I’ll cut to the chase: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is one of the worst books I’ve ever actually finished.
Perdido Street Station is a fantasy novel that also straddles the sci-fi and steampunk genres. The story is set in an indeterminate time and place that teems with Bosch-like biological species and other sentients. The story follows a scientist entrepreneur, Issac, who is hired by a garuda to replace his lost wings. Garudas are mythical creatures who can fly. In this instance, Mieville did not make up these creatures. During his researches into flight, Issac unwittingly unleashes terror over the city.
The story is crowded with mammalian, reptilian, arachnidian, and avian creatures. Of course, mechanical beings who spontaneously gain sentience also have a part to play. To add to the fun, remades are ubiquitous. Remades are creatures that are made with parts from other species or technologies, such as flamethrowers. Some creatures are remade by choice while others are remade as punishment. Mieville lingers over descriptions of the remades working in a brothel. Use your imagination.
Mieville is an imaginative and visual writer, which in this book becomes a problem. Mieville describes the city where the action occurs with exquisite detail. Initially, the detail makes the world come alive. Under Mieville’s pen, the city is by turns ugly and beautiful, menacing and familiar. I could pile up the descriptions. Which is what the writer does. The city, a combination of Manhattan and Weimar Berlin, is painted again and again and again. The same moods are repeated with numbing regularity.
The constant mood-evoking and scene-setting are substituted for the plot. Strip away the garish creatures, and noir cityscapes, there’s not much story here. While there is almost no hard science in a world where blunderbusses are potent weapons, the writer grinds over descriptions of imaginary scientific breakthroughs. The author assumes that we accept his imagined technology and science as clever–exceedingly clever.
Lascivious and lurid descriptions of the creatures’ biological arrangements and functions are the book’s core. Imagine the Wizard of Oz written by the Marquis de Sade.
Cleverness is very important to Mieville. There are plot-critical passages about dreams, often done in a stream-of-consciousness style, that the author must believe are clever. If you do not agree, these plot linchpins are passages of long-winded, self-conscious tedium.
Incredible to me is that after all the time the author spends evoking a diverse society of unbelievable and unlikely creatures thrown together in day-to-day hurly-burly, they often find each other horrific. We read that some creatures horrify others. In one instance, Issac, who is a humanoid, takes for a lover a spider-like woman. He admits that he was at first disgusted but is able to adjust. He gets grief for this liaison for being a ‘bug lover.’ Apparently, even in a biological cornucopia bigotry is a problem.
Predictably the book has a dark ending. Along the way, Issac makes a morally reprehensible decision that the writer assures us bothers Issac. He redeems himself by betraying a friend. Cleverness is as cleverness does, eh?
This book is like someone who amasses a large amount of money to purchase a treasure, but instead of using the money for which it is purposed, the buyer obsessively recounts the money while admiring the beauty of the impotent coins. This is art without artistry.
Finally, Perdido Street Station is just boring. There is no character development; in fact, despite the variety of creature types, all characters share the same self-interested motivation.
On the plus side, the Audible narration by John Lee is first-rate as always.