Fearful Symmetries

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27 February, 2013

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville



A few months before starting this book I listened to Cat Women of the Moon, a radio documentary about sex & gender in science fiction. In the program China Miéville talks about interspecies relationships and noted that he had paired up a human male with an insectoid female in one of his stories. I wasn't many pages in when I realized that he had been talking about Perdido Street Station.

The world here is one in which magic is no fantasy and steampunk is a reality too. The protagonist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, is a resident of the metropolis of New Crobuzon. New Crobuzon is a gritty place which resembles our own metropolises in many ways but also has a fantastic dystopian feel as well. There's a corrupt mayor with a heavy-handed police force that repels down from zeppelins. Neighborhoods are populated by the various races. Humans live side by side with Khepri (humanoid beetles), Garuda (humanoid birds), Cactacae (humanoid cacti), and others. Plus there are the Remades, beings whose bodies have been modified. Sometimes they have mechanical bits grafted onto their bodies while other times organic matter is.

Grimnebulin is a scientist who pays the bills by doing some work at a university but spends more time in a shared laboratory pursuing his whims, the major one being chaos energy. He is in love with Lin, a Khepri who is also an artist. At the beginning of the story Grimnebulin is approached by a Garuda named Yagharek who wants to hire the scientist to replace his wings which were hacked off in a sad episode of Garudan justice. Meanwhile Lin is hired by the drug lord Mr. Motley to create a sculpture.

The pair is doing well with each being paid to do what they love. As part of his research into flight, Isaac sends the word out onto the street that he's interested in creatures of flight and soon his lab is inundated with them. He also acquires a strange caterpillar-like creature which he discovers only eats a new hallucinogenic drug called dreamshit. It grows and eventually matures into a very large and very dangerous creature called a slake moth which feeds on the consciousness of sentient beings. It frees its brethren who are being held captive at a government research lab and all hell breaks loose in New Crobuzon.

Much of the story involves Isaac and Yagharek banding together with a rotating cast of other characters to kill the slake moths. In addition to teaming up with various rogues, Isaac also encounters some steampunk AI in a scrapyard. The scramble against time makes for some great reading but Lin is kidnapped by her benefactor and is thusly out of the picture for most of the story. This is unfortunate because Miéville takes some time at the opening of the story to get into her psyche where he examines her relationship with her fellow Khepri as well as how her interspecies relationship with Isaac is seen in the community at large. He also plumbs the depths of her obsession with art.

While one character study is set aside, we get another which is equally enthralling. New Crobuzon is a wonderful creation with its mixture of species, magic, and a steampunk take on the Industrial Revolution. There is political intrigue within the halls of power there while out on the streets the poor of various races assemble in neighborhoods and eke out an existence. Magic is the common thread which binds the city and its inhabitants together. Thaumaturgy is an academic subject at the university but it is also an engine of industry. It is used to punish criminals by transmogrifying them into Remades but it is also practiced by some striking dock workers. Miéville also spends a fair number of words describing the inhabitants of the city and their cultures – what they are like, their homelands, and how they adapt to life in the city. He really spared no expense in trying to make New Crobuzon as vivid as he could.

While I think that taking Lin out of the picture was a misstep, Perdido Street Station was still a brilliant novel. It's part action & suspense (the scene with our slake moth hunters entering the creatures' nest had me on the edge of my seat) but it's also an engaging peek inside the heads of various characters and a sociological examination of the weird yet wonderful fictional metropolis of New Crobuzon which bears more than a passing resemblance to our own world.
|| Palmer, 2:47 PM

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