Book review: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

I have recently arranged my bookshelf and got rid of most books. I want to read through the books I own first before trying to buy more, but I wasn't so strict with myself and bought some I really wanted to have. I kept flipping through the books left and thinking what to read next, so I did this: I wrote the titles down on small pieces of paper, rolled them, and put them in a used mints tin. I just pick a title randomly, let chance decide the next book to read.

I had picked Mario Vargas Llosa's War of the End of the World first. It had been on my shelf for 10 years, I had bought it in some Booksale when I was 15. It was okay when it started, but I reached a quarter of the book and three rapes have already happened (or mentioned). Honestly, the book was good if not for that, but if I kept reading and the word rape appeared again, I would feel sick. In the story, the depictions of rape were so normal and casual, and even one main character tries to justify to himself his rape of another man's wife. There's a description of a brutal rape on a minor, and I was thinking, what the hell. I have no problems if that's the subject of the book but sometimes it's too much, uncomfortable to read, and really has nothing to do with the story. Does every female character have to be raped? It turned me off in reading further and the book would have been better without them. I sold that book to get rid of it.

Most depictions of women in books written by heterosexual male authors sometimes turn me off (not all - many authors are good at writing women). I don't like it when women are overly sexualized and most of the time has no further development than serving the romantic and sexual satisfaction of the male characters. As a female reader, I sometimes feel alienated reading these unrelatable characters. That's why most of the time I prefer reading female authors. For me, romance and sex in fiction are great as long as they're written well. Also, a disclaimer - just because a fictional character is in a relationship or is having sex doesn't mean she's weak or a bad character.

It's just that I don't like objectification when the women are not treated like human beings anymore and are only mentioned and developed in relation to sex, and when it's their main feature and her other characteristics are blindsided. Except probably when the story is full-on pornography or erotica  with no other pretensions.

So I picked another title from my Tin Can of Random Book Titles and the lucky book was Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. It was as heavy and thick as a brick. I had read the first few chapters some time ago but never got around to finishing it. I knew the author had won major science fiction and fantasy book awards for his works and I thought before that I would get around to reading him eventually. I heard of The City and the City a long time ago, I'm just reading it now, but I liked the idea of it. Now that I read his works, why did I wait too long? 

If you know my taste in stories, maybe the best word or genre that can describe it is the "weird". One of my most favorite writers is Caitlin R. Kiernan, whose works defy classification. I want monsters, I want the grotesque, I don't want to read about mundane everyday life (except for some authors who do it well). I want to be taken to another world, feel other sensations, hear wild ideas, and picture the impossible.

The story begins: A scientist and his bug-headed girlfriend are on their shared bed, waking up to start the day and share breakfast together. Isaac dan der Grimnebulin is a rogue human scientist and his lover Lin is an artist of the khepri race, whose females look like they have human women's bodies but whose heads look like enormous insects. As they each go out alone to their own affairs, we see the city of New Crobuzon through their eyes, and what a city it is. The weird couple is just the tip of the iceberg, a doorway where we are introduced to the wilder aspects of the world of Bas-Lag.

Yet when I read it, I felt like I was walking in the city's streets. Miéville may be in London, but New Crobuzon could be the sweating city of Manila, where both the richest and the poorest are. Except that New Crobuzon is inspired by the aesthetics of steampunk, almost in a perpetual industrial age and smoking with steam. There is a science of magic called thaumaturgy and other such technologies. Instead of computers, there are difference engines and analytical engines. The book has constructed a fully believable world and this is the author's gift, describing a place as if it already existed with all its culture, castes, gods, religions, problems, government, and people. He creates a world so impossible, yet feels familiar.

Aside from humans and khepri, there are the cactacae or the cactus-like creatures with sap for blood, the frog-like and amphibious vodyanoi, the garuda, the majestic birds of the Cymek desert. Those are just a few of the many races and species that populate Bas Lag and it's largest, richest city. I also love the description of the other, vastly different cultures of the different beings existing in Bas Lag.

