“The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.”
Those two sentences, from the second paragraph of Chapter 1 of Period Street Station, captivated me: the delicious smells of a bustling market intermingling with the filth of a degenerate city. I already suspected this novel was going to be a marvel of creativity. I had no idea.
The world that China Miéville creates in this novel makes the Wasteland of the Mad Max Universe look like the Emerald City. In the poverty-stricken New Crobuzon, under the rule of a corrupt government, humans live alongside khepri (creatures with human bodies and scarab heads), garuda (bird-like, bipedal humanoids), wyrmen (winged, gargoyle-like creatures), vodyanoi (web-footed creatures tied to water), cactacae (cactus-like humanoids who are always up for a fight), and the Remade (almost anything–Remaking was a way of punishing someone for a crime, so anything can be remade with nightmarish results). The main character is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a human scientist who is studying crisis theory. Isaac is in a relationship with Lin, a khepri, which, you will remember, is a creature with a human body and a scarab head. I want to be clear about something: She doesn’t have the head of a scarab. . .her entire head IS a scarab. Her head is a bug. When I realized what the author meant when he referred to her “head legs,” it was like I had discovered a cockroach in my soup.
Note the legs on the head. Sweet dreams!
Isaac and Lin both receive lucrative but strange commissions. Isaac is approached by a garuda named Yagharek who has had his wings removed as punishment for an unspecified crime and who wants Isaac to find a way for him to be able to fly again. At the same time, Lin, an artist, is hired by a mysterious crime lord named Motley to create a life-sized sculpture of himself. Motley doesn’t tell Lin who he is or show himself until she agrees to the job. She agrees with some misgivings, but the payment offered is so large she disregards her inner voice. When Motley finally shows himself, Lin sees a horribly disfigured Remade with many legs, many eyes, and many mouths. I would say it defies description, but, well, I’ll just let Miéville do the describing:
“Scraps of skin and fur and feathers swung as he moved; tiny limbs clutched; eyes rolled from obscure niches; antlers and protrusions of bone jutted precariously; feelers twitched and mouths glistened. Many-coloured skeins of skin collided. A cloven hoof thumped gently against the wood floor. Tides of flesh washed against each other in violent currents. Muscles tethered by alien tendons to alien bones worked together in uneasy truce, in slow, tense motion. Scales gleamed. Fins quivered. Wings fluttered brokenly. Insect claws folded and unfolded. . . . Mr. Motley paced towards her like a hunter. ‘So,’ he said, from one of the grinning human mouths, ‘Which do you think is my best side?’ ”
This description led me to Google in search of character illustrations, just to see what the fan base came up with.
You have been warned.
By the way, this all happens in the first 50 pages of a 700-page novel, so you are right in imagining this is all just the basic setup. The turning point comes when Isaac’s research on Yagharek’s behalf leads him to collect all manner of creatures who fly or who have potential to fly. This prompts one of his contacts to steal a government-owned caterpillar. Big deal, you say. Surely a caterpillar is harmless, right? Well, usually, but not when the caterpillar pupates into a giant moth that SUCKS PEOPLE’S BRAINS.
Totally harmless until it gets hungry!
The remainder of the novel deals with the fallout from the emergence of the moth (who, spoiler, has other moth friends) and how Isaac and his allies attempt to stop them while trying to dodge the government, the military, and Motley, who thinks Isaac is trying to horn in on his drug trade.
This is the most inventive book I’ve read maybe ever. Miéville’s approach to creating a universe is so thorough and so compelling that at some point I forgot to think of scarab-headed humanoids or giant multi-mouthed globs of legs and antlers as weird. Of course, as soon as I got used to these characters, he threw in a giant, stream-of-consciousness-speaking spider and a sentient Roomba. The guy definitely keeps a reader on her toes. But Perdido Street Station is more than a collection of unique and weird-ass characters. As delightful as that is, Miéville addresses deeper themes in his novel: What is justice, and who gets to decide? Where do our loyalties lie? Are we responsible for the unforeseeable consequences of our actions? Do the ends ever justify the means? “Human” rights and feminism also get a fair amount of press so to speak.
My only pseudo-criticism is that I was ready for this book to wrap up somewhere between 500-600 pages in. But as I mentioned previously, Miéville is creating a universe in this novel, which he follows up with two stand-alone novels that I haven’t read: The Scar and Iron Council. He never cheats his reader, either. If his scientist is going to create a chaos machine, then Miéville is going to supply a plausible explanation of how that might work. Miéville is the most inventive writer I’ve read in ages, and Perdido Street Station is a stunning achievement.