Keely's Reviews > Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
84023
My friends call me Senex ('The Old Man') because of my taste in fantasy, or they would, if I had any. It's often been noted that I'll give at least four stars to any fantasy from the Italian Renaissance, and yet rarely give more than two for anything written since the nineteen-sixties. Some have accused me of a staunch prejudice in period, but lo! it is not so.

I really love the fantasy genre, but the corollary of this is that I hate most fantasy books, because of how they mistreat that which I love. Whenever I am called to task for loving old books and despising new ones, I give a silent thanks to China Mieville for writing a book within the last decade that I can, with all honesty and aplomb, say is both eminently enjoyable and well-written.

There are so many rich veins that run through the history of fantastical literature, from the epics, the matter of France, and fairy tales to metaphysical poetry and the pulps; and yet today, the core of the genre is content to keep digging deeper into a spent shaft. Mieville's work shines because he divines more unusual sources of inspiration and then carefully prises, polishes, and sets them.

Fantasy has been tirelessly driven on a myth of the late medieval, so much so that any small deviation is lauded as a 'unique vision'. But gladly, Mieville isn't of the school that thinks a gritty, escapist pseudo-medieval romance is utterly distinct from a heroic, moralizing pseudo-medieval romance. He belongs to a much older school—several, in fact.

One thread Mieville draws on are the 'Weird' authors of early century pulp, who combined horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and didn't delineate where one ended and the other began. Science fiction cannot just sit on its laurels like fantasy, if only because it is constantly outstripped by new science and technology.

Lovecraft fantasized Verne, LeGuin fantasized Doc Smith, and Mieville has a whole new world of bursting technologies to draw from. The information and biotech boom led to an entirely new vision of the future, completely unavailable to writers of the Silver or Golden age, one which was snatched up by the young, hungry, dirty Cyberpunk writers.

If there were an easy way to sum up his work, you might say Mieville has written a 'cyberpunk fantasy', concentrating on the same flawed, sprawling cities, plucky heroes, and confirmation that knowledge is more valuable than martial puissance. Not since Snowcrash have I read a book that was as fun as it is intelligent. Both authors have worlds that are underpinned by ideas and philosophies.

For Stephenson, it was the social theory of Jaynes, but for Mieville, it's economics. As an economist, he can't help but enumerate the world; for him, events unerringly lead back to fundamental causes like need, supply, gain, and zero-sum games. This isn't overt in his books, it's merely the mechanism that underpins the drive of his plot.

Perhaps this explains why he was drawn to a setting reminiscent of the Victorian and not the Medieval, since economic historians suggest that, before this period, economics could hardly have existed as a science, since the fundamental questions which underpin it had no answer in a system based on guild and fealty. But once economics bloomed, it did so grandly, such that economics could be the basis for a fantasy or a farce.

Yet Mieville's particular economic views are not the theme of the story. He is not a moralist, but a cynic, capable of representing the failure of good ideas (even one he believes in) and the success of harmful ones. His 'gritty realism' is not merely a collage of pointless sex, violence, and cruelty (like some other fantasy authors I could name), but a representation of necessary evils, difficulties, and desires.

But he is not merely a Cyberpunk author dabbling in fantasy, any more than Lovecraft was a fantasist who wrote about space aliens. Indeed, Mieville takes notes from Lovecraft, remembering that the most interesting magic is that which is only vaguely explained, and which suggests a strange and interesting world beyond the characters' understanding. I still recall the throwaway line "some plankton from a huge brine dimension" in The Scar sparking my imagination more than entire books by other authors, and of course, evoking the colliding branes of String Theory.

The mindless 'grey goo' antagonists are equally Lovecraftian, but Mieville does more interesting things with The Weaver, an unfathomable huge spider who exists between space and time. So many authors after Lovecraft tried to bring the Mythos closer to human understanding, giving the unknowable beings dialogue and motivation, but nothing kills frighteningly alien creatures faster than poorly-written dialogue; indeed, I would have said giving the creatures any level of comprehensible consciousness ruins them, but I'm glad to be proven wrong.

