Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Perdido Street Station

I thoroughly apologize for the delay. I was snowed in this holiday season and left without my usual set of tools at my disposal. Now, without further ado...

"I remember when The Weaver changed its tastes, it took us three deaths before we worked out what it wanted."
- Mayor Rudgutter

          Hello and I hope you all had a wonderful gift-giving winter festival type thing. I had an eventful one, possibly even an interesting one myself. But before I get too far off track here, let's away into the review and have at it, shall we?
          In every author's body of work, there is always one work that stands as a "breakout". Neal Stephenson had two books published before it, but Snow Crash is the one that seems to stick in everyone's head like a bad pop song. Anthony Burgess is (and he is probably viciously angry about it in his chosen afterlife) best known for A Clockwork Orange despite writing literally hundreds of other books. Neil Gaiman very quietly inched himself along as a journalist, television writer, and short story writer before The Sandman blew him on to the world literary stage. And China Mieville has Perdido Street Station
           The book is a dense, grotesque work, choosing to show not just how one character or a set of characters are affected by the malevolent forces at work, but how the entire city of New Crobuzon is affected-- from the criminals and barflies on the low end of the rung all the way up to the corrupt political offices of Parliament The idea that the problem affects the whole city, as well as the ability to show it, is rare in works, and really marks Mieville's ability, as well as the scope of the novel. It's ambitious, particularly considering this was his second novel. And this book does have it all-- horror, insanity, a well-described environment, tight scenes, and a complex but entirely manageable political structure. So naturally, it has everything that would attract me to it.
           Perdido Street Station begins with an injured birdman named Yagarhek approaching a rogue scientist named Isaac. Isaac does his work in the nebulous field known as "Crisis Physics", a field that seems to involve doing random mad sciencey things to inanimate objects to put them into danger, in the hope that they will release "crisis energy", a force that bends reality itself. Yagarhek has been wounded, you see, and his wings have been severed from his body for a crime he speaks of but that makes no sense, a crime called "Second-degree choice-theft". He commissions Isaac for quite a bit of money to produce new wings or a new flight engine for him to use. Isaac sets about working on the idea of flight, dissecting birds and insects, putting out a general call for anything that he can study, be it larval, pupal, or fully formed. An informant gets some criminals to do the legwork, and one of them brings Isaac a rather large caterpillar that only eats hallucinogenic drugs known as "dreamshit". A caterpillar with a strange and checkered history with certain secret departments inside the Parliament. And when it decides it's time to metamorphose, the city quickly spirals towards disaster, ensuring that no one fully escapes the chaos Isaac's little pet leaves in its wake. 
             What makes this book great is all the care and detail that goes into it. You're dropped into New Crobuzon not as the author feels it out, but as a fully-formed city. Things unfold gradually, but they have the feeling of being established since the word "go". The protagonists don't initiate things so much as simply speed them along with the monkey wrench of the escaped moth and their subsequent quest to figure out exactly what it is and what it's doing in the city. A city that's explored in more detail than necessary, even-- every corner of New Crobuzon is given almost a page of description, such as the disgusting Remade, a class of criminal whose crimes were so heinous that through a mixture of thaumaturgy and sorcery they have been turned into grotesque walking art exhibits, the tamest of which would be the child-murdering mother who had her infant's limbs grafted on to her face, or maybe the informant who had his mouth sealed over. The moths (yes, plural) and their completely alien design are another example of too much information, but all of it makes a complex and almost independently intelligent setting-- malevolent, given that pretty much everyone is corrupt, but complex and independent nonetheless.
                In terms of morality, Perdido falls slightly towards the "Richard Kadrey" side of the sliding scale, though this is by no means a failing. The characters are flawed, but since we spend time with each of them (save for the freakish moths), we get to understand why they do the things they do. The heroes are a particularly good example of this, as while Isaac is a moral and ethical void that rivals other mad scientists of the genre, he realizes when things have gone too far and tries to halt the vicious mechanism he gave birth to in the first place. Isaac serves as a hero who slowly realizes what is going on around him is wrong, leading to several moments of genuine emotion and growth. The other characters, as well, start out in their initial stiff archetypes, as one would find in such books as Ghosts of Manhattan, but soon they grow and twist out of their initial roles and come into their own. By the end, you know who they are and why they do what they do, because their setting and their personal growth all inform what they have become. The final scenes show Isaac having grown but at the same time realizing that he, despite all his imaginings otherwise, is still human and still gets his share of bad fortune at the very end of things. While he triumphs, there is sacrifice.
                 I suppose if I had any bones to pick with the book, it would be that there are points where the book definitely drags. Yes, the politics are all important, yes we need to see everything because it's really about the city, but they should be quicker. Hit-and-run and get back to the plot at hand. The way they are now, they provide valuable and (here's that overused word again) detailed insight, but it's too much at times. Also, once again, Mieville lets his setting run away with the book, allowing the city to at times overwhelm its inhabitants. In the end, though, these small quibbles actually work in the book's favor for the most part. 
                 Yes, in the end, this is a fantastic book, much better than Kraken, his later outing, which tried to do the same thing but in a modern-day setting. Mieville's world-building skills are unmatched and unrivaled, and his instincts are fantastic. With New Crobuzon, Mieville creates a disgusting but beautiful and intriguing world, and with his story full of creepy, arcane systems and mechanisms, he creates the perfect play for its stage. This is one worth buying and reading over and over again, a thoroughly enjoyable work that marks a fantastic creation from a fantastic author.

Next week: Steampunk Month comes to a close with a review of The Steampunk Trilogy by the remarkably strange Paul DiFilippo, and I do the best books (new and old) that I've read this year, possibly on video. Have a great New Year's!

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