November 05, 2004
China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
"For once," squeaks a breathless Jon Courtenay Grimwood on the cover, "comparisons to Gormenghast are justified." Well, true, in the technical sense that "nothing like" is a comparison, but surely such an evasion is not what the moral arbiters of the Guardian intended. Nor, despite what you may hear, is it much like Viriconium, though there are constant reminders (the phrase "a storm of wings"; the lassitude of the dream-sickness, so like the plague of In Viriconium; and in the sequel, The Scar, even a restaurant called the Unrealised Time).
No, the touchstone we are looking for is very definitely Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles.
This is not a complaint: I loved Rats and Gargoyles, and I loved Perdido Street Station. They are hugely entertaining and imaginative adventure stories, deeply bound up with fascinating and intellectually engaging city settings and themes. Neither book is a revolution, a rediscovery of the fantasy genre, but they're still rewarding and fun.
Perdido Street Station is about a vast, timeless city, the bloated, sluggish metropolis of New Crobuzon. You recognise the genre already, of course: you can already hear resonant one-line paragraphs like "Mieville vomited architectural nightmares into the fatty adjectival froth." You are already ready for the my-grotesque-is-more-grotesque-than-your-grotesque grotesques, the my-building-is-bigger-and-weirder-than-your-building architecture, the my-cosmic-force-is-more-arbitrary-and-incomprehensible-than-your-cosmic-force supernaturals. You are ready for the eccentrically plausible pseudo-science, check, the familiar-and-yet-not-familiar profanities, check, the strangely archaic technologies that are yet strangely futuristic, checkedy-check, checkedy-check. Here they all are, present and correct.
And for the most part they are doing magnificent service. New Crobuzon is beautifully realised, with copious incidental detail making it much more than a mere backdrop. The cliques of artists, thaumaturges and revolutionaries are brought fully to life. The aliens are adequately alien, and the mad science is moderately scientific and gloriously mad. Minor plot hiccups aside -- and let's face it, we are not here for the plot, whose schtick of "How do you beat up something you can only look at in a mirror" is little more than a flimsy excuse given the novel's 850+ pages -- the delivery is faultless.
And yet, and yet... the problem is that Perdido Street Station feels like an exemplary genre novel in a genre which has not yet been defined. It is a wonderfully professional execution of a story without surprises or challenges. It is a wonderful page-turner, but never transcends that. It is hugely imaginative, but in oh-so-predictable patterns. The whole feels less than the sum of the parts.
Is it worth reading? Yes. The pages fly by, packed to the brim with ideas and images. Is it the literary triumph fans and critics have touted it as being? No. Clearly that is Mieville's ambition, but this is still a journeyman work. A superb journeyman work, to be sure; but different in its very nature from a masterpiece.
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