The Weaver is neither ally nor antagonist, nor does his dialogue bring him down to our level. If anything, it makes him seem more uncanny, since it is easier to shrug off some silent terror than to discover something that almost seems to make sense, but the truths it dances around suggest a world we would not wish to understand, because it is inconceivable, overawing, and deeply ironic.

But then, that is the scientific lesson from which Mieville profits: on both the micro- and macro-levels: the universe seems to flaunt everything we take for granted. The spider could be telling men about Heisenbergian concepts of non-causality and total existence failure and be no less right nor any less unnerving.

And yet, for all Mieville's gravitas, there is something undeniably frivolous and delightful about his characters. They never get so bogged-down in their difficulties that they lose the fundamental vivacity with which he endows them.

It is rare to find an author who deals with such vibrant surrealism, and yet is capable of reigning it in before it overwhelms the story. Mervyn Peake might be the master of using carefully-rationed absurdism to create a world more realistic and believably than any stark vision of Post-Modern Realism. Like Peake, Mieville's characters and setting are always strange enough to seem unusually real.

Some have suggested that this frivolity undermines the very serious questions and ideas he presents elsewhere, but I, for one, am glad to find him capable of reveling in joy, for Nietzsche once observed that "excess is not the result of joy, but joylessness".

I compared Mieville favorably to Snowcrash, but Stephenson's other books simply cannot measure up to his first success, and it is because they are joyless. They delve passionately into ideas and minutia, but do not revel in the characters, the place, or the events. I would rather an author dance lightly across his treatise than for a moment begin to imagine that what he writes is portentous and grandiose.

Nor does Mieville err too far on the other side of the fantastical: for all the implausible absurdity of his setting and characters, he never gives in to the temptation to turn the book into a nonsensical fever dream. Unlike Calvino's Invisible Cities, Mieville does not lose himself in the false profundity of metaphysics, and never once suggests the meaningless New Age aphorism that "I am remarkable precisely because I know that I am ignorant". What is remarkable in the mind of man is the cusp of knowledge, not the unknown that lies beyond it.

His story is infused with the search for knowledge and understanding, which plays through all his economic causes, his scientific metaphysical exploration (no less far-fetched than M-theory, and considerably more accessible), and, of course, the pseudo-scientific interests of his characters. What prevents this from dragging down into the sort of detail-mashing explanations that can kill a good book (or a good idea), is that Mieville is more interested in the love of discovery than in stagnating over what is already known.

Every book should be as concerned (and excited) with discovery: as readers, we are always discovering, always mulling over, always seeking to turn the next page and renew ourselves with an unexpected turn or the final arrival of some foreshadowed conclusion.

By seeking out strange and varied inspirations for his work, Mieville has shown once again that an author is only as good as the works he draws from, and only as original as the ideas he adopts. He rejects Tolkien's empty wilderness and ancient stone palisades for Henry Mayhew's London and Gibson's Tokyo. He invests his magic with alchemy, quantum theory, and transhuman biotech. He replaces heroism and escapism with economic theory and passionate individualism.

He has more world, more character, and more plot than most fantasists, and yet it is not overwrought, it is all a romp, all a vivacious and unapologetic adventure. Most genre writers not only have higher literary pretensions, but fail to deliver on them, while at the same time having less fun doing it. Mieville puts them to shame. I can only hope fantasy authors of the future will be inspired by him, and save this genre from itself and its ponderous, long-winded Old Guard.

My Fantasy Book Suggestions
78 likes · likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Perdido Street Station.
sign in »

Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited May 13, 2010 10:29AM) (new)

This is a good book. It was the fourth or fifth novel I had ever read. So it was relatively early in my reading life that was not assigned reading by school. I have read it four times now, to date.

Growing as a reader as I am introduced to new themes and ideas from other books, I come back to Perdido with new eyes every time. I'll probably reread it this summer, as two or three years have passed since the last time.

I'd be interested in more of your thoughts on the central theme(s) for the book. I'm surprised that you didn't go into more detail with them, to be honest. That is very uncharacteristic of you!

