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Wednesday 10 October 2012

Words on Wednesday: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (Book Review)

Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

Published by Macmillan in 2000

Perdido is Miéville's second novel. Perhaps foregrounding the general theme of the setting, Perdido is Spanish for; lost, missing, abandoned, astray, idle, irreparable, tainted. The world setting itself needs some mentioning as it seems larger than the book can contain, bursting with the writer's love and enthusiasm. It certainly feels like something Miéville has spent a great deal of time thinking about; the world is like a living breathing thing that goes on after you've shut the book, countless stories seem to write themselves as you read, thinking of half mentioned characters and places and where it all might lead.

The setting isn't the only strong point in the novel, the characterisation of major and minor players is rich and engaging. Also, a point that would't normally need to be made, but Miéville can write believable female characters (although as a male perhaps I should ask for a second opinion on that) something that cannot always be said of his contemporaries. Quite often in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre one tends to find the female characters as 2-d stereotypes or fantasy figures, a favourite Sci-Fi author of mine, Iain M. Banks, is particularly guilty of this. However, Miéville's female characters are well-written and aren't pandering to anyone. Despite this there are times were the dialogue just *clunks* and I think this is because Miéville is enjoying himself too much with the language. I think that sometimes it's a risk for an author to get too enamoured with his project, with the setting, and so forth. However, this is a minor quibble and, if I'm honest, it does fit with the Steampunkish (pseudo-Dickensian cockney villain) theme. It's just a bit jarring on occasion.

Another note about the characterisation in the novel. The non-human characters are especially vivid and understandable in terms of culture and motive. Obviously their 'alien-ness' isn't played up (like in a Sci-Fi dealing with first contact f.e.) because we are to imagine this city (New Crobuzon) as a melting pot of species. Thus, instead it feels like a description of outsider cultures being ghettoised. One of the ideas that didn't work for me, and it's quite a biggie as it's a plot hook, I'll try and describe this without giving any spoilers, it's reification of creativity. That is, making it have thinglyness, specifically as food, anyway, that's probably too much already. Just to say, like some of the dialogue, it took me right out of the book and into pondering. Not always a bad thing perhaps, but it did grate with me.

Perdido has some excellent ideas and a plot that really zips along, as well as the superb characterisation, which makes us really care about what happens to Isaac, Lin, and the others, but it doesn't quite get out the description of genre fiction and become the literary equivalent speculative fiction. However, amusingly, Miéville doesn't really fit into a straight genre classification. Perdido might be Sci-Fi and Fantasy, because it's not quite 'Steampunk' either. Actually, I'm not sure about the emphasis on science, because although a plot device it's not a core concept of his story. It doesn't infiltrate all manner of descriptions (i.e. Arthur C. Clarke's massive 'what-if?' science descriptions) in the novel, but the social aspect does. The experimentation with ideas about how different cultures form the social and political organisations is a key concept in the story, as is their getting along together (or the failure therein). I'd therefore suggest calling Miéville a writer of not science but of Social Fantasy and place him alongside Ursula Le Guin in terms of style. Albeit, at this stage of only having read one of each of their books, lesser to her.