Perdido Street Station is the first of the New Crobuzon series by China Miéville. The series is made up of semi-stand alone stories (they are independent but have a few recurring characters) about inhabitants of a giant metropolis in a fantasy world. This particular story follows two individuals: Issac, a human mad scientist who works on the fringes of society on whatever project strikes his fancy, and Lin, a Khepi (bug head, human body) artist who is commissioned for a dangerous art project. Through these two characters we are treated to life in New Crobuzon, both the good and the bad. With an emphasis on poetic prose, extensive world building, and nightmare inducing horror Perdido Street Station has a lot to offer.
Perdido devotes a large portion of the initial book to intense and methodical worldbuilding before easing off roughly a quarter of the way in but never fully stopping. Through characters taking casual strolls and running errands, Miéville heavily fleshes out his city and sets the stage for the rest of his story. His descriptive writing style marries both fanciful descriptives and hard science to give you an exotic setting with easily understood rules of operation. In addition, his city is disgusting. I live in New York City, and I felt right at home in Miéville’s New Crobuzon in the sense that in both cities I am afraid to touch anything because it’s sticky and smells bad. Miéville manages to paint a world that is repulsive and grotesque, yet strangely appealing. Unlike many other sci-fi and fantasy books, Perdido’s races and species are not clean or organized. The city feels like a melting pot of commerce and practicality, much like metropolises today. Most races feel as if they were designed for functionality not appearance, and I feel as though I would have trouble making eye contact with many of them due to repulsion. Despite all of this, New Crobuzon feels like a place I want to visit so that I can experience the magic and science underneath all of the grime. Miéville’s ingenious combination of the foul and the fanciful makes for a unique reading experience by itself.
The book’s plot revolves around the reckless pursuit of happiness, the dangers of ignorance, and accountability for mistakes. Once the world is established, both the lead characters accept dubious work without considering the consequences of their actions. Unsurprisingly, these actions set into action events that turn the city into a living nightmare of death and horror. The growth of the characters through the book is very impressively done. From humble and ignorant beginnings, to taking responsibility for their actions, to trying to stop the horrors they have unleashed, I enjoyed every moment in the heads of both the protagonists. Miéville also spends a lot of time fleshing out his cast of side characters that all bring a lot to the story in their own way. There is a lot of moral ambiguity with the cast, making them feel more real and relatable. When I finished the story I had to sit and think about the actions and context of each character before I was comfortable judging them. The complexity and growth of Perdido’s cast made for some of the most memorably characters I have read recently.
Finally, horror is a difficult medium to do in written form. Without the visual stimuli to contextualize danger and force pacing, scary often falls flat when written. That being said, Perdido Street Station gave me nightmares for a few days. Miéville’s use of grotesque and vile descriptives create a palatable atmospheric horror, and his inventive imagination for creatures and species creates original monsters that disturbed me more than once. This terror is not only well done, but it is also well placed to drive the plot while also helping build tension in the story at large.
Perdido definitely does not fall into my normal wheelhouse of books, but that did not in any way keep me from enjoying it immensely. This is the first book I have read that both grossed me out and kept me enthralled at the same time, and as my first Miéville work has definitely inspired me to look into his other publications. If you are looking for something a bit gross, a bit scary, and a lot captivating I recommend Perdido Street Station.