[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 79 (2000), 88–90. Which I think makes it the first thing on China to appear in an academic journal. Yay me!]
Vivid as a comic book, Miéville’s King Rat (1998), with its funky London and splendid conceit, and its passages of grace, charm and glee, was one of the most assured fantasy debuts of the 1990s. Like the bass beneath the treble, its narrative momentum and crafter prose danced the enchanted reader past the slipperiness of plot logic and duration. His second novel, Perdido Street Station, dwarfs King Rat – in words, weight, ambition, invention, accomplishment. It is a garuda to the former’s wyrman, and eagle to its flying monkey. Let me explain.
North of Myrshock, Shankell, Perrick Nigh and the Mandrake Islands; north-east of the Cacatopic Stain and the Shards; east of Bered Kai Nev, the Swollen Ocean, Gnur Kett and the Jheshull Islands; at the confluence of the rivers Tar and Canker, where they become the Gross tar: there lies the city of New Crobuzon, magnificent and squalid, powerful and corrupt, home to humans and others. A mysterious figure approaches. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, outcast scientist and corpulent dilettante, receives an unusual commission, as does his khepri partner, a renegade spit-artist. And so connections begin. Evil, irresponsibly cultivated, is accidentally unleashed. A company – neither quite a Seven Samurai nor a Dirty Dozen – gathers, although they do not all meet. Things emerge: winged rippers, artificial intelligence, the dancing mad god, class consciousness. Chaos theory is transmuted into crisis science. Dirigibles and aerostats criss-cross the troubled sky. The identity of a serial killer is slyly revealed. A vigilante steps in when it counts. Decisions, ethical and otherwise, are taken. People change and changed. Some die. All suffer.
The story told is a familiar one, yet different. It grips and exhausts. The birds, spiders, sewers, rooftops and hybrids of King Rat reappear exfoliated, as do the city’s alternative architectures, the shared worlds existing within but different from the built environment. The appetite for language that occasionally strained the earlier novel has grown to remarkable proportions but is disciplined by the clarity and efficiency of Miéville’s tempered prose; he delineates characters and settings with precision and compassion, building layers of texture rather than ornamentation. Some have suggested that New Crobuzon itself is the novel’s main achievement, but it is difficult to separate city from novel. Their fabric is intertwined and full of echoes: Gormenghast and Viriconium are here, and Cinnabar, Cirque, Dhalgren, Lankhmar, Malacia. London, too, both steampunk and contemporary; and where the lived music of King Rat captured coming-of-age in the late 1980s and 1990s, Perdido Street Station evokes the dark days of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Amid the ghettos and squalor, poverty and the appearance of difference are used as tools of state oppression. Secretive paramilitary forces who police ‘by decentralised fear’ (269) brutally suppress a strike and redefine it as a riot. Government, big business and organised crime are in cahoots. Military funding perverts scientific research and education. A suffrage lottery preserves privilege, and evil resides in a dome built on rubble-strewn wasteground.
Comparisons to Mervyn Peake and M. John Harrison are inevitable – Miéville acknowledges them both and even sneaks in ‘a storm of wings’ (159) – so here are some others. Miéville’s obsessive invention rivals William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and, like Neal Stephenson, he wants to tell use everything (but for more important reasons). He writes with the compassion of Philip K. Dick at his best but without his misogyny and crude moral certainty. His gorgeous, tainted images match those of Elizabeth Hand, Storm Constantine and Poppy Z. Brite, but without the cloying atmosphere or swamping effect on narrative that sometimes mars their work. He depicts and art-world as well-realised as Misha’s, but more concrete and lacking in preciosity. He places the maimings and torments one expects to find only in Tim Powers within a political and ethical rather than mythopoeic framework. And he writes better prose than any of them.
He also mock the anxieties of sf’s ‘scientific’ patter and hand-waving, essays political doggerel and children’s songs, pastiches political journalism, satirises Judaeo-Christian despite for women, lampoons academic doublespeak, nods to Jonathan Swift and Ursula Le Guin, canonises the Jabberwocky – and still that is not all.
In King Rat, when the protagonist, Saul, briefly takes up with Deborah, a young homeless woman, he instructs himself not to patronise her but to treat her as a real person; and because the London Saul has come to inhabit is a fantastical one, this passage, with its conscious effort to bridge between textual and extratextual worlds, seems clumsy, a touch too didactic. Noentheless, it provides an important key to understanding the ethical fiction is attempting to construct. Similar moments, lacking in overt trans-diegetical moves and more smoothly executed, occur in Perdido Street Station: a brothel full of Remade whores and an act of betrayal offer mutual understanding; a trip to a freakshow, undertaken after some ninety pages of astonishments, refuses to conjure still more fabulous grotesques but instead portrays degradation, misanthropy and complacency. The nature of Perdido Street Station is such that it cannot gain King Rat’s purchase, however, awkward, on the extratextual world. Instead, these ethical and empathic moments occur within networks of interconnection. The key metaphor is provided by Isaac’s crisis science, which sees through consensual reality to the perpetual moment of crisis, to a precarious potential energy with which to drive revolutionary engines. It is, therefore, no coincidence that it is the striking vodyanoi dockers whose watercræft draws, albeit unconsciously, on this power. There are connections, Miéville insists, and in those connections, in shated being, there is hopeful energy; and, as Isaac, disgusted by the attitudes of other people at the freakshow, is reminded by a radical friend, ‘It turns … It turns quickly’ (88).
Of course the novel has flaws – some might find the Alien movies cast too large a shadow, or that Isaac’s mourning seems skimped (but not without reason), or that Miéville cares too much about his characters (whatever the hell that means), or that the reader is left as battered and drained as the company – but make no mistake: Perdido Street Station is the rich hallucinogenic dreamshit of genre, mutating into socialist fiction.
Wake up and smell the ordure.