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Powells.com
Saturday, April 14th, 2007
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Perdido Street Station

by China Mieville

Put On Your Thinking Cap

A review by David Hannon

China Mieville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge University; he has also held a Frank Knox fellowship at Harvard, has a master's with distinction and a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics, and his Ph.D. thesis was published as a book entitled Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. So, there you have it: China Mieville is a very bright human being. Luckily for the science-fiction community, he has chosen their world to bestow his considerable talents upon. He describes his writing as "weird fiction" -- I'd simply call it amazing.

Perdido Street Station is the first of his three books (thus far) set in the fictional word of Bas-Lag -- a world with many similar characteristics to our own, but vastly different in its marvelous evolutions in science and nature. The story begins with Yagharek, a birdlike creature known as a garuda, entering the dark city of New Crobuzon shamed and disfigured. For the crime of "choice theft in the second degree," he has had his wings sawed off and been cast out by his people to live a life of desolation in an ancient desert.

Learning of a fringe scientist named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin who is rumored to have done remarkable things with matter and energy, Yagharek travels to New Crobuzon to ask for his help in regaining the power of flight. It has become part of the city's culture to "remake" humans, animals, and other creatures, and Isaac is hopeful this practice can help the garuda. Done for many reasons, remaking is a punishment first and foremost, but also a way to become a more adaptable worker (think gills for a human who works underwater, or possibly an extra body part or two for a member of the world's oldest profession).

At the same time Isaac starts to work on Yagharek's problem, his girlfriend Lin, a sculptor from the city's bohemian district of Salacus Fields, is accepting a commission of her own. Lin's latest client is the ruthless crime lord Mr. Motley, one of New Crobuzon's most bizarrely remade residents, who wants a direct full-scale representation of his grotesque likeness. Remade with all manner of eyes, fur, skin, and appendages in no particular order, Motley is a disgusting sight; however, to his way of thinking, he's a violent work of art and wants Lin to capture him true to form.

This is where the story really takes hold. In the process of trying to help the garuda, Isaac gets as many types of winged creatures as he can to dissect and study. One creature is a tiny caterpillar that won't eat and is on the verge of death, until one of the area's shadier characters drops by the lab carrying New Crobuzon's most popular new hallucinogen. The caterpillar reacts strongly to its new sustenance, and grows at such an enhanced rate that it needs a new cage within twenty-four hours. Soon the creature builds its radiant cocoon, the first step in its metamorphosis toward becoming a slake moth. A creature true horror fans will readily embrace, the slake moth hunts by night and feeds on the dreams and minds of the city's inhabitants, causing a dark fear to spread throughout New Crobuzon.

Everything spins into chaos as the slake moth finds others of its kind and they begin wreaking havoc on the unprepared city, taking victims and leaving them in a vegetative state. Having let loose these abominations, Isaac knows that it's his responsibility to quell the fear and stop the moths before the city is left with nothing but a population of catatonics. To do so he will need the help of the Weaver (an immense spider that cuts and spins reality to its bizarre liking), the Construct Council (a vast super computer created by its own links, wires, and digits and living in an urban junkyard), and many other brilliantly original characters.

Sound a little far fetched? It certainly would be if it weren't for Mieville's innate ability to construct dizzying situations and characters and make them seem astoundingly real. He uses true scientific principals mixed with his own take on the severe possibilities. As far as comparisons go, Mieville could be discussed in the same breath with steampunk authors William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. But it's not a stretch to compare him to the likes of Herman Melville: Both authors have pushed the envelope in their respective genres; both have created memorable, idiosyncratic characters (Bartleby, anyone?); and, perhaps most importantly, they can both be described as fearless and inventive.


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