Reflections on Perdido Street Station

I recently finished reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and here are some of my thoughts on the book. I won’t talk much about the book’s technical merits, but rather its thematic elements as I understood them.
By way of introduction for those who aren’t familiar with it, PSS falls somewhere in that nebulous category between the science fiction and fantasy genres. More specifically, it’s very heavily steeped in the steampunk genre, complete with Victorian-era social trappings, oppressive urban industries, ubiquitous steam-powered technology, and seething Marxist undercurrents of class struggle ripped straight from the pages of Engels. PSS takes place entirely within the city limits of New Crobuzon, a crime-infested, pollution-choked industrial hell. Yet within this nightmare of capitalism gone awry are elements of profound beauty–staggering intellectual and cultural diversity, captivating alien art, and magnificent architectural and technological achievements. New Crobuzon’s fusion of beauty and dirtiness reflects one of PSS‘s themes: beauty, goodness, and kindness exist, but they are so tainted by hurt, grime, and suffering that one wonders if they are worth the price.
The first 100 pages or so serve primarily to introduce us to this unusual city and its sometimes bizarre inhabitants. New Crobuzon is a cultural melting pot–humans are a majority and dominate city government and society, but many other races make their home here as well. Among the beings who live alongside New Crobuzon’s humans are sentient cacti, insect-headed women, frog-like creatures who shape water like clay, and the “Remade”–people magically deformed or fused with machines (steam-powered cyborgs, if you will), usually as punishment for a crime.
PSS‘s protagonists are a motley bunch of people living on the fringes of society: Isaac, a somewhat scatterbrained scientist and researcher; Lin, his insect-headed girlfriend; Yagharek, a noble-savage bird-man from a distant desert; and several other characters from the university circle, the criminal underworld, and even the worker’s-revolution movement. It’s abundantly clear from the very first chapter that this is no Tolkien-esque fantasy of noble elves and good-hearted hobbits; PSS‘s “heroes” are self-centered, petty, and even unlikeable people who are mostly interested in surviving day-to-day in the city and making money.
Trouble (and the novel’s main plot) begins when Yagharek, a bird-man whose wings have been removed in punishment for a past crime, arrives in New Crobuzon and hires Isaac. The job: to give Yagharek the ability to fly again. Isaac excitedly begins scientific research towards this end. Meanwhile, Lin (Isaac’s girlfriend) has taken the equally lucrative but morally dubious job creating a sculpture of a sinister underworld mob boss.
Unfortunately, Isaac unwittingly releases a dangerous entity in the course of his research, one that threatens the entire city of New Crobuzon. The bulk of the novel follows the adventures of Isaac and his companions as they try to stop the entity before it multiplies and destroys the city. In the course of their “quest,” the characters are hunted by just about everybody: the entity, the criminal underworld, and the city government (which knows about the entity, but has a decidedly non-altruistic agenda). Isaac and his companions initially pursue this suicidal quest out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or necessity, but as the novel progresses, the characters slowly begin to exhibit heroic and self-sacrificing traits. By the story’s end, each of the survivors has changed radically: some have become something like true heroes; some have been victimized and broken; all have had to abandon their old lives and motivations.
The character’s quest is a grim one, and you don’t for a minute expect that it will end neatly. Like New Crobuzon itself, their quest contains moments of beauty, heroism, and victory, but always at great cost, and often tainted by moral compromise.
So that’s what the novel is about. Is it worth reading? The answer to that question is more difficult for me to answer. In my judgment, PSS is worth reading for the sheer imagination evidenced in it; but it’s grotesque enough that you may not find it an enjoyable read. I’ll try to elaborate.
PSS is incredibly, wonderfully imaginative. The city and its populace are strange and bizarre and incredibly interesting; from the alien races, to the steam-powered airships, to the gigantic fossilized ribcage that occupies the entire center of the city… PSS really stretches the imagination, especially if most of your fantasty/sci-fi reading has been of the more traditional swords-and-sorcery variety. The characters are much more like “average Joes” than are most fantasy heroes; they are noble and flawed at the same time, and we can relate to them. And they’re just plain interesting. The entire book is like that: it’s interesting. Magic and steam-technology exist side-by-side. New Crobuzon is huge, but we get intriguing hints that the world outside its walls is even more vast and more bizarre. The city militia hunts the fugitive heroes through the streets with muskets and cyborgs and airships. The corrupt mayor holds consultations with the Ambassador of Hell. Weird, and fascinating.
But balancing out the wonder of all that imagination is the novel’s heavy-handed grotesque-ness. As amazing as the setting is, it’s dirty, polluted, crime-infested, and overwhelmed by injustice. The author has taken every evil excess of the industrial revolution and cranked the dial as high as it will go. The people of New Crobuzon are hopelessly poor, constantly victimized by the government and industry, surrounded by crime and disease, and without any hope of bettering their situation. Attempts at reform and revolt are utterly and brutally smashed; New Crobuzon isn’t just going through a temporary industrial-growing-pains “phase”–it’s been locked in a state of industrial hell for hundreds of years.
At a certain point, this all becomes almost too much to believe, let alone bear. Why would anyone want to live in this place, when the standard of living would be several orders of magnitude better if they just holed up in a cave somewhere outside the city walls? Nobody is happy, there is no justice, everything is dirty and polluted and covered with grime, the few noble civic accomplishments–a university, a massive train system–have become symbols of corruption, decay, and oppression. And this heavy-handed grimness isn’t limited to physical descriptions of the city itself; several major plot events seem to occur not because they were realistic or believable story developments, but because they served to amp up the general level of angst. Bad things happen just to spite the characters, just for the sake of spoiling their victories.
All this is difficult to read at times. About the fiftieth time you read a description like “Before them was a large building, its shattered windows staring down vacantly and miserably at the grime-covered streets below, while filthy beggars glared hopelessly at passersby,” you will want to scream This place is hell! Why exactly are they trying to save it?
That is, of course, one of the novel’s interesting questions: why would these characters fight for, even love, something as grotesque and broken as New Crobuzon? In the end, the heroes aren’t fighting to fix New Crobuzon, or restore justice to its government, or rid its streets of crime and evil. They’re fighting because as disgusting and awful as New Crobuzon is, it grows on you somehow–it’s a remarkable human achievement gone awry, but beneath the blood and tears it still remains a remarkable human achievement. It’s greater than the sum of its parts, both for good and evil.
And that is ultimately why PSS is worth reading. Like the city it describes and the quest it details, it’s unpleasant and difficult to endure at times. But beneath the dirty surface, it’s a fascinating story about people struggling for victories even when they know those victories will be hollow. Beneath the alien surface and exaggerated qualities, the city and its heroes are things we can understand and to which we can relate. It relentlessly asks: “Is this–this broken relationship, this broken city, this broken dream–is this worth fighting for, as damaged as it is?” The book’s answer is “Yes, even this is worth fighting for.” And that’s why I’d recommend PSS–provided you can stomach the journey.

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