My rating: 3 of 5 stars
How did I get into this stuff? I ask, paraphrasing China Mieville’s question to himself in the New Yorker’s Science Fiction issue.
Robert E. Howard. Conan the Barbarian. Monsters and swashbuckling battles. Comics. Star Wars. D&D. That’s just the short list of how I got into fantasy and science fiction.
Let’s backtrack to D&D. At the root of Perdido Street Station‘s story is a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, full of magic, monsters, swashbuckling battles, and adventurers willing to do “anything for gold and experience” (p. 383).
Of course, it’s much more complex than a Saturday night gaming session (paper, pencils, dice and miniatures subbing for digital images)—not that a session of D&D can’t be as complex as a novel. But, unless you play the game long enough with the same group, and survive the DM’s whims, it’s hard to fulfill the promises of a lengthy novel, the depth of character, an evolving plot and subplot that can be fully explored. A fully-realized world.
And a fully-realized world, a city—New Crobuzon—as alive and bustling as any real city, and peopled with just as fantastic creatures as a real city: the tortured Remade, the mysterious Jack Half-a-Prayer, the birdlike garuda, the monstrous psyche-sucking slake-moths that the main characters must finally destroy.
Which is the basic plot, one that could rival and perhaps surpass any the most sadistic Dungeon Master could create: one the human scientist Isaac undertakes after the garuda Yagharek, exiled from his people for taking away another’s choice, hires Isaac to rebuild his wings so he can fly once again. Isaac takes up the task, and in his experiments to learn how to engineer the wings, accidentally unleashes a terror that stalks the city. Reluctant at first to fight the slake-moths, Isaac is driven into the battle not only to help the garuda, but also to save his girlfriend, and test out the crisis engine that could lead him to scientific notoriety.
One one the things that drew me to reading more of Mieville’s novels, after being completely rocked by his Hugo-winning The City & The City, was learning Mieville grew up playing D&D. It’s clear the game is a serious influence, on his imagination, but Perdido Street Station takes you beyond the limiting world of elves and dwarves and dragons into a blend of magic and science and mixed technologies–the characters arm themselves with flintlocks, but are aided by steam- and magic-driven construct/robots. Mieville is well known for his efforts to genre-bust, and Perdido Street does that very well.
It’s mostly a riveting book, although it slows about midway (it’s 623 pages in the paperback edition I read) and Mieville does seem to to linger on repetitious descriptions of the psyche stealing slake-moths (although his descriptions of them exploding in the end were exquisite), but overall the novel pulls you in and holds you and reminds you of why you got into this stuff (fantasy & science fiction) in the first place: it’s a riveting tale with fascinating characters and it draws you into its world.
And I’ll let Mieville ask you the final question: “How did they [readers] get out of it?”