Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Perdido Street Station

Every few years I read a novel with which I absolutely fall in love. In the late 1990s I fell in love with a wondrous seafaring novel (Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwal) and a lush historical fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary France (Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun). Considering how realistic both those books were, who would have expected that my first literary love of the new century would be an exotic, off-the-wall adventure set in an alternate London where magic and science fiction mingle seemingly interchangeably?

If you love science fiction set as far from our real world as possible, where the very landscape sings with originality, where nearly all the main characters ooze creativity, then hurry and read China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. It is the story of a scientist named Isaac who is in love with a nonhuman insectoid artist named Lin. As the story opens, they share moments of each other’s lives while she pursues her art and he his research.

Isaac undertakes a seemingly impossible task of trying to help Yagharek, a wingless garudo (think of an earthbound cross between a devil and a human) who was punished for some unknown offense by having his wings clipped. Meanwhile Lin is hired by an underworld leader named Motley, who is a grotesque former human now resembling a conglomerate of semi-human beings, to make a sculpture of himself. Neither tells the other of their assignment, although their activities inadvertently come together when Isaac, while studying the wing-structure of flying creatures, receives from one of his sources a caterpillar which grows into a deadly slake-moth. It escapes from Isaac’s cage and frees 4 of its fellows, whereupon the four of them begin a reign of terror tormenting the city.

It turned out that Motley held the other four slake-moths and was milking their fluids to sell as a powerful drug. He finds out that Isaac was responsible for his loss, and immediately assumes Lin was somehow involved in the imagined theft as well.

Thus becomes a fast-paced thriller: Motley seeks Isaac, while the city is under attack by the slake-moths; Isaac, Derkhan (a writer for an anti-government underground newspaper) and Yagharek try to kill the moths, while the dictatorial mayor seeks help against the moths from hell-demons (who refuse to get involved), a Weaver (a supernatural spider with amazing powers and incomprehensible motives), and Remades (who, like Motley, are part-human, part-artificial beings).

Perdido Street Station offers a bit of everything the best science fiction has to offer, from Vancian atmosphere to Zelaznyish mythological underpinings, from Delanyish wild creativity to Cyberpunkish noir. And yet, beneath this wild exterior beats a totally-human interior, with characters you can believe in and empathize with, in a fully-developed world filled with so many throwaway ideas that a lesser writer would have milked an entire double-trilogy out of it.

Most important of all, Miéville never loses sight of the purpose of great fiction: the people. They never become pawns in his plotline, but remain the focal point of his concern, and ours as well. So while he has us gasping in wonder, and gasping for breath, we are also gasping with joy or sorrow or concern for Isaac, Lin, Derkhan, and the many other characters who pass through their lives.

Perdido Street Station is a great, great novel in the tradition of the wildest, most outré science fiction and fantasy. If you liked Vance or Zelazny or Wolfe or Delany, I recommend this book very highly indeed. China Miéville is definitely the first great fantastic novelist of the 21st century.


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