The most remarkable of all is the Remade. In New Crobuzon, when you commit a crime, you are sent to the punishment factories and have your body modified in horrifying, sometimes fascinating, ways. In the book, we pass through a carnival freak show and a whorehouse and we see enough Remade used in all manner of ways.

The government of New Crobuzon is dictatorial, it's Militia feared. Isaac crosses paths with them in the majority of the book and has to run from them. Isaac is a scientist who has long parted ways with the academe and pursues his varied interests. Then a stranger arrives with gold for Isaac, to pay him for a difficult task.

Yagharek is one of the garuda from the Cymek desert. They have a very different culture and ways that are very different from a human's understanding. Yagharek had his wings cut off him as punishment for a crime, and now he seeks Isaac to help him restore his wings through any means. Yagharek is probably my favorite character in the book, a lonely figure who has traveled all the way to New Crobuzon, wishing again to have the power of flight back and is still haunted by the nameless crime he committed which will be revealed on the very end. This project to restore his wings excites Isaac and he sends for all manner of winged creatures for his research. He searches high and low, commissions even the criminal underworld to look out for flying things. The reconstruction of wings turns out to be a more complicated task than he first thought.

The story is mad, chaotic, and a vast sprawl. I can't just describe it all in one review, the interested could read the book for themselves. There are several subplots like Lin's upbringing in the khepri ghettos and her desertion, the rebels secretly working against the government, and the conspiracies at play. They all come together in the end. Perdido Street Station as a place in the book is the main train station of New Crobuzon and the heart of the city. The climax of the book takes place there. That's probably an apt title for a book this complex but it doesn't play any major role in the story.

To Isaac's ignorance, one of the creatures Isaac let lives is actually the young of a terrifying creature called the slakemoth that eats dreams, consciousness, and leaves people mad. It is a Lovecraftian winged being which in my imagination looks like a black, chaotic, insectoid rafflesia with a giant tongue and shifting, inky wings. When it unleashes and gathers its own kind, chaos and madness erupt in New Crobuzon. Isaac and his friends do what they can to save the city, while the Militia comes after them. Soon, there is the Ambassador of Hell, a sentient vacuum cleaner, and an intra-dimensional, free-verse-poetry-spewing giant spider called the Weaver who by far is the most interesting creature in the book.

As for the things I didn't like, I felt like it changed somewhat in the middle of the book and became more action-filled. It was still a great page-turner, though, because you root for all the characters and there is enough suspense to keep reading. Will they find Lin who is lost? How will Yagharek get his wings back? Will he ever? Will Isaac succeed in trying to save his city from the monsters he unintentionally unleashed while outrunning the government? Though, I feel like the bulk of the action at the end of the book was too long and drawn out when it could be snappier and shorter. It almost felt like the dread in my head while reading about the tedious journey in Lord of the Rings, but maybe its just me, because I also get tired or exhausted of the book while reading.

This is the book that catapulted the author to critical and commercial acclaim, and when you read it you'll understand why. There's really nothing like it. I finished reading the last hundred pages in a cafe, and after the last page, it felt like my jaw just dropped. All good novels end with that full feeling, even when it's not at all happy.

I just finished reading The Scar, the second novel set in Bas Lag but deals with different characters and a different setting, I'll review that as well. I liked it better than this book (there's a librarian! it's an ocean adventure!). I tried reading the third Bas Lag book, Iron Council, but the first few pages it wasn't engaging me as well as the first two. So I'm reading The City and the City, which is a murder mystery set in the real world and very different from the fantasy works, but it reads great so far. I bought Kraken and Un Lun Dun as well and downloaded everything else.

I feel like when I like an author, I read through everything they wrote, and I take away the aspects I love and try to use it as inspiration for my own writing. There's really no better motivation for me to start writing than just finishing a good book. For sure, this author will be mentioned more often in this blog as I read through his bibliography.

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