Thursday, November 30, 2017

November's Book: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Science Fantasy (2000 - 623 pp.)

Perdido Street Station is a massive, twisting, fun ride through China Mieville's literary inventions. The darkened city of New Crobuzon hosts terrifying creatures, horrifying lines of work, and even the namesake subway station. The protagonist, the scientist Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, promises to build new wings for a bird-like creature (garuda) named Yagharek who has lost his wings as a criminal sentence. Isaac's girlfriend Lin, who is partially bug thanks to a parasite on her head, uses her artistic talents in the service of Remade mob boss Mr. Motley. Mr. Motley commands a team of other Remade, who have animal parts grafted onto them for various reasons, although there are many more Remade in New Crobuzon. During Isaac's research, he accidentally discovers a slake-moth, which feeds by consuming hallucinogens and then sucking out peoples' consciousnesses. Mr. Motley uses the slake-moths to produce more hallucinogens. Yes, that's the simplest I could explain this plot.

Perdido Street Station's strongest points are the rich, imaginative ways China Mieville draws us into his world, while never sacrificing his characters or plot. The italicized portions, narrated by Yagharek, are disjointed rambles that led credence to the notion that a creature like a garuda would think so much differently from a human, and also show how bizarre New Crobuzon is. Yagharek meant to arrive there from his homeland, but it still feels like he should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. As a wingless outsider, Yagharek doesn't have anywhere else to go.

Who lives in such a place? Our protagonist, of course.

The only greater-than-minuscule problem I have with Perdido Street Station is its length. I'm not against long fantasy books in general - I loved Wizard's First Rule, and still love the A Song of Ice and Fire books that have actually been released - but Perdido Street Station at times feels like a first draft. There are mountains of adverbs and entire paragraphs of 6-plus-letter words. A shorter passage describes a group of quasi-robots who come to the good guys' aid: "In extreme contrast to the anarchic viral flurry that had spawned it, the Construct Council thought with chill exactitude." (552) Much of the writing is extremely flowery. The book is 220,100 words, and it gets exhausting. I could probably edit it down to below 200,000 easily. The length combined with the era and the bleakness make Perdido Street Station into fantasy fiction's Antichrist Superstar: "There's so much life in this dungeon, you'll never want to leave." The upshot of the book's length is the sheer number of fight scenes, against a surprisingly high number of characters. Perdido Street Station feels endless at times, but the plot is never boring.

If there's any part of Perdido Street Station that's realistic, it's this charming line: "Isaac found that trying to explain his work to Yagharek helped him. Not the big theoretical stuff, of course, but the applied science with furthered the half-hidden theory." (191) Even in fantasy worlds, people learn by teaching. China Mieville was a PhD candidate in political science when Perdido Street Station was released, and Mieville has gone to write extensively since then in both fiction and non-fiction. The PhD lends credence to Mieville's fictitious city the same way critics love to cite that Robert Heinlein was an engineer. Perdido Street Station is a dystopia where characters have to apply their learning, whether they are scientists, artists, or Mafiosi. The reader learns with them.

One final question I had while reading Perdido Street Station is whether it would make for a good movie. My first thought was that it would because of the action, the diversity of characters, and the way the book's length could be mitigated by, to use a stock movie phrase, making a picture be worth a thousand words. My next thought was that mob boss Mr. Motley, who is so Remade he is unrecognizable as human, is personified nausea fuel, as are many of the other Remade. It would take CGI far greater than what was available in the Avatar era to make a realistic portrayal of the Remade without grossing out the audience. The story would translate to the big screen great, though.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 3

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