I read my first China Miéville book a couple years ago, The City and the City. Imagine two cities with different cultures and architecture existing in the same space. So, for instance, you live in one city but your next door neighbor lives in the other city. You see each other coming and going but you live in two different cities and you are not allowed to even acknowledge you see one another or the government will come and take you away for reconditioning. But that is not what the book is about, that is just the setting. The book is actually a police procedural. Trippy, right?
So when I sat down to read my second ever Miéville, Perdido Street Station, I was prepared to be plunged into something richly imagined but I had no idea what. The thing I like about reading Miéville is that you do just plunge in. He has created an incredibly detailed world with geography and beings of different races each with their own history and cultures but he doesn’t just tell you about it, he lets you experience it in the context of the story. This makes the beginning of his novels both exciting (you never know what you might discover) and hard going (you have no idea what is going on). If you are going to read Miéville, you have to be okay with total immersion and the confusion and uncertainty that goes along with it. Eventually you will know everything you need to know, you just have to wait and pay attention.
And so at the beginning of Perdido Street Station we find ourselves arriving by boat on a filthy river with a stranger to a city called New Crobuzon. And then the narrative shifts to Isaac and Lin and we don’t know who this stranger is for a number of chapters. But we don’t know who Isaac and Lin are either. Through the story we learn Isaac is human and Lin is Khepri, a humanoid woman body with an insectoid head, and the pair are lovers. Prejudice against inter-species love abound and so we start to think that this is going to be a love story of sorts about breaking through boundaries. And it is that, but that does not turn out to be the main story.
The main story congeals around Isaac a scientist semi-attached to the university but no longer really welcome there because his research is just too far out of the realm of what anyone believes is possible. Except it isn’t. And his far out research ends up in a breakthrough that eventually saves the entire city of New Crobuzon from being destroyed by slake moths, nightmare creatures escaped from government control that suck the consciousness out of sentient beings leaving them as living vegetables.
The book manages to be a romance, a thriller, science fiction, and horror all rolled into one. And it works. It really works. Miéville is always in control and no matter how weird the story gets or uncertain the reader might start to feel about making sense of it all, you can trust Miéville and so relax and enjoy the ride. This is speculative science fiction at its best, a substantial story, complex and intricately told. His vocabulary is one that sent me to the dictionary again and again. It’s smart and makes demands of the reader. And as alien as the world and the story turn out to be, it is all so richly detailed with such a sense of depth to it that it feels real and you believe in the places and peoples and histories and cultures. It really is astonishing.
If you don’t read a lot of science fiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to you, however, if you are an avid SF fan or even read it now and then and feel comfortable in an SF world, definitely give this book a try. It is worth all the effort you will have to put into it.