Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Perdido Street Station

China Miéville Perdido Street Station (2000)
I'd heard good things about China Miéville, and it seemed like time to give him a shot, encouraged somewhat by those less favourable online reviews promising an author who liked to show off with all those big, fancy words what you can't understand and you have to like look them up in a dictionary because he thinks he's all lush and that with his long words but he don't know nuffink; and so on and so forth - such thickie-alienating criticism usually being indicative of somebody getting something right.

Perdido Street Station begins well with vivid and engrossing descriptions of the world it inhabits, a world Warren James describes - in the selection of quotations from reviews serving for preface - as a cross between Blade Runner and the London of Charles Dickens, which I only mention because I'm astonished that someone may actually have been paid to write such a sentence. Along similar lines I've also noticed Perdido Street Station cropping up in steampunk lists, because apparently anything not actually featuring the Starship Enterprise or lasers is now steampunk, thus increasing the aggregate quota of cultural reference points for anyone wishing to saddle up their velocipede and join in the blinking steampunk fun, what?


Thankfully Perdido Street Station is none of the above. Rather it inhabits its own world, as much fantasy as science-fiction and populated by all manner of vaguely-but-not-quite-familiar biological oddities, the most extreme of which would be the scarab headed khepri, the females of which have a human body with a scarab head - not a beetle's head you understand, but an entire beetle complete with legs and wings as a head. Elsewhere, the laws of physics aren't quite the same as anything with which we are familiar, with mysterious forces adhering to a logic which seems to be of dreamlike or even overtly Surrealist intent; and it's all kind of disgusting with orifices dripping vaguely sexual effluvia onto mildewed Victorian brickwork left, right, centre, up, down, inside, and out. My Warren James description would be a Human Centipede version of Terry Pratchett but without the jokes.

As I say, Perdido Street Station begins well, but I was bored shitless by about page two-hundred - a third of the way in. The imagery is astonishing, but begins to get in the way of the book fairly quickly, and eventually the whole sags beneath the weight of description. Someone steps outside to scrape some poo off their boot and we're off again - another five fucking pages accounting for the life cycle of whatever produced the poo seemingly just for the sake of waving yet another fistful of suppurating tentacles in the readers' face. It may not be showing off, as claimed by some who probably shouldn't bother with books in the first place, and as for Miéville allegedly having a thesaurus stuck up his bottom, I didn't personally notice any unfamiliar words; but it does become a little boring after a while, as the narrative continually fails to get around to its own point, whatever that may be. I suspect there probably is a point, maybe something along the lines of Crime and Punishment with a higher quotient of dockyard oysters, but I stopped caring after a while. Chapter Thirty-Nine, for example, reveals certain characters to be under the influence of handlingers, which seem to be parasitic worms, each with a human hand for a head, specifically a human hand clasped around the neck of its host. Their introduction doesn't really serve to explain anything requiring explanation, and doesn't seem to do anything beyond adding further gratuitously sticky texture. Then four-million pages later we discover that the guy who had his wings cut off, the one who provides much of the forward motion for the rest of the cast, is a rapist and therefore a bad lad so we don't want to help the fucker after all, and that's the end of that. Maybe it's a subversion of the typical quest narrative and by association reader expectations, but by that point I'd ceased to care about any of it.

In terms of invention, style, and poetry, this is a great book, but it has no sense of humour, and doesn't actually appear to do anything besides stand in the corner trying hard to look interesting whilst outstaying its welcome by several weeks. Apparently he's written better, but after this, my curiosity is not what it could be.

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