Science Fiction Brewed Fresh Daily

Review: Perdido Street Station

I’ve been digging through the archives of our old message boards (which succumbed to spam long ago but recently arose, phoenix-like, from its own digital ashes), and unearthed some book reviews that a user with the handle JohnT wrote some time ago. I wanted to feature a couple on the blog, because they’re very thorough.

(And JohnT, if you’re out there, drop me a line so I can give you proper credit.)

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First, the boring stuff:

Name: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Mieville
Publisher: Del Rey, paperback, 720 pages.

Warning: in my reviews/posts, I tend to beyatch about the things I didn’t like rather than dwelling on the stuff that I liked. Overall, I kind of liked this book and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for “something new and different.”

If I had to give a title to what I want to say, it would be something like:

Stephen R. Donaldson, foul mouth little snots, and a really bad Cheryl Ladd movie

Huh?

When I read SR Donaldson’s The Gap series, I felt pretty much the same way that I felt when I read PSS – this guy has got some serious, hardcore mental/emotional issues. If you haven’t read the Gap, the most prevalent emotions in the book(s) are pain: these people suffered. When one reads PSS, Mieville tries for the same type of effect: he bombards the reader, not with pain, but with the grotesque. These people suffer too, but not by choice, but by location.

He is so in love with his setting that at times he forgets the story – long descriptive passages where he seemingly tries to come up with even more disgusting ways to get the point across: New Crobuzon is a nasty city, not one for the faint of heart or delicate of manner – it is squalid, filthy and a generally horrid place to live.

Typical passage, this one dealing with the protagonist (Isaac) and his ladyfriend (Lin):

His arse itched. He scratched under the blanket, rooting as shameless as a dog. Something burst under his nail, and he withdrew his hand to examine it. A tiny half-crushed grub waved helplessly on the end of his finger. It was a refflick, a harmless little khepri parasite. The thing must have been rather bewildered by my juices, Isaac thought, and flicked his finger clean.

“Refflick, Lin,” he said. “Bath time.”

Lin stamped in irritation.

New Crobuzon was a huge plague pit, a morbific city. Parasites, infection and rumour were uncontainable. A monthly chymical dip was a necessary prophylactic for the khepri, if they wanted to avoid itches and sores.

And he goes on, and on in this manner for hundreds of pages: description after description of the sort of horrors 12 year old boys like to scare each other with – done, admittedly, with more style and verve than one would expect from a prepubescent tyke, but still in the same manner. A long-ago Harlan Ellison description of a now-forgotten author repeatedly came to mind while reading this book: “He attacks the reader with the sort of sensory images one would expect from a teenager who enjoys saying “fuck” in front of his grandmother.”*

He adds grotesquery after grotesquery to a point where it overwhelms the reader: The protagonist is screwing an insect, Lin (the insect) has an art commission from a gangster so horrible in appearance it gives even her pause, punishments for crimes involve having the criminal “remade**” at the whim and mercy of the jailer, etc, etc.

About 200 pages in, he kind of remembers that he is telling a story and gets things moving along. Isaac, in dealing with a scientific commission to regrow a pair of wings for a criminal, puts out a call for all manner of flying things so that he can study the motion and physics of flight. One of the creatures that he received is a caterpillar that, upon leaving the pupae stage, transforms into a creature so deadly that even the denizens of Hell*** are afraid of it.

Isaac is finally able to defeat the moth (and a few others that the original moth released), but one wonders…. Why? Why bother?

About a decade ago an old friend and I watched this really craptacular Cheryl Ladd/Kris Kristofferson movie entitled Millennium****. Here’s the IMDB description:

An investigator seeking the cause of an airline disaster discovers the involvement of an organization of time travelers from a future Earth irreparably polluted who seek to rejuvenate the human race from those about to die in the past. Based on a novel by John Varley.

The biggest problem that I had with the movie is that the “future earth” was so bleak, so joyless, that the viewer had trouble understanding why anybody would want to save it. Same thing goes for the world of New Crobuzon – this city is so squalid, life is so unpleasant there the reader is left wondering why anyone would go to the bother of rescuing it from the moths?

The story itself is pretty standard – protagonist unknowingly puts self/society in danger, the heat gets turned on him by the government/bad guys, he (knowing that they don’t understand what they’re dealing with/how to deal with it) saves the day using means unknown to anybody but him. If you enjoy setting more than story (and don’t mind disturbing visuals), I recommend this book quite highly. If you are into brilliant turns and twists of plot, well-developed characters, and tight storytelling, then you might want to avoid this one.


*Paraphrased. Hell, he might have been talking about a movie, but I’m sure I got the gist of it right – the damned phrase has stuck with me for well over a decade now.

**As in they might make you half man/half dog and then put you in a brothel.

*** Possibly my favorite passage of the entire book.

**** Most enjoyable for the scene where Ladd is chain-smoking cigarettes while simultaneously eating a salad. Puff-bite, puff-bite.

Posted in Books & Authors February 25th, 2009 by Chip
1 comment

1 Comment

  1. Frankly, the comparison of any author, particularly one whose work you claim to “kind of like”, to Stephen Donaldson is adequate justification for a libel suit. Mieville’s Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon are major artistic achievements in world-building, even though they’re rendered mostly in dark pigments that make some readers uncomfortable. He’s scored major originality points in nearly everything he’s published to date, although in Iron Council I was beaten about the head and shoulders so thoroughly with socialist rhetoric that it left unappreciated Marx on me.

    Donaldson, on the other hand, has had one original idea over the course of his entire career to date — that being the affliction of his high fantasy protagonist with leprosy. Then he lost any credit he earned there by naming his antagonist “Lord Foul” and building his saga around the ownership of a gold ring. Pure coincidence, I’m sure. His “Mordant’s Need” series was workmanlike high fantasy, unobjectionable and unmemorable. His Gap series was execrable — or maybe excremental — probably the latter, since reading it felt like a week-long bout of constipation — excruciatingly painful without any apparent point. If you’ve guessed, by now, that I won’t be reading the Second Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant — you win my copies of the 5 Gap novels.

    Comment by Shadow — February 26, 2009 @ 2:58 am

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