Have you tried any other "new weird" authors?


Keely Wolfie wrote: ". . .I come back to Perdido with new eyes every time.
..."


I think that's what I like most about the book: it's simply enjoyable in and of itself, but it also rewards you for looking deeper. That's not something that's easy to achieve.

I haven't read other New Weird authors, though I'd like to get my hands on the Ambergris series and anything else that can match up to Mieville. I have read a number of the Weird Pulp authors of early last century, and I'm still working through more recent fantastical literature.

I suppose I should go back through my review and try to follow the thread from those authors up through to Mieville in comparison and contrast. Are there any other aspects of the book you'd like me to go into? I'm open to suggestions.


Hazel Thanks for this review, Keely. I agree with you. This is what fantasy should be like.


message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited May 13, 2010 10:30AM) (new)

For one, you could elaborate on what you meant by "the search for knowledge, complete with the flaws and disappointments that always accompany it." I'd be interested in that.

A major criticism by those who don't like PSS contend that, while the book does get off to an inspired start or has its unique elements, the story turns rather formulaic in the second half when the slakemoths are born and begin to reak their terror across the city. The story becomes a tired creature romp.

This is a messy novel. The pacing is awkward. There are lulls before things kick into gear again. Not to mention, lots of time spent on describring the city. I'm wondering why you think the novel works in how it's structured.

There are other things, too. For example, it's been well publicised that Mieville is a staunch anti-Tolkienist. Like, how does PSS stack up against monomyth, Tolkien-inspired fantasy novels, and what is it exactly that seperates the two?

Just wondering how you weigh in on these points...


Keely New Review's Up.

Thanks Hazel, glad you enjoyed it.

Let me know if I've addressed your thoughts Wolfie. A Pleasure, as always.


message 6: by [deleted user] (last edited May 15, 2010 01:56PM) (new)

I liked reading what was added to your review. I understand more fully where you are coming from with your opinion on PSS.

You didn't address my thoughts on the second half of the book (indirectly maybe?) when the main thrust of the plot turns into a creature romp, but I liked the addition of the Weaver into your review.

The Weaver was criticized by some as a deus ex machina device as a means to get the characters out of tight spots. I thought the Weaver was appropriate to the story in an important way and not just a "get out of jail free card", though I couldn't say for sure why I had felt that way at the time. Lovecraft is a good reference point in this case. You're right, the unknown or the limits of our understanding play an important role in PSS. The characters don't retreat from those unknowns with terror either, they continue to move forward, somtimes hesitantly or steadfastly. Lovecraft and Mieville don't share the same "vibe" on the unknown either. Mieville's isn't a cosmic terror.

You mention Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and I think that that book in particular has contributed as an important source of inspiration for those who are considered apart of the New Weird cannon. A lot of their novels are focusing on the city. I don't have anything too coherent to say about the connection between the two at the moment, just feeling around in the dark on the idea, but I think you and me would probably have a difference of opinion on the matter.

This whole experience (with reading your review to thinkng about the book for the first time in years) makes me what to reread PSS even more than before. Crisis Theory, dreamshit, the robot from the junk yard, the Remade: all these are hanging over my head with a gigantic question mark.


Hazel Yep, I definitely need to read it again.


Keely There are a lot of details and world elements in the book that are never really explained or fully explored, and I know some people have said this detracts from the book, as asides sometimes can do, but I felt it was an appropriate amount of world building, and that it added to the flavor and realism of his story.

I was looking up some interviews with Mieville a bit ago, because I'd heard he speaks highly of Gene Wolfe, and I was wondering why, since I wasn't very impressed with his work. While perusing the interview, I was amused to see him mention many of the books I intended to compare him to as direct influences.

'Invisible Cities' was one he mentioned, though I first heard of it as an influence for the roleplaying setting 'Planescape' (an old favorite of mine), which has many New Weird elements. After reading it, I definitely see the influence, though I feel that it's rarely as strong as the works it inspired.

