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Perdido Street Station
China Miéville
Del Rey, 710 pages

David Stevenson
Perdido Street Station
China Miéville
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a master's with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.

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SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station

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A review by David Soyka

If you're one of those people who avoid the Fantasy genre from fear of even the slightest whiff of wizards or elves, here's a well worthy quest: make haste to where your bookstore stuffs the countless Tolkien spawn and rescue a copy of Perdido Street Station from the mediocre horde. This is a novel that has more in common with the work of that similarly named fellow, Melville, than any mere commercial conjuring of fairyland.

That said, it does contain:
moth-like creatures that combine the motifs of Japanese monster movies and vampire allegory;
bio-engineered "Remades" upon whom are bizarrely grafted any number of animal and mechanical parts, sometimes to serve a particular function, such as bodyguards with "built-in" weaponry or prostitutes with extra, well, you can guess; in other cases as punishment, such as the baby murdering mother who has her child's limbs attached to her face as a constant reminder of her sin;
a giant spider with human hands obsessed with perfecting and protecting the interconnected web of existence that is utterly oblivious to the disastrous consequences its actions have on individual lives;
a machine intelligence spontaneously emerging in a junkyard of Victorian-era "steampunk" technology spreading a virus of consciousness to other mechanical constructs;
various co-existing species of ambulatory cacti, amphibious, parasitic, demonic, and ornithic creatures;
a humanoid insect -- complete with wings, mandibles, and head scarab -- who communicates by hand signals to her human lover (yeah, you read that right, it makes for some interesting sex scenes).

This needless to say interesting collection of sentient beings inhabits New Crobuzon, a squalid metropolis whose sprawl serves the intersecting interests of various criminal and fascistic governing authorities.

A world, in other words, beneath its fantastic trappings somewhat like our own.

The primary protagonists -- Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an overweight mad scientist type (and lover of the aforementioned insect) whose unthinking actions result in wreaking terrible havoc upon innocents, and Yagharek, an exiled warrior-bird whose wings were cut-off as punishment for a horrible transgression against his kind -- both seek redemption. And both achieve it, though in startlingly different ways.

China Miéville tackles the big themes here, both theological and secular, in dissecting the corpus of compulsive desire, whether the object of that desire is sublime, as in the case of artistic expression or scientific obsession, or debased, as in sexual depravity or political oppression. What's particularly admirable -- and is one reason why this work rises to literary heights some others folks working the fantasy aisle can only glimpse at -- is that he doesn't flinch away from depicting the harsher realities of the human condition (and, yes, of course, all these grotesque characters are, ultimately, reflected distortions of the human constructed prism). His heroes are flawed, and in owning up to their flaws (which is what makes them heroes), they not only discover horrific things about themselves and others, but must at times inflict -- or ignore -- horrific things to achieve their ends. Enlightenment does not come without considerable physical and psychic costs.

That's not the sort of thing run-of-the-mill, fantasy-by-the-numbers likes to dwell on. And, if what you're looking to do is escape reality, there's certainly nothing wrong with that kind of entertainment. However, if you read fantasy -- or just plain read -- to probe existential meaning, Perdido Street Station is an absolute must.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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