Perdido Street Station is an enormous book, bursting at its spine with so much stuff that it’s a wonder that the book holds together as well as it does. That said, it does not always succeed. Miéville’s New Crobuzon is a city so filled with ruined architecture, phantasmagoic science, questionable politics, intrigue, and eldritch inhabitants that I found myself dizzied by the amount of information presented. I was charitable toward the books meandering, slow beginning section because I was enrapt by the world that Miéville set up. I was willing to go along with the story because the world so just so damn weird. But weird in a way that I had never encountered before.
The novel presents two main characters, the eccentric scientist Issac Dan der Grimnebulin and the gland-artist Lin. Their romantic relationship is complicated by the fact that Lin is a khepri, one of the many races that populate New Crobuzon. Khepri women are essentially human women from the neck down, but their heads (referred to as head-scarabs) are many-legged beetles with pincers for mouthparts. Miéville smartly uses this relationship to illuminate not only the desires of the main characters but also to help explain the complex network of prejudices that pervade New Crobuzon.
Lin and Issac both have pivotal plot moments in the novel’s first sections, but it is Issac who becomes the novel’s unambiguous protagonist. The main plot movement does not begin in earnest until almost a third of the way through the book. When it does pick up, it becomes a tense race against the political and scientific establishment of New Crobuzon to save the city from a terrifying group of monsters.
The world is vivid and incredibly well-realized, but often it feels as though the world, mood, and tone of the book take precedent over the characters that inhabit the world. In that sense, the characters of Perdido Street Station—including Issac and Lin—at times feel like empty centers, necessary focal points to guide the reader’s vision through the grotesque landscape rather than meaningful participants in the drama that unfolds. Because of that, Miéville gives us an incredible world in this book that is often difficult to care about.
Miéville’s narration is erudite and hyper-literate, sprinkled with obscure adjectives and long, meandering sentences. One review I read suggested that one of Miéville’s problems was that he never writes five words when eighty will do. While that description may be a bit hyperbolic, it does suggest one of the pitfalls of that choice of style— Miéville’s love of description sometimes impedes the precious plot momentum that he has built up. When it works, Miéville’s language paints a vivid, horrifying and totally mesmerizing portrait of a cancerous, diseased city straddling two fetid rivers. When it doesn’t, you’re confronted with a dense page of description after a chapter-ending cliffhanger. This makes the pacing wonky.
Miéville’s novel demands close reading and attention. This is no breezy, escapist fantasy novel. Miéville is working with big ideas and big genre-breaking concepts here, and while it’s entertaining at times to see him trying to keep the cart on the road, he doesn’t always succeed. There were so many things in the book that shocked, delighted, and impressed me, and many others that confused and disappointed me. There were two distinct points during my reading where I considered putting the novel down altogether. In the end I was glad that I persevered through the rough patches. The final quarter of the novel is propulsive and leads to a conclusion that, given the moral ambiguity of the world the story takes place in, manages to be satisfying. Still, Perdido Street Station is a novel I ended up having more respect for than affection for.
It’s an enormous, impressive, and intimidating novel. It gets four pieces of lasagna out of five.