It's true, I didn't directly address the notion that it turns into a creature plot. I suppose I meant to include that when I mentioned that I didn't think the exciting, adventure elements detracted from the book, any more than the (sometimes repetitious) battle scenes of Homer detracted from his epics. There's nothing wrong with a romp, especially when an author has depth in other areas.

My to-read list is always too long and too persistent for me to reread anything, but if I ever do start rereading, I'll have to think about Perdido. But luckily, there are plenty of other Mieville books out there for me to get to, first.


♥Xeni♥ Wow, that is one of the best reviews I have read on Miévilles work. Not only did you sum up so well what I've been trying to express myself on what he evokes in me but you also drew comparisons to other works, which I will now have to go check out! Great review. :)


Keely Thanks so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Hope you find some more interesting books out there.


Anabelee Liked your review, as I loved the book. For me this book was like a glass of water in a desert without ideas in fantasy.


Keely Yeah, I felt the same way. I keep reading fantasy, looking to recapture the remarkable experience that a few books have given me, but most of what's out there is so disappointing. You can't even trust suggestions or critics, much of the time, which makes finding good ones even harder.

Glad you liked my review, and thank you.


message 13: by alex (new) - rated it 4 stars

alex sickeningly smart review, great to read, and lots of little tributary-links reassuring me of my steadfast lack of interest in standard 'high' fantasy. thanks for this


Keely Aww, you're sweet to say such things. Glad you enjoyed it--good luck in your search for interesting fantasy!


message 15: by Traveller (last edited Jun 29, 2012 01:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Traveller Keely wrote: "I was looking up some interviews with Mieville a bit ago, because I'd heard he speaks highly of Gene Wolfe, and I was wondering why, since I wasn't very impressed with his work. ."

Heh, interesting that you mention that, since i was about to say that i find it interesting that you like Mieville so much while disliking Wolfe so much.

To me, Wolfe is a much more subtle writer; maybe the fact that he makes his allusions and riffs and his digs so subtly and that they fit in so organically into his worlds, is his very downfall. (Because then people tend to overlook them - especially on a first reading).
Mieville's nods are more obvious, but it also makes his world feel less of an organic whole.

I can also appreciate that Mieville has fun with his creatures, and though most of them are plucked from mythology and/or are intertextual allusions, i found some of his creations, such as for instance the cactus people jarring and just down right silly. Yes, yes, nods to comic books and video games are there, and they add to the fun, but i think i prefer a subtle homogenous appearing painting which comes across as an organic whole, to a jarring, comic book collage where the elements make up a mismatching pastiche.

Argh, i was about to give this book a 5 star rating and a rather glowing review, but now that i've said all of that, i'm starting to wonder if i shouldn't rather downgrade it to a 4...


Keely It's true that Mieville is much more pulpy in his world complexity, really going for odd stuff, like Vance. While I found those aspects of his story fun, they weren't the reason I rate this book highly.

In my mind, what puts Mieville's writing over Wolfe's is the use of plot and the unusual, deep characters. Wolfe's plot is about the rise of a young badass dude with a cool sword who randomly finds the magical object and then uses it to solve his problems: standard fantasy fare.

Mieville's, on the other hand, involves people already in the throes of life, with unusual but specific internal motivations, who are not especially attractive or masterful, and who struggle through life, not necessarily coming out of the story any better than they went in. In addition, Mieville uses economic theory to drive his plots, so they tend to be more realistic and well-constructed than the big, overarching, world-changing magic plots in most fantasy.


Traveller Keely wrote: "Wolfe's plot is about the rise of a young badass dude with a cool sword who randomly finds the magical object and then uses it to solve his problems: standard fantasy fare.
"


Um, no, in the first place, it's not fantasy, it's SF. In Wolfe's world, which is set in the distant future, you find technology, not magic. Also it's full of aliens and spaceships, not unicorns, dwarves and elves.

The biggest basic distinction between SF and fantasy is that fantasy uses magic and SF uses technology. Also, SF is usually focused on a future setting (though not necessarily) and fantasy is usually (though not always) set in the past.

