores their social, economic, and even geographic relations. And although New Crozuban is not literally Britain, it is quite transparently a metaphoric London in the multicultural age.

The Dickensian aspect of Perdido Street Station is actually a nice structural counterpart to the imagined world it portrays. This is a "steampunk" novel -- a work of science fiction which draws on the manners, styles, and steam technology of the Victorian era. The science of New Crozuban, which Mieville depicts in loving detail, is like a futuristic vision of Jules Verne, with a heady combination of electricity, mad-scientist chemistry, and occult magic, and computers and robots that operate by steam power. The social framework of the city, meanwhile, is in a perpetual state of slow decay, corrupted by poverty, organized crime, political corruption, pollution, and other forms of squalor. In his depictions of urban blight and slums, Mieville might as well be channeling Dickens through one of New Crozuban's psychic thaumaturges; in the works of both writers, the soot and clatter of steam railroads hang always over the homes of the working poor.

There is much to like in Perdido Street, but it has its share of flaws as well. Mieville is conspicuously in love with his setting, and his story often takes second billing to overwritten descriptions of rivers, night skies, and neighborhoods. The real central plot of the novel doesn't really get moving until about a third of the way in, leaving a first third that meanders without apparent direction. Only two of the characters are much developed, and one of these two essentially disappears from the book at the halfway point. This cuts two ways: the plot is left mostly in the hands of more shallow characters, and the moody wanderings of the missing character in the first half of the book are rendered pointless in the second. Finally, like a lot of the popular science fiction writers of the last decade, Mieville's prose style errs on the bloated side. Perdido Street Station, a promising first novel and sporadically an engrossing one, would be a better read if it was just a little more economical in its language.


Plot: A bird-man who has lost his wings comes to the city to ask a promising young scientist to restore his ability to fly. The scientist takes on the project, but in the course of his research accidentally looses a lethal peril on the city. Then, the lethal peril must be dealt with. Subplots and complexities abound, of course.

10 comments:

DrSchnell said...

Glad you finally got around to this one, even if you didn't love it as much as I did. I think Mieville would be flattered by the Dickens comparisons, from what I've read of him. He's been a (very unsuccessful) candidate for the House of Commons running as a socialist, so the whole working poor thing is right up his alley

DrSchnell said...

Oh, and I really liked his setting, so the excessive descriptions of it didn't bother me much.

Elizabeth said...

I've tried two other of Mieville's novels and couldn't get into them. Perhaps a bit too sprawling for me.

Anonymous said...

I tried to read this a number of years ago and gave up after about 50 pages. Couldn't get into it . . .

Rebel said...

1 - this is an awesome book review
2 - I kinda want to read it despite it's flaws... that is depending on how long it is, Dickensian drama is okay for like 300 pages, 500+ would be pushing it.
3 - when will we be seeing the map/flag for New Crozuban?
4 - I could just about kiss you for the appropriate use of the word 'loose' in the last paragraph. Do you know how many times I read about people online who 'loose weight' ... I think "where does it go?"

Dug said...

Back to the Chili recipe for a minute - oops am I commenting on the wrong entry? Reminds me of that classic 1990s song that goes something like this:
"Michael's busy blogging his recipe for Mac and Beans" cause "It's Friday night in Lawrence and we all are in the mood".

Anyway no wonder we all "loosed" so much weight back in the day.

d said...

this book actually sounds absolutely fascinating to me. it's on the list.

Serendipity said...

I picked this one up after it made your list, but I did something I rarely do: stopped reading partway through. Losing that character partway through pretty much killed it for me. Had I read your description first, I probably still would've bought it, though.

Critical Bill said...

It is absolutely shocking that this book made your list.

Michael said...

@Serendipity: You would have been even less happy, I think, if you had stayed around to see that character reappear.

@Bill: How so?