Wed
Mar 9 2011 1:07pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China MievilleThe right side of my brain wants to delve deeply into the enchantment of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the left side of my brain, annoyingly, wants to explain how it’s done. In this brief appreciation, I’ll give the right side full rein, and engage the left side periodically.

First of all, Perdido Street Station is brimming with enchantment. Written in intense, evocative prose, set in Dickensian New Crobuzon, peopled with characters of Boschian demeanor and diversity—four different kinds of humans and some three dozen other sentient and insentient species and entities—the book flourishes and shuffles the conventions of science fiction, fantasy, and horror: twirls them, riffles them, fans them, springs them, and carousels them before the gaze of the delighted reader.

A lot of the right-brain fun at the beginning of the book results from the baroque breadth of Miéville’s imagination and language, and from his detailed, well-realized images of a complex city, filled with people of all classes, races, and resources. Some of this is predicated upon Niven’s Converse of Clarke’s Third Law: magic is the steam engine of New Crobuzon. Thaumaturgic technology drives the wheels of industry, feeds and punishes the people, and is responsible for the logical strangeness of New Crobuzon, both sides of the reader’s brain chugging away at the same time.

Miéville created the teeming city with an understanding of the complex economic and political structures that underlie our own 19th century industrial revolution, drawing on his academic background in social anthropology and international trade. He hints at histories and geographies outside the city as well: it is clear that the world, Bas-Lag, is larger than this one book, and that he crafted its underpinnings carefully. This yields a wonderful tension, in the book, between magic and reality. Economics, of course, is not easily classified as either.

The reader learns about the city, its inhabitants, and the events of the story from two different points of view: one that of a newcomer with a mysterious and traumatic past, and the other a sort of combo of multiple third-person-limited and omniscient viewpoints that dip into various characters minds as needed, including that of a local Bohemian, his unconventional insectoid girlfriend, and a grub metamorphosing into a giant slakemoth. This is less confusing than it ought to be by general aesthetic rules: it works.

The railway station of the title does not feature in much of the book, though it is the crossroads of New Crobuzon and a metaphoric stand-in for the city itself. The plot, less complex than the setting, is driven by what initially seems to be a McGuffin, but which, after hundreds of pages, suddenly erupts, taking over the book and the city and the station, and ending in tragedy and loss and redemption.

But this is not a book you read for plot, even the first time through. The first time, you read it as a travelogue of New Crobuzon: you read it for the right-brain enchantment of its mysteries, and for the left-brain joy of unfolding them and figuring out what’s going on. After that, you re-read it for the pleasurable intricacy of Bas-Lag’s cultural and economic substructures and to appreciate the inventive strangeness of the social details – languages, clothing, cultural artifacts and the like – that you zipped past the first time. For a third reading, you’ll especially value the maps, both in the book and on the web, and the remarkable density of deep background available on the web for Perdido Street Station and its related books, The Scar and The Iron Council.


Eileen Gunn is the author of a small but distinguished body of short fiction published over the last three decades. Her story “Coming to Terms” won the Nebula Award in 2004. The same year saw the publication of her collection Stable Strategies and Others.

Her other work in science fiction includes editing the pioneering webzine The Infinite Matrix and producing the website The Difference Dictionary, a concordance to The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. A graduate of Clarion, Gunn now serves as a director of Clarion West.

15 comments
TylerDLutz
1. TylerDLutz
Such a fantastic book. One of my all time favorites.
Jeff LaSala
2. JLaSala
I think I have to agree with you. While this wasn't my absolute favorite book of the decade, it sort of deserves to be considered one of the greats of the last 10 years from its complexity and innovation alone.
Evan Langlinais
3. Skwid
I'm on record as one of the detractors of this book. I found it unrelentingly bleak and irritating.
TylerDLutz
4. Lance Himself
...and where, pray tell, would one find a good online map of
New Crobuzon. The map included in my paperback copy is a little hard to read.
B T
5. amphibian
Perdido Street Station blew my mind when I read it.

The Scar surpassed it in every respect and remains one of the finest experiences I have ever had the pleasure of living. That book deserves every accolade possible.

Iron Council paled a bit in comparison, but upon a re-read, it turned out to be as excellent as Perdido Street Station.
Eileen Gunn
7. Eileen Gunn
@ Lance Himself

Here are some maps:
New Crobuzon:
http://www.curufea.com/games/crobuzon/crobuzon.php

Bas-Lag:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bas-Lag

And more info on the boroughs of New Crobuzon:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Crobuzon#City_layout_and_boroughs

Additional info and maps can be gained by simply Googling "map new crobuzon"

Eileen
TylerDLutz
8. MrJM
I too found it bone-crushingly depressing and often cruel.

I'm sure that makes me a wuss, but the book's beauty and depth didn't make up for its uncompromising inhumanity.

It was so smart and so true that I in no way regret having read it. But I could never recommend that long plung into deepest darkness in good conscience.

-- MrJM
Ian Rapley
9. Alfonso Baronso
I've nearly-but-not-quite pulled the amazon 1-click trigger on this on several occasions. I read 'The City and the City', and thought it was a great idea, executed honourably but not quite successfully, and keep thinking i would like to read more from the same author, but then read the blurb and think maybe not.

So it's interesting to see it inspire pretty polarised views. Aaargh, what to do.
Theresa DeLucci
10. theresa_delucci
@9 Get the mass market, read it, and decide for yourself? Small investment, potentially great return!

I really enjoyed PSS, but liked The Scar even more. It was just tighter. I had a few issues with both books' endings, but overall, they both just nailed that real sense of wonder and awe. Astounding ideas, interesting characters, and left you with lots of things to ponder.
TylerDLutz
11. cantthinkofone
I see what the fuss was about, but truth be told I couldn't finish it. I can deal with workmanlike, no-frills prose as long as it isn't actively bad, but really labored look-at-me prose that falls flat? I just can't handle it. I tried to justify the writing on the grounds that Yagharek is telling the story and his vocabulary is all epic, but I just couldn't.
Andrew Watson
12. andwat
I had the same problem with PSS as did cantthinkofone: "really labored look-at-me prose that falls flat." More recently, I bounced off The City and The City, so it looks as though China is not my cup of tea.
Nancy Lebovitz
13. NancyLebovitz
I'm pretty sure I did read Perdido Street Station for plot as well as for sweep and strangeness, and enjoyed it quite a bit. For whatever reason of good luck, I saw the emphasis on grossness (good lord, that story has a lot of secretions) as delightful gusto rather than revolting.
TylerDLutz
14. Avdi Grimm
I have to give it props for the breadth of its imagination; but I see it as a bit similar to the "SAW" movie franchise: creativity squandered on asking the question, over and over again, "how can I pummel the audience with ever-greater atrocities?"
Bobby Stubbs
15. Valan
Another win for the Tor Best of the Decade poll. I think I enjoyed this book much more than a lot of previous commenters. I guess I like dark, depressing, revolting, genuinely weird stuff with awesome world-building and characters more than them. ;)

Highly recommended, now I'm on to the Scar!

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