As for the "badass with a sword" remarks, please see my comment on your review of Shadow and Claw. :)


message 18: by Keely (last edited Jul 02, 2012 11:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Keely I don't think magic vs technology is the most succinct way to separate fantasy from sci fi. In Wolfe's book, the technological elements are few and far-between, and most of what goes on looks like standard fantasy myth and magic. Even if Wolfe tells us that it's technology, that doesn't change how it's presented. It's like the fact that Star Wars is fantasy, even though it looks like sci fi. Just because a magic sword is called a light saber and a wizard is called a Jedi doesn't make them any less fantastical or any more scientific.

In Mieville's case, the details of the world are pervasive, and do change the entire concept of the setting. The existence of certain strange races, technologies, and odd pulp ideas are central to the plot, and change the way that the characters react to the world around them.

Wolfe's oddness peeks out occasionally, but never to any real effect, while Mieville's odd bits are usually central to the way his plot works and what his characters do and think.


Traveller Keely wrote: "Even if Wolfe tells us that it's technology, that doesn't change how it's presented. It's like the fact that Star Wars is fantasy, even though it looks like sci fi. Just because a magic sword is called a light saber and a wizard is called a Jedi doesn't make them any less fantastical or any more scientific. ..."

That's the fun with the Wolfe book. If you don't look carefully enough, it seems like medieval fantasy, whereas it's exactly the opposite with Star Wars, which seems like SF but is really fantasy.

I think the tech is pervasive in the Book of the New Sun. Wolfe is telling you that everything doesn't have to look like a 70'-80's style space age TV set to be set in the far future. Take our modern world, for instance. Just because we don't walk around in silver space suits with space helmets on our heads, doesn't mean that we don't have advanced tech around right next to ancient decayed relics from 2 or 3 thousand years back. That's what actually makes Wolfe's world more realistic, in a way; - his world looks old and decaying, not shiny and new.

It takes place in a time when the world is ancient, and this is a central theme of the book.

..and yes, the tech is central too, as are the aliens, of course. They're there all the time, just in disguise. Wolfe is having fun with us, but you haven't picked up on it because you'd not read far enough, i suspect. :)


message 20: by Miriam (last edited Jul 02, 2012 01:02PM) (new)

Miriam Wolfe's plot is about the rise of a young badass dude with a cool sword who randomly finds the magical object and then uses it to solve his problems: standard fantasy fare.

Neither of the Wolfe novels I've read had anything like this, but I agree that his characters lack something.

Vance's The Last Castle is a good example of science fiction with a superficially fantasy-type setting.


Traveller Miriam wrote: "Wolfe's plot is about the rise of a young badass dude with a cool sword who randomly finds the magical object and then uses it to solve his problems: standard fantasy fare.

Neither of the Wolfe no..."


Yes, Wolfe isn't very good with deep characterisation, depending how you look at it, but for me Vance is pretty much worse (even though Vance is one of my fave authors - I simply adore his "flowery" style).

I love Vance's imagery and poetic prose; maybe I'm just a person who doesn't require a lot of deep characterisation. Vance's work is definitely fantasy though. I know some of his work is classed as SF, and though I've not read most of those, i just can't see him as a hard SF writer.

Wolfe tends to sprawl all over genres in a similar fashion to Dan Simmons.


message 22: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Oh, I wasn't suggesting Vance as a deep-character writer.

Last Castle is definitely science fiction, though, as are the Dying Earth books.


message 23: by Traveller (last edited Jul 03, 2012 11:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Traveller Miriam wrote: "Oh, I wasn't suggesting Vance as a deep-character writer.

Last Castle is definitely science fiction, though, as are the Dying Earth books."


Hmm, i haven't read Last Castle,(would you recommend it?) but the Dying Earth books seemed all poetically lovely fantasy to me. :) Perhaps i somehow missed the sciency/tech aspects of it?

(Oh, and of course, the setting of The Book of the New Sun by Wolfe is a homage to Vance's Dying Earth's setting of an ancient earth.)


Keely ". . . the Dying Earth books seemed all poetically lovely fantasy to me. :) Perhaps i somehow missed the sciency/tech aspects of it?"

