There is a very deliberate sort of chaos in Perdido Street Station. Everything about it is designed to force square pegs into the rounder, well-worn holes of our expectations for fantasy and horror. Its pages are occupied by fantastical races, but their separation from humanity is stark and marked. There are no beautiful elves or noble dwarves found in New Crobuzon, but there are frog-like vodyanoi and beetle-headed khepri and culturally alien bird-folk and inconveniently spiny cactus people and…and…and…
I’m not going to lie; I came into this book with high expectations. After a weirdly long period of ignorance before finally discovering the work of China Miéville (thanks in no small part to CBR6), I began reading feeling very let down. The first several chapters failed to grab me. I couldn’t tell if the plot was a slow burn or if the whole story was simply the increasingly cynical, nihilistic, and distasteful state of the crumbling wash of slums and misery that is its setting.
But once things start happening they don’t stop and the sheer intentionality of everything he’s writing becomes increasingly clear. He’s a man making a lot of points and doing it in a fantastically creative setting. What initially seemed an effort to shove as much lamentable grotesquerie at the reader as possible is suddenly revealed to be a stunningly ambitious work of fantasy world-building and an uncomfortably acute reflection of the failings of our own world. Don’t get me wrong, the continually deepening sense of worseness toes very vigorously at the line between affecting and absurdist at times, but it balances out favorably overall.
Fully acknowledging that it becomes occasionally repetitive, the writing displayed here is simply electric. It’s like Lovecraft in that, swapping “eldritch” for “thaumaturgic,” etc., etc. But all is forgiven when some new and alien perspective is demonstrated, when Miéville weaves words into scenes that make your imagination strain against its creaking confines in a struggle to visualize exactly the controlled chaos being laid out on the page. The agonizing misstep that is the extended monologue in Chapter 38 is easily forgiven because this same book gives us the Weaver, an achievement in alien thinking and characterization that you have to read to believe. Any page the Weaver occupies is an absolute joy.
I think I said it best (and most succinctly) in a text I sent to a friend encouraging him to read Perdido Street Station: “It reads like a D&D playing, decidedly less xenophobic Lovecraft had a baby with a political scientist.”
“That is indeed weird,” he responded.
It really is. And it’s so, so good.