Heh, that's curious, I would have said that Vance's science-based magic and sci fi elements were much more obvious and central to the plot than Wolfe's presentation of science as magic. Vance's 'wizards' are mostly geneticists, and in one of the stories in the opening book, one of them pilots a sky car through a huge, ancient city in search of a computer core full of scientific knowledge.


Traveller Ah, but there are no Wizards in Book of the New Sun. :)..and there is no magic, either.

..but Vance's world is presented a lot more poetically, more shiny and pretty, which to me gives it more of a fantasy feel. Shows you how powerful the beauty of his imagery actually is.


Keely ". . . but there are no Wizards in Book of the New Sun. :)..and there is no magic, either."

Neither is there in Dying Earth, since all the magic is technology and the 'wizards' scientists working off old theories. Though it's true that Vance is deliberately aping a mythical style as he goes along, in his ironic way.


message 27: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Have you read Zelazny's This Immortal? It's interesting there how he starts with a pretty straight-forwardly "sci-fi" setting (the future, aliens, spaceships, lots of high-tech) and gradually slips in mythical and fantastical elements.


Keely No, but I've heard it is supposed to be interesting. Thanks for the suggestion.


Aubrey I had completely forgotten how grand your reviews can be. And you made me love the Weaver even more, amazingly enough . Wonderful work.


Keely Thank you, that's very kind of you to say. I'm glad you liked it.


message 31: by [deleted user] (new)

Hey Keely, have you read the novel A Shadow in Summer?

If not, it's a type of high fantasy that has themes and concepts which are both unorthodox and (in my opinion) intriguing.

They're not ponderous reads at all. I think the entire series are actually less than 2000 pages.


Keely I never have, no, though looking at friends' reviews, it seems to come highly recommended. I'll add it to the pile, and thanks.


message 33: by Han (new) - rated it 5 stars

Han Asra China's New Crobuzon books really put the word of "fantastic" in fantasy back to its true meaning. We'll hope many writer's to come inspired by him and writers that become his inspiration.
Good review as always. Especially the economics part.


Keely Thanks, glad you liked it.


message 35: by Han (new) - rated it 5 stars

Han Asra Well, I've just read your other fantasy review and your mention of "magic being unfathomable magical". What your opinion on thaumaturgy and other "magical" element like "The Torque" that China Mieville told us in his book.


Keely Well, when I talk about magic being 'unfathomable', that doesn't necessarily mean that human beings can't interact with it, or that the magic isn't governed by rules, because as fairy tales and myths show us, it's possible to create rules that make the magic seem even stranger than before.

For example, in a generic fantasy book, a wizard character might only be able to 'cast one spell from the 'Weather School' each day', which is an arbitrary rule that doesn't make magic seem wondrous, it makes magic into a predictable voucher system. In Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, on the other hand, we have a character who knows a few secret words of magic which can subtly reshape the world if spoken, but once he speaks them, their power becomes lost, which creates a sense that magic itself is capricious and tenuous, that even the most powerful can only grasp it for a moment before it slips away.

Sometimes, authors use magic as a replacement for technology: steam trains become magic-powered trains, wands are firelighters, psychic spells replace cellphones--and in this usage, once again, magic becomes something small and predictable and useful, instead of a huge, mysterious, implacable force.

But even though Mieville has characters who treat his magic in a scientific way (like alchemists of old), their ability to understand and control that magic is rather limited, and the rules which govern it are abstract and complex, taking a cue from Michael Moorcock, who based his magic on Quantum Physics (a capricious and uncontrollable force if ever their was one), so I think that Mieville retains a sense of wonder and unpredictability.

It's also rather Lovecraftian: human beings are trying to understand and control magic, but usually with disastrous, unpredictable results, as with 'the torque', which went quickly out of control and did not match the expectations of those humans who tried to harness its power.


Andrew O The thing I don't like about most new fantasy is that is feels like watching a lame action movie. It's fun the first time you see it, but after seeing 100 movie that are almost the same and don't really have much of a plot it gets real old. So it's always nice to see something written with some intelligence.


back to top